Exodus 26:1-14 describes four sets of coverings for the tabernacle:
1. The interior curtain, called the “tabernacle” (26:1-6).
2. A covering of goats’ hair to drape over the tabernacle (26:7-13).
3. A covering of rams’ leather, dyed red (26:14a).
4. An exterior covering of dugong or porpoise skin (26:14b).
The first two are given extensive attention. The first, interior curtain shares the name (mishkan) with the entire structure (compare 26:1 with Exodus 40:17-18). In this sense, the word has the same referent as ‘ohel, “tent.” In its more restricted sense, the word refers to one of the curtains. At times, it’s difficult to distinguish which meaning is intended, and the ambiguity of the term needs to be kept in mind. mishkan comes from shakan, “to dwell,” and designates the tent, and the inner curtain in particular, as a dwelling place, a place of rest, for Yahweh. Yahweh inhabits heaven; He appears within the thundercloud on Sinai; and He rests in the tabernacle.
The tabernacle is made of fine twisted linen, interwoven with blue, purple and scarlet material (26:1). Jacob Milgrom and others have pointed out that ancient peoples didn’t know how to dye linen, so the colored thread must be wool. The interior curtain of the tabernacle, in short, is a mixed fabric (Leviticus 19:19), forbidden to common Israelites but required in various fabrics of the tabernacle. Mixture is a signal of sanctity, not impurity.
Skilled workmen weave portraits of cherubim into the tabernacle (26:1-2). Cherubim stood sentry at the gate of Eden, and their presence in the tabernacle is an indication that the tent is an architectural garden, with angelic guardians surrounding the Lord’s throne, table, and lampstand. With its cherubim figures, the tabernacle is a heavenly covering, a firmament, strikingly put on the inside of the tent, like the starry roofs of many cathedrals. To enter the tabernacle is to enter a new world, a renewed earth under a new heaven.
The emphasis on “skilled (Heb. choshev) work” is notable. The Torah mentions several kinds of weaves, of different quality. choshev-quality work is reserved for the holiest fabrics, the tabernacle itself and portions of the priests’ garments (cf. Exodus 28:6, 15). Holiness is not identical to “best quality,” but the two categories overlap considerably.
Most of the text is devoted to a description of the construction of the tabernacle. It’s not a single piece, but is made from ten separate large pieces of cloth, each 28 x 4 cubits. Five of these are sewn together, forming a half-tabernacle of 28 x 20 cubits; the other five are also sewn together to form a second large covering. The numerology is significant. 28 = 7 x 4, the temporal symbol of creation multiplied by the spatial extent of the world (four corners). Each strip of cloth, then, points to the tabernacle as a cosmic symbol. The number five is a symbol of military power, a hint that the tabernacle is a military headquarters, housing the Captain of the hosts. The “coupled” tabernacle marks the tent as a trysting place between Yahweh and His Bride.
Each of the 28 x 20 pieces of the tabernacle has fifty loops along the edge, and gold clasps join the loops, forming the full tent curtain of 28 x 40 cubits. Altogether, then, the tabernacle has a 5 + 5 construction, linking it to other 5 + 5 pairings in the Torah and elsewhere (tablets of the law, tables and lampstands in the temple, water stands in the temple court). The careful joining of the two large pieces hints at a covenantal dimension of the tabernacle. “Join” (26:6; Heb. chavar) is used elsewhere of military alliances (e.g., Genesis 14:3; 2 Chronicles 20:35) and covenants with false gods (Hosea 4:17), and can be stretched to suggest a marital symbolism.
The goats’ hair covering that lies over the tabernacle is made in a similar way. There are three differences: The goats’ hair covering has eleven rather than ten constituent parts (26:7), each strip is thirty rather than twenty-eight cubits long (26:8), and the two large portions are joined with bronze rather than gold rings (26:11). The additional length allows the goats’ hair covering to extend down to the ground. The inner curtain doesn’t; the boards are ten cubits high, and the tent is ten cubits across (10 + 10 + 10 = 30 cubits). When the inner curtain is laid over the boards and extended over the interior, it leaves a cubit exposed on each side (30 – 28 cubits; assuming that the curtain is centered). The goats’ hair covering covers the full thirty cubits of the boards and the room. If nothing else, that has the practical benefit of preserving the inner curtain and the boards from weather (cf. 26:13).
The eleventh section of the goats’ hair cover gives it a total length of 44 cubits, enables it to cover the entire length of the thirty-cubit tabernacle and the ten-cubit walls at the back, with some leftover to lap over the back (26:12). The 40-cubit tabernacle covered the entire space of the tabernacle, and the back wall, and the goats’ hair covering covers that, with extra left over.
If the tabernacle forms the interior space as a heavenly environment, complete with cherubim, the goats’ hair represents earth, and specifically the land of shepherds, Israel. On top of goats’ hair layer is a layer of rams’ leather, and then an additional layer of dugong skin. That is, moving inside out, we move from heaven to earth to sea; or, from heaven to Israel to the Gentiles. In its fabrics, the tabernacle is an upside-down cosmos, with heaven at the lowest point at the sea at the highest. The tabernacle fabrics announce: Here’s a tent of prayer for all nations.
One final note: As Meredith Kline showed in Images of the Spirit, the tabernacle has particular affinities with the garments of the high priest. The symbolism works in both directions: The tent is humaniform, and the priest is a walking, talking tabernacle. Both signify “dwelling places” of Yahweh, anticipating the greater in-tabernaculation to come.
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