I. General Description
The Tabernacle of Israel, by George de Charms, 1969
PLAN OF TABERNACLE AND COURT
H.H. = HOLY OF HOLIES H.P. = HOLY PLACE A. = ALTAR
A general view of the tabernacle, as its original form is reproduced in the model, gives an impression of extreme simplicity. There is nothing imposing or architecturally attractive in its design. An oblong boxlike building with a flat roof, standing within a rectangular court marked off by a fence of plain white linen is all that appears. The outer covering of the building is of white kidskin. The only touch of color is found in the linen hanging at the gate of the court, and a similar hanging at the door of the tabernacle. These alone give promise of the richness and beauty that lie concealed under a very unprepossessing exterior.
Closer examination, however, brings to light a surprising costliness of construction. If we remove the two veils we find the interior of the tabernacle gorgeously colorful. It is not impressively large, its inside measurements being 10 cubits in width, 10 cubits in height, and 30 cubits in length.1 Three of the walls are formed by means of boards set up on end, fastened together by means of rods which, passing through a gold ring in the center of each board, extend the entire length of the building. There are five of these rods on each wall, the center one being engaged with the center rod of the end wall, thus joining the three walls into a solid unit. There are forty-eight boards, twenty on each side, six on the west end, with two called "twinned boards" forming the corners. Each board is of shittim wood 11/2 cubits wide, 1/6 cubit thick, and 10 cubits long, with two tenons extending from the lower end. Each tenon passes through a block or base of silver, by which the end of the board is protected, and is then driven into the ground to hold the board firmly in place. The boards and rods are all covered with thin plates of gold, while the bases form a foundation of silver. The ceiling is of linen colored in transverse stripes of blue, purple, scarlet and white, with an inwoven pattern of cherubim in gold thread.
At a point 10 cubits from the west end,2 there is a line of four pillars extending to the ceiling. Upon these is hung a veil of material and workmanship similar to that of the ceiling. The tabernacle is thus divided into two apartments. Each pillar is of shittim wood covered with gold. It is furnished with a capital of gold and rests upon a base of silver similar to those under the boards. Another line of pillars is placed two cubits from the east end of the building. These differ in only two particulars from those already described. There are five of them instead of four, and their bases are of copper instead of silver. On these is hung the hanging of the door, similar in every respect to the veil, except that the cherubim in this case are not inwoven but are embroidered in gold thread. The room behind the veil is the inmost sanctuary called the holy of holies. It is cubical in shape, measuring 10 cubits in its three dimensions. It is shrouded in darkness, there being no provision for light either natural or artificial. It contains but one article of furniture, namely, the ark, in which the tables of the law were kept.
The ark was a box of shittim wood, 21/2 cubits long, 11/2 cubits broad, and 11/2 cubits deep. It was covered within and without with gold. Over it, and forming a lid held in place by a band or crown of gold, was a solid golden plate called the mercy seat. On each end of this mercy seat was a winged human figure of beaten gold. These cherubin were kneeling, looking toward one another and toward the mercy seat, their wings outstretched and touching over their heads. (Exodus 25:19, 20) At each corner of the box, just below the crown, was an orb of gold through which were passed the wooden rods with which the ark was carried. When in position, the ark was in the center of the holy of holies, its longer dimension running east and west.
The outer room of the tabernacle, between the veil and the hanging of the door, was called the holy place. Its height and width were both 10 cubits, but it was 20 cubits in length. Here were three articles of furniture, the altar of incense, placed immediately in front of the veil and equidistant from the two side walls; the table of shewbread against the north wall halfway between the two hangings; and directly opposite it against the south wall, stood the seven-branched candlestick (more properly to be called a lampstand).
The altar of incense was a hollow box of wood covered with gold, 1 cubit square and 2 cubits high. Its upper surface was flush with the top of the sides and bound round by a band or crown of gold. In the middle of the north and south sides, just under the crown, was an orb of gold through which rods were passed by which the altar was carried. The table of shewbread was of wood covered with gold, 2 cubits in length, 1 cubit in breadth, and 11/2 cubits in height. It was supported on four legs. The top was a plain gold-covered board under which, and flush with its edges, was a skirt of similar material to give strength to the legs. This was 1/4 of a cubit in width. Around the top of the table, and extending a palm-breadth or 4 inches above its upper surface, was a crown of gold; and a similar crown 1/6 of a cubit in width bound the skirt at its lower edge to the legs. The lampstand was of pure beaten gold. It consisted of a central standard rising out of a hexagonal base to the height of 41/2 cubits. From each side of the standard sprang three curved branches terminated at the same height as the standard. On each branch were three ornaments of gold, each consisting of a pomegranate resting in the hollow of a partly opened almond shell, with the petals as of a flower proceeding out of the pomegranate from its upper side. On the standard there were four similar ornaments, one under each of the branches and one between the upper branch and the top. The top of the standard and of each branch was terminated by a cup-shaped depression in which a lamp rested. The lamps were detached from the candlestick itself and could be removed. In design they were flat bowls with a handle and a covered lip through which a wick was passed to draw up the olive oil with which the lamps were supplied. The coverings of the tabernacle were four in number. The first was of linen, with alternate stripes of blue, purple, scarlet and white, and with inwoven cherubim in gold, as described above. It was made in ten strips, each measuring 4 cubits in width and 28 cubits in length. Five of these strips were sewed together to make a curtain measuring 20 by 28 cubits. The same was done with the other five. At one of the longer edges were placed fifty loops of blue. This curtain was thrown over the tops of the boards, forming the ceiling, and falling over the sides to within 1 cubit of the ground. The point of juncture where the two edges of loops came together fell 20 cubits from the east end and 10 cubits from the west end, or at the dividing line between the holy of holies and the holy place, immediately over the pillars from which the veil was suspended. The two curtains were joined by means of s-shaped hooks or taches of gold passed through the loops of blue and serving at the same time as supports for the veil. On the west side this curtain extended all the way to the ground. Over this was thrown a second covering of wool. It was made in eleven strips, each 4 cubits wide and 30 cubits long. Five strips were sewed together and six strips were sewed together, and the two curtains thus formed were joined by fifty loops of white and fifty taches or hooks of copper. It was so placed over the linen curtain that the sixth strip extended 2 cubits beyond the east end of the tabernacle, and these 2 cubits were folded under the linen curtain, forming thus the ceiling of that portion of the tabernacle which lay outside the hanging of the door. This arrangement brought the seams of the wool curtain in the middle of each strip of the linen curtain, so that at no point did they coincide; and it brought the juncture of the two unequal halves 2 cubits west of the veil. The wool curtain extended to the ground on both sides, and the last 2 cubits lay upon the ground at the west end. Over this again was a covering of rams' skins dyed red. Its dimensions are not specifically given, but it probably reached the ground on all sides, giving complete protection to the first two curtains. The final covering was of kidskins (called badgers' skins in the Scripture; see Chapter VII) and was smaller than that of rams' skins, leaving exposed to view around the bottom of the wall a strip, the width of which is not indicated. Ropes of linen fastened to pins in the tops of the boards which passed through the four coverings served to stretch the ceiling taut, while by means of cords and stakes the sides were stretched tightly down against the base of the wall.3
This same objection to altering the prescribed and representative shape of the building prevents us from adopting the method employed by most scholars of stretching out the curtains at an angle. They must be held perpendicularly against the walls.
Turning now to the court, we note that it was rectangular in shape, measuring 100 cubits in length and 50 cubits in breadth. The tabernacle was placed in it at a point equidistant from the two sides, and with its eastern end marking the median line between the gate and the western wall.4 Its wall of white linen was supported upon sixty pillars of shittim wood, not covered with gold. They were placed 5 cubits apart, twenty on each side and ten on each end. The hanging for the gate was of linen in the four colors, embroidered in gold in some indefinite design other than cherubim (it is thought by some to have been floral or folioform in conventional pattern). It was 20 cubits long and was hung from the four central pillars of the east end. Each pillar had a capital of silver and a base of copper, and was supported by linen cords and stakes of copper, after the manner of a tent pole. In this court there were two articles of furniture, the altar of burnt offering and the laver.
The altar was placed in the center near the gate. It was 5 cubits square and 3 cubits high. Its four sides were made of shittim wood covered with copper. The top of the altar was formed by means of a copper grate, which was folded down at right angles to cover the upper half of the sides. From the four corners extended horns of wood covered with copper. Binding the grate to the altar was a band of copper called the compass, 1/3 of a cubit wide, and bent at right angles along its median line. It was so placed about the top of the altar that its horizontal side covered the upper edge of the boards, and its vertical side covered their outer surface to a depth of 1/6 of a cubit minus the thickness of the grate. At the four corners, just under the compass and on the two lateral sides, were orbs of copper to hold the rods with which the altar was carried. On three sides the ground was mounded up around the altar to form a gradual incline of ascent for the officiating priest. On the east side the ground was hollowed out to permit the removal of the ashes that fell down through the grate when the sacrifices were burnt.
Between the altar and the tabernacle was placed the laver. Its shape and dimensions are not given. Our conception of it is that of a large shallow bowl supported on a central standard which rises out of a saucer-like base. Water was poured into the bowl, which served as a reservoir, and was drained into the base by means of taps in the standard. The ceremonial washings were performed in the base, and possibly (according to the universal custom of the ancients) in running water as it was drawn from the taps. However, much in connection with the laver is pure speculation, as very little information is available concerning it. Without specific Scriptural warrant we have placed it a little south of the center line and halfway between the altar and the tabernacle.5
This cursory survey of the tabernacle and its furniture reveals how astonishingly costly were the appointments of this apparently simple structure. The expense involved in the reproduction at this day of a full-sized model, faithful to all the details of material and workmanship, is estimated at not less than $1,500,000. Our own model, in which time and labor costs have virtually been eliminated, represents an expenditure of approximately $1,500. To bring it within this figure it has been necessary to substitute brass in certain places where gold is called for. The rings, for instance, through which are passed the rods connecting the boards, are of brass instead of gold, not only because the cost of the more precious metal was prohibitive, but because gold would not be sufficiently strong in so small a model to withstand the strain at these points.
If we reflect that there were in the twelve tribes a total of 603,550 fighting men (Numbers 1:46), and that this implies a congregation of not less than 2,500,000 souls, the size of the tabernacle may seem to be altogether inadequate. We must remember, however, that it was not used as a place in which the people gathered, as is the custom with Christian churches. It was merely a place in which the rites and ceremonies of worship were performed by the priests, and, aside from the officiating Levites, none were permitted to enter through the gate of the court except such as came to offer some sacrifice to the Lord. Even the Levites were not allowed to enter the holy place; and none but the high priest passed through the inner veil into the holy of holies. This he did once a year, on the great day of atonement.
In all respects we find the tabernacle ingeniously adapted to the needs of a nomadic people. Held in place by cords and stakes, it could quickly be taken down, transported from place to place, and set up again. To this service the Levites were appointed, their three families: the Merarites, the Gershonites, and the Kohathites each being assigned to special duties later to be described.
There are a few principles of construction which are here to be mentioned because of their importance. First, all the lines of the tabernacle were straight, and all its divisions were rectangular. Its pillars were not round but square. Its roof was not sloping but flat. Its sides were perpendicular. Second, it was so constructed that all its parts were visible from some point. This principle determines the construction in various respects concerning which there is divergence of view among scholars. And third, its dimensions were for the most part multiples of five. The reason why these seemingly trivial matters are of vital concern will be pointed out in the following chapters, where we shall develop the relation of the structural characteristics of the building to the Divine function assigned to it among the Israelites.