What’s the Deal With the Tabernacle?
Outside of church, “tabernacle” is probably not a word you hear very often in conversation, but it is commonplace in the Old Testament and has a much deeper meaning than you might think. Simply translated, the Hebrew word for tabernacle means “residence” or “dwelling place.” The simplest way to describe the tabernacle is that it was the portable, earthly dwelling place of God amongst the children of Israel from the time of the Exodus from Egypt through the conquering of the land of Canaan.
The Tabernacle’s Purpose
In Exodus and Deuteronomy, we encounter many stories of God revealing himself to the Israelites. First, he revealed himself through signs and wonders, then through a pillar of cloud and another of fire, and again to Moses on Mount Sinai where God delivers the Ten Commandments. During that story in particular, when Moses went to receive and engrave the commandments onto stone tablets, the Israelites back at the camp constructed and began to worship a golden calf. They had all given up their jewelry to Moses’s brother Aaron to be melted down and fashioned into this idol. When Moses returned, he broke the tablets in anger. God then told the Israelites to leave, saying that he would give them the land but that he would not go with them. In response, Moses went into his “tent of meeting” and pleaded with God to keep his promise and remain among his people.
Then, Moses went back up the mountain to confer with God, where he made two more tablets and beheld God’s glory. When Moses returned with a shining face, the Israelites felt afraid. He gathered everyone together and told them that they needed to build a tabernacle. They obeyed, and everyone gave of their resources, similar to the way they had given for the creation of the golden calf. This tabernacle would be the place where God would reside, so they made it beautiful and in accordance with God’s specific instructions.
God’s cloud and fire resided there in the tabernacle. The Ark of the Covenant was his throne, and the rest of the Tabernacle was furnished purposefully. It was symbolic of the garden of Eden: a place where God dwells with his people. It was a sacred space where heaven met earth, just like God’s ultimate plan to restore everything with a new heaven and new earth.
The Tabernacle’s Construction
Now, the tabernacle was constructed in accordance with the following instructions, which you can read about in Exodus 35-40. The tent was in a courtyard of about 150 feet by 75 feet (about 1/4 of a football field), and the courtyard was surrounded by walls of linen that stood seven feet high. There was only one entrance, a gate about 30 feet wide. Outside the tent itself was a brazen altar for burning animal sacrifices as well as a bronze basin for washing before entering. The tent was 45 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 15 feet high. It was a rectangular structure covered over the top with four layers: badger skins, ram’s skin dyed red, goat’s hair, and fine linen.
At this point, only priests were allowed in. The first section of the tabernacle was called the Holy Place. To the left was the Menorah, made of complete gold, and the only source of light. To the right was the Table of Showbread, a wooden table overlaid with gold. It had bread on it always, showing that God would have communion with his people. In front of the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was the altar of incense, which was made of acacia wood and covered in gold. It was a perfect square, standing at three feet high with one horn in each corner. On it, the priests were to burn incense continually every morning and evening in conjunction with the daily burnt offerings that were made.
The other room inside was the Holy of Holies, sometimes referred to as the Most Holy Place. It was a perfect cube, 15 feet by 15 feet. This was God’s dwelling place, and a thick veil separated it from the rest of the tabernacle. Only the high priest could enter here, and he could only enter once a year on the day of atonement or “Yom Kippur” to offer a sacrifice. Inside it was the Ark of the Covenant, a chest in which God told Moses to put these three things: a golden pot of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded and blossomed (Number 17:8), and the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. On top of the Ark was the “Mercy Seat.” Two cherubim were on either side of it, facing inward. These are angels who symbolize God’s presence and power—the same kind that protected the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were banished.
The Tabernacle’s Significance
Today, the tabernacle is unnecessary for God to dwell with us because, as the Bible explains, Jesus is the true and better tabernacle. The New Testament loves to unpack the significance of the tabernacle in the story of Christ. John 1:14 tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The word “dwelt” here literally means “tabernacled.” Jesus fulfilled the law and is the great high priest who mediates between us and God and cleanses us of sin (Hebrews 4:14-16). Jesus himself is even the sacrifice!
In Matthew 27:51, we see that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” after Jesus died. Hebrews 10:19-20 says, “Therefore, brothers . . . we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” This means that we can be in God’s presence because of Jesus. Not only this, but as Christians, the Holy Spirit dwells in us. God no longer just dwells with or near us, but he actually takes up residence in his people to empower us forever.