A portable sanctuary. There are instructions to build a tabernacle in Exod. (25: 8 ff.) and it is duly built (Exod. 35: 10 ff.). When completed it consisted of two compartments, the inner being the Holy of Holies containing the Ark. The narrative puts the episode, improbably, into the wilderness period, and describes how Levites had to take down and reassemble this complicated structure every time the people moved on (Num. 1: 51). The amounts of gold and silver used sound incredible; and surely when the people are said to cross the River Jordan (Josh. 3: 17), there would have been mention of the tabernacle if it was being carried.
Since this account forms part of the P source, it seems likely that details of the Jerusalem Temple have been transposed into the description of the wilderness tabernacle. But not all the narrative is retrojection. There is also a ‘tent of meeting’ described in Exod. (33: 7–11) which appears to be an alternative account of the tabernacle and is probably more in accordance with the facts. The Priestly source has perhaps coalesced the memories of a wilderness sanctuary with a theological and idealized concept based on knowledge of the Jerusalem Temple. The ‘tent of meeting’ was a simple, easily movable, structure in which a single minister could operate. According to P this is the location for the divine presence, or the shekhinah. (Exod. 40: 34–8).
In the NT there are references to the tabernacle in Heb. (8: 2, 5; 9: 21)—the true tabernacle is in heaven—and in Stephen's speech (Acts 7: 44–50), where Solomon's Temple is contrasted unfavourably with the ancient tabernacle made according to the pattern of the one in heaven. It is also possible that the Exodus narrative lies behind John 1: 14—where the Greek is literally ‘the Word…tabernacled among us’.