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Threads of Scripture - Tabernacle

This is the sixth part of a multi-part series looking at creation and re-creation through the lens of mountains in the Bible.

After Israel emerges from the waters of the Red Sea unscathed and ascends Mt Sinai to meet with God in what amounts to a new creation of the people of God, a problem still remains. Only Moses as mediator can ascend to the top of the mountain and commune with God. Furthermore, Mt Sinai is only a waypoint for Israel. They are bound for the promised land. But how will God commune with his new creation during their wilderness wanderings? That is the problem that is addressed by the tabernacle.

In short, the tabernacle is a mini-mountain in metaphor. It will be the moveable mountain of God that goes with Israel as Israel journeys to the land that had been promised so long ago to Abraham. This metaphorical mountain will allow God to dwell in the midst of his people while maintaining the necessary separation between God and man, a separation that has been necessary since the fall of Adam.

And so, Exodus 25-40 is largely taken up with describing the layout and construction of the tabernacle. Though it is not explicitly equated to any of the prior mountains upon which God met with his people, the description of the tabernacle is full of allusions. We’ll consider a few points of correspondence.

First, the structure of the tabernacle evokes Mt Sinai. The tabernacle is divided into three levels, the holy of holies, the holy place, and the court. This corresponds to how Israel related to Mt Sinai. The people remained at the bottom; Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the elders of Israel ascended part way up Mt Sinai; only Moses ascended to the top of the mountain. Only the high priest is able to enter the holy of holies, and even then only when God invites him once a year.

Second, the furnishings of the tabernacle evoke Eden. The curtain that separates the holy of holies from the holy place was embroidered with cherubim (Exod 26:31-35). These angelic beings are the same ones who guarded the way to the garden of Eden and the tree of life (Gen 3:24). The lampstand in the holy place is fashioned as a tree, representing the fruitfulness of the garden. Moreover, the hem of the robe of the high priest was surrounded by pomegranates as a further symbol of the fruitfulness of the garden.

Finally, the materials of the tabernacle point to its cosmic significance. With respect to the metals used for the bases upon which the tabernacle and curtains rest, silver is used for the tabernacle and bronze is used for the curtains that act as the fence for the courtyard. With respect to the posts that give structure to the tabernacle and the fence, gold is used for the tabernacle and silver is used for the bands and hooks of the fence. “The symbolism seems to picture a situation in which the bottom tip of the tabernacle, i.e., the silver bases, fit into the top tip of the courtyard, i.e. the silver bands and hooks. The tabernacle proper is a kind of upper story to the courtyard.”[1] Thus, the materials of the tabernacle evoke the idea of ascending a mountain to the heavens, where the high priest will meet with God, just like Adam met with God on Eden and Moses on Sinai.

We also need to see that the activity that happens on this metaphorical mobile mini-mountain of God has significance. Once per year, the high priest accesses the holy of holies to atone for the sins of God’s people. This annual sacrifice is a metaphorical re-creation of God’s people by means of the metaphorical judgment leveled against the sacrifice. So, then, we see in the tabernacle a repeated picture of re-creation associated yet again with a mountain.

But as we have noted with each iteration, paradise has not been regained. This re-creation must happen every year on account of the sinful hearts of God’s people. There is no closure with the building of the tabernacle. Another, greater mountain must be ascended where a final sacrifice can be made to usher in a final re-creation.

  1. [1] Vern S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Pub, 1995), 26.

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