The Tabernacle of Israel, by George de Charms, 1969
In 1921, as an educational project in the Bryn Athyn Elementary School, we undertook the task of building a model of the tabernacle of Israel. As part of the course in religious instruction we were called upon to teach the Book of Exodus. We found the Scriptural account of the tabernacle, and of its construction, far too technical and too confusing in the multitude of its details to produce a clear picture in the minds of the children. Even adults find it difficult to understand. In many respects the literal statements are obscure. How then could anyone hope to grasp the deeper meaning contained within these chapters of the Word as now revealed in the theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg? It became obvious to us that a scale model of the building, in which the materials, the prescribed dimensions and modes of construction were faithfully followed, would be of permanent value, not only to children, but also to teachers and ministers, and indeed to anyone seeking Divine instruction from this portion of the Word of God. Furthermore, we were convinced that the children who took part in building such a model would find it an experience of high educational, artistic, and religious value.
With the cooperation of the principal and the faculty of the school it was arranged that the boys of the seventh and eighth grades should undertake the woodwork in their manual training class, while the girls, under the direction of the women teachers, would make the curtains and veils, and the garments of the priests and Levites.
As assistant pastor of the Bryn Athyn Church, we delivered a series of addresses at children's services devoted to a general description of the history, the construction, and the spiritual significance of the tabernacle. The offering at these services was used to finance the project. In addition, the children were asked to make an offering of gold or silver, consisting of discarded jewelry and other objects which their parents were willing to donate for this purpose. In this way all the children in the school re-enacted the offering given by the sons of Israel at the command of Moses for the construction of the tabernacle. (Exodus 25:1-9)
After having made a preliminary study, the necessary drawings and specifications were prepared and the actual work was begun. A donation of fifteen dollars was received to cover the preliminary cost of materials. Later we proceeded as rapidly as the offering at the children's services would provide the needed funds. Within a period of three years the children made the table on which the model of the tabernacle was to stand. They also made the boards and the stakes, covering them, wherever required, with gold leaf. They had to have the help of a skilled cabinetmaker for the construction of the furniture, and of an expert goldsmith to make the lampstand, the censer, and the vessels for the table of shewbread. Later, the shovels and tongs, the fire pans and ash receptacles of copper were added, as well as figures to represent the priests and Levites. These were hand-carved in wood. The first curtains and veils which were made by the children had to be supplanted by others made by the teachers. The linen material woven in the four colors blue, purple, scarlet and white, with gold cherubim inwoven on the loom was made in Stockholm, Sweden, by a company that provided altar-cloths for the Lutheran Church.
The task throughout has been fraught with difficulties which Jewish and Christian scholarship combined have failed to solve. The fact is that the Hebrew text is in many points obscure, translations vary, and interpreters are legion. Such a writer as T. O. Paine, LL.D., whose monumental work on Solomon's Temple includes a treatment of the tabernacle, has provided a valuable collection of original material which was of great assistance to us, although we were unable to accept many of his deductions. William Brown, E. E. Atwater, G. W. Colton, E. M. Epstein and others, all have afforded helpful suggestions, though the plans they adopted differ radically in many respects. The whole problem of the tabernacle construction, as prescribed in Exodus, seemed to be lost in a maze of unsupported conjecture. But the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg threw an entirely new light upon it. The Rev. Dr. E. E. lungerich, in a short article published in the Academy Journal of Education for 1916 (Vol. 15, p. 135), brought together the new interpretations suggested by Swedenborg, especially those in the Word Explained (Adversaria). These provided a reasonable solution of several questions which had vexed the scholars. Further search of Swedenborg's Writings afforded valuable suggestions in regard to modes of construction, as well as an explanation of the spiritual significance of the many details. There were still certain problems for which we could find no assured solution, and in regard to these we had to hazard suggestions of our own. Whatever errors may be discovered in the future, I think it may justly be said that the modes of construction we adopted are on the whole more historically probable, and lend themselves more readily to the illustration of the spiritual teaching given in Swedenborg's Writings, than those adopted by other scholars. Our hope is that the present work may prove to be a step in the right direction over which the scholars of the future may pass to more accurate conjectures, and to deeper perceptions of the Divine significance of the tabernacle.
We would acknowledge our indebtedness to all those who gave so willingly of their skill, their time and their energy to promote this project, especially to Mr. Wilfred Howard, the instructor in manual training; Miss Erna Sellner, Miss Venita Roschman, and Miss Elizabeth Ashby, who directed the work of the girls; Mr. Fred J. Cooper, who supervised the construction of the metal work, and identified the precious stones of the breastplate; also Mr. Thorsten Sigstedt, who carved the figures to represent the priests and Levites; and Mr. William R. Cooper, who for many years has taken care of the model, photographed its many parts and furnishings, and kept it in excellent repair.
George de Charms