When Israel left Egypt to begin a new life as an independent nation, God gave detailed arrangements for its organized religious life. According to these arrangements, Israel’s place of worship was to be a tabernacle, or tent, set up in the centre of the camp. This tabernacle was the symbol of God’s presence, a sign that God dwelt among his people. He was part of them, the centre of their national life. It was known as the tent of meeting (Exod 39:32), for it was the place where God met with his people. It was also called the tent of the testimony (Exod 38:21), to remind the people that within it, in the ark, was the testimony of God, the law, which was to guide and control their lives. The tabernacle was designed so that it could be easily put together, taken apart and transported. It was a prefabricated shrine that the people of Israel took with them on their journey to Canaan and set up at camps along the way. It consisted of a two-roomed timber structure inside a tent, which in turn was set in a large court surrounded by a fence. Within the rooms, and in the open court, were articles of sacred furniture.

Inside the tent

Probably the easiest way to picture the two-roomed structure under the tent is as a box-like frame with a cloth draped over it (as a tablecloth drapes over a table). The structure was 30 cubits long, 10 cubits wide and 10 cubits high (a cubit being about 44 centimetres or 18 inches). It was formed on the sides and rear by wooden frames that fitted vertically into metal bases and were joined horizontally with wooden bars. A row of timber columns formed the front, and another divided the structure into two rooms. All timber was overlaid with gold (Exod 26:15-37). A multi-coloured embroidered linen covering was then draped over the entire structure, forming a ceiling overhead and walls on three sides. Curtains hung on columns formed the entrance and the internal partition (Exod 26:1-6,31-37). A covering of goats’ hair was placed over the linen covering to give added protection (Exod 26:7-13). This covered structure was shielded from the weather by a two-layer tent of animal skins pitched over the whole (Exod 26:14). Though brilliantly coloured inside, outwardly the shrine appeared as simply a tent; hence the name, tabernacle.

The front room of the structure was called the Holy Place and contained three articles of furniture. Against one wall was a table made of wood overlaid with gold. On it were twelve cakes of ‘presence bread’, in symbolic acknowledgment that Israel lived constantly in the presence of God, its provider. The cakes were renewed each Sabbath (Exod 25:23-30; Lev 24:5-9). Against the opposite wall was a sevenheaded ornamented lampstand made entirely of gold (Exod 25:31-40; 26:35; see LAMP). Against the dividing curtain (or veil) was an altar used solely for burning incense. It was made of wood overlaid with gold. The daily offering of incense symbolized the continual offering of the people’s homage to God (Exod 30:1-10; see INCENSE). The room behind the veil was called the Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies, and was only half the size of the Holy Place. The only piece of furniture in this room was a wooden box, overlaid with gold, known as the ark of the covenant, or covenant box (Exod 25:10-16; 26:34). Its richly ornamented lid, called the mercy seat, was the symbolic throne of the invisible God. The symbolic guardians of this throne were two golden cherubim (Exod 25:17-21; 1 Sam 4:4; see CHERUBIM). In giving this throne the name ‘mercy’, or ‘grace’, God reminded his people that in spite of all their religious exercises, they could be accepted into his presence and receive his forgiveness only by his mercy (Exod 25:22; cf. Heb 4:16). Inside the ark were placed the stone tablets of the law (Deut 10:1-5), and later, Aaron’s rod and the golden pot of manna (Heb 9:4). Only priests could go into the Holy Place (Num 18:1-7;Heb 9:6). Only the high priest could go into the Most Holy Place, and then only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:11-15; Heb 9:7; see DAY OF ATONEMENT; PRIEST).

Courtyard and camp

This tabernacle-tent was set in a large court, 100 cubits long and 50 cubits wide, in which all the animal sacrifices were offered. Around the court was a fence of cloth attached to posts, with an entrance on the eastern side, opposite the entrance to the tent. The fence gave protection against desert winds and was high enough to prevent people outside from watching proceedings out of idle curiosity. It separated the tabernacle sufficiently from the camp to help create a feeling of reverence towards the tabernacle and its services (Exod 27:9-19). All animal sacrifices were offered on a large altar that was made of wood overlaid with a metal variously described as bronze, copper or brass. The altar was a hollow box that was either filled with earth to form a mound on which the sacrifices were burnt, or had an internal grid for the same purpose. Halfway up the outside of the altar was a horizontal ledge supported by a grating.

The priests may have stood on this ledge while offering the sacrifices (Exod 27:1-8). Between the bronze altar and the entrance to the tent was a laver, or large basin, in which the priests washed before administering the sacrifices or entering the Holy Place. It also was made of bronze. The priests’ washings had both a practical purpose and a symbolic significance, to demonstrate that cleansing from all uncleanness was necessary in the worship and service of God (Exod 30:17-21; 38:8; cf. 2 Chron 4:6). The people of Israel camped in an orderly arrangement on the four sides of the tabernacle. Nearest the tabernacle, on the eastern side, were the priests. The three family divisions of the Levites were on the other three sides (Num 3:23,29,35,38). Further out were the common people according to their tribes, with three tribes on each of the four sides (Num 2:3,10,18,25).

Construction and maintenance

Building materials for the tabernacle came from the voluntary offerings of the people. They gave so generously that Moses had to restrain them (Exod 25:2; 36:5-7). In making the different parts of the tabernacle, the craftsmen had to conform to the overall pattern and dimensions that God gave (Exod 25:9,40), but they still had plenty of opportunity to use their skills in the structural and ornamental details (Exod 31:1-9). Moses inspected the separate parts of the tabernacle after they were finished (Exod 39:32- 43), then supervised the erection of the whole (Exod 40:1-33). Israelites no doubt saw symbolic significance in the differing values of materials outside and inside the tabernacle. As one moved from the outer court through the Holy Place into the Most Holy Place, the brilliance of the metals and the richness of the cloth hangings increased. It all helped to emphasize the majesty and holiness of Yahweh, the King of Israel who lived among his people, yet at the same time dwelt separately from them in unapproachable glory (Exod 40:34-35). Apart from its symbolic significance to God’s people, the tabernacle was very practically suited to Israel’s circumstances. A tent over a prefabricated frame was most convenient for a travelling people. Cloth hangings were suitable for entrances and partitions.

Timber was of a kind that was plentiful in the region, light to carry, and did not warp or rot easily. Metals were of a kind that would not rust. Some of the pieces of furniture were fitted at the corners with rings, through which carrying poles were placed to make transport easier (Exod 25:12-15,26-28; 27:6-7; 30:4-5). Money for the maintenance of the tabernacle came from a special tax taken from the people whenever there was a national census. The tax was equal for all, but small enough for even the poorest to pay. The rich could gain no advantage. All God’s people had an equal share in maintaining the tabernacle and its services (Exod 30:11-16). Only Levites, however, could carry out the work of cleaning, repairing, erecting, dismantling and transporting the tabernacle. They were to do so according to the specific allocation of duties that God set out (Num 3:21-39; 4:1-33; see LEVITE). (Concerning the sacrifices offered at the tabernacle see SACRIFICE.)

Purpose fulfilled

Throughout their journey from Sinai to Canaan, the people of Israel set up the tabernacle at their camping places (Num 10:33-36; 33:1-49). When they entered Canaan, they set it up in their main camp at Gilgal (Josh 4:19; 10:6,15,43). After the conquest, they shifted the camp to a more central location at Shiloh, where again they set up the tabernacle (Josh 18:1; 19:51). It remained there for most of the next two hundred years (Judg 18:31; 1 Sam 1:3), though there was a period when it was in the neighbouring town of Bethel (Judg 20:26-27). It seems that during Israel’s time of conflict with the Philistines, the tabernacle was destroyed in an enemy attack upon Shiloh (Ps 78:60-61; Jer 7:12-14; 26:6,9). But the Israelites apparently rebuilt it, for later it was set up at Nob (1 Sam 21:1,6; Mark 2:26), and then at Gibeon (1 Chron 16:39; 21:29; 2 Chron 1:3,6). For much of this time the ark of the covenant had become separated from the tabernacle (1 Sam 4:4,11; 7:2; 2 Sam 6:1-2,10-17; 2 Chron 1:3-4; see ARK). When Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, he dismantled the tabernacle and stored it in the temple (1 Kings 8:1-11).

With the replacement of the movable tent by a permanent building, misunderstandings soon arose. Instead of realizing that God was among his people wherever they were, people thought that the temple in Jerusalem was the only place where he dwelt. When the early Christian preacher Stephen attacked this mistaken attitude, the Jews responded by killing him (Acts 7:44-50). The New Testament book of Hebrews points out that the tabernacle had a purpose in demonstrating important truths concerning sinners’ approach to a holy God. The tabernacle system was a help to people in the era before Christ, but it also pointed to something far better. The truths that the tabernacle demonstrated reached their full expression in the new era that came with Jesus Christ (Heb 6:19-20; 8:1- 5). Although the tabernacle system was imperfect, it was not wrong in principle. It was imperfect only because it suffered those limitations of the pre-Christian era that Christ, and Christ alone, could overcome (Heb 9:1-14,24; 10:19-20).

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