Books, articles, sermons and blogs
online, based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg
VIII. Shittim Wood
The Tabernacle of Israel, by George de Charms, 1969
We have reserved a separate chapter for the interpretation of what is meant by the shittim wood because of certain problems connected with it that require rather extended consideration. Both in character and use this material appears to be quite different from the others that belong to the series of four which we have been considering. It is derived from the vegetable kingdom, while all the others are of animal origin. Its use is rather that of support than that of covering, although it is used in the tabernacle to form a protecting wall. Furthermore, while the wool, the rams' skins and the kids' skins were laid one upon the other in the order named, so that the last mentioned is the outmost covering, the shittim wood, next included in the list, is the inmost of all because the curtains were so placed that they would fall over the outside of the wall. Even when the wall is viewed from inside the tabernacle the wood itself does not appear because it is covered with gold. In addition to this, the signification given to the shittim wood in the Writings seems quite different in character from anything that is said of the other materials in this series. These are said to represent "the good of innocence" which means a willingness to learn and to obey. Here they have special reference to a regard for principles of justice, equity, and honor in the practical affairs of life.
"Shittim wood" is said to signify "the merit of the Lord's righteousness,"1 but before we undertake to explain what this means, we must consider what kind of wood is referred to. With a single exception we find the term "shittim wood" mentioned nowhere in the Sacred Scripture except in the books of Moses, and in connection with the tabernacle. The root meaning of the Hebrew word has never been discovered, and scholars differ widely in their views as to what kind of tree is meant. The only other passage in which the term occurs is Isaiah 41:19, where we read, "I will plant in the wilderness the cedar of shittah, the myrtle, and the oil tree." In the Authorized Version of the English Bible this is translated, "I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree." Here the Hebrew pointing clearly indicates that a special kind of cedar is meant, and this meaning is in accord with the earliest Jewish tradition. It is recognized that "shittah" was a region, situated in the northern part of the Sinai peninsula, and it is so marked in many of the maps of the Bible lands. We have concluded, therefore, that "shittim wood" was derived from a kind of cedar that, at the time of Moses, flourished in a certain part of the Sinai peninsula.
At the present day no variety of cedar is found growing in that region. It is the united opinion of biblical scholars that in all probability no such tree could grow under the conditions of soil and climate which are found there. They have taken for granted that the reference of the Scripture must be to some native tree which it would have been possible for the Israelites to find in their immediate environment at the time when the tabernacle was built. After centuries of discussion the critics have finally agreed that it must refer to the acacia, a species of scrubby locust which grows in that general locality. Considering, then, that the identification of the shittim wood with cedar is not possible, the translators of the Scripture have been divided, some remaining true to the original pointing, and others separating the two words shittah and cedar as if they represented different species. Thus in the authorized version of the Septuagint and the Vulgate the above verse is translated, "I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, the myrtle, and the oil tree." Swedenborg, however, clings to the original Scripture and defines shittim wood as "a wood of the most excellent cedar."2 In this reading of the text, which is found in Hebrew manuscripts, and is accepted by such an eminent and scholarly translator as Schmidius, we concur. We believe that it will be recognized in the future by an increasing number of Bible scholars.
The view that is popular at present is based on the assumption that, because there is no trace of any species of cedar now growing on the Sinai peninsula, we must conclude that none ever existed there. Yet it is well known that, due to various natural causes, the flora of any region may be radically changed by the hand of time. It is a notable fact that the famous cedars of Lebanon have almost disappeared from their historic locality. According to an eminent investigator, no more than a dozen species remained in the year 1890, and these were slowly dying. It is quite probable that fifty years from now, lacking documentary evidence, men would conclude, according to the same arguments used by scholars with reference to shittim wood, that the temple of Solomon could not have been built of cedar wood because no source of that material was available. We have had a similar experience illustrating the total disappearance of a tree, in the immediate neighborhood of Philadelphia, where the chestnut tree has become entirely extinct within our own memory as a result of the chestnut blight. We have been unable to find conclusive evidence upon the subject, but from such study as we have been able to make of the topography of Sinai, especially in certain regions toward the northern part of that peninsula, there would appear to be no inherent reason why cedar trees should not at one time have been found there. The conditions of soil and climate would appear to be in no way inimical to them. We are inclined, therefore, rather to follow the testimony which has come down to us through the Scriptures, and to assume that the shittim wood was indeed a species of cedar then growing in the general neighborhood of the Israelitish camp. To have another view would seem to involve us in many difficulties which are not met by the assumption of the scholars. There is, for instance, no other tree growing in Sinai that attains a size sufficient to provide boards of the enormous dimensions specified for the tabernacle. The critics meet this objection by supposing that the Israelites were familiar with the art of joining. There is no evidence that they possessed this knowledge, and if this were the mode by which the tabernacle boards were to be constructed, it is almost unbelievable that directions with reference to it should not have been given in the Scripture, where we find so many detailed instructions with reference to other matters. We would contend, therefore, that the shittim wood mentioned is indeed the wood of "a most excellent cedar," distinguished in species from the "cedar of Lebanon," but a tree of the same family.
This interpretation is important in view of the spiritual significance given to the shittim wood in the Writings, namely, "the Lord's merit and righteousness." It is clear from many passages in which cedars are mentioned that the signification here given has reference to the cedar tree.3 By "the Lord's merit and righteousness" is meant that attitude of mind with reference to the formation of the spiritual church which is poetically expressed by the psalmist in the words, "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it."4 Only an attitude of deep humility can inspire anyone to seek Divine aid, and turn to the Word for instruction and guidance. Pride and the conceit of one's own intelligence turns man away from the Word, and closes his mind against the influence of the heavens. Religion then loses its saving power, and when this happens in all parts of the world the Lord must come to re-establish the spirit of humility, and restore a living faith. This is why it is said in the Writings: "Except the Lord had come into the world, no flesh could have been saved."5
At the time of the Lord's advent, the number of those who were evil had so increased in the world of spirits that they could exercise dominion over the good, and hold them in bondage. This they did by misinterpreting the letter of the Word, by claiming Divine authority for their teachings, and by assuming every outward appearance of piety and religious fervor. The simple accepted these at face value, and therefore were deceived into believing whatever they were taught. When the Lord came, He exposed the false doctrines, and the modes of worship that were contrary to the true meaning of His Word. His teaching was gladly accepted by those who were in good, but openly rejected by all who were in evil. This brought about a judgment, separating the good from the evil, and setting them free from the binding traditions that had been imposed upon them. The good were instructed, and introduced into heaven, and the evil cast themselves into hell. Those who had been enslaved were called in the Scripture "the souls bound under the altar,"6 and "prisoners of hope."7
Through all the ages since the days of Noah and the "flood," the church had steadily declined, and had fallen into various forms of idolatry. Those who passed into the spiritual world retained the religious beliefs and modes of life to which they had been accustomed during their life on earth. They formed societies there, which are called in the Writings "imaginary heavens," because they supposed that they were in heaven. At the time of the Lord's advent these societies had increased enormously in size, and had interposed clouds of falsity and error between men on earth and the Most Ancient Heaven. Their influence was felt as the weight of tradition, and it became so powerful at last as to deprive men on earth of free choice in spiritual things. This is why we read in the Scripture of many who were "possessed of devils" and who were compelled to act under the impulse of evil spirits. They became insane, uncontrollable, and vicious, threatening injury to others, and sometimes taking their own life. This was not the land of insanity that results from some mental disease, or some injury to the brain. It was caused by a powerful influx of evil spirits. Such demonic possession was brought to an end by the Lord when He was on earth; but something akin to it is still experienced by those who habitually practice spiritism, or who become repeatedly subject to hypnotism. No one at this day, except as a result of mental disease, or some injury to the brain, can be coerced by evil spirits against his will. By performing a judgment upon the imaginary heavens, the Lord has redeemed all men from the overwhelming power of hell, and has assured them of spiritual freedom.
This the Lord did by taking upon Himself a human in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Mary was a good woman, faithful to such religion as she could understand, and prepared to receive instruction from the Lord, first through the angel of the annunciation, and later from Jesus Christ. Yet she was subject to all the tendencies to evil which had been accumulated by hereditary transmission from her ancestors. From her the Lord took on these tendencies, and by means of them He could be attacked by the hells. They were by no means part of Him, for He was without sin; but they were adjoined to Him in order that He might meet the hells in mortal conflict, and overcome them. By means of this conflict He performed the judgment in the spiritual world, by exposing the fallacies whereby the evil had deceived the simple, and had held them in subjection. He opened once more the ancient truths of the Word that had been distorted and falsified. He revealed the true nature, and the Divine attributes of God, that men and spirits might once more learn to know Him, to love Him, and to worship Him. Such was the work of Divine redemption.
Redemption was a work purely Divine. It could be performed only by One who possessed infinite love, infinite wisdom, and infinite power. These belong only to the Lord. As to His soul, Jesus Christ was God. He had life in Himself, and acted from His own power. What He did, therefore could rightly be ascribed to Him as "merit and righteousness." In this He differed from other men. No man has life in himself. He is but a vessel perpetually moved, and actuated by life inflowing from the Lord. For this reason no man can rightly claim merit for what he does. In ordinary parlance, merit belongs only to one who acts on his own responsibility. One who acts according to the command of another, or under any form of compulsion from without, deserves no merit. Because man has no life of his own, he owes all his power to the Lord, and must ascribe to Him the merit for whatever benefits accrue from his acts.8 This is the reason why the work of redemption is called "the Lord's merit and righteousness." That which He did for the race as a whole by His advent into the world, He must do individually for every one who is regenerated.
By performing this work of redemption the Lord did not remove from men their hereditary tendency to evil. He merely restored their spiritual freedom. By means of a "last judgment" effected in the spiritual world, He reestablished the equilibrium between the power of the heavens, and the power of the hells over the minds of men. He broke the bonds by which men had been reduced to spiritual slavery, and assured to every man the ability to choose between good and evil. Since His coming all men are free, if they will, to acknowledge God, to worship Him, and to keep His Commandments. This is possible in every religion, even though the idea of God is mistaken, and His Commandments are not rightly understood. Everyone who sincerely lives according to the best he knows, can at last be taught the truth and be led to heaven. If this cannot be done during the life of the body, it can be done in the spiritual world. Such is the wonder of the Divine Providence, by which the Lord's promise is fulfilled: "While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Thy name: those that Thou gavest Me I have kept, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition; that the Scripture might be fulfilled." (John 17:12)
Nevertheless, because the hereditary tendency to evil remains in every human heart, each one must individually be regenerated and saved. This is a Divine work. Only the Lord can accomplish it. He must fight against the hells in each one, even as He fought against them in Himself while He was on earth. Because every man is born with a natural love of evil, he cannot, without Divine help, learn to recognize the difference between good and evil. That which a man loves appears to him as good. Whatever opposes his love he regards as evil. Only from Divine Revelation can he learn what is truly good, and only as he recognizes this, and freely chooses it rather than the dictates of his own mind, can he be directed along the way that leads to heaven. The Lord makes it possible for him to do this by means of heavenly affections insinuated during infancy and childhood. If he follows the impulse of these affections, the Lord gradually removes the loves of evil from his heart, and instills heavenly loves in their place. This is a work of infinite power and wisdom which belongs to the Lord alone, and for this reason it is called "the Lord's merit and righteousness."
The acknowledgment of the Lord and of man's dependence upon Him must be instilled during childhood, for this alone can open the way to spiritual enlightenment and wisdom in adult age by leading man to seek instruction from the Word. This attitude of humility, of innocence, and willingness to be taught is the most important requisite for the building of the tabernacle. This is what is spiritually represented by the boards of shittim wood that formed the walls of the building, and supported the curtains over the holy of holies and the holy place where the sacred offices of worship were performed. Concerning these boards Dr. E. E. Iungerich wrote: "It is this living acknowledgment which causes the truths (represented by the linen curtain) to stand up as a beautiful pattern of heaven in man, and not lie flaccid on the ground as a disordered heap." (See the Journal of Education, Vol. XV, p. 147.)
This explains why the shittim wood belongs to the same series as the wool, the ramskins, and the kidskins, because it represents a fundamental attitude of mind which must be established in childhood if the church is to be built in man's mind in adult life. It also makes clear why, although it is the last to be mentioned, the shittim wood is the most important of all. This is because it represents that which is inmost of all, that on which everything else depends, and without which, all the rest would have no truly spiritual or lasting value.