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The Tabernacle and Its Parallels

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsThe Tabernacle represents the re-establishment of sacred space that was forfeited when humans were cast out from the Garden of Eden. Though this was Israel’s first foray into designing geographical sacred space, the practice had a long history in the ancient world. We find that God’s instructions did not take a departure from current custom and convention. As is often the case, God used that which was familiar to initiate his revelation to Israel. Bruce Wells explores some of the similarities in his Exodus contribution to ZIBBCOT:

The instructions in Exodus 27:9–13 for the outer section of the tabernacle specify a structure 50 cubits wide and 100 cubits long (roughly 75 by 150 feet). The inner section is approximately 10 cubits by 30 cubits (15 by 45 feet; see 26:15–23). Twenty wooden frames, each 1½ cubits wide, are to be placed along the south side, and twenty more along the north side. This yields 30 cubits for each of these longer sides. Along the shorter west side (the east side served as the entrance to this section and is thus not enclosed in the same way), six frames are to be placed. This would make the west side 9 cubits in length, but when the corner supports are figured in (26:23–25), that number increases.

One recent calculation attempts to take into account how the corner frames were situated and arrives at a length for this section of 31.15 cubits (north and south sides) and a width of 10.9 cubits (west side).1 If this is correct, then the inner section was closer to 16 by 47 feet. Its height was a remarkable 10 cubits or 15 feet (26:16).2

The inner section or Holy Place contained yet another room called the "Most Holy Place" (26:33) and is often referred to as the "Holy of Holies." This makes the tabernacle a tripartite structure: the outer section or "courtyard" (27:9), the inner section or "Holy Place" (26:33), and the "Most Holy Place" (26:33). The arrangement of religious structures in this way was probably not unusual in the ancient Near East. For instance, the temple uncovered at Arad (southern Israel) is dated to the divided monarchy. It consisted of a "forecourt, main hall, and Holy of Holies."3 The most likely purpose of this arrangement was to establish a hierarchy of space, with a progression toward space that was more holy and thus more restricted. This prevented those unfit for direct contact with the divine from trespassing within the space inhabited by the presence of Yahweh.

1_276 ramesses' camp dsc_resized Another parallel to this three-part division comes from Egyptian reliefs depicting the military encampment of Ramesses II during the battle of Qadesh (see photo).4 The main entrance to the Israelite tabernacle (the courtyard area) lay on the east side, one of the shorter sides of the tabernacle. The main entrance to the Egyptian army’s camp was also on the east side, one of the short sides of the rectangular-shaped camp. If one followed a basically straight line from this entrance westward into the center of the camp, one eventually entered the king’s reception tent, which contained, at the west end, the pharaoh’s private area and throne room. This reception tent, like the Holy Place in the tabernacle, was three times as long as it was wide. Moreover, the pharaoh’s throne had falcon wings on either side, reminiscent of the winged cherubim in the tabernacle’s Most Holy Place. As the divine commander of the Egyptian military, Pharaoh was deserving of this specialized tent-shrine for his travels. For the Israelites, the tabernacle was the tent-shrine for Yahweh, their commander and the one who was to lead them to their ultimate destination.

Finally, an important parallel comes from Ugaritic literature. The chief god of the pantheon at Ugarit was El. His dwelling place is frequently said to be a tent, and the Ugaritic term mškn occurs in several texts with reference to his abode.5 This term corresponds to the Hebrew miškan ("tabernacle"). Thus, portable tent-shrines for deities existed in several ancient Near Eastern societies,6 and the more important parallels come from the same time period during which the events in Exodus purport to have taken place.

Because of the theophany at Mount Sinai, the tabernacle was critically important for the Israelites. The visible manifestation of Yahweh and the establishment of his covenant with them at the mountain marked that spot as holy—a place where the Israelites had encountered the divine. But this location was not to be their permanent dwelling place. How could they retain the holiness and the sanctity of this location if they left? The construction of the tabernacle answers this dilemma.7 Though small in comparison to Mount Sinai, the tabernacle was portable and, more important, designed by Yahweh himself. It was the place where the encounter with the divine could take place on a regular basis. It would house, as it were, the holiness of the Mount Sinai experience and the very presence of Yahweh as they traveled to the Promised Land.

These an other examples of portable shrines and tent shrines from the second millennium all demonstrate that even while God was involved in revealing himself as different from any of the gods of the ancient world, he provided a means for relating with Israel that would have been very familiar to them. The details of the Tabernacle were not random nor did they represent innovations.

0310255724 Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.


1 M. Homan, To Your Tents, O Israel! The Terminology, Function, Form, and Symbolism of Tents in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (CHANE 12; Leiden: Brill, 2002), 177–80.

2 For arguments that make the length of the inner section smaller by about one third, see R. E. Friedman, "Tabernacle," ABD, 6:292–300; Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai, 198–200.

3 King and Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 338. See also M. Aharoni, "Arad: The Israelite Citadels," NEAEHL, 1:82–85.

4 For the details of this comparison between the tabernacle and Ramesses’ camp, see M. Homan, "The Divine Warrior in His Tent: A Military Model for Yahweh’s Tabernacle," BRev 16 (Dec 2000): 22–32, 55; idem, To Your Tents, 111–16.

5 See, e.g., R. J. Clifford, "The Tent of El and the Israelite Tent of Meeting," CBQ 33 (1971): 221–27.

6 For a variety of other parallels, see Homan, To Your Tents, 89–128.

7 See the comments of Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai, 201–2.

Photo by Constance Gane


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