We only think we know what the “presence” of God means.
The most intense experiences we have now are moments of high emotion. Stirred by a bit of music, a large crowd, a feeling we derive from our connectedness to our country or a group of people — these things can make our emotion swell up to a powerful flood inside us. In stirring religious services, people experience this feeling and use terms for it as if the “presence of God” was real.
Such experiences are part of being human but they are not the presence of God in any way beyond what is normal every day and in every place. These are really emotional highs that can help us imagine what it might be like if the Presence were to appear near us. They may simulate the Presence, but they are not the Presence. In fact, people have a similar experience in a patriotic ceremony which has no intention of bringing down the manifestation of God’s nearness.
There are no places on earth today like the tabernacle in the wilderness period of Israel’s existence. Neither are there buildings today with the same potent visitation of God’s being inside them as Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. As far as tents go, or buildings for that matter, we have many more grand examples than the tiny wilderness tent and even Solomon’s temple — as extraordinary as it was in those days — would be a small religious shrine by modern standards.
But we can only imagine what it would be like to see them. If we could stand in the Sinai desert, with its bleak and desolate landscape, and see the colorful tent with cloud-encased fire rising above it, our hair would stand on end. With elevated heartbeat and a feeling of complete abandonment to something greater than ourselves, we would experience wonder as if it were the first time.
Similarly, if we could at a later period in Israel’s history join the crowds who camped for a mile radius around the temple, the smell of grilling meat in the air and a festive atmosphere with palm branches and songs, we would stand amazed to peer on the limestone blocks and know that inside was the Presence of the Almighty. Just to get close to it would be euphoric.
No synagogue or church or mosque can convey the grandeur of God’s Presence like the real thing. Religion in our time is a mere shadow of the real Presence that was at one time.
Offering of Tabernacle materials (1-8), the pattern from heaven (9), the Ark (10-16).
We know of ancient tents used for warfare and even for use as portable shrines (James Hoffmeier, Israel in the Wilderness), Carol Myers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) references a particularly striking parallel which also has a red leather outer covering (compare Exod 26:14). Nahum Sarna (JPS Commentary) discusses Sumerian and Egyptian texts which relate the building plans for a temple to divine inspiration. Similarly, the literature of the period connects the physical structure of a temple to the world, making the shrine a microcosm of creation (John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One). Elements of a sanctuary such as basins (the seas), pillars (like those thought to uphold the world), ceilings (the heavens), and pavements (the ground) functioned as symbols connecting the sanctuary to the larger world.
The Tabernacle narrative here in Exodus comes in precisely seven sections, which is clearly no accident and follows a regular pattern in the book of the use of the number seven (Cassuto’s commentary is filled with examples). Each section begins with “Adonai said to Moses” (25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12). In an obvious parallel to the Genesis 1:1-2:3 creation account (the Priestly version of creation), the first six have to do with gathering material and building and the seventh is about the Sabbath (Cassuto). The Tabernacle service is also inaugurated on the first day of the year (40:17), suggesting newness and Creation. In fact, the entire tabernacle narrative in Exodus is from the same P source (Priestly) as Genesis 1:1-2:3.
The priests, from whom this narrative derives, give a potent statement of their theology in vs. 8, וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ ve’asu li miqdash, “Let them make for me a sanctuary.” The word “sanctuary” is from the root “holy, sacred,” and means something designated for divine purpose that may not be used in a common manner. It belongs partially to the other realm, where God is, and any violation of it is an offense against the majesty of the deity. וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם veshachanti betōcham, “That I may dwell in their midst.” God desires to indwell the nation of Israel. They will be a people who live with God among them. In Leviticus 26:11-13 (also from the P source) we read more about the meaning of God dwelling in the midst of the nation. The Presence in Israel’s midst is a sign of a strong relationship between the people and God. The Presence means favor and protection.
Furthermore, the design of this tabernacle is said in vs. 9 to be revealed from a pattern in heaven. That is, there is a correspondence between the tabernacle on earth and a reality in the other realm. In a symbolic sense, the elements and articles of the tabernacle represent heavenly realities.
The first example is the Ark of the covenant, a chest containing the symbols of God’s covenant with Israel, signs of his dwelling among them. The Ark is God’s footstool (Psa 99:5; 132:7-8; 1 Chr 28:2) and his invisible throne floats above it. Kings on their high thrones needed a footstool since their feet would not touch the ground. The Ark is the meeting place between heaven and earth for God’s Presence, the place where his feet touch.
Cassuto notes, and we will consider throughout, that the Tabernacle instructions are not building plans, but accounts intended for later readers to enjoy the meaning and even numerical symmetry of the sanctuary. The instructions are not detailed enough to reconstruct a Tabernacle. God showed Moses visually what to do. What is written is here to communicate holiness and symmetry, not to enable us to build a Tabernacle of our own. There are indications, expanded later in Chronicles (1 Chr 28:19) and Ezekiel (compare the chariot in Ezekiel and the Ark cover), that the Tabernacle is an earthly pattern of the heavenly temple. The Babylonians thought the same of their Esagila temple to Marduk.
God’s instruction to his people is culture-bound. A skeptic might easily and with some justification say, “The Torah is just human writing making divine things out of cultural elements of the day.” A religious fundamentalist might say, “Historians have it backwards; biblical practices came first and were copied by other cultures.” But another reading might go as follows: “God revealed his ways to human beings where they were at the time, using the cultural elements familiar to them and enduing them with transcendent meaning.”
Sphinxes predate the Bible. The word for a sphinx in Assyria is the exact cognate of the word in Hebrew: כְּרוּב keiruv (Hebrew), karibu (Assyrian, also known as lamassu or shedu). They are creatures of imagination, liminal beings, existing between this realm and the one beyond. Their earthly depictions combine human and animal body parts, such as the front body of a lion, rear body of an ox, wings of an eagle, and head of a man.
In the Bible, sphinxes (cherubim, the plural of cherub) kept watch over the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24) as well as the Ark and Holy of Holies. They are another symbol inducing awe and communicating to us the liminality of the tabernacle (its position between two worlds, divine and human).
Examples of the dual nature of the Bible abound. To read the Bible as a divine book filled with magical words is as much an error as to read it as a purely human invention.
The Ark cover (17-20), there I will meet you (21-22), the Table of the Bread of the Presence (23-30).
Why doesn’t Torah specify what cherubim look like? This is because it was already well-known. They are winged creatures with four faces (man, lion, ox, eagle) according to Ezekiel. They are similar to the sphinxes of Egypt and Assyria (also called kuribu, often human headed lions or bulls or various other mixtures).
The cherubim on the Ark cover might bring to mind those that guarded the Garden in Eden (Gen 3:24), another link between the Creation narratives and the Tabernacle. They look down toward the Ark cover and do not gaze on God’s Presence. They guard his Presence and the tablets within.
The translation “mercy seat” is a misunderstanding based on the name in Hebrew (kapporet) which is from the same root as “atone” or “cleanse” (kipper). Yet kapporet is based on the Qal form, which means “cover,” not the Piel form, which means “cleanse.” The “mercy seat” translation had further evidence since the high priest would sprinkle the blood on the Ark cover at Yom Kippur. Yet there is nothing about the word kapporet that suggests mercy, only covering. The Ark was God’s footstool and his invisible throne was above it (c.f., 1 Sam 4:4 “enthroned above the cherubim,” 2 Sam 6:2; 1 Chr 13:6).
The Table of the Bread of the Presence held twelve loaves of bread which were replaced every week by the priests. In some Near Eastern temples, such a table would represent the people feeding the deity. In Israel, the priests ate the bread and there was not pretense of God eating it. The perpetual presence of bread in the tabernacle symbolized something else, the covenant of bread between God and Israel, since provision of rain in the land meant a supply of bread for the people, which was one of the main promises of the covenant (see Lev 26 and Deut 28).
EXODUS 25:31 – 26:14
By ancient standards, the wilderness tabernacle was a costly and embellished shrine even if it was small compared to many urban temples. From the descriptions of its elaborate ornamentation, we can only imagine what a spectacle it was to simple desert dwelling people such as the Israelites who escaped forced labor in Egypt.
The splendor of the tent of meeting is no accident. All of the symbolism of the tabernacle was intended to communicate otherworldliness, that this was a place at the boundary, the very threshold of the Beyond.
The gold-covered menorah, made according the best standards of metal technology of the time (see Carol Meyers, Tabernacle Menorah, 1975) must have been a dazzling spectacle when fully lit in the outer chamber of the shrine. We can’t imagine what it would be like to see God, but a place so adorned conveys a semblance of grandeur and awe.
This is why in Judaism there is a value placed on beautifying the commandments, a custom known as hiddur mitzvah. A white tablecloth. Silver candlesticks. Two perfect lights in the center of a table. Wine in an exquisite cup next to a fresh loaf covered with an embroidered cloth. The Sabbath table is an example of hiddur mitzvah, where at least a little finery every Friday is put out to create an environment that seems supernal and feels more glorious than an ordinary mealtime.
Beauty and light direct out thoughts to God. Some objects help us to enter his world in our thoughts and feel his gladness around us.
The Menorah (31-40), the Tabernacle coverings (26:1-14).
Composite lamps with multiple wicks, even commonly seven, are known from the ancient Middle East. The idea of putting lamps on a stand is also well-known. What is unique about the Menorah is its costliness, a talent of pure gold (3,000 shekels or about 75 lbs, Exod 38:25-26), and its exquisite workmanship.
No lampstand this elaborate in any metal has been found. Sarna notes that the terminology for the design of the Menorah is Egyptian (where tree-like columns and plant decorations were used). Cassuto points out that no one can reconstruct or picture the original Menorah accurately. The description here is obscure and imprecise. The image from the Arch of Titus in Rome and in Josephus is what the Second Temple Menorah looked like, not the original one.
James Hoffmeier (Ancient Israel in Sinai), citing Carol Meyers, points out evidence the menorah and its oil-holding cups are Egyptian in design. Meyers (Tabernacle Menorah, 1975) showed that there were examples from the Bronze Age of nomadic people who excelled in metal craft and that the terminology used of the menorah is Egyptian.
The Tabernacle descriptions are not blueprints enabling later generations to build, but exist instead to show the holiness of worship. The four layers of the Tabernacle are, from inside to outside, linen, goat hair, ram skin, and a kind of leather thought by some to be from seals or dolphins (dugongs and dolphins live in the Red Sea).
There was a place on earth, for a short season compared to the whole of human history, where the Presence of God was concentrated in the midst of the people, Israel.
Simple articles, planks fashioned artfully from the twisted wood of the desert acacia tree, formed a space on earth at the boundary between this realm and the Other. The Creator permitted his Manifestation to be enshrined in the very articles of his own making. Israel’s artisans and builders joined with God, sub creators creating with what God had already made, a sacred space.
Will we again at some future point reside in such nearness to his Presence? Can we imagine? Do we know really what it would be like to have God so potently among us? How would life be different if we imagined it?
The wooden planks (or frames) of the Tabernacle (15-30).
The tabernacle instructions are written from the point of view of someone living in the land of Canaan/Israel. This is surprising because in the narrative, it is supposed to be as if they were given in the Sinai wilderness. But the language of the text betrays its actual situation and location in time and place. In vs. 22, we read that the rear-facing portion of the shrine should point “toward the sea,” but most translations simply say “west.” If the instructions were written in the Sinai peninsula, “toward the sea” would be “north,” but we know the meaning is “west” because of the theme (which will also show up regarding Solomon’s temple built in Jerusalem) that west is the holy direction (away from the sun). It is the same language used throughout the Hebrew Bible and means west, because in Canaan/Israel the sea is to the west. The directional words in Hebrew are from the point of view of Canaan (south is “Negev,” the desert, and north is “Zaphon,” a mountain in Syria). This is yet another indicator that much of what is written in Torah comes from a later time than that of Moses.
We can’t be sure of the design of the planks described in vss. 15-30, but it seems each one would be 15 feet long and 2.3 feet wide. No thickness is mentioned. More important than exact dimensions are the numbers. The Tabernacle would consist of seventy cubits worth of plank/frame sections (the last ten cubits on the east side were open), with thirty cubits north and south and ten west. The total number of pedestals, counting the four in vs. 32, is one hundred. These numbers, seventy and one hundred, are an ideal, a pattern communicating completeness and symmetry.
Richard Friedman (Who Wrote the Bible?) has an intriguing theory about the dimensions of the tabernacle’s footprint. If the planks were placed in an overlapping manner instead of flush with each other, the width would have been only six to eight cubits (nine to twelve feet) instead of the often assumed ten cubits (fifteen feet). Friedman documents evidence in the Hebrew Bible that in Solomon’s time, the wilderness tabernacle was placed under the wings of the large cherub statues in the Holy of Holies (1 Kgs 8:4; 2 Chr 5:5).
We can be close, but not too close. He draws near, but not too near.
For a little over six centuries, a relatively small period in the history of humanity, God’s Presence resided powerfully in the tabernacle and then first temple of the Israelites. The tabernacle was built probably in the 1200’s BCE (depending on when we date the Exodus) and continued in one place or another until Solomon’s temple was built in the 900’s. The Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BCE. We have no description of a similar theophany in the second temple, built about 516 BCE and destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans.
God’s Presence, still in the form of a cloud encased fire (Lev 16:2), which was above the Ark in the Holy of Holies, was close, but not too close. From the outside, the people could see the tent and its coverings. God’s Presence was inside the inner room of the tent, the room called the Holy of Holies (traditionally) or the Most Holy Place (קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים qōdesh haqōdashim). During the wilderness period, but only during that period, God continued to manifest himself outside of the tent, appearing in front of or before it in the pillar of cloud-encased fire. This was because of his promise to lead the people into Canaan. After that, God’s Presence was hidden in the inner shrine.
Who is God that he can mediate his Presence to us in more or less powerful emanations, but whose Presence can easily be fatal to us? It seems our speculation about him is almost always too small. The intensity of his Being is beyond our ability to imagine. Words like “mystery” and “infinite” are the best we can do to describe his Being.
We are not ready to be in his Presence. The priests could come nearer when they were doing their designated work. The high priest could, at least sometimes, come into the Holy of Holies, again because he was doing as God commanded. Moses could bear more of the intensity of God’s Presence than anyone.
It seems that God came near during this short period in history to create a desire in us. There is a longing that we can acquire to experience God in a more tangible and direct way, to commune with the Creator and understand mysteries. But for now, as it was in the tabernacle and first temple, God’s Being is hidden from us and our access is limited. There is a veil between us and supernatural beings like the cherubim stand between us and God.
His temple, that is the tangible thing which allows us the closest approach to him, is found in three things, according to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (God in Search of Man). The three surest ways into his Presence are Nature, Deeds of Lovingkindness, and the Bible.
The veil/curtain for the Holy of Holies (31-35), the screen for the entrance to the Holy Place (36-37).
Two-thirds of the space inside the tent that was the Tabernacle was the Holy Place, where the menorah, table of the bread of the presence, and incense altar stood. The final third of the space was separated by a parokhet (veil or curtain) of fine weaving — blue, purple, and scarlet with designs of the cherubim woven into the pattern. This inner curtain is elsewhere called the “veil of the screen” (parokhet hamasakh) and it hung on gold-covered pillars with hooks of pure gold. By contrast, the curtain at the entrance to the tent-Tabernacle was simply a screen (masakh) of lesser weave called “embroidery,” of the same colors of yarn, but without the pattern of cherubim woven into it.
The description here also clarifies the location of the various pieces of Tabernacle furniture: the Ark and cover with cherubim inside the veil, the menorah on the south or left side, the table on the north or right side, and the altar of incense at the back of the Holy Place to the west (the entrance was on the east side). The entire arrangement communicated the concealment of God, behind a veil because even the strong emanation of his Direct Being is unbearable to mortals, and at the same time the desire of God to draw his people near and to create a desire for even greater access.
Seven and a half feet across, four and half feet high, the acacia wood altar of the tabernacle, covered in bronze, would have required steps for the priests to ascend and descend. It was a hollow frame and animal carcasses were burnt on earth and stone piled up in its center. This was the place where Israel’s daily work of atonement was carried out.
The first and last offering of the day were made here, morning and evening, a perpetual offering or tamid. The ashes of the evening offering were left smoldering through the night and, theoretically at least, the fire never went out. God himself will ignite the flame in Leviticus 9 from the fire of his manifestation to the people. The Torah gives Israel a system of purity laws, which are not to be confused with moral commandments. Any time an Israelite is impure, there are prescribed measures such as bathing or laundering clothes. Whenever someone does not immediately follow the purification rituals, their impurity travels like air pollution and pollutes the altar of burnt offering.
This wood and bronze altar with its “horns” is the place where purification must happen continually. As a result of the offerings made here and the blood which cleanses like ritual detergent, the whole shrine is kept as a place free from human death (which is what the purity laws of Leviticus symbolize). It is an ideal place, a zone on earth where God and humans meet and one that holds forth a possibility of a greater reality with God, one where death has lost its sting and God wipes the tears away from all faces.
The altar of burnt offering.
Before the altar of burnt offering was built, the Israelites gave offerings on an earthen altar (20:24-25). In reality, there is still an altar of earth and stone in the center of this new bronze frame of the altar of burnt offering. It is a hollow frame, and the animal parts were burnt on stone piled in the hollow center (Sarna, JPS Commentary). The bronze frame beautifies the altar and also provides horns (triangular projections up from the corners) according to custom.
The design of the altar in the tabernacle was not unlike many of the horned altars found in Canaan, like those used by other peoples of the ancient Near East. An altar found at Arad, for example, is the exact dimension of the one described in Exodus (7.5 feet across and 4.5 feet high). Visitors to Megiddo today can see a Canaanite horned altar made of stone. In Israel the horns of the altar were used as a place to daub sacrificial blood. By custom, people seeking sanctuary from being killed would grab the horns of the altar (see 1 Kgs 1:50).
The altar of burnt offerings was the daily sacred place attended to by the Israelites, where most of the atonement rituals took place. The first and last sacrifice of the day were carried out here and the ashes of the evening offering were left burning overnight. According to Leviticus, whenever any the people at any place in the wilderness or the land became impure, if they did not undertake the prescribed purification rituals, their impurity traveled like air pollution to the altar of burnt offering. The blood of offerings was like ritual detergent washing way this pollution. The altar was the place where Israel kept the tabernacle (and later the temple) clean in a daily basis from the pollution of both ritual impurity and moral wrongdoing. It was the primary place for atonement.
How do you build a sacred enclosure in the culture and with the technology of ancient Israel in the wilderness? You build it high, and a seven and half feet (well over two meters). A tall fence is impressive to begin with and communicates something about the value of the space inside. Part of the message at the tabernacle is that drawing near to God will require entering into this designated space.
The greatest nearness an Israelite could have to God was in the act of bringing an offering to the altar inside the courtyard, and standing between the altar and the tent shrine. Men, women, and foreigners were welcome to come (Num 15).
You would make the enclosure from expensive materials, even though this is not the most potent part of the shrine, but only its boundary. Its pillars were set in bases of copper or bronze and banded with silver. The fence itself was fine, white linen. This was the color of priestly service (the priests wore white linen) and communicated a sort of purity in the bright desert sun that must have been spectacular to see. The gate area was even more impressive, with a large tapestry of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen, done in embroidery.
This was the boundary between the ordinary and extraordinary space. God established inside a temporary place which was between worlds, where the rules changed, where mortals approached deity. Visitors today to Shiloh can see a rectangle of stones outlining the place where the tabernacle came to a more permanent rest for a period in Israel’s history. But the enclosure is no longer sacred. Its stones are a reminder of something that once was but now is lost to us.
Our souls, whether we know it or not, yearn to be near to the divine, to approach the mystery and encounter the essence of all existence. We would find in such a place a oneness with Being, perhaps not a logical answer to the meaning of all meaning, but at least an experience that confirms to us there is an answer and we are not random. It is something we seek in the experiences of life. The tabernacle is one piece of Torah that assures us, God does at times bring people to such a place. And it gives us hope he will again.
The courtyard (9-17), summary (18-19).
Numbers in the Bible are used both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In some parts of Torah words are used seven times or in multiples of seven. Occasionally sentences will have exactly seven or fourteen words. The numerology of the tabernacle courtyard is more of the plain to see variety. There are sixty pillars in all covering 300 cubits (60 X 5). The numbers ten and six are both important in the numerical harmony, as Cassuto demonstrates in his commentary. In Mesopotamia and surrounding cultures, six was very important and formed the basis of what Cassuto calls the “sexagesimal system.” It has shown up in many ways in Torah, such as in the ages of the patriarchs. Ten, of course is always an important round number in any numbering system because we have ten fingers.
The sixty pillars and three hundred cubits are about symmetry and numerical harmony. The tabernacle is ideal space, a liminal area (at the boundary between this realm and beyond), made with expensive materials and with mathematical balance. As for size, the courtyard was not large by modern standards: 150 by 75 feet (46 by 23 meters).
The fence was made of white linen hangings, seven and a half feet high (over two meters). This height was such that passers by could not see over it from level ground. It was a sacred enclosure, and white linen is the color of priestly service. There was an evident message that drawing near to God required coming inside.
Though it is not stated, Cassuto and others theorize that the Tabernacle would be located within the enclosure so that the entrance would be on the center line of the courtyard. If so, the Ark would be in the exact center of the back half and the altar of burnt offering on the center of the front half (think of two 50 X 50 cubit squares with the Ark and altar on the center of each square).