The Tabernacle in Jerusalem, Bible Archaeology

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What was the Tabernacle?    

Bible Study Resource

The 'tabernacle' (mishkan in Hebrew) was the portable tent shrine containing the Ark of the Covenant, carried by the wandering lsraelites before they settled in Israel. According to tradition, it was erected as a temporary structure at the Shiloh sanctuary and carried by David’s followers to Jerusalem where it remained until Solomon’s Temple was built. 

The combination of Ark and Tabernacle represented Yahweh‘s dwelling place. 

The priestly traditions of the monarchy kept the old name of the desert tent of assembly (ohel mo‘éd Exodus 33:7-11) but also called it the mishkan (abode) to indicate the manner in which God who dwelt in heaven might also make a home on earth.

In the opinion of some scholars, there was a process of development: 

  • First came the oldest tradition, the Elohistic. lt stressed the role of the Mosaic tent where Yahweh talked to Moses 'face to face' (Exodus 33:11) or 'mouth to mouth' (Numbers 12:8) but gave no details of what it looked like or how it was furnished. 

  • A later (priestly) tradition (Exodus 25-31, 35-39) is that of the ideal mishkan (tabernacle). 

These traditions crystallized into their present form at a relatively late stage. With the passage of time, the original meaning became obscure. The priestly picture of the tabernacle is, nevertheless, more than merely a reflection of the ideas of the later period. lt contains an echo of authentic pre-Jerusalem tradition which can be disentangled from all the later accretions and distinguished within the traditions in the Pentateuch and the historical books (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles).

Moreover the motif of the desert Tent, whatever its shape and size, continued as the central religious institution, from the earliest times right through to the Tent of David. 

A modern re-imagining of the portable Tabernacle in the pre-Davidic period.
The post-Exodus Tabernacle may have been more modest than this reconstruction

Traditional Description

The description of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-31 and 35-39 shows ascending degrees of holiness from its perimeter, the outer court, through the holy place, to the holy of holies, right at the centre. 

  • The Court: the Tabernacle stood in the centre of the camp in a rectangular 
    enclosure measuring 100x50 cubits, (approx. 150x75 feet). The entrance was closed by a colourful embroidered screen. Embroidered curtains hung from pillars standing in sockets of bronze to screen off the rest of the area. 

  • The Altar: in the centre of the court stood the altar of burnt offering, made of a hollow chest of acacia wood sheathed with bronze. At each corner was one of the four horns of the altar. A bronze grating covered the lower half of the altar, from the ground to a projecting ledge halfway up the side. This allowed for sacrificial blood to be dashed against the sides and base of the altar. The altar was also fitted with rings and poles so that it could be carried. Beside the altar stood the bronze laver of water for the ablutions of the priests. 

  • The Holy Place: the inner sanctum was furnished with  1. the table of shewbread, (the bread of the presence), with its golden plates, dishes or cups for frankincense, and other flagons and vessels needed for the ritual;  2. a golden candlestick (possibly a seven-branched lampstand or menorah) which faced the table of shewbread and was supplied with golden snuffers for dressing the wicks of the lamps;  3. the square altar of incense, made of acacia wood overlaid with gold, also fitted with rings and poles. This stood in front of the veil which separated the holy place from the Holy of Holies and upon it incense made of sweet spices was offered night and morning. 

the temple at Bel Palmyra, with the most sacred area, the cella, at the rear

The lay-out of the Tabernacle, and later the Jerusalem Temple, was probably similar to many other temples in the ancient world (see the temple at Bel Palmyra above), with ascending degrees of holiness culminating in the Holy of Holies at the back of the cella


The Holy of Holies

This was a square of approximately I5 ft. which contained the Ark of the Covenant and the golden slab of the mercy seat (kapporeth) with a cherub made of pure beaten gold at either end. 

These priestly descriptions of gold, silver and bronze work, magnificent edifices and sumptuous carvings and decoration present obvious difiiculties. They are not appropriate to the materially poor community liberated from Egypt and they are quite unreal in terms of technical skills before the l0th century BC. Many scholars regard the descriptions as an ideal picture drawn by later priestly writers either to serve as a model for the Temple before it was built, or based on what actually existed in Solomon’s Temple. 

The use of the actual Temple of Solomon as a model for imaginative descriptions of the earlier Tabernacle, according to the first view, is particularly apparent in connection with the forms of the altars. To begin with, bronze only came into use in Israel for building and decoration during Solomon"s reign (I Kings 7:l3-l4). Similarly, the horns which figure so prominently in the accounts of the altar’s decoration (Exodus 30:3-4) appear from archaeological finds to have come into vogue in Israel only at the beginning of the monarchy. The Bible only mentions them (apart from this one instance) against the background of the monarchical period (I Kings 1:50-51; Psalms 118:27; Jeremiah l7:l ; Amos 3 :14). It seems, therefore, that they belonged to the Temple, not to its forerunner, the Tabernacle. 

Many of the other items mentioned in the priestly description of Exodus 25-31 and 35-39 cannot be fitted into any realistic picture of a portable shrine such as the Mosaic Tent and Ark which travelled in front of Israel (Numbers 10:35-36). Instead, it seems more likely that the desert sanctuary was conceived as a collapsible version of the Temple of Jerusalem, measuring exactly half as long as that structure, but keeping the tradition that God‘s earthly dwelling was a 'Tent'. 

Archaeology of the Tabernacle

What the tent in fact looked like may perhaps be suggested by the bas relief on the Temple of Bel at Palmyra (Tadmor), dating to between the 3rd and lst centuries BC and showing a portable tent shrine (see below). 

Bas relief on the Temple of Bel at Palmyra

Bas relief on the Temple of Bel at Palmyra

This, again, is very reminiscent of the pre-Islamic 'qubbah’, a big red leather tent with a domed top in which the sacred objects of the tribe were housed. It accompanied the tribe into battle and was believed to guide them during periods of wanderings. The holiness of the tent was second only to that of the objects it contained. It was both a container for these protective objects, and the focal point of worship where priests gave oracles. 


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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology 
Reconstructing the Priestly Tabernacle: fact or fiction? Traditional description, the Holy of Holies & archaeology 

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher