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The Tabernacle of israel

I.       Introductory

A.    Key passages

1.       Building instructions:  Exodus 25-27; 30-31

2.       Actual construction:  Exodus 35-40

3.       Dedication of the tabernacle:  Numbers 7

4.       Families responsible for caring for the tabernacle:  Numbers 2-4

B.      Basic construction

The tabernacle was situated within a courtyard 50 by 100 cubits in size.  It was a rectangular, tent-like structure, 30 cubits long and 10 cubits wide, divided into two rooms.  A curtain (veil) separated the two rooms.  The first room, the Holy Place (vd,Qoh;; haqodesh), was 20 cubits in length; the second room, the Holy of Holies (~yvid'Q\h; vd,qo), occupied the remaining 10 cubits.  On three sides, the tabernacle had walls 10 cubits high made of boards of acacia wood.  These boards may have been open frames, allowing for more visibility and ventilation.  On the side that always faced east hung a multi-colored curtain door.  Over this wooden structure were placed four coverings:  linen curtains, goat’s hair, ram skins dyed red, and the hide of seals or porpoises (KJV, “badgers’ skins”).  Some debate whether the “tent” was flat-roofed or sloped.  For pragmatic reasons, it seems likely that the tent-roof was sloped (Strong, 38-39; ISBE, 2890).

C.     Purpose

God Himself sets forth the key purpose of the tabernacle when He says:  “And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8; cf. Ex. 29:43, 45).

D.    Symbolism and typology

The tabernacle, its furniture, and its ceremonies are all laden with typology and symbolism.  The tabernacle itself, as the dwelling place of God, primarily symbolizes the presence of God with His people.  Some have seen a fourfold anti-type (Vos, 154-155; Barrett, 276).  For example, Christ is a clear fulfillment—He tabernacled among us (John 1:14).  The church and the individual believer are a fulfillment—both are the temple of God (I Cor. 3:16-17; II Cor. 6:16).  Finally, heaven is an anti-type of the tabernacle.  Yahweh’s repeated commands to Moses to make the tabernacle according to the “pattern” shown on the mount (Ex. 25:9, 40) imply that the tabernacle has a higher significance.  The author of Hebrews explicitly affirms that there is a “true tabernacle” of which the earthly one was a “copy and shadow” (Heb. 8:2, 5).  The strict commands for the tabernacle’s construction also suggest that there is a right and a wrong way to approach God in worship and in prayer (Barrett, 275).  When it comes to worship, God makes the rules!  This explains the emphasis on Moses’ faithful adherence to the divine design (Exodus 39:42; 40:16, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 32).  The result (Exod. 40:34) is worth the effort.  While the tabernacle is typological, one must avoid finding significance in every detail of the tabernacle.  Some of its features, such as the use of tent-pins and acacia wood, were for pragmatic reasons, as indicated by their disappearance in the construction of Solomon’s Temple.

II.    Theology of the tabernacle names

A.    “Tabernacle” (mishkan; !K'v.Mih;):  Ex. 25:9; 26:1

The KJV normally translates mishkan as “tabernacle.”  However, do not think tent!  Mishkan means “dwelling-place.”  The tabernacle was the place of God’s dwelling among His people—not, as theologian Geerhardus Vos points out, because God needed a place to live, but so that He could fulfill His promises to His people.

B.      “Tent of meeting”; KJV, “tent of congregation” (’ohel mo‘ed; d[eAm lh,ao):  Ex. 27:21; 28:43

’Ohel means “tent” and thus refers to the structure of the tabernacle.  God chose to “live” in a tent because He desired to identify Himself as fully as possible with His people in their present circumstance.  Later in the Kingdom period, when most Israelites lived in houses, God also “dwelt” in a house.  The translation “tent of congregation” suggests that the tabernacle was the tent where the people gathered for worship.  While this was undoubtedly true, the term mo‘ed (“congregation”) refers to a pre-determined time or place for meeting with someone.  The tabernacle was, therefore, a place where God made definite arrangements to meet and commune with His people.

C.     “Sanctuary” (miqdash; vD'q.mi):  Ex. 25:8; 30:13

Miqdash comes form the root verb (qadash; vdq) meaning “to be holy,” and is sometimes translated as “holy place.”  Qadash here has the idea of “set apart” or “separate.”  The name “sanctuary” was to remind Israel of the “divine aloofness.”  The fact that God will dwell and meet with His people in no way alters the very essence of His nature as wholly other, separate, and distinct from all of His creation.

D.    “The tent of the testimony” (tdu[eh' !K;v.mi):  Ex. 38:21; Nu. 1: 50, 53; 9:15

As the “tent of testimony,” the Tabernacle was the place where the copy of the Decalogue (also called “the testimony”) was kept.  The Ten Commandments were called the “Testimony” because they bore witness to and reminded Israel of the character of God and of His covenant conditions and obligations. Thus, the tabernacle, as the depository of the Law, was a place of revelation.  But it was also a place of revelation because it was from there that God would speak with His people (Ex. 29:42).

III. Theology of the tabernacle structure

A.    A courtyard open to all Israel

All Israel was allowed to enter into the courtyard of the tabernacle.  This suggests the immanence of Yahweh and His desire to commune with His people. 

B.      A Holy Place accessible only to the priests

While God allowed all Israel to approach into the court of the tabernacle, only the priests were allowed to enter into the tabernacle structure itself.  God was teaching His people that even though He desired fellowship with them, they could only approach Him through mediation.

C.     A Holy of Holies open one day a year to the high priest

Even the priests did not have full access to God.  Only the high priest could enter into the Most Holy Place.  But he could enter only on the Day of Atonement and only by sprinkling blood from the sin offering on the mercy seat.  Thus, the only reason God was approachable at all was that sin had been propitiated by a blood sacrifice.  The tabernacle conveys the constant “tension” between God’s willingness to have a relationship with His people and His need to maintain His separateness from all sin and uncleanness.

IV.  Theology of the tabernacle furniture

A.    Bronze altar

The sacrifices and offerings were offered up on the bronze altar.  The first piece of furniture in the courtyard of the tabernacle, it reminded Israel that the first step in approaching God was sacrifice.  In fact, almost no other activity in the tabernacle was performed without some type of offering preceding it.  Also, the bronze altar was the only article of furniture in the tabernacle that directly involved the people at large, suggesting that God requires a propitiation for the sins of all men.  The bronze altar was a place of atonement.  It pictured the appeasement of the wrath of God on the basis of blood sacrifice.  This bronze altar typified a future altar at Calvary upon which a spotless Lamb would be slain.

B.      Bronze washing basin

The bronze washing basin was located between the bronze altar and the tabernacle.  Here, the priests washed their hands and feet before performing their priestly duties, testifying that “he who has to carry on the service of reconciliation for the congregation must sanctify his own walk and acts” (Oehler, 256).  Even before they could offer a sacrifice upon the bronze altar, the priests were required to wash their hands and feet.  This typified the need of a holy Priest (the coming Christ!) to perform the work of propitiation.  However, the common Israelite offering a sacrifice was not required to wash his hands and feet.  It was enough that his priest was clean.  We, as NT priests, are washed by the water of the Word, the mirror of God (Eph. 5:26; cf. Ex. 38:8).

C.     Golden lampstand

The golden lampstand was located on the south side of the holy place.  It had seven branches, each of which contained an oil lamp. There are many interpretations as to the significance of the golden lampstand.  Oehler sees it as a reference to the “perfect Light” or “saving divine grace” enjoyed by Israel (256-57).   Others believe it refers to the duty of the people of God to be light to the world around them (Payne, 362-3; Fairbairn, 324-5).  Vos views it as the “reflex effect” of good works by the people of God, which influence the unsaved and, in so doing, bring glory to God (Mt. 5:14).  In truth, the symbolism of the lampstand probably encompasses all of these ideas.  As partakers of the divine light, believers have the responsibility to show forth their light to the world around them.  Yet the chief motivation for being light-bearers is to reflect upon God and bring praise to him. This light can only be maintained by a constant supply of oil, a common symbol in the Scriptures for the Holy Spirit.  Both Christ and His followers are called the light of the world.

D.    Table of shewbread

The table of shewbread was located on the north side of the holy place, across from the golden lampstand.  Twelve loaves of bread were placed upon the table, one representing each of the twelve tribes. The “shew-bread” is literally “bread of the presence” (~ynIP' ~x,l,).  It was to be continually before the face of God.  The “Presence-bread” was a type of meat and drink offering, a pledge of the covenant (Lev. 24:7-8).  It represented the “consecration of the activities of life to God” (Vos, 151), standing as a “testimony to their pledged consecration and dedication to the Lord” (Barrett, 281).  The shewbread demonstrates God’s desire for the complete consecration of His people, even in the mundane activities of life such as eating and drinking (cf. I Cor. 10:31).  Christ is our chief example.  His food was to do the will of Him that sent Him and finish His work (John 4:34).

E.     Altar of incense

The altar of incense was located in the holy place, in front of the ark of the covenant, against the curtain that separated the holy place from the holy of holies.  Morning and evening the high priest burned incense upon the altar.  The incense is symbolic of prayer.  Before the high priest could enter the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement, he had to offer up incense on the altar of incense so that the mercy seat would be covered with the smoke.  This pictures the vital role that Christ plays as the intercessor for His people.  But it also symbolizes or typifies God’s desire for the prayers of His people.  Its location directly in front of the mercy seat suggests that it is the prayers of His people that are dearest to the heart of God.  Furthermore, the fire on the altar of incense was kindled by the coals from the bronze altar— “prayer works only because of the blood of Christ’s sacrifice” (Barrett, 282).

F.      Ark of the covenant

The theology of the tabernacle climaxes in the ark of the covenant and the mercy-seat which rested upon it.  The ark was called the “ark of the covenant” because it contained a copy of the Decalogue, the moral foundation of the Mosaic covenant.  The “mercy seat” (tr,Pok;; kapporeth) is probably better translated “atonement cover” or “propitiatory covering.”  On the “atonement cover” the blood of the sin offering was sprinkled once a year, signifying the work of propitiation.  Below this atonement cover lay the Decalogue, indicating that the propitiating grace of God interposed between Israel and the penalties demanded by the Law for disobedience.  Above the mercy seat “hovered” the cherubim.  The cherubim, as guardians of the throne-room of God, both “proclaim and veil” the majestic glory of God (Oehler, 260).


Bibliography:  Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology; Gustave Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament; J. Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament; Westcott on Hebrews (pp. 235-42):  “The general significance of the tabernacle”; ISBE; Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture; Wisdom, Biblical Viewpoint 1978:49-52 (“Fundamental message of the tabernacle…”); Bell, Biblical Viewpoint 1978:45-48 (“Significance of the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle”); Woudstra, New perspectives on the OT (“The tabernacle in Biblical-theological perspective”); Michael Barrett, Beginning at Moses, 275-284; James Strong, The Tabernacle of Israel

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