What is it?
The tabernacle (Heb. mishkan; Exod 25:9; 26:30), in the account of YHWH‘s instructions to Moses on Sinai for Israel‘s service of God in Exod 25-31, and in the account of the fulfilment of the instructions in Exod 35-40, is the portable temple at the heart of the sanctuary complex, enclosed within a court. It is also referred to as the tent of meeting (Heb. ohel mo’ed, Exod 29:30, etc.). These two names refer to the same thing in these passages, although ‘tent of meeting’ refers to a different structure in Exod 33:7-11.
Sometimes, the Bible refers to the complex as the “sanctuary” (Heb. miqdash; Exod 25:8). Comparable in size to an Olympic swimming pool, the entire complex is approximately 46 meters long (100 cubits) and 23 meters wide (50 cubits). In this complex the Israelites worship and offer sacrifices to God as they travel from Sinai to the land of Canaan.
Meaning of the names
But the meaning and implications of the two names ‘tabernacle’ and ‘tent of meeting’ are different, as are the religious traditions that they reflect. Mishkan, ‘tabernacle’, literally means ‘dwelling’ or ‘lodging place’, and implies that this is where God takes up his abode in the midst of his people, where he is served by the priests. ‘Tent of meeting’ comes originally from a prophetic rather than priestly tradition (see Exod 33:7-11) and means the place where God meets with the people’s prophetic representative, Moses, to give him commands and instructions (Exod 25:22; also Exod 29:42-46, where both conceptions are expressed).
Structure and furniture
God gives Moses detailed instructions for constructing the tabernacle (Exod 25–31), and the people of Israel are to contribute the manpower and material for its construction (25:1-9), as they do in 35-39. When complete, the tabernacle complex is fenced by a series of joined hanging curtains enclosing an area, called the court (27:9-19), with a single entrance facing east. Moving westward from the entrance, one first meets the altar (27:1-8), followed by the basin (30:17-21, probably a late addition to the text) before arriving at the doorway to the tabernacle or tent of meeting. This is made of wooden frames and covered with woollen curtains dyed in blue, purple and crimson, with goats’ hair curtains over them, and then a cover of rams’ skins and an outer covering of dolphins’ skins (possibly—the Hebrew word in 26:14 is of uncertain meaning) (Exod 26). The doorway opens into the holy place with the lampstand (25:31-39), the table of the bread of the presence (25:23-30), and the altar of incense (30:1-10, an obvious addition).
Moving further westward, a curtain separates the holy place from the most holy place (26:33), where the ark, also called the ark of the testimony or covenant (25:16; 26:34; Heb. ‘edut — this is not the usual word for ‘covenant’) is kept, and over it the golden ‘mercy seat’ (Heb. kapporet). The construction of these objects, the very heart of the sanctuary, symbolising the presence of YHWH, is mandated in 25:10-22.
An alternative conception (Richard Elliot Friedman) of the most holy place is that the four pillars on which the curtain is hung (26:32) are set in a square rather than a transverse line, so that the most holy place stands as an island within the holy place rather than at its end. Against this is that it makes the parallel with the structure of known temples, including the Jerusalem temple, less obvious.
The symbolism of the tabernacle
The structure of the tabernacle is closely similar to that of many permanent temples in the Syria-Palestine area, including the Jerusalerm temple described in 1 Kgs 6-7. In each case there is a court surrounding a long rectangular building with its entrance on one of the short sides, divided into two unequal rooms, with the smaller one at the back consecrated to the presence of the deity.
There is a gradation of holiness between the three main spaces, each holier than the one outside it. This is symbolised in the tabernacle by rules about who may enter each space and see its furniture. Israelites who are ritually clean may enter the court, at least the part east of the altar, but only priests the holy place, and the most holy place may only be entered by the high priest, under the conditions set out in Lev 16.
Scholars find parallels between the accounts of creation (Gen 1) and construction of the tabernacle (Exod 25–31). Similarly, there are parallels between the Garden of Eden and the tabernacle. The tabernacle is like a miniature representation of the cosmos.
What is its purpose?
In the narrative of Leviticus and Numbers, Aaron and his sons are set apart as priests to minister at the tabernacle (Lev 8-9), and it serves as the centre of worship from then on until Israel reaches the promised land. Detailed regulations for sacrifice and for the service of God in the holy place are given to Moses, mainly in Leviticus. All sacrifice is to be at the altar in front of the tent of meeting (Lev 17), while inside the holy place YHWH is served in the rites of the lamp and the weekly bread offering (Lev 24:1-9). The high priest enters the most holy place normally once a year to purify the sanctuary and the people (Lev 16).
When the tabernacle is first erected, it is filled with the glory of YHWH (Exod 40:34), and a cloud covers it. Whenever the cloud moves, the Israelites journey and whenever it rests, the Israelites encamp. At each move, the priests disassemble the tabernacle, cover its parts in cloths to shield it from the eyes of non-priests, and entrust it to the Levites to transport it to the next campsite, where they re-erect it (Num 4:1-33).
Did it really exist?
It is obviously very unlikely that a tribe wandering through the wilderness and sometimes lacking the bare necessities of life would have been able to create a structure such as is described in Exodus, made out of expensive materials and requiring the technologies of a settled people, such as forges and looms, to manufacture its parts. It has been the settled view of most scholars since the 19th century that the entire account of the tabernacle is a work of imagination, based on the pattern of actual temples, especially, it is presumed, that of the Jerusalem temple as described in 1 Kgs 6-7. The passages on the tabernacle are regarded as part of the so-called priestly document or ‘P’, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, which most scholars would date around the 6th century BCE. They are sometimes regarded as a blueprint for the Second Temple. However, there are significant differences, most notably that there was no ark or kapporet in the Second Temple: the most holy place was empty. More likely, it is an ideal picture of the ideal sanctuary, and has no definite relationship to actually existing sanctuaries.
Some scholars, however, have argued that it is possible for there to be a historical reality behind the account, even if its size and magnificence are exaggerated. Small portable sanctuaries existed among the beduin, both in ancient times and more recently. David is said to have erected a tent for the Ark in Jerusalem, long before Solomon built the temple (2 Sam 6:17). There are texts that suggest the tabernacle existed alongside or within later permanent temples (1 Sam 2:22; 2 Chr 1:3; 5:5), and it is argued that it was kept inside the most holy place of Solomon’s temple, so that those who wrote the tabernacle passages would have known of it (Friedman). But this is very much a minority view.
The tabernacle and the New Testament
The New Testament speaks of a better tabernacle, made not by human hands (esp. Heb 9), which is in heaven (Rev 15:5) but will descend and dwell among men (Rev 21:3).
Averbeck, R. E. “Tabernacle.” Pages 807–27 in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker. The IVP Bible Dictionary Series. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.
Friedman, Richard Elliott. “Tabernacle.” Pages 292-300 in vol. 6 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
George, Mark K. Israel’s Tabernacle as Social Space. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.
Haran, Menahem. Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978; 2nd ed., Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1985.