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What Is the Tabernacle?

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During the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert under Moses’ leadership, God was with them. God gave clear instructions to the Israelites for a sanctuary where his spirit could dwell and where people could gather for worship and to offer sacrifices. This sanctuary is called the tabernacle.

Every element in the tabernacle was significant. Even the way that the Exodus narrative embeds the story of Israel’s betrayal of God within the tabernacle narrative is remarkably important to God’s story.

Dr. Gary E. Schnittjer, professor of the Old Testament at Cairn University, discusses the important elements of the tabernacle:

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The tabernacle in context

The last major segment of Exodus concerns the presence of God with his people. Chapters 25–31 and 35–40 describe the instructions for the tabernacle and its construction. All aspects of the dwelling and its furnishings were defined with specific detail regarding dimensions, shape, and color. The lengthy repetition establishes the importance of proper detail in everything involved with God’s dwelling.

The sin with the golden calf presents readers with Israel’s devastating rebellion. The shamefulness of the idolatrous incident sounds all the more striking enveloped within the many chapters of tabernacle description.

The rebellion created a crisis that called into question not only the covenant and God’s presence with the people but also their continued existence at all. In Exodus 32–34 the reader moves back and forth between scenes at the base of the mountain and high up on Sinai, close to the presence of God’s glory.

The dialogues between Yahweh and Moses illumined the tensions between the people and their God. How could the presence of Yahweh’s glory dwell amidst the stiff-necked people? Would he leave? Would he destroy them? The surprising dimensions of God’s grace can be seen, to an extent, within the dialogues.

This section of Exodus ends with the highpoint of the book itself—the glory of God coming to dwell in the midst of his people. The specificity of the dwelling turned out to be the easier part of the problem. God by his spirit assisted in the construction of his dwelling. The greater issue was the stubbornness of the Israelites.

How could they avoid the fate of Pharaoh when they shared his foremost characteristic? On their own, they couldn’t. God extended forgiveness, reaffirmed the covenant, and committed himself to dwelling with the people—revealing his astonishing grace.

Moses receives the tabernacle instructions

The narrative in Exodus 25–31 is an almost static depiction of Moses’ reception of the tabernacle’s instruction on the mountain for forty days (31:18). The remarkable aspect of the dwelling is the vision of Moses.

God instructed him, “Make this dwelling and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you” (Ex. 25:9, italics added). The idea of “according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” is repeated three more times (25:40; 26:30; 27:8) and “just as Yahweh commanded Moses” several times (31:11; 39:32, 42, 43).

On earth as it is in heaven

On the mountain Moses received a vision of the dwelling. The dwelling in the encampment was to be made in accord with this vision. The author of the book of Hebrews describes the dwelling as a copy and a shadow of what is in heaven (Heb. 8:1–5). That is, he believed that Moses saw the dwelling of God, which is in the realm of God. The theological significance of this point relates to matters of worship and relationship with God.

It was the people’s responsibility to make their realm accord with God’s realm. I think a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer captures the spirit of the challenge: “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

God graciously chose to dwell with the Hebrew community. This new proximity between him and them created a new responsibility for them to make him a dwelling in accord with his dwelling. Once he inhabited it, his glory created a whole new reality for them, explained at length in Leviticus.

In this context we learn that God would graciously condescend to dwell with his people as the featured part of their community, but they needed to prepare him a place in their midst that accorded with his own place. He compensated for their inability by granting Moses a vision of the dwelling, and—when it came to its construction—his own assistance.

The key elements of the tabernacle

The dwelling had four pieces of furniture within it, and God provided specific instructions on the function and appearance of each.

The ark

The ark—often referred to as “the ark of the covenant” or “the ark of testimony”—provided the special locale for God’s presence. It seems that it, or the winged sphinxes (traditionally called cherubim) on it, served as his place of residence or his throne.

The ark itself was a gold-covered box with a unique gold lid. Later pentateuchal passages explained that the Ten Words (the second stone copy), a jar of manna, and Aaron’s budding staff were each kept in the ark itself, and that a copy of the torah, according to the book of Deuteronomy, was kept in front of it.

The ark was two and a half by one and a half by one and a half cubits. (A cubit was about eighteen inches long, the approximate distance between the elbow and end of the fingers. )

The faces of the winged sphinxes were bowed and their wings spread out over the ark. The ark had rings mounted at its bottom corners, which permanently held the gold-covered wood poles for transporting it.

The table

The table was two by one and a half by one and a half cubits. It was made of acacia wood and covered with gold just like the ark. The bowls and utensils for the table were made of gold. The table was also fitted with rings through which gold-covered poles were inserted for transporting it. Unlike the ark, however, the rings were located higher up on the legs and the poles were only inserted during relocation of the dwelling.

The lampstand

The seven-branched lampstandor, menorah—was made of pure gold and detailed with almond flowers and buds.

The altar of incense

The incense altar was one by one by two cubits, also made of wood, covered with gold, and fitted with rings for transportation poles. The incense altar was outfitted with horns at each of its upper corners—thus resembling the large altar in the courtyard of the dwelling.

Each of these three items functioned for the ongoing worship of Yahweh. The table was always to have bread of the presence on it and the lampstand was to remain lit. The high priest was instructed to burn incense on the incense altar every morning and evening at twilight.

The tabernacle is the dwelling place of God

The dwelling itself was a tent, designed to house the presence of God’s glory. That is, God’s glory dwelt with Israel’s tents in the wilderness. The dwelling was sometimes called “the tent of meeting” because God met there with Moses to give him instructions for the people (25:22; 40:1).

The instructions for the dwelling itself describe two chambers, the holy and the holy of holies (the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place in the NIV).

The courtyard

The courtyard around the dwelling was one hundred by fifty cubits, with curtains five cubits in height. Thus, the actual dwelling could be seen rising above the courtyard curtain by those living in the encampment.

The courtyard was outfitted with a bronze basin for washing and a large bronze altar, five by five by three cubits, for sacrifices. The altar had horns on each upper corner like the altar of incense. It was equipped with rings and bronze-covered wooden poles for carrying, as well as bronze utensils.

floor plan

The dwelling represented the concept of sacred space in the encampment. The presence of God’s glory dwelt with Israel “physically.” The closer to his presence, the more holy the space. That meant that fewer people could go there, and less often. The proximity of the entire Israelite encampment with the dwelling made the nation holy compared to any other people. Living within increasingly holy proximity to God carried with it new responsibilities (see Leviticus). The visible and physical sacred space in the wilderness, and later in the promised land, tangibly revealed the larger issue of the need for spiritual holiness to enjoy relationship with God. The holy space in the encampment along with holy time, weekly on the sabbath and annually in the feasts, defined the dimensions that literally and physically encompassed life as worship.

The high priestly clothing

The clothing of the high priest was highly symbolic in its colors and design. The priestly garments included the names of the tribal families of Israel engraved on onyx stones, emblematic of the people whom the priest represented before God.

Perhaps the most important symbolic feature of the high priest’s clothing was the layer upon layer of “holy clothing” (28:2) he had to wear to minister before the presence of the glory.


Aaron, the high priest, wore the names of the tribes of Israel on the breastpiece “over his heart” whenever he entered the dwelling. He also kept the Urim and Thummim, objects for making decisions, in the breastpiece over his heart. On his head, fastened to the turban with a blue cord, he wore a solid gold plate that said: “Holy to Yahweh.”

The function of the priestly garments typifies the larger function of the dwelling and the religious rituals associated with it. Aaron had to clothe himself with many layers of sacred clothing. Holy attire could not fix or hide the unholiness of the priest or the people he represented. The human problem was not physical and could not be covered by many layers of holy clothing.

The holy garments were not so much for God as for the priest and the people. The holy garments reminded the priests of Yahweh’s holiness every time they put them on.

The construction of the tabernacle

After the rebellion and the revelation, the book of Exodus returns to the construction of the dwelling. Yahweh had committed himself to maintain his presence with the people. They made him the dwelling in accord with his instruction. The last six chapters of Exodus rehearse for readers most of the detailed information from chapters 25–31. The order is slightly modified, but the focus is similar.

God granted his “Spirit” to the skilled workers, enabling them to make his dwelling. Two workers are singled out, one from Judah and one from Dan:

Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, Yahweh has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them master craftsmen and designers.” (Exodus 35:30–35; cf. 31:1–6; 36:1–2; 38:22, italics added)

The Spirit of God with the craftspersons paints this segment with creational imagery. God’s Spirit hovered over the heavens and the earth before he separated it according to his order and filled it with life.

The humans, the creatures in his own image, were handcrafted lastly and commissioned to fill their world. The Spirit-empowered workers made the holy dwelling in accord with the design Moses had seen on the mountain.

When it was finished, Yahweh filled it with the presence of his glory. The present story not only echoes the creation, but it also brings closure to the narrative that was triggered by the families of Israel fulfilling the creational blessing to fill the earth. They were fertile and fruitful and filled the land of Egypt. The fact that they filled Egypt initiated a chain of events—oppression, deliverance, journey, the covenant, the rebellion, the revelation, the dwelling—each building up to the moment when God filled the dwelling. Yahweh condescended to tent with his people.

The context of Moses’ relationship with God is necessary for grasping the magnitude of God’s filling the dwelling. Because Moses’ ability to spend time with God in the tent of meeting had been previewed in Exodus 33–34, readers are set up for the moment when God first filled the tent. Moses had an unusual propensity to withstand proximity to Yahweh’s glory. The presence of that glory was so intense that Moses had to remain outside the dwelling.

Then Moses set up the courtyard around the dwelling and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Yahweh filled the dwelling. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of Yahweh filled the dwelling. (40:33–35, italics added)

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This post is adapted from material found in The Torah Story, taught by Gary Schnittjer.

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