The portable sanctuary constructed by Moses at Sinai and primarily associated with the people's wilderness wandering. Various expressions are used in referring to this sanctuary—“tent,” “tent of meeting,” “tabernacle,” “tabernacle of the testimony [NRSV: covenant].” Conceived as a movable shrine, the tabernacle was constructed so that it could be assembled, dismantled, and reassembled as the people moved from one place to another.
The account of the construction of the tabernacle is found in the book of Exodus: in chaps. 25–31, God provides instructions to Moses for its construction, and chaps. 35–40 report how these were carried out. Included in these texts are directions for the construction of the cultic furniture used in conjunction with the tabernacle. These include the ark (25.10–22; 37.1–9), table of showbread (25.23–30; 37.10–16), the lampstand or menorah (25.31–40; 37.17–24), the altar of burnt offering (27.1–8; 38.1–7), the altar of incense (30.1–10; 37.1–10), and the bronze basin (30.17–21; 38.8. In addition, directions are given for preparing priestly garments (28.1–43; 39.1–31), for ordaining Aaron and his sons as priests (29.1–46; see Lev. 8), for collecting the sanctuary tax (30.11–16), for mixing the anointing oil and incense (30.22–38; 37.29), and for other matters associated with the ritual of the tabernacle.
The tabernacle and its furnishings were made of materials and with labor contributed voluntarily by members of the community (25.2–7; 35.4–36.7) under the supervision of Bezalel of the tribe of Judah and Oholiab of the tribe of Dan (31.1–11; 35.30–36.1). The tabernacle complex was rectangular in shape, measuring 100 by 50 cubits (27.9–18). The exact dimensions expressed in modern equivalents are uncertain, since the length of the ancient cubit (the distance from the point of the elbow to the end of the middle finger) remains in doubt; estimates range from 45 to 52 cm (17.5 to 20.4 in). The approximate dimensions of the sanctuary were 32 by 23 m (105 by 75 ft). The complex was oriented so that the short sides faced east and west with a 20‐cubit entrance on the east protected by the embroidered screen (26.36–37; 27.16).
The tabernacle was divided into three distinct zones of increasing holiness: the courtyard, the holy place, and the holy of holies. The courtyard was divisible into two 50‐cubit squares. The eastern square contained the altar of burnt offering where sacrifices and offerings were burned (5 × 5 × 3 cubits), located at its center, and the basin, to the west of the altar, which held water for the priests to wash their hands and feet before officiating. The western square contained the tent of meeting or tabernacle proper. This was a separate enclosure measuring 30 × 30 × 10 cubits subdivided into the holy place (20 × 10 × 10 cubits) and the holy of holies (10 × 10 × 10 cubits).
Located within the holy place were the table of showbread (2 × 1 × 1.5 cubits) situated on the north side; the menorah on the south side, and the altar of incense or holden altar (1 × 1 × 2 cubits) located between the table and lampstand immediately in front of the veil to the holy of holies. Every Sabbath twelve freshly baked loaves were placed on the table, arranged in two rows (Lev. 24.5–9; Exod. 25.30). The lamps on the menorah were lit each evening by the high priest and allowed to burn all night (Lev. 24.1–4). Every morning and evening, at the time when the lamps of the menorah were tended, the high priest burned incense on the golden altar (Exod. 30.7–9).
The holy of holies, separated from the holy place by an embroidered curtain (Exod. 26.31–33), housed only the ark (2.5 × 1.5 × 1.5 cubits) containing the “testimony” (25.21; 40.20), assumed to be the tablets of the Law. A special lid or “mercy seat” covered the top of the ark and was ornamented with two cherubim whose outspread wings overarched the cover and touched one another (25.17–20; 26.34; 37.6–9). The covering of the ark was the place where God promised to meet and communicate with the representative of the community (25.22). Only the high priest was to enter the holy of holies (30.10; Lev. 16.2, 29–34).
The entire courtyard of the enclosure with its perimeter of 300 cubits, with the exception of the entryway, was surrounded by hangings of twisted linen, 5 cubits high, hung on upright posts placed at intervals of 5 cubits (Exod. 27.9–19). The inner rectangle, the tabernacle proper, was enclosed, except on the eastern end, by forty‐eight wooden frames (Exod. 26.15–29; 36.20–34). The assembled frames were overlaid first by a covering of sheets of linen (26.1–6) and then by a covering of goats' hair curtains (26.7–13), which was overlaid by a covering of tanned ram skins (26.14).
Gradations of holiness are reflected in the layout, building materials, and use of the tabernacle enclosure. The less holy area, the outer courtyard, was open to the laity, and the metal associated with its construction was bronze. Only priests and Levites were admitted to the holy place in which the items were overlaid with gold (except for the menorah, which was of pure gold). The contents of the holy of holies were gold plated outside and inside (the ark) or else were of pure gold (the mercy seat). The sacredness of the entire precinct is evident from the command that the priests and Levites should camp between the tabernacle and the tents of the tribes on their journeys in the wilderness (Num. 1.53; 2.1–34).
The tabernacle was the place where God was present among his people (Exod. 25.8), where he met with them and communicated with them (25.22; 29.43–46). The symmetry and wholeness of the tabernacle (see 26.6, 11; 36.13, 18) were reflective of the unity and perfection of God and of the divine relationship to creation. Note the association of the construction of the tabernacle with the Sabbath (31.12–17; 35.1–3) and the presence of six formulas of divine address to Moses dividing the material into six units (25.1; 30.11, 17, 22, 34; 31.1), thus paralleling the six days in the account of creation in Genesis 1.1–2.3.
Questions have been raised about whether an edifice as elaborate as the tabernacle existed in the wilderness. Scholars have pointed to a number of difficulties. Could the Israelites, newly out of slavery in Egypt, have possessed the necessary artistic skills to produce such a structure when later Solomon had to hire the Phoenicians to build the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kings 5.1–6)? Would they have had sufficient precious metals, gems, and fabrics to make the cultic furniture and priestly garments? (Estimates indicate the need for at least 1,000 kg [1 ton] of gold, 3,000 kg [3 tons] of silver, and 2,500 kg [2.5 tons] of bronze.) Could such a massive and heavy structure have been dismantled and reassembled with any practicability? Why is there no mention of carrying the tabernacle across the Jordan in the account of the entry into the Promised Land (Josh. 3) and such infrequent reference to the structure in the narratives after the entry (see Josh. 18.1; 1 Sam. 2.22; 1 Kings 8.4; 2 Chron. 1.3)? How is the tabernacle, situated in the center of the tribal camp and guarded by thousands of Levites, related to the wilderness tent that was pitched outside the camp, guarded by a single individual, and used to communicate with the deity (Exod. 33.7–11)? Such questions have led to the theory that the tabernacle was an idealized version of the Jerusalem Temple projected back into the wilderness and that the portable shrine was much simpler.
In support of the historicity of the tabernacle or at least some modified version of it, scholars have pointed to the use of portable shrines among other cultures, especially Arab Bedouin cultures, to the fact that Egyptian armies camped encircling the sacred tent and artifacts associated with the Pharaoh, and to the “despoiling of the Egyptians” as a source of the wealth required for the tabernacle (see Gen. 15.13–14; Exod. 11.2; 12.35–36; Ps. 105.37).
See also Hebrews, The Letter to the.
John H. Hayes