The tabernacle and the ark (Exodus 40)

The tabernacle, a portable sanctuary that served as a centre for Israelite worship until the building of Solomon’s temple, was known by various terms in Scripture. Each name highlighted an aspect of its function:

  • It was commonly known as the “sanctuary” (some translations say “dwelling”) because God had chosen to live there among His people (Exodus 25:8).
  • God held audience with them in the “Tent of Meeting” to accept their sacrifices and forgive their sin (Exodus 28:43).
  • As the “tabernacle of the Testimony”, it housed the tablets of God’s covenant with His people (Exodus 38:21).

The tabernacle’s layout and construction resembled ancient Egypt’s portable pavilions and military encampment. On Mount Sinai God had handed Moses an architectural blueprint for His transportable sanctuary (Exodus 25:9), and craftsmen gifted by the Holy Spirit executed the work precisely as specified (Exodus 31:1-11, Hebrews 8:5).

A rectangular enclosure of white linen curtains formed an outer court (Exodus 27:9 ff.) in which priests offered sacrifices on a four-horned altar of acacia wood overlaid with bronze. All accompanying utensils were fashioned of bronze, as were the laver – a bowl on a base in which the priests washed their hands and feet (Exodus 30:17-21).

The tent began as a wooden, latticework frame, allowing for easy assembly and disassembly (see Exodus 26:15-30), over which were draped multilayered coverings of finely woven blue, purple and scarlet cloth embroidered with representations of cherubim (angelic figures). A layer of goat’s hair covered by a double layer of tanned leather skins formed a protective roof/covering (Exodus 40:1-14). The completed structure was 13,7 x 3  long by 3 m high.

inside the tent were two areas separated by a veil: the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Articles of furniture graced the interior of the Holy Place. All were fashioned with rings through which poles could be fitted for transport – and for elimination of the possibility of defilement of the holy objects by human touch.

A gold-overlaid table was set with 12 loaves of bread for the priests to eat once each week to commune with God and enjoy His hospitality on Israel’s behalf (Leviticus 24:8-9). Opposite the table was a golden lampstand, the base of which branched out into seven shafts holding almond-blossom-shaped lamps. Almond blossom, petals and calyxes (the green outer whorls of flowers) ornamented each branch. The arboreal design and floral adornment of the lampstand, which was kept perpetually burning (Exodus 27:20), recalled the burning bush through which God had manifested Himself to Moses (Exodus 3:2-3). Marking the boundary of priestly ministration at the veil stood a gold-overlaid incense altar on which burned a perpetual sacrifice of aromatic incense (Exodus 3:1-10).

Separated from the Holy Place and concealed by a cherubim-embroidered veil was the Most Holy Place, the inner sanctum housing the ark of the covenant (Exodus 26:31-34). The cherubim symbolized the Garden of Eden, where such angelic creatures had been stationed to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24).

The ark, a chest of acacia wood overlaid inside and without with gold, was about 0,9 x 0,6 m long by 0,6 m high. A golden molding adorned its cover. On either end of its lid rose two cherubim crafted of beaten gold. These figures faced each other, their wings outstretched to shelter the ark as though under a canopy. The ark represented God’s footstool (1 Chronicles 28:2) and the cherubim His throne (1 Samuel 4:4, Isaiah 37:16).

Inside the ark were placed the stone tablets of the covenant (Exodus 25:21), a jar of manna (Exodus 16:33) and Aaron’s staff (Numbers 17:10). The tablets of the Law reminded the people that God would enforce the terms of His covenant with them. On the annual Day of Atonement the blood of sacrificial animals was to be sprinkled on the ark’s lid, covering the tablets defining the terms the people had transgressed (Leviticus 16:14-16, 30).

After the craftsmen had completed work on the tabernacle, God’s glory that had rested atop Mount Sinai descended to fill the sanctuary and lead Israel into the promised land (Exodus 40:34-38). The tabernacle served as a “portable Sinai” from which God continued to dwell among His people (Exodus 29:45-46).

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