By Luke Lancaster
The ancient Jewish people worshipped God from 1400-1000 BC in a portable tent called the “Tabernacle,” as described in Exodus 25-40. It was organized into three parts: the outer courtyard, the holy place, and the holy of holies. Think of a one-acre property with a cloth fence around the edges, within which was a two-roomed tent. The acre of property would be the outer courtyard, the first room to the tent would be the holy place, and the second room would be the holy of holies. This property and tent was God’s residence, and He resided within the holy of holies.
This Tabernacle structure recalled both Sinai and Eden. First, it was comparable to the mountain of Sinai, where God had appeared on the peak with fire and clouds to Moses (Ex. 24). The property was like the ground of Sinai, the holy place was like the halfway mark up Sinai, and the holy of holies was like the peak of Sinai. The Tabernacle was also comparable to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve had been sent out of the Garden to the East, and the entrance was blocked by a cherubim angel. The angel protected sinful mankind from entering God’s all-holy presence within the Garden (Gen. 3:8). Similarly, the entrance into the Tabernacle was from the East; there were images of cherubim angels at the entrance to the holy place, the entrance to the holy of holies veil, and above the Ark of the Covenant itself; and God dwelled within the holy of holies.
Within the outer court, or to continue the analogy, the one-acre property, there were two pieces of holy furniture: the bronze altar and the bronze basin. Only those who had been specially chosen by God, namely, the Levites, could enter into the outer courtyard. However, only those who were from the Levitical family of Aaron could touch the pieces of furniture. Whenever the Tabernacle was moved, the Levites would carry the furniture, but without touching them. This was possible because seemingly every piece of furniture had golden rings attached to them, so the Levites could put poles through the rings to carry the furniture and avoid touching it. This all emphasized the holiness of God.
1. Bronze altar (Ex. 27:1-8). Within the outer court, there was an altar of ascension or sacrifice. The altar was like a box with four horns on the top-ends. It was made from acacia wood and was plated with bronze. Within the altar was a fire that had been lit by God (Lev. 9:24). Just as God had appeared like a consuming fire on Sinai, so the fire of the altar symbolized His presence in the new Sinai (Ex. 24:17). On top of the altar was a bronze grating – and the priests would sacrifice dead animals to God by burning them on top of this grating via holy vessels. This fulfilled their duty to “till and keep” the Tabernacle (Num. 3:7-8, 8:26, 18:5-6). This was significant because those two words were commanded of Adam to do in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), indicating that the Tabernacle was a new Garden of Eden.
2. Bronze basin (Ex. 30:17-21). Next to the altar was a water bowl or laver called the bronze basin. It was comparable to a Catholic holy water fount. The Aaronic priests would cleanse their hands and feet in this basin as a ritual cleansing, for they were interacting with God’s invisible presence on His property. Because God’s presence was lethal, they had to cleanse themselves in the water to prevent themselves from dying (Ex. 30:20-21). Since the whole Tabernacle complex was God’s property, the water within the basin was called “holy water” (Num. 5:17). God was all-holy, which implied that His property and possessions were holy, so, quite naturally, the water was holy.
The furniture in the outer court was plated with the less-precious metal of bronze (where the Levites functioned), whereas the base of the holy place and holy of holies were plated with the greater metal of silver. This signified that one was getting closer to God. To further increase in sacredness, the furniture inside the holy place was plated with gold (where the priests functioned). This was incredibly close to God’s living quarters.
1. Golden menorah lamp (Ex. 25:31-40). There was a solid gold oil lamp that lit up the holy place. This lamp had six tree-like limbs, each of which had at the top of it an olive-shaped cup that was lit. The lamp reminded Israel of the tree of life, further identifying the Tabernacle as a new Eden. Every day the priest would change out the oil from the menorah lamp. The light represented God’s face, as can be seen in Aaron’s priestly prayer of Numbers 6:25, “the Lord make his face to shine upon you.” These six lights were movable, and they were directed towards a table with unleavened bread on it.
2. Golden table (Ex. 25:23-30). Across from the golden menorah lamp was a golden table that had bread and wine upon it. The table was made of acacia wood that had been overlaid with gold. There were plates on top of the table that held the bread, bowls and flagons that held the wine, and plates and dishes for incense. There were twelve unleavened cakes of bread, with each loaf weighing around five pounds, meaning that there were sixty pounds of bread on the table. The bread symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel. The priest would change out the bread every Sabbath and would eat the bread in a holy place. The menorah lights were directed towards this table, so the lights would shine upon the loaves, indicating God’s light shining on Israel (Numbers 6:25). The bread was called the “bread of the Presence” (Ex. 25:30) and was designated as an “eternal covenant” (Lev 24:9).
3. Golden altar of incense (Ex. 30:1-10). Past the menorah lamp and table was the golden altar of incense. This altar was right up against the holy of holies. Aaron the priest would offer incense upon this altar once a day. While entering in to do this, he would have an ephod over his chest with twelve stones on it. This indicated that he represented all twelve tribes of Israel. The reason he would offer incense was because of the smoke it would produce. This recalled how God had appeared to Moses under the blurry cloak of smoky clouds upon Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:15-18). The use of incense in the Tabernacle recreated God’s glorious theophany to Moses upon Sinai for all generations. Incense also blurred the priest’s vision so that he would not see all-holy God, and it also signified humanity’s ascent to God’s holy mountain of heaven. In the first century, St. John the Baptist’s dad, Zechariah, offered incense on this altar and witnessed an angel (Luke 1:9).
Holy of Holies
The holy of holies was where God dwelled as a cloud (Lev. 16:2), and the high priest alone (Aaron) could enter it. Yet he could not enter whenever he wanted, lest he died (Lev. 16:2), which was the unfortunate fate of his two sons (Lev. 10:2). He entered only once a year on the day of Atonement (Lev. 16:34; Heb. 9:7). There was only one piece of furniture within this most holy place, but it was the most important of all.
1. Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25:10-22). Within the holy of holies was a golden chest with two angel statues attached to the top. The lid or flat top of the Ark was called the mercy seat. The Ark was made of acacia wood and was plated with gold. Within the Ark was the two tablets that Moses came down Mt. Sinai with (the ten commandments), the flowered staff of Aaron the high priest, and a golden jar of the manna that came down from heaven (Heb. 9:4). This Ark was considered the holiest place, not only of the Tabernacle, but of the entire world. For just as God spoke from the peak of Sinai as a cloud, so the holy of holies was overshadowed with God’s cloud. God said, “There I will meet with you [Moses], and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Ex. 25:22).
The Tabernacle was immensely important to Israel. It housed the presence of God as a new Eden and new Sinai. Around 1000 BC, though, king Solomon ditched the goat-haired Tabernacle for the stone Temple in Jerusalem. It had the same type of furniture as the Tabernacle, though. Israel’s Tabernacle/Temple was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.
There are multiple indications in the New Testament that Jesus fulfilled the Tabernacle. For example, John 1:14 said that Jesus “tabernacled” among us. He is also hinted as being the Ark of the Covenant as well, for in John 20:12, Mary Magdalene came to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. When she entered it, she found two angels, one at the foot and one at the head. Since the Ark of the Covenant had two angels on the two ends, this would suggest that Jesus is the new Ark of the Covenant. This is implied elsewhere too, for the word used by Hebrews 9:5 for the “mercy seat” is the same word used by Paul in Romans 3:25 that called Jesus the “mercy seat” or “propitiation.”
The Ark secondarily symbolizes Mary, but that can be read about here.
Source: L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus.