January 27, 2015
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The Tabernacle: Meaning and Function

The Tabernacle: Meaning and Function

By Derek Leman, Hope of David Messianic Congregation


The Tabernacle is the glorious tent in which God's shekinah (visible manifestation of his glory and presence) dwelt with the Israelites from the time of the wilderness (c. 1400 B.C.E.) until Solomon built the Temple about 950 B.C.E. The Temple then replaced the Tabernacle, and was designed with the same basic structure and furniture. The Tabernacle was the place where sacrifices were offered, bread of the presence was placed weekly before God, incense was burned daily, the menorah lit, and where the people gathered for the three annual feasts and special occasions. The Tabernacle was not like a synagogue and was not intended to hold the entire assembly of Israel within its courts. It was God's dwelling, not the people's meeting place.


The Five Names of the Tabernacle      

. The Sanctuary: Emphasizing that this was holy space (Ex 25:8).

. The Tabernacle: From a Hebrew word meaning to dwell, emphasizing God's dwelling (Ex 25:9).

. The Tent: Emphasizing the temporary nature of the dwelling (Ex 26:36).

. The Tabernacle of the Congregation: Emphasizing that this is where the people met with God (Ex 29:42).

. The Tabernacle of the Testimony: The testimony is a name for the tablets of the commandments stored in the Ark inside the Holy of Holies, emphasizing the Torah (Ex 38:21).


Some Thoughts on Christian Typology of the Tabernacle

There is a tendency in Christian interpretation to move from the NT backwards to Exodus in determining symbolic significance for the meaning and function of the Tabernacle. As we will show, it is better to move from Exodus forward, understanding the cross and Messiah from the Tabernacle, rather than vice-versa.


A common Christian typology looks something like this:

. Altar = Christ's redemptive work on the cross.

. Laver/Basin = Christ's work of sanctification, washing of water by the word (Eph. 5:26).

. Bread of the Presence/Showbread = Christ, the bread of heaven.

. Menorah/Lampstand = Christ, light of the world.

. Incense = Christ's prayers on our behalf.


Sometimes the Christian typology gets very specific in symbolism. David Levy, in his book The Tabernacle: Shadows of the Messiah, for example, says that the altar is made of Shittim (Acacia) wood because it is a "hard, incorruptible, indestructible wood" corresponding to "the humanity of Christ, who came from a root out of dry ground.and was sinless.withstood the fire of crucifixion...and the decaying effect of the grave" (p.28). The flesh hooks used by the priests to move animal carcasses "represented the cruel hands of the men who nailed Christ to the cross" (p.29). The grain offerings were kneaded to represent "the unseen suffering of the Lord at the hand of God the Father" and baked "picturing his intense suffering at the hand of Satan" (p.119). Such super-specific symbolic interpretation raises the question: are we saying that readers in ancient Israel were supposed to look at the wood of the Ark and make surmises about the nature of Messiah's human body? Are we supposed to read the Tabernacle descriptions in Exodus and see Messiah in every detail? Surely the answer is no. The method of such typology is to consider details about the tabernacle, then stretch the imagination and determine some reason for every detail in relationship to Messiah. There is no reality to the description, only imagination. This is not interpreting the Bible, but turning the Bible into a sort of code-book. The correct way to interpret the Tabernacle is to begin with the Torah and the culture and time it was written. Then we interpret meaning based on Torah and its culture and perhaps we will understand Messiah's work as a fulfillment of what came before.


The Basic Meaning of the Tabernacle


The most important issues in the Tabernacle, understood within Torah and its culture, are the dwelling of God, holiness, purity, sacrifice, and drawing near to God. These themes come from the text, not human imagination, and relate to the culture of Israel and the Ancient Near East. The clear message of the Tabernacle is that God cannot simply be approached on human terms. God's holiness is fatal to sinful men. His presence dwells within an inner chamber of the Tabernacle, approachable only once a year by the High Priest with blood and incense. The closer you move to the inner chamber where God's presence dwells, the fewer people who can enter:

. In front of the courtyard - Anyone can come near.

. Inside the courtyard - Only those bringing offerings or doing the priestly work may enter.

. Inside the tent - Only the priests doing the work of the Tabernacle may enter.

. Inside the Holy of Holies - No one may enter.


This message of the Tabernacle does relate to Messiah. Messiah's death and resurrection are the means which make it possible for man to dwell with God. The idea that man is not capable of being in God's direct presence without purification flows from the Torah into NT teaching. The concepts of purity abound in the Tabernacle. Priests must wash before entering the tent. Sacrificial blood must be dashed against the altar and sometimes in the tent and once a year in the Holy of Holies. The purity laws of Israel have to do with God's holiness. He is separate from sin and death (all purity laws relate to death or the loss of life). He is the God of righteousness and life. So Messiah can be understood in this way. His death is a purification, not of the altar or the sanctuary as in the Torah, but of the believer (see "Understanding the Sacrifices of Israel, Past and Future," by Derek Leman for more on the meaning of the sacrifices). Every person is in need of purification.


God's dwelling with his people is central to the Tabernacle. The whole land of Israel, with the Tabernacle as the spiritual center, is holy. God dwells in the Tabernacle so that the people may sense their nearness to him. Yet the sins and impurities of the people pollute the Tabernacle and must be continually cleansed with sacrifices.  All that can be accomplished through this system is the people being able to draw near to God hidden in a tent. This relates to Messiah's work as well, for the idea must occur that if we are to live with God in the Age to Come, something better than the Tabernacle must come. Instead of God dwelling in a tent, hidden from direct contact, there must be some way for us to directly live with him. This is where Messiah's redemption is seen to be superior and the next step from the work of the Tabernacle.


Finally, the Tabernacle is about humankind drawing near to God. God made us in his image and to have relationship with him. The Tabernacle is the place to which the Israelites came for three annual festivals (Passover, Shavuot (Weeks), and Sukkot (Tabernacles) to worship before God and enjoy his provision in a great feast.  This too is fulfilled in Messiah, who brings us near to God. Through him, we will worship God in the Age to Come directly and without separation.


The Meaning and Function of the Tabernacle and its Furniture


The place where God's fire was maintained (Lev. 6:12 (6:5-6 Heb), 9:24), sacrificial blood dashed, and sacrificial portions burned. The altar represents the need for cleansing in order for God's presence to be near.


The system for the priests to wash hands and feet before entering the tent. The concept may be that the sins of the people clung to the hands and feet of the priests or merely that the priest's own sins and impurities needed cleansing before entering the tent. The washing of hands and feet in addition to the blood cleansing of the twice-daily offering suggests that specific cleansing is needed when men draw even nearer to God.

Bread of the Presence/ Showbread

Twelve loaves represent the twelve tribes. Oil and wine were also placed on the table. This combined with the name suggests that these were kept in God's presence and refreshed weekly as a memorial from the twelve tribes, remembering God's provision of grain, oil, and produce. Unlike other nations, Israel made no pretense that their God ate the bread or needed food, but the table served as Israel's perpetual thanksgiving to God.

Menorah / Lampstand

Seven branches suggest seven days of creation and God's power. Light is always present in God's glory in Torah. Whereas God's glory dwelt in the Holy of Holies, the light of the Menorah was a symbol of that glory in the outer room of the tent.


God's glory in Torah is always covered with a cloud to protect humankind from God's fatal holiness. Leviticus 16:13 says that the incense cloud had to precede the High Priest going into the Holy of Holies or he would die. Normally the incense was in the outer room in front of the veil going into the Holy of Holies. The incense represents man's needed protection from the glory of God.


This square box with golden statues of cherubim represents God's throne and footstool. Cherubim are heavenly beings with flaming swords who guard the presence of God, as they guarded the Garden in Eden after the fall. They are present for two reasons: (1) they guard the presence of God dwelling above the Ark and (2) their outstretched wings form a throne for God's presence. The Ark is said to be God's footstool (1 Chron. 28:2). In the Ark are the tablets of the ten commandments, representing God's covenant with Israel. In the Ancient Near East, kings sometimes kept treaties and oaths in the footstools of pagan gods (for example a letter of Egyptian Pharoah Ramses II cited in Umberto Cassuto's commentary on Exodus 25:16). The meaning was to ensure God's loyalty to the covenant promises to Israel.


Conclusion and Relation to Messiah and the Cross


The Tabernacle of Israel does relate to the Messiah, but not as a rich source for symbolic imagination so much as a Torah-based revelation of God's ways with humankind. Rather than guessing symbolic connections between Tabernacle details and Messiah, we should look to the Torah itself to understand the Tabernacle and then look to the New Testament to see how Yeshua fulfilled the requirements revealed by the Tabernacle.


The dwelling of God

Messiah brought us the Holy Spirit who now lives in us (John 14:17; 16:7) and we are God's temple (1 Cor. 3:16). This does not, however, negate the fact that God will again dwell in a Temple in Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2-3; Ezekiel 40-48).

Holiness, purity

Messiah cleansed us from our sins and sent the Spirit to sanctify us (1 John 1:9; Rom. 6:22).

Sacrifice, altar

Messiah's death was a better kind of sacrifice, cleansing us, not just the sanctuary, so that we can live directly in God's presence (Heb. 9:9-10, 14; 10:4).


Messiah cleanses us from sin and makes us pure in God's presence.

Bread of the Presence

This continues to represent for us the joyful thanksgiving we should give to God.


The Menorah was a symbol in the outer room of God's glory in the Holy of Holies. So when Messiah came we "beheld the glory" (John 1:14) for he is the "radiance of the glory of God and his exact imprint" (Heb. 1:3).


The incense protected the priests from God's fatal holiness. So Yeshua is our advocate and protection so that we may draw near to God (1 John 2:1-2).

Holy of Holies

The way into God has been opened by Yeshua (Mark 15:38) so that we may boldly come right before God's throne (Heb. 4:16).


Yeshua brought the New Covenant of God (Luke 22:20) with better promises that that of Moses (Heb. 8:6). Yeshua is God's presence manifest to us and sent the Spirit of God to dwell in us, so that the Ark of the Covenant is no longer needed (Jer. 3:16).



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