The Tabernacle

A makeshift sanctuary in the wilderness.

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Biblical Accuracy

There are difficulties to be faced throughout the narrative. Where, for example, did the Israelites in the wilderness find all the wood, gold, silver, and copper needed for the construction? Moreover, the measurements seem idealistic rather than practical, since it is hard to see how a real structure with these measurements could stand at all securely. Consequently, on the older critical view, the Exodus account is unhistorical, an artificial reconstruction based on Solomon's Temple. But more recent scholarship has demonstrated that a number of ancient civilizations before the wilderness period did know of similar structures so that, while some of the details may well have been added at a later date, there is no reason to deny that the Israelites in the wilderness really did have a portable Tabernacle in which they offered sacrifices.

Cassuto has noted that the pagan temple was the residence of the god, who was supplied with a throne, a table at which he ate, a candelabrum to give him light, a bed on which he slept, and a chest of drawers for his clothes. In the Israelite Tabernacle there was nothing so anthropomorphic as a bed and chest of drawers and the table was for the shewbread eaten by the priests. The menorah was not placed in the Holy of Holies since God, unlike the pagan deities, does not require any light. The Ark, containing the tablets of stone, took the place of the throne upon which the divine presence rested. Thus the Tabernacle may indeed have owed something to the pagan temples but was transformed and adapted to monotheistic religion.

Other more recent scholars have noted that the Hebrew word used for the Tabernacle is mishkan, from a root meaning "to dwell temporarily." Thus the Tabernacle, in which God resides temporally, so to speak, represents the two ideas which the philosophers refer to as transcendence and immanence. God is beyond the universe but He comes down to "tabernacle" there.

Religious Symbolism

The Tabernacle lends itself easily to symbolism of various kinds. The Rabbis of the Midrash noted the connection between the Tabernacle and the cosmos, and modern scholars have pointed out that words used in the account of the Tabernacle resemble closely the creation narrative at the beginning of the book of Genesis. The Tabernacle, on this view, was intended as symbolic of the cosmos: the innermost hanging with its decoration of cherubims representing the sky and the angels, God's messengers, and the structure itself the earth and all that is in it.

In the account itself it is stated that the purpose of the Tabernacle was for God to take up His abode among the people: "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25: 8). A later Rabbinic homily observes that the verse does not say: "that I may dwell in it but that I may dwell among them,"to denote that the purpose of the Tabernacle was not for God to reside therein but to encourage the people to make room for God in their hearts. Throughout the history of Jewish thought, holy places were seen either as containing somehow the objective presence of the divine or as sacred by association.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.