Tabernacle: A Mobile Temple

Can you think of one thing in your life that you must always have near to you? For me, it is my phone. That is probably the case with many of you. My phone is my brain, my access to loved ones and my connection to the outside world. I keep it in my back pocket. It is the first thing I check in the morning, and I am always careful to plug it in at night. My phone is always with me. You could say it lives, or dwells, with me.

Today, if God wanted to use a cultural example to illustrate how close he wants to be to you and me, he might use the imagery of a mobile phone. He wants to always be near and at hand. He wants to be the first we turn to in the morning, and the last to share our thoughts at night. He wants to dwell with us.

To express this sentiment with the ancient Israelites, God used something that was well known to the culture of that day, much like a mobile phone is today. God used a mobile temple, called the Tabernacle, to dwell with his people.

The Dwelling Place

Pen and Ink drawing of Tabernacle
The Tabernacle. Illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At this point in Israel’s history, the Jewish people were living in tents in the desert between Egypt and Canaan. God had come down to deliver them from slavery, and at Mt. Sinai he declared his covenant. God swore that he was absolutely committed to Israel and the promises he had given their ancestors. In return, he asked that the Israelites be completely committed to him. He gave them a list of expectations that would show their devotion. But God didn’t make his covenant and then disappear. God did not remain aloof. He was highly involved and personally invested in this people. He wanted to come right down in their midst and interact with them.

In Exodus 25:8, God says to Moses,

“Have them make a sacred tent for me. I will live among them.”

This sacred tent, built according to the model God showed Moses, was literally called “the dwelling place” in Hebrew. We call it the “Tabernacle” in English. It was a portable temple, a tent where God dwelled.

Ancient Sacred Spaces

Unlike modern western culture today, the ancient near eastern culture believed that gods and goddesses regularly interacted with the material world. The idea of a sacred space, a meeting place between the divine and human, was common. In this regard, the Tabernacle was not unique. Archeologists have discovered that the Tabernacle’s layout and design correlates with other ancient sacred space structures.

There are two types of ancient sacred spaces that are like the Tabernacle: buildings dedicated to local deities called temples, and the mobile military tent of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses II.

Let’s start with Pharaoh.

Pharoah’s Mobile Military Tent

Illustration of frieze of Ramses II mobile military tent at Abu Simbel
(Great Temple (Abû Sunbul, Egypt); Ramses II, King of Egypt)
Scan by NYPL, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pharoah used a tent nearly exact in proportion and layout to the Tabernacle when traveling with his armies into battle. A near identical image of the Tabernacle is shown in the frieze of the Battle of Kadesh at Abu Simbel. It was used by Rameses II in the battle against the Hittites. This illustration of Pharaoh’s traveling war tent gives us an example of what the Tabernacle looked like. Since Pharaoh was worshipped not as a king alone, but as a god, his traveling palace gives us an idea of its cultural significance at the time, as well.

If you wanted to visit the Tabernacle or Pharoah’s tent, you would first see a tall white linen fence, about 7 ½ feet tall. If you started to walk along the fence, you would walk 150 feet south, 75 feet west, and back 150 feet north before you found the only door on the east side. This was the only one way in.

The Bible tells us the door was a curtain of purple, blue and red embroidered cloth. The outer courtyard was a little bigger than two basketball courts. This courtyard held a large bronze altar and a large water basin for washing. In the center of the courtyard, was the main structure. It was a long and thin box tent. Imagine two shipping containers laying side by side. That gives you a good idea of the size. It was 15 feet tall. Inside the tent there were two chambers.

In the Egyptian tent, the first room is the place where you wait to meet with the king. In the Tabernacle, the first room housed special implements that symbolized how the people could interact with God: a lamp, tables with bread, and an incense altar. The second chamber was separated from the first by another embroidered curtain. The throne of the king was in the second Egyptian chamber. A type of throne was also present in the Holy of Holies of God’s Tabernacle. Only a very small minority were allowed to enter this sacred spot where God or the god-king Pharoah dwelled.

The Egyptian model also gives us an idea of what the Tabernacle meant to the people of that time and culture. There was no Pharoah on the throne in the Israelite’s Tabernacle. The Israelites did not have a king. Instead, God was king of his people. God as king led his people to conquer the land he was giving to them. He battled for them. He would not leave them. His presence gave the assurance of his promise and power that “I am with you.”

Ancient Near Eastern Temples

The Tabernacle and Pharaoh’s mobile palace shared commonalities to all the temples in the ancient near eastern (ANE) world. ANE sacred spaces had sacred zones and barriers to block entry and guard the deity. The most holy and guarded room housed the image of the god. Temples were either built to simulate a ladder to heaven, as in the case of ziggurats, or they were built on a mountain for the same purpose. Temples indicated the desire to get as close to heaven as possible to allow the deity easy access to the shrine. The temples had altars to present the deity with nourishment and gifts. Temples had priests whose main function was to provide for the needs of the gods.

Kay (author) and husband at Acropolis in Athens
Kay & Stephen at the Acropolis 2021

When I visited the Acropolis in Athens, I was struck with the similarity of all the temples on the top of the mountain. They all had a basic rectangular form, with an outer chamber for supplicants and priests and an inner chamber that housed the idol with guarded access.

Israel’s sacred space was not unique, but their God was.

Although Israel’s Tabernacle shared many similarities with the pagan temples of their day and time, it was distinctly different because their God was unique. God is not worshiped through an image, but through his covenant. God has no needs, but he desires fellowship.     

Yahweh, the God of Israel, is represented by his covenant, not his image. The pagan temple housed an idol that represented the god, housed the god’s spirit, and was used to communicate with the god. Yahweh commanded his people not to make an image of him. God had already placed his image in the creation of humans. Instead, God instructed Moses to build a golden box that would hold the “testimony.” These were the tablets that God wrote the covenant between him and Israel upon. The top of the box was called the “mercy seat,” and it flanked on both sides by cherubim. This was where God said he would communicate with Moses to all of Israel. In the most holy chamber of the Tabernacle, there was no idol. Instead, there was the ark of the covenant, called the throne of God. Yahweh is not known by what he looks like, but by his promise.

Yahweh God does not have needs, but he desires fellowship. A regular part of ancient temple worship was giving the gods whatever they required. The problem was the ancient pagans did not know what pleased the gods, nor did they know what the gods expected of them. The ancient “Prayer to Any God” writes of the anguish of not knowing how to appease the anger of the gods. It was worship without revelation.

“May the god or goddess I do not know, whoever he or she is, be reconciled!

I do not know what wrong I have done,

I do not know what sin I have committed,

I do not know what abomination I have perpetrated,

I do not know what taboo I have violated!

I do not know if I have done good or evil.”

(Adapted from: James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton University Press, 1955, pp. 391-392.)

In pagan temples, worshippers guessed what the gods liked or needed. They imagined the gods would be pleased by what pleased people. They brought food, drink, gold, clothes, art, sexual partners, anything that would keep the gods happy. The altar was placed before the idol in the inner chamber. But how the gods partook of the gifts was left mysterious. To ensure the food made it into the spiritual realm, priests would destroy the sacrifice. Liquids were poured out. Animals were killed. Bread was broken.

In contrast, Yahweh made his expectations crystal clear.  He spoke to the entire nation of Israel from the top of the mountain. He spoke the covenant. I want you to be my people. I will bring you to the land I promised your ancestors. Here is what I expect from you. Worship only me. Do not make an idol to worship. Keep my Sabbath. Honor your parents. Don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t covet, don’t dishonor my name, etc. Israel agreed to enter this covenant before the Lord, and two written copies were kept in the most holy place of the Tabernacle.

Unlike the secret altars of pagan temples, hidden in the last chamber to disguise the priest’s ignorant ploys, God’s altar was placed in the courtyard where all could see and witness the sacrifices being given. In Psalm 50, God says that he does not get hungry, and he does not need food. The sacrifices were not to meet God’s needs, but to provide a connection between God and his people. He stated time and again that sacrifices without genuine passion, do not please him. God is not interested in ritual, but in commitment to his covenant.

When the Tabernacle and its furnishings were finished, God moved in! The glory of the Lord, the physical manifestation of God, filled the sacred tent. A cloud of smoke signaled that God was with them. All the people saw the reality of God in their daily lives because God came to dwell with them.

God’s desire is to dwell with you.

The Tabernacle lasted maybe 200 years… but God still desires to dwell with his people. The Tabernacle gives us a glimpse of God’s desire to be with his people, day in and day out. He wants to be a part of your life. He used a physical space to represent the spiritual reality that God is closer than you could even imagine.

At the beginning of this lesson, I used the example of the ubiquitous presence of a mobile phone. God wants to be as close to you as your mobile phone. He wants to assure you of his presence. He wants to hear from you. He is fully committed to you. He even paid the phone bill so you could have constant access to him. Even though culture and technology has changed drastically since the days of temples and sacred shrines. God has not changed. He wants to live with you.

Download Notes for this Lesson

Further Reading

“The Tabernacle in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context.” Prof. Michael M. Homan. The Torah – com. 2018

Parashat Terumah: The Tent of the King.” Yael Shahar. MEMORY & REDEMPTION: Reflections on Jewish life from within. 2019.

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. John Walton. 2018.

Even though culture and technology has changed drastically since the days of temples and sacred shrines. God has not changed. He wants to live with you.

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