Tabernacle, A

See also Tabernacle

(’ohel mo`edh "tent of meeting," mishkan, "dwelling"; skene):



1. Earlier "Tent of Meeting"

2. A Stage in Revelation

3. The Tabernacle Proper


1. The Enclosure or Court

2. Structure, Divisions and Furniture of the Tabernacle

(1) Coverings of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1-14; 36:8-19)

(a) Tabernacle Covering Proper

(b) Tent Covering

(c) Protective Covering

(2) Framework and Divisions of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:15-37; 36:20-38)

Arrangement of Coverings

(3) Furniture of the Sanctuary

(a) The Table of Shewbread

(b) The Candlestick (Lampstand)

(c) The Altar of Incense


1. Removal from Sinai

2. Sojourn at Kadesh

3. Settlement in Canaan

4. Destruction of Shiloh

5. Delocalization of Worship

6. Nob and Gibeon

7. Restoration of the Ark

8. The Two Tabernacles


1. New Testament References

2. God’s Dwelling with Man

3. Symbolism of Furniture


I. Introductory.

Altars sacred to Yahweh were earlier than sacred buildings. Abraham built such detached altars at the Terebinth of Moreh (Ge 12:6,7), and again between Beth-el and Ai (Ge 12:8). Though he built altars in more places than one, his conception of God was already monotheistic. The "Judge of all the earth" (Ge 18:25) was no tribal deity. This monotheistic ideal was embodied and proclaimed in the tabernacle and in the subsequent temples of which the tabernacle was the prototype.

1. Earlier "Tent of Meeting":

2. A Stage in Revelation:

No doubt this localization of the shrine of Yahweh afforded occasion for a possible misconception of Yahweh as a tribal Deity. We must remember that here and throughout we have to do with the education of a people whose instincts and surroundings were by no means monotheistic. It was necessary that their education should begin with some sort of concession to existing ideas. They were not yet, nor for long afterward, capable of the conception of a God who dwelleth not in temples made with hands. So an altar and a tent were given them; but in the fact that this habitation of God was not fixed to one spot, but was removed from place to place in the nomad life of the Israelites, they had a persistent education leading them away from the idea of local and tribal deities.

3. The Tabernacle Proper:

The tabernacle proper is that of which the account is given in Ex 25-27; 30-31; 35-40, with additional details in Nu 3:25 ff; 4:4 ff; 7:1 ff. The central idea of the structure is given in the words, "Make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them" (Ex 25:8). It was the dwelling-place of the holy Yahweh in the midst of His people; also the place of His "meeting" with them (Ex 25:22). The first of these ideas is expressed in the name mishkan; the second in the name ’ohel mo`edh (it is a puzzling fact for the critics that in Ex 25-27:19 only mishkan is used; in Exodus 28-31 only ’ohel mo`edh; in other sections the names intermingle). The tabernacle was built as became such a structure, according to the "pattern" shown to Moses in the mount (25:9,40; 26:30; compare Ac 7:44; Heb 8:2,5). The modern critical school regards this whole description of the tabernacle as an "ideal" construction--a projection backward by post-exilian imagination of the ideas and dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, the measurements of the latter being throughout halved. Against this violent assumption, however, many things speak. See below under B.

II. Structure.

The ground plan of the Mosaic tabernacle (with its divisions, courts, furniture, etc.) can be made out with reasonable certainty. As respects the actual construction, knotty problems remain, in regard to which the most diverse opinions prevail. Doubt rests also on the precise measurement by cubits (see Cubit; for a special theory, see W. S. Caldecott, The Tabernacle; Its History and Structure). For simplification the cubit is taken in this article as roughly equivalent to 18 inches.

A first weighty question relates to the shape of the tabernacle. The conventional and still customary conception (Keil, Bahr, A. R. S. Kennedy in HDB, etc.) represents it as an oblong, flat-roofed structure, the rich coverings, over the top, hanging down on either side and at the back--not unlike, to use a figure sometimes employed, a huge coffin with a pall thrown over it. Nothing could be less like a "tent," and the difficulty at once presents itself of how, in such a structure, "sagging" of the roof was to be prevented. Mr. J. Fergusson, in his article "Temple" in Smith’s DB, accordingly, advanced the other conception that the structure was essentially that of a tent, with ridge-pole, sloping roof, and other appurtenances of such an erection. He plausibly, though not with entire success, sought to show how this construction answered accurately to the measurements and other requirements of the text (e.g. the mention of "pins of the tabernacle," Ex 35:18). With slight modification this view here commends itself as having most in its favor.

To avoid the difficulty of the ordinary view, that the coverings, hanging down outside the framework, are unseen from within, except on the roof, it has sometimes been argued that the tapestry covering hung down, not outside, but inside the tabernacle (Keil, Bahr, etc.). It is generally felt that this arrangement is inadmissible. A newer and more ingenious theory is that propounded by A. R. S. Kennedy in his article "Tabernacle" in HDB. It is that the "boards" constituting the framework of the tabernacle were, not solid planks, but really open "frames," through which the finely wrought covering could be seen from within. There is much that is fascinating in this theory, if the initial assumption of the flat roof is granted, but it cannot be regarded as being yet satisfactorily made out. Professor Kennedy argues from the excessive weight of the solid "boards." It might be replied: In a purely "ideal" structure such as he supposes this to be, what does the weight matter? The "boards," however, need not have been so thick or heavy as he represents.

In the more minute details of construction yet greater diversity of opinion obtains, and imagination is often allowed a freedom of exercise incompatible with the sober descriptions of the text.

1. The Enclosure or Court:

2. Structure, Divisions and Furniture of the Tabernacle:

In the inner of the two squares of the court was reared the tabernacle--a rectangular oblong structure, 30 cubits (45 ft.) long and 10 cubits (15 ft.) broad, divided into two parts, a holy and a most holy (Ex 26:33). Attention has to be given here

(1) to the coverings of the tabernacle,

(2) to its framework and divisions, and

(3) to its furniture.

(1) Coverings of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1-14; 36:8-19).

The wooden framework of the tabernacle to be afterward described had 3 coverings--one, the immediate covering of the tabernacle or "dwelling," called by the same name, mishkan (Ex 26:1,6); a second, the tent" covering of goats’ hair; and a third, a protective covering of rams’ and seal- (or porpoise-) skins, cast over the whole.

(a) Tabernacle Covering Proper:

The covering of the tabernacle proper (Ex 26:1-6) consisted of 10 curtains (yeri`oth, literally, "breadth") of fine twined linen, beautifully-woven with blue, and purple, and scarlet, and with figures of cherubim. The 10 curtains, each 28 cubits long and 4 cubits broad, were joined together in sets of 5 to form 2 large curtains, which again were fastened by 50 loops and clasps (the King James Version "taches") of gold, so as to make a single great curtain 40 cubits (60 ft.) long, and 28 cubits (42 ft.) broad.

(b) Tent Covering:

The "tent" covering (Ex 26:7-13) was formed by 11 curtains of goats hair, the length in this case being 30 cubits, and the breadth 4 cubits. These were joined in sets of 5 and 6 curtains, and as before the two divisions were coupled by 50 loops and clasps (this time of bronze), into one great curtain of 44 cubits (66 ft.) in length and 30 cubits (45 ft.) in breadth--an excess of 4 cubits in length and 2 in breadth over the fine tabernacle curtain.

(c) Protective Covering:

Finally, for purposes of protection, coverings were ordered to be made (Ex 26:14) for the "tent" of rams’ skins dyed red, and of seal-skins or porpoise-skins (English Versions of the Bible, "badgers’ skins"). The arrangement of the coverings is considered below.

(2) Framework and Division of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:15-37; 36:20-38)

Arrangement of Coverings:

Preference has already been expressed for Mr. Fergusson’s idea that the tabernacle was not flat-roofed, the curtains being cast over it like drapery, but was tentlike in shape, with ridge-pole, and a sloping roof, raising the total height to 15 cubits. Passing over the ridge pole, and descending at an angle, 14 cubits on either side, the inner curtain would extend 5 cubits beyond the walls of the tabernacle, making an awning of that width North and South, while the goats’-hair covering above it, 2 cubits wider, would hang below it a cubit on either side. The whole would be held in position by ropes secured by bronze tent-pins to the ground (Ex 27:19; 38:31). The scheme has obvious advantages in that it preserves the idea of a "tent," conforms to the principal measurements, removes the difficulty of "sagging" on the (flat) roof, and permits of the golden boards, bars and rings, on the outside, and of the finely wrought tapestry, on the inside, being seen (Professor Kennedy provides for the latter by his "frames," through which the curtain would be visible). On the other hand, it is not to be concealed that the construction proposed presents several serious difficulties. The silence of the text about a ridge-pole, supporting pillars, and other requisites of Mr. Fergusson’s scheme (his suggestion that "the middle bar" of Ex 26:28 may be the ridge-pole is quite untenable), may be got over by assuming that these parts are taken for granted as understood in tent-construction. But this does not apply to other adjustments, especially those connected with the back and front of the tabernacle. It was seen above that the inner covering was 40 cubits in length, while the tabernacle-structure was 30 cubits. How is this excess of 10 cubits in the tapestry-covering dealt with? Mr. Fergusson, dividing equally, supposes a porch of 5 cubits at the front, and a space of 5 cubits also behind, with hypothetical pillars. The text, however, is explicit that the veil dividing the holy from the most holy place was hung "under the clasps" (Ex 26:33), i.e. on this hypothesis, midway in the structure, or 15 cubits from either end. Either, then,

(1) the idea must be abandoned that the holy place was twice the length of the Holy of Holies (20 X 10; it is to be observed that the text does not state the proportions, which are inferred from those of Solomon’s Temple), or

(2) Mr. Fergusson’s arrangement must be given up, and the division of the curtain be moved back 5 cubits, depriving him of his curtain for the porch, and leaving 10 cubits to be disposed of in the rear. Another difficulty is connected with the porch itself. No clear indication of such a porch is given in the text, while the 5 pillars "for the screen" (Ex 26:37) are most naturally taken to be, like the latter, at the immediate entrance of the tabernacle. Mr. Fergusson, on the other hand, finds it necessary to separate pillars and screen, and to place the pillars 5 cubits farther in front. He is right, however, in saying that the 5th pillar naturally suggests a ridge-pole; in his favor also is the fact that the extra breadth of the overlying tentcovering was to hang down, 2 cubits at the front, and 2 cubits at the back of the tabernacle (Ex 26:9,12). It is possible that there was a special disposition of the inner curtain--that belonging peculiarly to the "dwelling"--"according to which its "clasps" lay above the "veil" of the Holy of Holies (20 cubits from the entrance), and its hinder folds closed the aperture at the rear which otherwise would have admitted light into the secrecy of the shrine. But constructions of this kind must ever remain more or less conjectural.

The measurements in the above reckoning are internal. Dr. Kennedy disputes this, but the analogy of the temple is against his view.

(3) Furniture of the Sanctuary

The furniture of the sanctuary is described in Ex 25:10-40 (ark, table of shewbread, candlestick); 30:1-10 (altar of incense); compare Exodus 37 for making. In the innermost shrine, the Holy of Holies, the sole object was the ark of the covenant, overlaid within and without with pure gold, with its molding and rings of gold, its staves overlaid with gold passed through the rings, and its lid or covering of solid gold--the propitiatory or mercy-seat--at either end of which, of one piece with it. (25:19; 37:8), stood cherubim, with wings outstretched over the mercy-seat and with faces turned toward it (for details see Ark of the Covenant; Mercy-seat; CHERUBIM). This was the meeting-place of Yahweh and His people through Moses (25:22). The ark contained only the two tables of stone, hence its name "the ark of the testimony" (25:16,22). It is not always realized how small an object the ark was--only 2 1/2 cubits (3 ft. 9 in.) long, 1 1/2 cubits (2 ft. 3 in.) broad, and the same (1 1/2 cubits) high.

The furniture of the outer chamber of the tabernacle consisted of

(a) the table of shewbread;

(b) the golden candlestick:

(c) the altar of incense, or golden altar.

These were placed, the table of shewbread on the north side (Ex 40:22), the candlestick on the south side (Ex 40:24), and the altar of incense in front of the veil, in the holy place.

(a) The Table of Shewbread:

The table of shewbread was a small table of acacia wood, overlaid with gold, with a golden rim round the top, gold rings at the corners of its 4 feet, staves for the rings, and a "border" (at middle?) joining the legs, holding them together. Its dimensions were 2 cubits (3 ft.) long, 1 cubit (18 inches) broad, and 1 1/2 cubits (2 ft. 3 inches) high. On it were placed 12 cakes, renewed each week, in 2 piles (compare Le 24:5-9), together with dishes (for the bread), spoons (incense cups), flagons and bowls (for drink offerings), all of pure gold.

See nodetitle.

(b) The Candlestick:

The candlestick or lampstand was the article on which most adornment was lavished. It was of pure gold, and consisted of a central stem (in Ex 25:32-35 this specially receives the name "candlestick"), with 3 curved branches on either side, all elegantly wrought with cups of almond blossom, knops, and flowers (lilies?)--3 of this series to each branch and 4 to the central stem. Upon the 6 branches and the central stem were 7 lamps from which the light issued. Connected with the candlestick were snuffers and snuff-dishes for the wicks--all of gold. The candlestick was formed from a talent of pure gold (Ex 25:38).

See Candlestick.

(c) The Altar of Incense:

The description of the altar of incense occurs (Ex 30:1-10) for some unexplained reason or displacement out of the place where it might be expected, but this is no reason for throwing doubt (with some) upon its existence. It was a small altar, overlaid with gold, a cubit (18 in.) square, and 2 cubits (3 ft.) high, with 4 horns. On it was burned sweet-smelling incense. It had the usual golden rim, golden rings, and gold-covered staves.

See nodetitle.

III. History.

1. Removal from Sinai:

We may fix 1220 BC as the approximate date of the introduction of the tabernacle. It was set up at Sinai on the 1st day of the 1st month of the 2nd year (Ex 40:2,17), i.e. 14 days before the celebration of the Passover on the first anniversary of the exodus (see Chronology of the Old Testament, sec. VII, VIII). When the people resumed their journey, the ark was wrapped in the veil which had served to isolate the most holy place (Nu 4:5). This and the two altars were carried upon the shoulders of the children of Kohath, a descendant of Levi, and were removed under the personal supervision of the high priest (Nu 3:31,32; 4:15). The rest of the dismembered structure was carried in six covered wagons, offered by the prince, each drawn by two oxen (Nu 7). Doubtless others were provided for the heavier materials (compare Keil). Before leaving Sinai the brazen altar had been dedicated, and utensils of gold and silver had been presented for use at the services. The tabernacle had been standing at Sinai during 50 days (Nu 10:11).

2. Sojourn at Kadesh:

The journey lay along the "great and terrible wilderness" between Horeb in the heart of Arabia and Kadesh-barnea in the Negeb of Judah; of the 40 years occupied in the journey to Canaan, nearly 38 were spent at Kadesh, a fact not always clearly recognized. The tabernacle stood here during 37 years (one year being occupied in a punitive journey southward to the shore of the Red Sea). During this whole time the ordinary sacrifices were not offered (Am 5:25), though it is possible that the appropriate seasons were nevertheless marked in more than merely chronological fashion. Few incidents are recorded as to these years, and little mention is made of the tabernacle throughout the whole journey except that the ark of the covenant preceded the host when on the march (Nu 10:33-36). It is the unusual that is recorded; the daily aspect of the tabernacle and the part it played in the life of the people were among the things recurrent and familiar.

3. Settlement in Canaan:

4. Destruction of Shiloh:

During the period of the Judges the nation lost the fervor of its earlier years and was in imminent danger of apostasy. The daily services of the tabernacle were doubtless observed after a perfunctory manner, but they seem to have had little effect upon the people, either to soften their manners or raise their morals. In the early days of Samuel war broke out afresh with the Philistines. At a council of war the unprecedented proposal was made to fetch the ark of the covenant from Shiloh (1Sa 4:1 ). Accompanied by the two sons of Eli--Hophni and Phinehas--it arrived in the camp and was welcomed by a shout which was heard in the hostile camp. It was no longer Yahweh but the material ark that was the hope of Israel, so low had the people fallen. Eli himself, at that time high priest, must at least have acquiesced in this superstition. It ended in disaster. The ark was taken by the Philistines, its two guardians were slain, and Israel was helpless before its enemies. Though the Hebrew historians are silent about what followed, it is certain that Shiloh itself fell into the hands of the Philistines. The very destruction of it accounts for the silence of the historians, for it would have been at the central sanctuary there, the center and home of what literary culture there was in Israel during this stormy period, that chronicles of events would be kept. Ps 78:60 ff no doubt has reference to this overthrow, and it is referred to in Jer 7:12. The tabernacle itself does not seem to have been taken by the Philistines, as it is met with later at Nob.

5. Delocalization of Worship:

For lack of a high priest of character, Samuel himself seems now to have become the head of religious worship. It is possible that the tabernacle may have been again removed to Gilgal, as it was there that Samuel appointed Saul to meet him in order to offer burnt offerings and peace offerings. The ark, however, restored by the Philistines, remained at Kiriath-jearim (1Sa 7:1,2), while courts for ceremonial, civil, and criminal administration were held, not only at Gilgal, but at other places, as Beth-el, Mizpah and Ramah (1Sa 7:15-17), places which acquired a quasi-ecclesiastical sanctity. This delocalization of the sanctuary was no doubt revolutionary, but it is partly explained by the fact that even in the tabernacle there was now no ark before which to burn incense. Of the half-dozen places bearing the name of Ramah, this, which was Samuel’s home, was the one near to Hebron, where to this day the foundations of what may have been Samuel’s sacred enclosure may be seen at the modern Ramet-el-Khalil.

6. Nob and Gibeon:

We next hear of the tabernacle at Nob, with Ahimelech, a tool of Saul (probably the Ahijah of 1Sa 14:3), as high priest (1Sa 21:1 ). This Nob was 4 miles to the North of Jerusalem and was more-over a high place, 30 ft. higher than Zion. It does not follow that the tabernacle was placed at the top of the hill. Here it remained a few years, till after the massacre by Saul of all the priests at Nob save one, Abiathar (1Sa 22:11 ). Subsequently, possibly by Saul himself, it was removed to Gibeon (1Ch 16:39; 21:29). Gibeon was 6 miles from Jerusalem, and 7 from Beth-el, and may have been chosen for its strategic advantage as well as for the fact that it was already inhabited by priests, and was Saul’s ancestral city.

7. Restoration of the Ark:

This removal by Saul, if he was the author of it, was recognized afterward by David as a thing done, with which he did not think it wise to interfere (of 1Ch 16:40). On his capturing the fortress of Jebus (later Jerusalem), and building himself a "house" there, David prepared a place for the ark of God, and pitched a tent on Zion in imitation of the tabernacle at Gibeon (2Sa 6:17 ff; 1Ch 16:1). He must also have provided an altar, for we read of burnt offerings and peace offerings being made there. Meanwhile the ark had been brought from Kiriath-jearim, where it had lain so long; it was restored in the presence of a concourse of people representing the whole nation, the soldiery and civilians delivering it to the priests (2Sa 6:1 ). On this journey Uzzah was smitten for touching the ark. Arrived near Jerusalem, the ark was carried into the house of Obed-edom, a Levite, and remained there for 3 months. At the end of this time it was carried into David’s tabernacle with all fitting solemnity and honor.

8. The Two Tabernacles:

Hence, it was that there were now two tabernacles, the original one with its altar at Gibeon, and the new one with the original ark in Jerusalem, both under the protection of the king. Both, however, were soon to be superseded by the building of a temple. The altar at Gibeon continued in use till the time of Solomon. Of all the actual material of the tabernacle, the ark alone remained unchanged in the temple. The tabernacle itself, with its sacred vessels, was brought up to Jerusalem, and was preserved, apparently, as a sacred relic in the temple (1Ki 8:4). Thus, after a history of more than 200 years, the tabernacle ceases to appear in history.

IV. Symbolism.

Though the tabernacle was historically the predecessor of the later temples, as a matter of fact, the veil was the only item actually retained throughout the series of temples. Nevertheless it is the tabernacle rather than the temple which has provided a substructure for much New Testament teaching. All the well-known allusions of the writer to the Hebrews, e.g. in chapters 9 and 10, are to the tabernacle, rather than to any later temple.

1. New Testament References:

2. God’s Dwelling with Man:

The suggestion which underlies all such New Testament references is not only that Christ, in His human manifestation, was both tabernacle and priest, altar and sacrifice, but also, and still more, that God ever has His dwelling among men, veiled no doubt from the unbelieving and insincere, but always manifest and accessible to the faithful and devout. As we have a great high priest who is now passed into the heavens, there to appear in our behalf in the true tabernacle, so we ourselves have permission and encouragement to enter into the holiest place of all on earth by the blood of the everlasting covenant. Of the hopes embodied in these two planes of thought, the earthly tabernacle was the symbol, and contained the prospect and foretaste of the higher communion. It is this which has given the tabernacle such an abiding hold on the imagination and veneration of the Christian church in all lands and languages.

3. Symbolism of Furniture:

The symbolism of the various parts of the tabernacle furniture is tolerably obvious, and is considered under the different headings. The ark of the covenant with its propitiatory was the symbol of God’s gracious meeting with His people on the ground of atonement (compare Ro 3:25; see nodetitle). The twelve cakes of shewbread denote the twelve tribes of Israel, and their presentation is at once an act of gratitude for that which is the support of life, and, symbolically, a dedication of the life thus supported; the candlestick speaks to the calling of Israel to be a people of light (compare Jesus in Mt 5:14-16); the rising incense symbolizes the act of prayer (compare Re 5:8; 8:3).


See the articles on "Tabernacle" and "Temple" in Smith’s DB, HDB, EB, The Temple BD, etc.; also the commentaries. on Exodus (the Speaker’s Pulpit Commentary, Keil’s, Lange’s, etc.); Bahr, Symbolik d. Mosaischen Cult; Keil, Archaeology, I, 98 ff (English translation); Westcott, essay on "The General Significance of the Tabernacle," in his Hebrews; Brown, The Tabernacle (1899); W. S. Caldecott, The Tabernacle: Its History and Structure. See the articles in this Encyclopedia on the special parts of the tabernacle.

See also TEMPLE.

W. Shaw Caldecott