Meeting with God in the Tabernacle
One tent among the sprawling thousands in the Israelite encampment stood out conspicuously. Located in the very middle, this tent was cordoned off with an opaque white fabric perimeter fence standing eight feet tall – too high to peer over. The sole entrance to the compound was on the sunrise side, and when the gorgeously colored curtain serving as a door was drawn back, the people could look in. An observer would first notice a large bronze altar just inside the entrance. Its sides were splashed with blood, and its woodfire, further fueled by animal parts and grain, sent a column of smoke up to the sky.
A bronze laver sat farther back in the courtyard where priests, busy in official service, frequently stopped to wash their hands and feet. Near the back of the compound stood a large drab-colored tent – drab except for the shining golden pillars on the east side upholding a colorful curtain that served as its front door. Most striking of all, however, was the bold column of vapor and flame arising from the back part of the tent, dwarfing the column of smoke arising from the bronze altar. This Shekinah glory cloud ascended high above the tent, shading the whole encampment in the daytime and lighting up the sky at night.
An observer would want to explore this tent, hoping that the beautiful entrance hinted at even more beautiful things inside. But only priests could go inside – and only into the first of its two chambers, the Holy Place. The interior was indeed a feast for the senses: the aroma of fresh bread arranged on a golden table to the right, and seven brightly burning lamps on a solid-gold menorah to the left. Straight ahead was a golden incense altar, permeating the air with fragrance. Both the fabric ceiling and the curtain serving as the back wall of this first chamber were colored with blue, purple, scarlet and white linen embroidered with cherubim – angelic beings that guarded the holiness of God.
Yahweh, the God of Israel, dwelt in the forbidden second chamber, the cubic Holy of Holies, resting on a golden throne comprised of a covenant box and an atonement lid. The covenant box was made of incorruptible acacia wood overlaid with gold, and the atonement cover was a solid-gold slab with two cherubim arising from either end, looking down on its surface. This box housed the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, a golden urn holding manna, and Aaron’s rod that had budded and borne ripe almonds.
The whole compound was designed so that the closer an item stood to the Holy of Holies the more valuable and beautiful it was. Bronze, for example, gave way to silver and finally gold. Peeling back the plain leather tent cover revealed first red-colored rams’ skins, then cashmere, and finally the multi-colored tapestry with its embroidered cherubim. Residing in the Holy of Holies, the Shekinah glory of God backlit the dividing curtain suspended on its four pillars, creating a dazzling display of blue, purple, scarlet and white for the benefit and enjoyment of the priests who worked in the first chamber. The tent’s interior beauty was secret: much of it was enjoyed by priests, but some of it by God alone.
The Holy Spirit devoted fifty chapters in the Bible to this special tent, this sacred space where Yahweh was specially present among His people. The Lord called His tent mishkan, meaning His Residence. He also called it miqdash – His consecrated Holy Place: “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exo 25:8,22; 29:42-46). He further referred to it as ohel moed, or Tent of Meeting, because He desired to meet with His people there.
The design and imagery of the tabernacle recalls Eden, where God communed with man in a special garden planted for that purpose. The garden in Eden was a sanctuary where God met with Adam; the tabernacle recreated that space. In the garden, God walked with Adam, and in the tabernacle, He communed with His people Israel. Both the garden and the tabernacle had perimeter boundaries and east-facing gates. And the tripartite tabernacle with its concentric circles of holiness answered to the garden (the Holy of Holies), Eden itself (the Holy Place), and the outer world (the Courtyard).
The lampstand’s branches, calyxes, flowers and almond blossoms created a garden-like ambience, answering to the Tree of Life. The ark in the Holy of Holies contained the Law, which echoed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – both led to wisdom. Priests working in the tabernacle continued Adam’s God-given tasks of “dressing” and “keeping.” And after Adam was driven out of the garden, cherubim took over his duty to guard the Tree of Life; these same angelic creatures were prominent in the tabernacle.
God’s dwelling in the tabernacle was a step toward the restoration of paradise, which will be completed in the new heavens and earth. Israel’s tabernacle was thus not only a throwback to Eden but a foreshadowing of eternity. In the Revelation, John heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3).
Adam’s fall did not deter God. He still longed to live among His people and to commune with them despite their sinfulness. So He walked with Enoch, dwelt with Noah in the ark, and was the friend of Abraham. Later, when God called his people out of Egypt, He desired to dwell among them, bond with them and receive their worship. He thus placed His tent strategically in the very middle of their tents, and as soon as He took up residence (Exo 40:34), He called out to Moses from His throne, seeking worshipers (Lev 1:1).
The very existence of the tabernacle proved that God wanted to dwell with His people, and the wide gate on the east side confirmed that He wanted them to enter. And yet God designed His tent to confront the people He loved with His holiness and their defilement. When an Israelite arrived at the tent, he found it a forbidding place bristling with security and full of barriers. No Israelite could casually wander around the tabernacle or stroll into the courtyard. Levitical guards surrounded the compound, and the high fence kept people from even peering in. Anyone who tried to breach its boundaries was executed.
God is holy. This means first that He is altogether different and distinct from His creation. As the transcendent, almighty Creator, He must be revered and respected for His immensity and majesty. His holiness also includes a moral dimension: God is altogether different from people not only in His Being but in His character – He is impeccably pure and righteous and good. And this moral perfection axiomatically involves burning hatred of sin and commitment to punish it.
Holiness is a conceptual category lost on people today. Nothing is sacred. The proud notion that “man is the measure of all things” – although at least as old as Protagoras (fifth century B.C.) – is now the general unspoken assumption. By relegating the idea of holiness to the superstition of unenlightened people, modern thinkers have given up an entire domain of thought: the transcendent, the numinous, the sublime, the ineffable. Taking their own importance as a given, they refuse to accept an objective Reality greater than themselves, outside their control, beyond their influence, and past their understanding.
Men will not accept their true status as helpless creatures utterly dependent on the pleasure of God. “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:18). No Authority has any right to stop them from intruding where they will and from acting as they wish. And if a good God exists, He could not fail to welcome them exactly as they are. The idea that a higher Power might forbid them entrance or demand accountability both puzzles and angers them. They are blind to the “exceeding sinfulness” of their sin, and oblivious to the magnitude of their guilt before God.
The tabernacle confronts their arrogance. Its barriers and bloodshed and burning fire call for reverence – the proper posture of puny man before his infinite, invincible Creator. The tabernacle teaches the fear of God – deep respect coupled with awe, deference and submission. It induces worshipers to lie prostrate before Deity with a wholesome dread of doing anything to displease Him. The “fear of the Lord” is both “the beginning of wisdom” and “hatred of evil” (Pro 9:10; 8:13). The only safe attitude before God is reverence and godly fear, for He is a consuming fire (Heb 12:28-29).
The tabernacle taught Israel that sin is serious – so grievous that it demands death. Though easy to commit, it is enormously expensive to put away: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). When an offerer brought a high-priced steer to the altar, laid his hand on its head, and then completed the ritual slaughter, he saw with his own eyes what his sin had wrought. His animal sacrifice vividly foreshadowed the work of the true Substitute, who “tabernacled” among us (Joh 1:14) and “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26).
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.