The Look and Function of the Tabernacle
The only way to approach God was through the Tabernacle. It was exclusive and isolated by design. Man was allowed to approach, but not to enter God's presence.
A Perfect God dwelling with an imperfect people? There was still the "sin problem", the Tabernacle symbolized the presence of God with His people and showed that sinful people could live in the presence of a Holy God.
Looking Ahead: It would take time to prepare people for the Messiah, the final solution to the sin problem. The Tabernacle consisted of many signs pointing to and setting the stage for Jesus and His Church. Unlike Israel, we have the advantage of hindsight through the Scriptures.
Visual Symbolism: Not all visual symbols are clear. Not so, however, for the colors of the Tabernacle.
WHITE: Purity of God and of those who would live in His presence; prominent in the linen court curtains.
BLUE: Heavenly, the color of the sky and a reminder of the heavenly realm. Blue was the most used color in all the Old Testament – mentioned 50 times.
RED: Blood, symbol of the blood needed for atonement of the sins of mankind.
PURPLE: Royalty, the supremacy of God and Christ; a sign of the rich and powerful. Combine blue + red=purple... heavenly blood!
GOLD: Wealth, Power, Status.
SILVER: Redemption, 30 pieces of silver used to "buy back" the first born in Israel, (Numbers 18:15-16). Also, the cost for a ransom payment.
Visual symbolism showed the way for man to approach God, however, the Tabernacle vividly demonstrated the separation of God and man. Three areas that one had to pass in order to come into the actual presence of God. Three curtains: the gate, the tent of the Tabernacle, the veil inside the Tabernacle. Today, we see the shadow of Jesus represented in all three curtains – "The Way, the Truth, and the Light" (John 14:6).
The good news is that although we started off outside the Tabernacle, separated from God, there is a way into the outer court, a door, colorful and welcoming, beckoning one to come inside. Since we have no real photos of the gate, we will rely on artists' renditions of the tapestries throughout the temple.
Entrance: To enter the Tabernacle's outer courtyard one had to pass through the first gate, a 30 feet wide curtain, 15 feet high. The realization of what was necessary to come closer to God became readily apparent to the worshipper. The price of entry or passage inside, had to be propitiated or paid for by blood. A sacrifice had to take place for admittance to be granted.
The outer court was surrounded by a heavy, finely knit white linen curtain. Most likely "byssus", an Egyptian linen that was purest white. The color white always represented purity, and is echoed in Revelation 19:8 – "saints robed in white linen". The curtain was 100 cubits by 50 cubits by five cubits. A cubit is from the tip of the finger to the elbow, about 18 inches. Therefore, the surrounding fence or barricade of the tabernacle was 150 feet by 75 feet by 7.5 feet high. The pure white linen was a shadow of Christ. To enter inside, you had to somehow go through it. Israel was on the outside with only one way to enter.
This "curtain", or fence, was to block the view of the Tabernacle from the rest of the camp, and to remind them of their separation because of sin. It was strung on 60 pillars of brass and hung by silver hooks. Silver representing redemption, ransom, or atonement. The pillars were made of acacia or shittim wood, sometimes referred to as "iron wood". It was stronger than walnut and insect proof, covered in bronze and set into a bronze socket – bronze representing judgement. The fence was a shadow of the Church or Christians, connected by Christ and standing in judgement.
Let's take a closer look at the entry or the gate. Only a Hebrew male was allowed into the Tabernacle outer court, and even then, he could only go as far as the sacrificial altar. He had to approach it with his offerings. Something to note: previously, man was without access to God, separated by sin; yet God made it relatively easy to have fellowship with the required admission price – an animal sacrifice under the old Law, and faith in the Messiah under the new covenant... New Testament.
As mentioned before, the gate curtain was the only entry into the Tabernacle courtyard. It was made of fine linen, dyed in four prominent colors; blue, heavenly, purple, kingship, scarlet (red), ransom, and white, signifying purity or sinlessness. Its beauty invited the Hebrew men to enter. Notice that there was no gold or silver anywhere in the Tabernacle courtyard.
The gate portrayed various aspects of the "King of Kings" and "Lord or Lords". Jesus used the illustration of a shepherd and the doorkeeper.
7So Jesus said to them again, "Truly, truly I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8All those who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture."
- John 10:7-9
After passing through the gate, the first thing the Israelite would encounter was the bronze altar though sometimes referred to as a "brass" altar, this is probably incorrect. Bronze was a much stronger metal with a higher melting temperature, more suited for the sacrificial fires. Scripture sometimes names it the "brazen altar" or "altar of sacrifice", especially since that was its purpose. It stood on a raised mound of earth –higher than the surrounding furniture. The method of approach was a ramp used to get up to the altar, not stairs so no one could see under the priest's robes (Exodus 20:26).
Combining the Hebrew and Latin words used, you find its definition, "a high place for 'sacrifice' or 'slaughter'". It was made of acacia wood, overlaid with bronze, with molded horn at each corner of the altar, (horns traditionally represented power). This was also a place of refuge a guilty person, fearing for his life, could flee to for safety and await justice by hanging onto the horns (I Kings 1:50-53; II Samuel 22:3).
The altar measured 7.5 feet by 7.5 feet by 4.5 feet. It was the largest and busiest piece of Tabernacle furniture. It was used once yearly for the Day of Atonement sacrifices, morning and evening sacrifices for the Holy Place, and was open for the people's sacrifices every day.
The altar contained a bronze grate to roast sacrifices. There were bronze rings at each corner of the brazen altar. They passed poles, called staves, through the rings in order to transport the altar. These were made of shittim wood, covered in bronze.
"Altar utensils" (bronze pans, shovels, basins, flesh hooks - forks, and fire pans) used to carry coals to the incense altar inside the Tabernacle.
The fire on the altar was to burn continuously; its was to never go out or be extinguished. There were no chairs! The priest's work was never finished so they could not sit down. But Jesus, the last and once for all High Priest, atoned for all sins with His sacrifice and sat down at the right hand of God.
"but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD,"
- Hebrews 10:12
The bronze altar was:
- A place to receive redemption and forgiveness from sin through sacrifices
- A place of death
- A place for offerings
- Symbolized the sacrifice made upon the cross by Jesus Christ.
The altar was as far as the Jew could go. Past it was reserved for the priests of the Tabernacle. Between the altar and the Tent of Meeting was the bronze laver (also called the bronze basin).
The laver was made from the bronze Egyptian mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the Tabernacle (Exodus 38:8). The laver was for ceremonial and purification washing. It illustrated that nothing impure would or could get close to God.
The laver and its bronze stand, no dimensions were given for the laver and the stand, but later at Solomon's Temple, it held 16 hundred gallons of water. Called the molten sea, it was supported on the backs of 12 bronze bulls. In addition, there were 12 smaller wheeled lavers. The Tabernacle's laver was to be portable, and the Temple's permanent.
Priests bathed (immersed) their entire bodies when they were ordained. Washing with water was the first step in the consecration of a priest (Exodus 29:4; Exodus 40:12; Leviticus 8:6). They were not allowed to enter the Tabernacle or approach the bronze altar to minister without washing their hands and feet; after all, sacrifices caused lots of blood to be splashed in the area. Forgetting or ignoring this obligation was punishable by death (Exodus 30:19-21).
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to Him and praise His name.
- Psalm 100:4
Remember we said there were three gates to the Tabernacle. We looked at the first gate and how colorful and ornate it was. The closer to the Holy of Holies, the place where God would dwell, the more ornate, the more expensive, the more elaborate and beautiful the objects became.
Beyond the bronze laver, only the priests were allowed to enter the Tabernacle itself. There was a curtain serving as the second door of a section called the Holy Place. In this room, priests would perform daily chores, which we will examine shortly. This curtain served as a "barrier" not permitting those to enter in – again under the penalty of death.
The curtain was the reverse of the courtyard gate. It was twice as high and half as wide – 15 feet wide by 30 feet high. This curtain was also suspended between bronze pillars and bronze bases, similar to the courtyard fence. The curtain kept hidden from the people's view the inside of the Tabernacle's room.
The Tabernacle curtain was embellished with embroidered, not sewn, cherubim on both sides. It represented holiness through this entry. There were patterns on the Tabernacle door, the veil, and the ceiling of the sanctuary. Everywhere the priests looked reminded them that they were in a special place, much closer to God than ever before, except in Eden. More on this when we go inside the tent itself.
Cherubim is the plural of Cherub. Today, we see them displayed as cute little baby angels (like Cupid). Often portrayed as beautiful females with wings. Nowhere in the Bible are celestial beings identified as female, only male. The first cherubim were described in Genesis 3:24, guarding the entrance of the Garden of Eden.
Scripture describes cherubim much differently. Ezekiel 1:4-14 says they have the "face of a man" representing all things that encompass a human being, the mind, reason, affections, choice, etc.; the "face of a lion" king of beasts; the "face of an oxen" servant who uses its strength to serve his master; and the "face of an eagle", dignity, power and perception. Further description can be found in Revelation 4:6-7. This seems a far cry from the "cute little celestial beings" described in modern renditions.
There were no cherubim on the gate curtain. The area behind the gate was for the work of God – sacrifices, washings, ceremony, and blood but since God dwelt in the sanctuary, in the Holy of Holies, the cherubim were appropriate décor for the Tabernacle itself.
The outer sanctuary walls, called "boards", were cut from the acacia tree and covered in gold (the corruptible covered with the incorruptible). They were held together by poles and rings, making them an architecturally solid structure.
There were 20 boards on the north and south. At the rear (west end), six boards. There were five posts, wood covered in gold, on the east end where the curtain was hung.
Four horizontal wooden bars, covered in gold, passing through gold rings on the outside walls, solid bar inside to brace each wall. Two additional boards re-enforced the northwest, west, and southwest corner walls, two silver sockets for each board, weighing 125 pounds each.
These reflected Christians and the Church: Christians are separated from each other in the flesh, and from the world, but they are joined together (much like those tabernacle walls) in Christ's Church.
21in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit."
- Ephesians 2:21-22
There were four layers to the Tabernacle roof. The first layer was spun fine linen, blue, white, and red, with cherubim on both sides. There were 10 panels measuring 42 feet by six feet wide and fastened together with 100 blue loops and 50 gold rings. This formed the ceiling over the innermost sanctuary. Only a small portion of the embroidery was visible, looking up from inside the sanctuary. The embroidery hung over the external walls of the boards and because of the other layers, little of it could be seen on the outside of the Tabernacle sanctuary. The second layer of covering was made from goat hair (like mohair, as in sweaters). Goats were used for deception (Isaac with Jacob making his arm hairy; Jesus saying the sinful sitting on the left were "goats" separated from the sheep). And, of course, there was the "scape goat." This covering was made of 11 panels and it hung over the doorway, always in the sight of those in the courtyard. This reminded man that his sin was always visible. As David said, "My sin is always before me." (Psalm 51:3)
The third covering, a ram's skin dyed red, symbolizing the sacrificial animal. The red dye was to represent the bloody sacrifice of the animal and it covered the goat hair (signifying sin). As a shadow of Christ, it denotes the bloodiness that covered sins. Two rams were used for consecrating the priestly office. One was burnt, the other for consecration (Exodus 29:15-22).
The final covering of the Tabernacle was a badger skin. The Hebrew word could be dugong or manatee skin. A dugong was a seal-like animal that were plentiful at that time but are now almost extinct. The covering was the last and most exposed to the elements, so it served two purposes: to waterproof the Tabernacle and to hide the Presence of God and the valuables from the outside world. It allowed the entrance to remain visible, but completely covered the sides and the rear of the Tabernacle.