The structure referred to in Scripture as the tabernacle was the center of the worship of Yahweh by the people of Israel from shortly after the exodus until it was replaced by Solomon's temple around 960 b.c. The term "tabernacle" is sometimes used to refer to one part of a larger complex: the tent-like structure that stood within a court enclosed by linen curtains. At other times the term describes the entire complex. The inner structure was comprised of gold-plated planks linked together and standing on edge. They formed three sides of a rectangle, with the fourth closed by a heavy curtain. The whole was draped with several layers of cloth and leather. Here God was understood to be especially present for his people. Even more important, the tabernacle and the sacrificial system connected with it are understood by the Bible to be richly symbolic of truths concerning God and the possibility of human fellowship with him.
The first references to the tabernacle appear in Exodus 25, where Moses begins to receive the instructions for making this structure. These instructions continue through chapter 31. Then, after a three-chapter interlude dealing with the golden calf episode and its aftermath, chapter 35 resumes the story of the tabernacle, reporting how the complex was built. This report repeats the previous instructions almost word for word. The report carries on through chapter 40, where the book reaches its climactic conclusion with God's glory filling the tabernacle.
Part of the significance of the tabernacle is seen through the placement of this block of material in the Book of Exodus. The book contains three segments: chapters 1-15, the account of the deliverance from Egypt, culminating in the Red Sea crossing; chapters 16-24, the account of the journey to Sinai, culminating in the sealing of the covenant; and chapters 25-40, the account of the building of the tabernacle, culminating in its being filled with the glory of God. This literary structure shows that the ultimate need of the people was not for deliverance from physical oppression or from theological darkness, but from alienation from God. Deliverance from bondage and from spiritual darkness are not ends, but means to the end of fellowship with God. This is the significance of the title "tabernacle (or "tent, " Heb. ohel [אֹהֶל]) of meeting." Apparently first applied to the interim tent where Moses met God before the tabernacle was complete (33:7), the phrase aptly sums up the function of the tabernacle. Not only does the structure symbolize the presence of God with his people; it also shows how it is that sinful people can come into, and live in, the presence of a holy God.
The incident of the golden calf, which is reported between the instructions for the tabernacle and its building, highlights both the significance and function of the tabernacle. The people recognized they needed divine protection and guidance, especially in the light of Moses' inexplicable failure to return from the mountain (32:1). And they were sure they could not have these unless God was tangibly present with them. The tragedy of the story is that at the very moment they were demanding that Aaron meet their needs, God was giving Moses the instructions that would meet those needs in a much more complete way than Aaron's feeble efforts ever could.
When human needs are met in God's way the results far surpass anything we could conceive on our own. The golden calf could hardly compare to the tabernacle. In the tabernacle there was beauty of design, color, texture, and shape. There was a satisfying diversity in objects and spaces. There was a sense of motion through separate stages from the profane to the sacred. There was a profound, yet evident, symbolism capable of conveying multiple truths to different persons.
Moreover, the impact upon people is profoundly different when our needs are met in God's way. Here, instead of limited gifts and no participation (32:3-4), everyone has something to contribute, whether in talent or material (35:4-10). Here persons give freely, without coercion (35:21, contra 32:2). Here work is done according to Spirit-imparted gifts, not according to rank or appearance (35:30-36:2). And here, instead of further alienation from God (32:9), the glory of God's presence is revealed in the midst of human life (40:35).
Thus, Exodus 32-34 is an integral part of the whole final segment of the book, illustrating by contrast the same truths that chapters 25-31 and 35-40 teach in a positive way.
Beyond a tangible representation of the presence of God, the tabernacle also is intended to teach by visual means the theological principles whereby that presence is possible. It is necessary to exercise care at this point because the Bible does not explain all the visual symbolism, and it is possible to expend too much energy in speculation. However, the main lines are clear enough. The color white, which was especially prominent in the linen curtains of the court, calls attention to the purity of God and the necessary purity of those who would live in his presence. Blue speaks of God's transcendence; purple, of his royalty; and red, of the blood that must be shed if a holy God is ever to live with a sinful human. The accents of gold and silver that occurred throughout the structure speak of the riches of the divine kingdom and its blessings. Possibly the multiple coverings over the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies speak of the security that attends those who live with God.
The most significant symbolism is surely that found in the arrangement of spaces and objects. The court itself speaks of the separation between God and the sinner. It is impossible for us to come into the presence of God in our normal state. This gulf is further reinforced by the veil at the door of the Holy Place, and by the one that closed off the Holy of Holies. It is impossible that good intentions and honest effort can ever bring us to God. We come in the ways he has dictated, or not at all.
Then, how is it possible for us to come into that Presence which is life itself? The tabernacle shows the way. The first object encountered is the altar. Here, in the starkest visual terms, is the representation of the truth that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Heb 9:22). But the altar raises its own questions: How can a bull or a sheep or a goat die in the place of a person who has been made just a little lower than God himself (Mic 6:6-8)? For the Old Testament believer, the solution to this enigma was, in many ways, a mystery. Nevertheless, there is no other way to the Holy of Holies than past the altar.
Behind the altar is the laver. Here we are reminded that God is clean. "Clean" describes the essential character of God, who is faithful, upright, merciful, and true. To be unclean is to fail to share that character, and that which does not share God's character cannot exist in his white-hot presence (Isa 6:5). Thus, it is necessary for those who would come into his presence to be washed and made clean (Psalm 51:7), and the laver represents both that necessity and that possibility.
Inside the Holy Place three objects demand attention. On the right is a table with twelve loaves of bread on it. In pagan temples this is where the gods were believed to sit and eat. But in Israel's tabernacle this is where God was understood to feed his people (Psalm 23:5). He had no need of food (Psalm 50:12-13), but Israel was famished for him (Psalm 107:9; Isa 65:13). On the left was the lampstand where the light was never permitted to go out. This represented the light that God was to his people in the darkened world of sin (Psalm 27:1). Directly in front of the worshiper at the far end of the space was the altar of incense. Here incense burned day and night, symbolizing both the sacred presence and the prayer of worshipers that can rise to God like sweet perfume at any moment of the day (Psalm 141:2; Rev 8:3-4). Thus, the objects in the Holy Place were the evidence of the blessings that are for those who live in the presence of God: light, sustenance, and communion.
In all the pagan temples the innermost space was reserved for the idol, the visual expression of the pagan insistence that the divine is clothed with this world, and that this world is the body of the divine. Alone of all the ancient peoples, the Hebrews insisted this is not true. God is not part of this world, and may not be represented by any natural object. So what was in the innermost space of the tabernacle? A box! We usually refer to the object with the a.d. 1611 term "ark, " but that is just an archaic word for "box." A box to represent the presence of God? To be sure it was a beautifully ornamented box, with winged figures of some sort molded into its golden top. But for all that, it was still just a box.
Why would the Hebrews use something as mundane as a box to convey the presence of the almighty God? Negatively, a box simply cannot be worshiped as somehow being God. It is neither a human figure nor a natural object. To be sure, some translations have God sitting "upon" the cherubim, but the Hebrew does not use the preposition "upon." Rather, it uses no preposition, or "with respect to"a clear attempt to avoid even that potential confusion of object and reality. If it is desired to have an object that will remind persons of God's real presence while underscoring the prohibition of images, a box is an excellent choice.
But the ark has positive significance as well. It represents the true basis of divine-human relations. Those relations do not rest upon ritualistic manipulation—magic—as idol-worship assumes. Rather, the basis is covenant, a relationship of mutual commitment whereby grace is responded to in obedience, especially on an ethical plane. Surrender, trust, and obedience are the operative principles, not magical identification. How appropriate that all these truths should be represented in the box in the Holy of Holies. Aaron's rod represents the delivering grace of God, both in the exodus events and in God's selection of the priests as mediators; the manna represents God's sustaining grace; and the tablets of the Ten Commandments summarize the terms of the relationship. The ark tells us that we cannot manipulate the essence of God; we can only remember what he has done for us and relate to him and one another accordingly.
The sad truth is that the human spirit is not able to fulfill the terms of the covenant, no matter how pure the initial intentions may have been. As the Hebrews first broke their covenant with God in less than six weeks, so every human who has ever lived has learned that living for God is not a matter of good intentions. Every one who has ever sought to live for God has discovered that when all has been done, we have fallen far short of God's moral perfection. What then is to be done? The covenant was sworn to with the most solemn oaths. Now it lies broken in the presence of God, calling out for justice. How can God be Justice and Love at the same time? The answer is the "cover" (mercy-seat). The Hebrew word for the nullification of the effects of sin is kapar [כָּפַר , כָּפַר], "to cover." It is surely not a coincidence that the lid of the box is called "the cover." For this lid not only covers what it is in the box; it is also the place where covering for sin, particularly unconscious sin, is made once a year through sprinkling the blood of a sacrificial animal upon that cover (Lev 16:11-17). The broken covenant, calling out for the death of those who swore in the name of God that they would be obedient or die, was satisfied by a representive sacrificial death.
But this brings to the fore the question raised by the great altar in the court outside. If the fundamental tenet of the Hebrew faith, God's transcendence, is true, if God cannot be magically manipulated through the creation, then of what ultimate good is the sacrifice of one bull, or, for that matter, tens of thousands of bulls? This seems a hopeless dilemma. God's justice cannot be satisfied magically, but it must be satisfied. God cannot simply ignore it. To do so would be to destroy the whole basis of a world of cause and effect.
This is the dilemma that came to such a dramatic resolution for the persons of the first century a.d., who suddenly realized what the coupling of Jesus Christ's divinity and his unjust death and his glorious resurrection meant. Here was the perfect sacrifice! Here was the one to whom the sacrificial system and the tabernacle pointed. That system and that structure had no magical efficacy in themselves. They were only efficacious in removing sin insofar as they pointed to the One who could indeed die for all. If God could die and then return to life, that death could indeed be in the place of all who would ever live and sin.
This is the vision that captured the writer of the Book of Hebrews and is recorded in chapter 9 of that book. He realized that the tabernacle and the sacrificial system were simply symbolic of an eternal reality. The language used there might suggest that the author thought the earthly tabernacle was a copy of an eternal heavenly one. But to take that position is to miss the point of the passage. The author is saying that the earthly tabernacle and the sacrifices offered there are representative of eternal, spiritual truth: the all-sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ for all eternity. The tabernacle represents truth, not some other material entity. The author is possibly using the language of Platonic philosophy, but the biblical philosophy of transcendence is diametrically at odds with Plato's insistence that this world is unreal. That the writer of Hebrews knows this is evident in 9:25-26, where he shows that Christ is not being continually sacrificed in some heavenly reality, but that he died once for all here on earth, and so here fulfilled what the tabernacle was all about.
John N. Oswalt
See also Aaron; Altar; Ark; Exodus, Theology of; Hebrews, Theology of; Israel; Moses; Offerings and Sacrifices; Priest, Priesthood; Temple
Bibliography. P. F. Kiene, The Tabernacle of God in the Wilderness of Sinai; M. Levine, The Tabernacle: Its Structure and Utensils; S. F. Olford, The Tabernacle: Camping with God; S. Ridout, Lectures on the Tabernacle; A. B. Simpson, Christ in the Tabernacle.