Tabernacle, the ancient Israelite Sanctuary

     According to the Hebrew Bible, Tabernacle (Hebew Mishkan [i])  was the earthly meeting place of Yahweh with Israelites during their journey to Canaan.  As their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai ended, the Jews prepared to set off to journey towards the promised land. Tabernacle was offered to them as a portable Sinai and hence the mountaintop experience of Yehweh’s presence moved with them [ii]. It was an ornate sanctuary that housed the Ark of Covenant [iii]. Jews gathered here for religious offerings and rituals to purge the impurities for Yahweh may dwell amidst them [iv], and also to purge the Israelites from impurities to make them acceptable in Yehweh’s sight.


      Structured in the image of God’s cosmic design [v], Tabernacle was divided into zones of holiness (Hebrews 9:24, 23). The Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, and the courtyard. The Holy Place was a larger outer chamber entered by the ordinary priests as the representatives of the people of Israel to conduct the rituals in God’s honour, while the Holy of Holies was an inner room entered by the high priests alone. Outside the tabernacle was a courtyard where everyone was allowed to enter. [vi]

     Each zone was separated with a series of enclosures that represented closeness to Yehweh’s presence. So did the furnishing. Outside in the courtyard, all of the elements were made of bronze while inside the tabernacle tent, close to God, all the furnishings were made of precious gold. People with the Tazaraat skin (disfigurative conditions of the skin, hair of the beard and head, referred to in chapters 13–14 of Leviticus) affliction were not permitted to enter the tabernacle.

     During the Israelites’ travels, God’s symbolised His presence in the form of cloud above the Tabernacle. Whenever the cloud of God’s presence lifted from above the Tabernacle, they packed up camp following strict set of rules for the carriage of the Tabernacle. Levites were the only ones in charge of taking the Tabernacle down and re-erecting it at each stop, along with its furnishings and equipment. Anyone else who came too close to the Tabernacle was executed.

     When Israelites entered Canaan, Tabernacle was established semi-permanently at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1). Later during King David’s rule, the recaptured Ark of the Covenant was transferred to a tent-shrine in his new capital Jersusalem (2 Samuel 6), while the other main elements of the Tabernacle were also incorporated into Solomon’s Temple of Jerusalem, the newly built permanent temple that replaced the role of the Tabernacle. Synagogues in the past two centuries are said to be constructed on the sacred pattern of original Tabernacle.

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[i] The Hebrew word mishkan is related to the word to “dwell,” “rest,” or “to live in.” The Bible describes God descending in/as a cloud over the Tabernacle to speak with Moses or otherwise be present to the Israelites. The word mishkan is also related to the presence of God as the Shekhina, which rested within this divinely ordained structure and is also endorsed upon the pious Jews regardless of where they are.

[ii] See: Exodus 40:38 and Lev 9:23. The mystic connection between Sinai and the tabernacle has been recognized in Hebrew literature. See: Manuel Oliva, “Interpretación teológica del culto en la pericopa del Sinai de la Historia Sacerdotal,” Bib 49 (1968): 345-354. Cf. also Ronald de Vaux, “Ark of the Covenant and Tent of Reunion,” in The Bible and the Ancient Near East (New York, 1971), p.146; and Victor P. Hamilton, ” (shãkan) dwell, tabernacle,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris (Chicago, 1980), 2: 926.

[ii] It was a gold-covered wooden chest containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, while according to various texts within the Hebrew Bible, it also contained Aaron’s rod.

[iv] Exodus 25:8. The Hebrew verb sakan translated as “dwell” in this verse literally means “to tabernacle, to encamp”. See Frank M. Cross, Jr., “The Priestly Tabernacle,” BAR 1 (1961): 224-226; cf. W. Michaelis, “skene,” TDNT 7: 369-372.

[v] See: Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World (New York, 1978), pp. 172-173. We find the same concept in the Canaanite religion, see: E. Theodore Mullen, The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature (Chico, Calif., 1980), pp. 169- 170; and Richard J. Clifford,” The Tent of El and the Israelite Tent of Meeting,” CBQ 33 (1971):221-227.

[vi]  Knight, p. 159, states that “Moses enters into the mystery, just as does the High Priest in later days, when he enters the Holy Place in the Temple.” G. Henton Davies, “Tabernacle,” ZDB 4: 503-504; Jacob Milgrom says Mount Sinai “is the archetype of the tabernacle.” Studies in Leoitical Terminology 1 (Los Angeles, 1970): 44-46.


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