Stacking Bread

I keep looking at those twelve loaves sitting on the Table of Showbread in Exodus 37:10-16. (Some of you may know I’ve been studying the Tabernacle lately.)

I know the bread represents the nation of Israel – all its twelve tribes, all its clans and all its individuals. Initially I only saw the table as representing the abundant provision and fellowship of a family meal. Lately, however, I can’t seem to focus on anything but the forced proximity of the loaves. Twelve of them, confined to the two-by-one cubit tabletop, were stacked so as to maintain constant contact.

Beads of claustrophobia rise on my forehead at the very thought. I like my privacy, you see. I enjoy working independently, keeping my own counsel, maintaining plenty of personal space. The close-packed mound of bread conveys the message that “doing my own thing” in a way that pleases God is not enough. If I want to abide with Him I must agree to rub shoulders regularly with the rest of His family. (So much for staying too long in my hidey-hole.)

We each have a different tolerance for loaf-to-loaf interaction. Some love (even need) lots of it. Others shy away to varying degrees. Living together peacefully means balancing the needs of the gregarious with those of the reticent.

Never a Loaf Missing

Twelve loaves were to rest on the table, never fewer. The priests in Moses’s day went to great lengths to accomplish this. Every Sabbath, when it was time to replace old bread with fresh, two priests entered the Holy Place together. They stood opposite each other at the table, one with arms full of newly baked loaves, the other with empty hands. They made sure their hands touched as they slid the old bread off and laid out the new. The table never suffered the lack of a single loaf.1

How do we keep ourselves together like that? If it’s in our very nature to push in or pull away, how can we hope to keep from jostling one another off the table?

Turns out the original table had a helpful device. A molding (translated “crown” in some Bible versions) ran around its edge. Measuring “a handbreadth all around,” this frame simultaneously kept each loaf in contact with the other loaves and the table (Exodus 37:12).

The golden crown surely signifies Jesus Himself, while the “handbreadth” brings visions of His palm at our backs, gently nudging us forward or pulling us back. I need only feel for His reassuring touch as I discern whether the situation requires rubbing shoulders or allows for staying hidden.

One detail in particular consoled me as I pondered those crusty stacks. They were never without some space between them. I can tell you when I make bread its surface never comes out absolutely smooth. No matter how I stack it, the rise and fall of each loaf’s edges will create natural gaps between them.

I’m wiping the claustrophobic sweat from my brow. The gaps may not be as large as I’d wish, but God will always provide some healthy personal space even as His hand gently pushes me forward.


  1. David M. Levy, The Tabernacle: Shadows of the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), p. 48.
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