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Overview of Tabernacle of Moses


GENERAL: The tabernacle of Moses was the temporary place of worship that the Israelites built according to God's specifications while wandering the desert and used until King Solomon built a temple. The word tabernacle is a translation of the Hebrew mishkan, which means "dwelling-place." The Feast of Tabernacles commemorates this time of wandering before the Israelites entered the land of Canaan.

The overall shape of the tabernacle of Moses followed traditional structures of the time. It consisted of an outer court, approximately seventy-five feet wide by one hundred and fifty feet long, with a fifteen-foot by forty-five-foot structure in the back (Ex. 27:9-19). The court walls consisted of linen curtains attached by bronze hooks to a series of pillars. The pillars were supported on the bottom by bronze sockets and possibly held in place with rope that attached to bronze rings. The gate, always facing east, was about thirty feet of blue, purple, and scarlet woven into a curtain of linen. The altar of burnt offering and the bronze laver that the priests purified themselves in sat in the courtyard.

The actual tabernacle of Moses sat in the back of the courtyard (Ex. 26). The sides and back were made of gold-covered acacia boards, about twenty-eight inches wide and fifteen feet high. Each board had two tenons, projections, which fit into silver sockets. Gold rings held five bars that ran the length of the boards, holding them tight. The east side was comprised of five pillars covered with a screen similar to that for the courtyard.

The tent was divided into two rooms: the Holy Place, where the table of showbread, the golden lampstand, and the altar of incense sat; and the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was placed. The rooms were separated by a veil, similar to the entry screen, embroidered with cherubim and hung from four gold-covered acacia posts by gold clasps.

The exact shape of the tabernacle of Moses is unclear. It may have been a room with a slant-sided cover, somewhat like a rain fly. We do know it was covered in layers: fine linen, a fabric made of goat's hair, a covering of rams' skins, and a final layer of an undetermined, waterproof hide. The linen covered the entire tent, the panels connected by latching loops into gold clasps. The curtain of goat's hair was connected with bronze clasps and hung over the sides and back of the structure.

Although the tabernacle was heavy and had many parts, it was surprisingly portable. Priests carried the Ark and the altars on their shoulders, but the rest fit in ox-drawn carts.

The purpose of the tabernacle of Moses was to provide a place where the people could properly worship God. Priests sacrificed animals on the altar in the outer court. The bread of the presence, the continually burning lampstand, and the offering of incense were all in the Holy Place. And once a year, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies as part of the ceremony of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). At no other time was anyone to enter the Holy of Holies, as the presence of God dwelt with the Ark of the Covenant. When Jesus was crucified, the veil between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in the temple ripped from top to bottom (Mt. 27:51). Just as He fulfilled for all time the sacrificial requirements, He ushered us into the presence of God.

ARK OF THE COVENANT: God made a covenant (a conditional covenant) with the children of Israel through His servant Moses. He promised good to them and their children for generations if they obeyed Him and His laws; but He always warned of despair, punishment, and dispersion if they were to disobey. As a sign of His covenant He had the Israelites make a box according to His own design, in which to place the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. This box, or chest, was called an "ark" and was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. The Ark was to be housed in the inner sanctum of the tabernacle in the desert and eventually in the Temple when it was built in Jerusalem. This chest is known as the Ark of the Covenant.

The real significance of the Ark of the Covenant was what took place involving the lid of the box, known as the "Mercy Seat." The term 'mercy seat' comes from a Hebrew word meaning "to cover, placate, appease, cleanse, cancel or make atonement for." It was here that the high priest, only once a year (Leviticus 16), entered the Holy of Holies where the Ark was kept and atoned for his sins and the sins of the Israelites. The priest sprinkled blood of a sacrificed animal onto the Mercy Seat to appease the wrath and anger of God for past sins committed. This was the only place in the world where this atonement could take place.

THE MERCY SEAT: The Mercy Seat on the Ark was a symbolic foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice for all sin-the blood of Christ shed on the cross for the remission of sins. The Apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and one familiar with the Old Testament, knew this concept quite well when he wrote about Christ being our covering for sin in Romans 3:24-25: "...and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith." Just as there was only one place for atonement of sins in the Old Testament-the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant-so there is also only one place for atonement in the New Testament and current times-the cross of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we no longer look to the Ark but to the Lord Jesus Himself as the propitiation and atonement for our sins.

The writer to the Hebrews talks about the arrangement of the tabernacle of the Old Testament. The tabernacle was the portable sanctuary used by the Israelites from the time of their wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt to the building of the temple in Jerusalem (see Exodus 25-27). Within the tabernacle was the ark of the covenant which included the mercy seat (Hebrews 9:3-5 NKJV). What is the significance of this? In the New Testament, Christ Himself is designated as our "propitiation." Paul explains this in his letter to the Romans: "Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed" (Romans 3:24-25 NKJV). What Paul is teaching here is that Jesus is the covering for sin, as shown by these Old Testament prophetic images. By means of His death, and our response to Christ through our faith in Him, all our sins are covered. Also, whenever believers sin, we may turn to Christ who continues to be the propitiation or covering for our sins (1 John 2:1, 4:10). This ties together the Old and New Testament concepts regarding the covering of sin as exemplified by the mercy-seat of God.

BEZALEL AND OHOLIAB: Bezalel and Oholiab were two men God chose to aid in the construction of the tabernacle, the holy tent where God dwelled in the midst of His people. Many craftsmen would be needed for this work, and in Exodus 31:2-6 God tells Moses that He had given many men the skills they would need to bring His plans for the tabernacle to fruition. Two of these men God mentions by name: Bezalel from the tribe of Judah and Oholiab from the tribe of Dan. Bezalel in particular was filled with God's Spirit (verses 31:2-3), a rare occurrence in Old Testament times. God's Spirit empowered Bezalel and Oholiab with talent and intelligence, giving them the ability to work in every kind of crafting, including woodwork, stonework, metalwork, engraving, embroidery, and weaving. The Spirit's empowering gave Bezalel and Oholiab skill to work with the raw materials and to form the artistic designs (Exodus 31:4-5; 35:30-32, 35). Bezalel himself constructed the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 37:1). In addition, God inspired both Bezalel and Oholiab to teach all the other craftsmen who had been given special skill by God. Together, led and aided by Bezalel and Oholiab, the craftsmen were able to complete the tabernacle according to God's specifications (Exodus 36:8-39:43). The story of Bezalel and Oholiab shows us that God cares about aesthetics; He is a God of beauty and design. Fine craftsmanship and skill in various artistic endeavors is a gift from God. Bezalel and Oholiab should encourage Christian artists today to create works of art for the glory of God.