Mansions in the Sky, The Meaning of the Tabernacle

When Israel came out of Egypt, she was a collection of tribes descended from the Tribe of Abraham. Tribalism drops out of history into the “world” by looking back to ancestors and by orienting to the spirits that govern the world. The world must not be manipulated, because to do so would offend the spirits. Thus, science and technology cannot develop in tribalistic societies. Moreover, the orientation to the past means that change is not really possible. The dead rule the world from beyond the grave, as Gene Wolfe so nicely puts it in his marvelous four-volume novel The Book of the Long Sun.

God initially presents Himself to Israel as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He is the True Ancestor, back to whom they should look. He it is who rules from beyond the grave. But if that is the only conception of God we have, we can only begin to make historical progress. If we don’t move on, we shall fall back into only drifting through time and space, which is what tribes do.

In order to call Israel forward into history, God presents Himself at Mount Sinai as the God of heaven. He appears in a cloud in the sky, and gives laws to them. The Law provides them a firm foundation, and stops their tendency to drift through time.

Mt. Sinai is a ladder to heaven. The altar is set up at its base, and the smoke of the altar thus rises up into the Cloud. Mid-way up the mountain the elders of Israel covenanted to God with a meal. At the top God was enthroned in His Cloud; from there He uttered the Ten Words, and there He told Moses how the Tabernacle was to be constructed. (Exodus 24.)

When Israel left Mt. Sinai, they took a portable Sinai with them, for the Tabernacle complex reproduced this structure: Altar, Holy Place (with table of showbread), and Holy of Holies (with the Cloud of God).

The courtyard of the Tabernacle complex was marked off with five-cubit high pillars of wood, set in sockets of bronze and topped with rings of silver. The Tabernacle itself, located in the back half of the courtyard, was made of ten-cubit boards of wood overlaid with gold, set in sockets of silver. The sockets of silver at the base of the Tabernacle correspond to the rings of silver at the tops of the courtyard pillars. Thus, symbolically, the Tabernacle rested on top of the courtyard. You cannot build a two-storey tent, so you have to symbolize it.

The courtyard pillars were hung with white sheets of linen, and this represents clouds. We see this when we understand that the altar in the middle of the courtyard is a symbolic holy mountain. The courtyard, thus, is a mountain-top, surrounded by clouds, with the altar in the middle. The four horns of the altar represent mountain peaks.

The bronze altar and the bronze sockets of the courtyard pillars, thus, have to do with the earth. The gold, which is found in the Tabernacle, has to do with the heavenlies. In between is the silver, which has to do with the firmament between heaven and earth, to wit, the priestly nation. We see this in Exodus 38:24-26, where we are told that the amount of gold used was 29 talents (the number of days in a lunar month) and 730 shekels (twice the number of days in a solar year), thus associating the gold with the moon and the sun; whereas the amount of silver used was 603,550 half-shekels, the number of the enrolled men of Israel, thus representing the priestly nation.

The smoke rising off the mountain-top-altar is to be associated with the Tabernacle itself. The materials put on the altar fire–incense, flour, wine, and oil–are the items found in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle. These materials were turned into a cloud of smoke, which the Tabernacle represented. (See Jordan, “The Whole Burnt Sacrifice: Its Ritual and Meaning,” published by Biblical Horizons .)

The Tabernacle, made of gold boards, was hung inside and out with curtains of a smoky violet color, and was overlaid with a goat’s hair tent the color of a dark cloud. The Tabernacle curtains are prescribed in Exodus 26. The warp was white linen, while the woof was “blue” and purple and scarlet (wool). These curtains had cherubim woven into them. Since “blue” is mentioned first, this is the primary color, seen wherever there were no cherubim. The other two colors were used to weave the cherubim into the cloth. “Blue” is not a good translation, though. The actual color was “violet,” the color of smoke. (Previously I have followed commentators in associating the “blue” with the sky, but I no longer think this is correct.)

These curtains were not hung, as I originally thought (again, following most commentators) as a complete covering inside the Tabernacle. Rather, they seem to have formed two strips 140 cubits long, and were hung above and below the central pole of the Tabernacle wall, forming two draperies all around the inside and outside of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle walls were 30 cubits on a side, with 10 cubits at the rear, while the front was open. It seems that the curtains were hung all around the inside and outside in one strip above the central pole, and another strip below the central pole. The Tabernacle was 10 cubits high, while the curtains were only four cubits high each. Thus, there was a half-cubit of exposed golden wall above and below each curtain. The curtain presented a two-tiered army of cherubim looking inside and outside the Tabernacle.

Much attention is given to the central pole. For the gold-covered wooden boards to stand up straight, there had to be rings in them with poles run through the rings horizontally to keep the boards lined up. There were three lines of poles on each wall: at the bottom, the middle, and the top. The poles at the top and bottom were 15 cubits long, so that it took two poles to stretch the length of the Tabernacle. Attention is called to the central pole, because it ran the entire length. This created a two-storey effect in the Tabernacle itself. (Exodus 26.)

Thus, we have three storeys of five cubits each. The courtyard was five cubits high, and the two storeys of the Tabernacle were five cubits high each.

Now, Exodus 25 & 30, in describing the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Showbread, and the Altar of Incense, describe in detail the poles and rings set in each of them. These poles were run through the rings in order to carry these objects, but we don’t find this out until Numbers 4. Why does the Holy Spirit call our attention to them at this point in Exodus?

The reason, I believe, is that these rings and poles link conceptually with the central pole of the Tabernacle. Though these objects literally sat on the floor of the Tabernacle, symbolically they were suspended in mid-air along the line of the central pole 5 cubits (8 feet) in the air.

The rings of the Ark were put at the bottom of its feet, so that the whole Ark was above the central pole, and above the heads of the Levites who carried it. The rings of the Table of Showbread were positioned at the top of its legs, so that the Table hung down mostly below the central pole, and below the heads of the Levite porters. Exodus 30 does not say where the rings and poles of the Altar of Incense were placed, but I suggest they were placed midway up. (The poles were never to be removed from the Ark of the Covenant, showing that if the people offended God, He would depart as He had come.)

These three items are three altars that form a stairway to God’s throne. Incense was placed on top of the bread on the Table of Showbread, so that smoke arose from it (Leviticus 24:7). The top of the Table was just above the central pole. We step up to the top of the Altar of Incense. Then we step up to the top of the Ark, which was also an altar because blood was put on it annually, and because the Fire of God’s Cloud was ever upon it. The Table was 1� cubits high. My guess is that � a cubit symbolically rose over the central pole. The Altar of Incense was 2 cubits high. My guess is that 1 cubit symbolically rose over the central pole. The Ark was 1� cubits high, all of which rose over the central pole. Thus, we have a sequence of �-cubit (9-10 inch) steps leading to God’s throne.

Just as the bronze courtyard altar stood mid-way between God’s house (the Tabernacle) and the people, so the Altar of Incense stood mid-way between the twelve-loaves of showbread (the people) and God’s throne (the Cloud above the Ark-Cover).

The high priest, when he officiated in the Holy Place, also wore a robe of “blue” (smoky violet). His cherubic garment made him a human angel, flying in God’s firmament and ministering to Him. Thus, symbolically, the high priest flew about in the Holy Place, itself symbolically in the air.

Now, as we shall see, the Temple of Solomon did not have any of these heavenly associations. There are no stair-steps into it, nor is there a central pole to indicate that things are in the air. Solomon’s Temple sat squarely on a pavement of gold, and meant something quite different from the Tabernacle in this respect. The same contrast exists with Ezekiel’s Temple, for it is pictured as a gigantic stepped altar, or holy mountain, so that it also does not have the cloudy associations we find in the Tabernacle.

In the Tabernacle, God revealed Himself as the King of Heaven. He called the people to stop looking to the past and look upward to Him. It is a characteristic of kingdoms that they are oriented toward the sky and toward sky-powers and sky-gods. God was calling the people forward from their tribal infancy into a fuller maturity as a kingdom of priests. From this time onward, God would no longer be just their Ancestor; He would also be their King (see Judges 8:22-23; 1 Samuel 8:5-7). The princes of the twelve tribes yielded their rule to Him in the extended ritual recorded in Numbers 7.

For further study:

James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World, chapter 15.

Vern S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, chapter 2.

James B. Jordan, “From Glory to Glory: Degrees of Value in the Sanctuary”

James B. Jordan, “The Tabernacle: A New Creation”

James B. Jordan, “The Whole Burnt Sacrifice: Its Ritual and Meaning”

Biblical Horizons 1993 Conference on Temple and Priesthood

James B. Jordan, “Lectures on Exodus”

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons