Surprising Stories of the Tabernacle: Introduction

There is a Turkish chef who has gained notoriety for his gold wrapped tomahawk steaks. Once you recover from the shock of this extravagance you may remember that he is only 3,500 years behind Moses’ Sinai Stew (see Exodus 32 for a recipe)! In that day, the golden calf of the people’s folly was reduced to powder with the fire of judgment. But the destruction was not complete. The people now consumed the residue, mixed with water, and it was flushed away into the wilderness of Sin. To us, the details of this history seem so strange that we are left to wonder whether this is just some shocking account of the wrath of Moses unleashed. But when we consider the big picture, that, very shortly after, the tabernacle of meeting with its many golden objects was to be constructed, we understand that God ensured that not one ounce of that idolatrous gold would find its way into His sanctified tabernacle.

The tabernacle is indeed a dominant topic in Scripture. It is often pointed out that while only two chapters are devoted to the details of creation, fifty chapters are devoted to the intricate and precise details of the tabernacle. We treasure memories of great men from a past generation who could open the Bible, take the dusty details of a wilderness tabernacle, and use them with great clarity to illuminate the beauties of Christ. A quick search on the website of this magazine would reward you with a series of teachings by the late Sydney Maxwell concerning this very subject. The purpose of this series of articles is not to simply recount details which more capable men have already made plain, but rather to consider some of the surprising stories in Scripture that are connected with the tabernacle. You may judge for yourself, but I would submit that these unique stories are recorded to reveal to us what the tabernacle and its furniture represented to believers of that past age and how they are illustrative of truths we hold dear today.

We need not journey far from Exodus 32 to find another surprising story. Have you noticed the “pre-tabernacle” of Exodus 33? Verse 7 recounts, “And Moses took the tabernacle, and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp, and called it the Tabernacle of the congregation. And it came to pass, that every one which sought the LORD went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp.”1 If you are in the habit, like me, of reading over the Scriptures too quickly, it is easy to miss the reality that the true tabernacle was not yet completed. We must read on to the closing chapters of Exodus to reach that grand moment. That ultimate tabernacle found its home in the midst of the congregation of Israel, but this pre-tabernacle was placed far off, outside of the camp. The true tabernacle was not yet ready for its place in the congregation and, sadly, the congregation was not yet ready for the tabernacle.

In mountaineering there is the grand goal of reaching the seven summits, which is to climb the highest mountain on every continent. To date only about five hundred people in human history have accomplished this feat. Yet, Moses alone reached the summit of the mountain of God seven times in Exodus. On two of those occasions, he spent at least forty days in the presence of God. It is between the sixth and seventh ascents of the mountain that we read the surprising details of this earthly tabernacle:

“And it came to pass, when Moses went out unto the tabernacle, that all the people rose up, and stood every man at his tent door, and looked after Moses, until he was gone into the tabernacle. And it came to pass, as Moses entered into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the LORD talked with Moses. And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door. And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (Exo 33:8-11).

Can you see that what was true on the mountain top was true at ground level? The communion that Moses enjoyed with God on the mountain, far away from the view of any human, was displayed undeniably here to the eyes of every wilderness wanderer. The Lord truly desires that His people enjoy mountaintop experiences of spiritual ascent into the heavenlies. Yet, He clearly intends for that same level of communion to be displayed to the eyes of fellow sojourners below, that they too would be drawn to His presence. The end of verse 7 makes clear the invitation: “And it came to pass, that every one which sought the LORD went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp.” How many from the congregation of Israel dared to step outside the camp and venture near to this early tabernacle? In a greater sense we should ask how many of us in the past days have ventured “outside the camp” of this world to enjoy the presence of our Lord?

Lest we be tempted to say that such an experience is only meant for Moses-like believers well into their 80s – and thank the Lord for each one of them we have among us – consider what verse 11 quietly reveals about Joshua: “And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle.” Joshua had already been on some portion of the mountain with Moses, but here on the ground he witnessed something so amazing that he could not leave it behind. We rightly remember Joshua’s zeal in the battle against Amalek and his faithful witness to the goodness of the land, but perhaps it was this quiet experience that prepared him most as a young man bound for future leadership. Dear older believer, if you are a Moses, or a Mary enjoying communion at the feet of the Lord, please bring a younger believer along that we too might be spurred on to future service for His glory.

1Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.