Sermon on the Mount, The Emmaus View

Appendix Q: The Tabernacle, a model of heaven (Version 1.2)

The description of the Tabernacle and its furnishings (Exod 25:1-26:37) are amongst the most comprehensive in the scripture. As a place for God to dwell amongst Israel (Exod 25:8, 29:45, Lev 26:11, cf. Deut 12:5, Gen 9:27), the tabernacle could never contain God (cf. 2 Chr 6:18). However, through creating an ‘image’ according to their prevailing cosmology, the Israelites created a space on earth that contained a little bit of Heaven, rather like an embassy in a foreign land. They were not to worship graven images like the other nations, but they were to revere this sanctuary (Lev 26:1-2, cf. Deut 4:15-19, 2 Chr 6:19-21). The Tabernacle, and the temple that superseded it, were therefore modelled upon God’s heavenly abode (Heb 8:5), a perfect Tabernacle prepared from the beginning (cf. Wis 9:8-9).

According to Josephus, the Tabernacle was an imitation of the world system (Ant. 3:123). Thus, the pattern, or likeness1, given to Moses (Exod 25:9) portrays the realm of men as a poor reflection of the perfection that is Heaven (cf. 1 Cor 13:10, 12, Heb 9:11, cf. Matt 6:10). In doing so it took account of early Israel’s cultural setting. When Israel’s God defeats the chaos of the formless void with the single proclamation ‘Let there be light’ (Gen 1:3, cf. Prov 8:23-30), Genesis echoes a familiar ancient near eastern pattern, in which a deity defeats an incarnation of chaos2 in a cosmic battle that gives rise to order, in the biblical case it is the waters that take the role of chaos (later used symbolicly of the chaotic state of the nations, e.g. in Ps 124:5). When the Israelite’s God’s second utterance separates the waters of the netherworld from the heavenly waters, by imposing a firmament called ‘sky’ (Gen 1:6-8), it envisaged the three tier cosmology, characteristic of the Syria-Palestine region, with underworld, human habitat and heaven3. Such was the worldview into which the Tabernacle’s imagery spoke.

Between earth and heaven, known and the incomprehensible, lay the firmament. Supported on pillars (Job 26:11), of which the Egyptians believed there were four4. It was spread seamlessly, like gilded metal (cf. Num 16:38), and, when unyielding, its strength could be likened to a beaten metal mirror (Job 37:18, cf. Deut 28:23). However, Isaiah compares it to something more pliable, a curtain stretched out or a dwelling tent (Isa 40:22, cf. Ps 104:2). His description is apt, for the manufacture of the felt tent-cloth also involved compressing material into a seamless expanse. The Romans knew such cloth as coactilia and in addition to its use for tents they used it for raincoats5. It has also been a staple material for nomadic herdsmen, with the Kazaks of central Asia using sheep-wool felt on timber frames and the Bedouin still using black goats-hair felt supported with poles (cf. Song 1:5)6. The Tabernacle’s construction, with its portable wooden frames and clasp-linked material sections, resembled the semi-rigid structure of the Kazaks, but probably utilized a goat’s-hair felt like the Bedouin.

In keeping with the three-tier cosmos, Josephus claims that the outer sanctuary represented the domain of men, whilst the Holy of Holies mirrored God’s abode (Ant. 3:123). These two chambers were separated by a ‘firmament’ like curtain on four pillars (Exod 26:31-32). By implication, this mirroring of the cosmos meant that the Holy of Holies was, like a tabernacle within a tabernacle (Heb 9:3 in e.g. NASB95), a heaven beyond heaven that contained its own, yet more concise, imitation of the cosmos in the form of the Ark (Deut 10:14, cf. 2 Cor 12:2). Once the Tabernacle was installed within Solomon’s temple7, another level of nesting was added, so one had to pass through the heavens into the third heaven to encounter the blinding Shekinah glory (cf. 2 Cor 12:2).

The Tabernacle’s principal features and furnishing represent significant sacred features of the cosmos, but at nested levels of abstraction, as shown in the following table.

The cosmos and the nested structure of the tabernacle

In the imperfect realm of men

In the Tabernacle

In the Holy of holies

In its purest form

The uncontrollable world of living water, wilderness, consuming fire and wind.

The outer courtyard with the laver, the altar (=clean ground), the fire on the altar and the wind

A space into which men generally did not go

The realm beyond men’s control

The habitable world

The Sanctuary

The body of the ark of the covenant

The realm controlled by men

The curtain of the sky, on its four pillars

The curtain on its four pillars

The lid of the ark

A barrier between God and men

Heaven

The Holy of holies

The dwelling of God8 above the ark

God’s dwelling place of

The brazen altar used to atone for sin

The altar used on the day of atonement

The tablets of the Law

The source of divine authority

Leaders who provide bread for their people9

The twelve loaves, replaced each Sabbath and eaten by the priesthood

The pot of manna kept when Moses provided bread

The source of divine provision

The priests, lamp of the world and peace makers

The ‘tree of life’ lamp stand with its almond blossom lamp holders

Aaron’s almond rod that budded to prove his authority

The source of divine security

Philo’s view of the Tabernacle is severely metaphysical and contains few hints of the above. Despite that, he, like Josephus, considered the lamps represented the sun, moon and known planets (Ant. 3.145-146, Moses 2:102). He also relates the showbread to provision (Moses 2:104).

When Hebrews suggests that the incense altar belonged behind the veil (Heb 9:3), its author correctly assumes, that the entire second level abstraction should have lain beyond the ‘firmament’ of the veil and within the Holy of Holies. The incense altars location outside the veil was a compromise necessitated by sin (Exod 30:7, Lev 16:2, 15). On the one day when he could enter the Holy of Holies, the High Priest temporarily rectified that anomaly by carrying with him coals from that altar (Lev 16:12-13).

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1 The same word is used of for an image (e.g. Psalm 106:19-20). The commandment against constructing images at Deuteronomy 5:8 therefore cannot include this one, which was built by divine command.

2 E.g. the Sea, Tiamat, Lotan, Leviathan or Apophis.

3 Robert A. Orden, Jr, “Cosmogony, Cosmology,” ABD, 1:1162-71

4 J. Edward Wright, The Early History of Heaven, (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2000), 13-15.

5 Walter O. Moeller, The wool trade of ancient Pompeii, (London: E. J. Brill, 1976), 29.

6 John Fitchen, Building construction before mechanisation, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), 218.

7 Richard Elliott Friedman, “Tabernacle,” ABD, 6:292-300

8 Here was located the Shekinah, a word that comes from the root ‘to dwell’, see Willem A. Vangemeren, “Shekinah,” ISBE, 4:466-68

9 Joshua 14:1 (land ensured the means to produce bread), cf. Matt 14:19-21.