Here begins teaching about the tabernacle that will extend to ch. 40.  The actual description of the tabernacle goes through to ch. 31.  This is followed by three chapters relating the golden calf incident.  Then comes the account of the construction of the tabernacle, which repeats the previous instructions almost verbatim.

John Oswalt (Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology) notes the significance of this material within the overall structure of the book:

  1. The deliverance from Egypt, culminating in the crossing of the Red Sea, chapters 1-15;
  2. The journey to Sinai, culminating in the sealing of the covenant, chapters 16-24;
  3. The building of the tabernacle, culminating in its being filled with the glory of the Lord, chapters 25-40.

Oswalt comments: ‘This literary structure shows that the ultimate need of the people was not for deliverance from physical oppression or from theological darkness, but from alienation from God.’

Reid agrees that ‘in many ways the book of Exodus has been heading towards this very point, where God’s people might be given access to God’s presence and the assurance that it would be ongoing. This was something that they had sought after ever since they left Egypt—note the question they posed in Exodus 17:7: “Is the LORD among us or not?”‘

Motyer observes that, in the rich variety that God has given us in Scripture, we have been taught ‘from the record of historical events and from the revelation of the Lord’s laws’, and now we come to teaching in the form of visual aids of spiritual realities.

As obscure and remote as the subject may seem to us today, it is of huge importance in the Bible.  No less than 50 chapters are devoted to the tabernacle: 13 in Exodus, 18 in Leviticus, 13 in Numbers, 2 in Deuteronomy, and 4 in Hebrews.  The word itself occurs over 400 times in the Bible.

It has been noted that God created the whole world in 6 days, but he used 40 days to instruct Moses about the tabernacle.

Three names: ‘sanctuary’ (holy place), ‘tabernacle’ (dwelling place), ‘meeting place’, Ex 29:42.

Childs notes that Wellhausen’s formulation held sway among critical scholars for several decades.  According to this view, the account of the tabernacle in Exodus was a historical fiction which was a projection of the Solomonic temple back into the time of Moses.  Among the reasons given were: (a) there are inconsistencies in the biblical account; (b) it seems improbable that such a structure was transportable; (c) there are indications of a late post-exilic priestly theology in the Exodus account.  However, this sceptical consensus has broken down, and it is now widely acknowledged that the tabernacle account contains material of great antiquity, even if (among critical scholars) different views remain as to the historical basis of the details.

Fretheim comments on the apparent long-windedness of the account.  At the very least, he writes, ‘the volume of material demonstrates the importance of worship to the narrator. Moreover, the movement in the book of Exodus as a whole is one from slavery to worship, from service to Pharaoh to service of God. More particularly, it is a movement from Israel’s enforced construction of Pharaoh’s buildings to the glad and obedient offering of themselves for a building for the worship of God.’

More specifically, Fretheim writes, what is signalled here is a change in the way God is present with his people:

  1. an ongoing presence, rather than an occasional appearance;
  2. an imminent presence (not associated with a distant mountain-top but with a dwelling place in the middle of the camp.  ‘The language used for God’s presence on Mt. Sinai (Ex 24:15–18) becomes the language for God’s tabernacle dwelling (Ex 40:34–38), enclosing the entire tabernacle account. God leaves the mountain, the typical abode for gods in the ancient Near East, and comes to dwell among the people of God. God is not like the gods who remain at some remove from a messy world, enjoying their own life, often uncaring and oblivious to the troubles of the creatures. God leaves the mountain of remoteness and ineffable majesty and tabernacles right in the center of a human community. No longer are the people—or their mediator—asked to “come up” to God; God “comes down” to them. No more trips up the mountain for Moses!’
  3. an intimate presence, where God descends to his people, rather than a remote object to which the people must ascend;
  4. a traveling presence, rather than a fixed presence.

In sum, ‘these chapters represent a climax not only in Israel’s journey but in God’s journey.’

One ancient interpretation of the tabernacle that continues to be influential is that of Philo.  In his symbolic reading, ‘the tent of meeting represented the spiritual world and the courtyard signified the material world. The colors (blue, purple, crimson and white) represented the basic elements; the seven lights of the lampstand were the seven planets; and the twelve precious stones were the twelve signs of the Zodiac.’  Josephus, together with early Christian teachers such as Clement and Jerome, offered a similar interpretation.  Origen added to this a moral dimension, in which ‘the gold, silver, and bronze respectively represented faith, the preached word, and patience.’  Protestants added their own symbolic interpretation, where ‘the holy of holies was a sign of the invisible and triumphant church of Christ and the courtyard was the visible and militant congregation.’ (Bruckner)

Critical scholarship in the 19th century ascribed the description of the tabernacle to the priestly writer (‘P’), and counted it as ‘pious fiction’ set down in the post-exilic period.  The whole thing was an attempt by the post-exilic priests, to justify their own craft by appeal to an imagined history.

Enns comments positively on the historicity of the tabernacle: ‘In current Old Testament scholarship, only the most extreme pessimists cast serious doubt on the historicity of the tabernacle. This happy state of affairs has not always been the case. Julius Wellhausen, for example, considered the tabernacle as a figment of the Priestly writer’s (P source) cultic imagination, an attempt to read the splendor of the temple back into the Mosaic era, perhaps to lend ancient support to the practices for which the Priestly class was known. But this view has given way to greater care in assessing the evidence. Recent research has demonstrated that worship in tent shrines in the ancient Semitic world was normal.’

Childs maintains that although the interpreter must exercise caution in adopting a symbolical interpretation (because it is so difficult to set limits to it), it would be wrong to jettison it completely.  A purely functional approach, such as that of Clericus (who suggests that the reason for incense on the altar was to keep flies away, and the reason that white was chosen for the priest’s garments was so that they could easily be washed) is just as dominated by presuppositions as the more fanciful interpretations it seeks to replace.

Fretheim says that although modern scholarship has largely rejected the allegorical/symbolical approaches of earlier times, certain aspects of such approaches (especially those relating to creation) do have a basis in the text.

Enns (The Evolution of Adam) speaks for a number of scholars in thinking that the instructions for the tabernacle in Ex 25-31 reflect the creation account of Gen 1: ‘Both tabernacle and cosmos come to exist through a sixfold creative act culminating in a seventh act of rest. Six times we read, “The LORD said to Moses” (Ex 25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1), which parallels the six creative words of Genesis 1: “And God said …” (vv. 3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 22). These six creative acts are followed by the seventh “The LORD said to Moses” in Exod. 31:12, which introduces the Sabbath command. This suggests to many readers, past and present, that building the tabernacle is a microcosm, the re-creation of the cosmos on a smaller scale.’

According to Enns, this view is confirmed by various other details in Exodus:

‘After the tabernacle is constructed, we read in Ex 39:32 that the work was completed, using the same Hebrew verb (kalah) with which Genesis 2:2 refers to the completion of God’s creative work.

The chief craftsman of the tabernacle is Bezalel, who is filled with the Spirit of God (31:3) to do his creative work. In Genesis 1:2 we see the Spirit of God hovering (or sweeping) over the water just before God begins his creative work.
In 39:43 we read that Moses “inspected the work and saw” (NIV) that they had completed the work according to plan. Likewise in Genesis 1 God inspects his creative work and sees that it is good.

Moses blesses the people after completing the work (39:43) as God blesses his creation in Genesis 1:22, 28; 2:3.

In 40:33 we read that Moses “finished the work,” which echoes how God finished his work on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2).’

Chester points out that the tabernacle points back to Eden and therefore points to the way back ‘home’.  He notes the following similarities between the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2 and the account of the construction of the tabernacle:-

‘First, the list of materials for the tabernacle begins with gold and ends with onyx (Exodus 25:3-7). Compare this to the description of Eden in Genesis 2:12: “The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there”.

‘Second, Exodus 25:31-39 describes the lampstand in the tabernacle. With all its buds and blossoms, it looks like a tree. The tabernacle will look like a garden with a tree that gives light. It is an echo of the tree of life at the centre of the Garden of Eden.

‘Third, seven times in the account of creation we read “God said” (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24, 26). And seven times in the tabernacle instructions we read, “The Lord said to Moses” (Exodus 25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12). Moreover, both accounts culminate in a description of the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 31:12-18). The building of the tabernacle is like the building of our garden-home in Eden.

‘Fourth, before the fall, Eden was a temple-mountain with Adam as its priest. Now, in the tabernacle, the temple-mountain is being re-created. Adam’s charge “to till and keep” (Genesis 2:15, RSV) is only used again of priests (Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6). What is striking is that Adam in Eden is described in ways similar to the priests in Exodus 28 – 29, and Eden is described as the “mount of God” (Ezekiel 28:13, 14, 16). And in Ezekiel 28:11-19, God condemns the King of Tyre in language that sees him as another embodiment of either Adam or Satan.’

Barry Webb notes the following connections:-

  • The presence of God (Ex 25:8/Gen 3:8)
  • The treelike menorah (Ex 25:32/Gen 2:9)
  • The guardian cherubim (Ex 25:18-20;Gen 3:24)
  • The single entrance on the eastern side (Gen 38:13/Gen 3:24)

Webb concludes: ‘like Eden, the tabernacle is a sanctuary, a holy place set apart from the created world in general, where God and human beings meet in harmony.’ (in Exploring Exodus, p158)

According the Harper’s Bible Commentary, portable tent-shrines were quite common in the Ancient Near East.

As to dimensions, the ‘ark of the covenant’ was just over 1 yard long and just over 1/2 yard wide; the sanctuary was a structure of about 5×15 yards, and the surrounding yard about the size of a small football pitch.

Fretheim notes the contrast between the construction of the tabernacle and that of the golden calf (recorded in Ex 32-33:6, between the two accounts of the tabernacle:

The Materials for the Sanctuary, 1-9

25:1  The LORD spoke to Moses: 25:2 “Tell the Israelites to take an offering for me; from every person motivated by a willing heart you are to receive my offering. 25:3 This is the offering you are to accept from them: gold, silver, bronze, 25:4 blue, purple, scarlet, fine linen, goat’s hair, 25:5 ram skins dyed red, fine leather, acacia wood, 25:6 oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for fragrant incense, 25:7 onyx stones, and other gems to be set in the ephod and in the breastpiece. 25:8 Let them make for me a sanctuary, so that I may live among them. 25:9 According to all that I am showing you—the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—you must make it exactly so.

‘There are three fundamental spiritual principles exemplified here, which remain eternally valid. The first (in verse 2) is that giving to God must be voluntary, not forced (2 Cor. 9:7). God’s grace will prompt men to give: and man will then give his most costly treasures gladly to God. This is clearly the meaning of the list of contributions in verses 3–7, whatever uncertainty there is about detailed interpretation. Secondly, it is God’s aim and purpose to live in the midst of his people (verse 8): that is the whole reason for making the tent. Thirdly, obedience in carrying out God’s master-plan is essential (verse 9). This last point is the great stress through chapters 35–40.’ (Cole, emphasis added)

“Gold, silver, bronze” – How did a nomadic tribe, recently released from slavery, come by such items?  Cole identifies a number of possible sources for these metals: ‘The Arabah, to the south of the Dead Sea, was rich in copper mines: gold was also found in the Sinai Peninsula. If, as is probable, the Midianites were a mining people, Israel had easy access to metals: in addition, the ‘looting’ of Egypt, when they left, should be remembered (Exod. 12:35).’

But, directly or indirectly, all these materials come from God’s bounteous creation.  We can only give to God what he has first given to us, for all things come from him (1 Chron 29:14).

The closer to God, the more precious the metal.

Cole adds that the absence of iron in this list is suggestive of an early date.

Another observation of Cole is that the fact that they were a nomadic people does not preclude them owning such valuable items: witness the luxurious carpets in some eastern tents to this day.

“Sanctuary” – Cole says that the word literally means ‘holy place’, and as such was later used for the temple itself.

Motyer notes that the word suggests to us ‘a place to run for safety’, but this is to obscure its true meaning, which is, ‘a place where holiness is.’

“So that I may live among them” – God’s presence with his people will be a prominent theme in these later chapters of Exodus (25:8, 22, 30; 29:45; 30:6; 40:38).

‘The tabernacle was a new paradigm for God’s relationship to the people. God took the initiative to live among them in a very specific way. The Lord would not remain on the distant horizon in a cloud, or unapproachable on a mountain, but would be present in the midst of the camp. God was not geographically fixed at Sinai, but was and would be mobile, traveling with them in the wilderness toward the land of promise.’ (Bruckner)

“The pattern of the tabernacle” – This is the first appearance of the word ‘tabernacle’ in the OT.  There is a hint here of typological significance.  The tabernacle is a model of the real thing.

As Enns observes, ‘tabernacle’ and ‘sanctuary’ are used interchangeably in v8f.

‘The Hebrew root for “dwelling place” is not the verb yashab (“sit,” “remain for a while”) but the verb shakan (“settle down,” “abide”). The Lord did not come for a visit, but rather to live among them. On the other hand, God did not live in the tabernacle but dwelt among the people (v. 8), visibly descending to and ascending from the sanctuary. The text reveals the enduring presence as well as the mobility of God. Later Jewish tradition used the same root for the word shekinah to refer to the dwelling presence of the Lord.’ (Bruckner)

‘As a “sanctuary,” a holy or sacred structure, it is a special place, set apart for ordinary usage in a way appropriate for the distinctive holiness of the God who comes to stay there. For Christians, it points to a paradox. The coming of Christ terminated the need for a sacred place; the people of God are the “place” where God dwells. Yet Christians soon found themselves setting apart special places for worship, and in the United States a place of worship is commonly called a sanctuary. That reflects a human need for a place set apart, a need to which God graciously condescends.’ (Goldingay)

‘Does this therefore mean that there is another tabernacle, a heavenly one, of which the earthly one was a symbol? Indeed, one must surely understand Heb 9:11–12 in such a way (“When Christ came …, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption”).’ (Stuart)

“You must make it exactly so” – ‘No detail in the construction of the tent and its contents is left to the imagination of the people, for they are completely dependent upon the revelation of God for knowledge of their relationship to him.’ (Goldsworthy, According to Plan)

The tabernacle, Ex 25:8

1. God’s pattern for it

The account of creation occupies 2 chapters; that of the tabernacle 14 chapters.

Four times Moses was instructed that it must be ‘according to the pattern’, Ex 25:9, 40; 26:30; 27:8.

Heb 8:5 – ‘They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”’

2. God’s purpose through it

Ex 25:8 – ‘That I may dwell among them’

God ‘walked’ in Eden, and with Enoch and Noah.  He ‘visited’ Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but he choose to ‘dwell’ with his chosen and redeemed people.

3. God’s place in it

Ex 25:22 – ‘I will meet with you there’

God’s order in the design of the tabernacle – from the Holiest out to the gate; Israel’s order in their approach – from the gate inward.

(A. Naismith, 1200 Scripture Outlines, p13, adapted)

The Ark of the Covenant, 10-22

Deut 10:18 that refers to this ‘ark’ (or chest) as ‘the ark of the covenant’.

25:10  “They are to make an ark of acacia wood—its length is to be three feet nine inches, its width two feet three inches, and its height two feet three inches. 25:11 You are to overlay it with pure gold—both inside and outside you must overlay it, and you are to make a surrounding border of gold over it. 25:12 You are to cast four gold rings for it and put them on its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other side. 25:13 You are to make poles of acacia wood, overlay them with gold, 25:14 and put the poles into the rings at the sides of the ark in order to carry the ark with them. 25:15 The poles must remain in the rings of the ark; they must not be removed from it. 25:16 You are to put into the ark the testimony that I will give to you.

“An ark” – a box or chest, similar in size to a small seaman’s chest (Cole).

‘Essentially, the chest itself was a sacred box, easily portable, to contain the two stone tablets engraved with the law. The ‘covering’, overshadowed by the wings of the cherubim, was also seen as a throne of the invisible God, who would meet with, and speak to, Israel there (verse 22).’ (Cole)

Wiersbe notes that the ark is variously called ‘the ark of the covenant’ (Num. 10:33), ‘the ark of God’ (1 Sam. 3:3), ‘the ark of the Lord’ (Josh. 3:15), ‘the ark of the Lord God’ (1 Kings 2:26), ‘the ark of the testimony’ (Ex. 25:22), ‘the holy ark’ (2 Chron. 35:3), and ‘the ark of [God’s] strength’ (Ps. 132:8).

Chester comments that the dimensions of the ark were in the same proportions as the footstool of a king.  He adds: ‘

In Isaiah 6, God’s throneroom is in the temple, but all that can be seen of God is the train of his robe, because God reigns from heaven with his feet touching the earth in the temple. In Isaiah 66:1, the Lord says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?” Moreover, a number of passages speak of God being enthroned between the cherubim (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; Psalms 80:1; 99:1). (Jeremiah 3:16-17 equates the ark with a throne when it says the ark will be forgotten when Jerusalem becomes God’s throne.) This is the point where God’s throne in heaven touches the earth.’  See also Acts 7:29.

“The poles must remain in the rings of the ark; they must not be removed from it” – God’s presence, although in some sense localised, was not limited to one geographic place.  He would travel with his people.  Even when the tabernacle found a resting place in Jerusalem, the poles remained in place, and visible (1 Kings 8:7f).

Indeed, the entire tabernacle would have to be taken apart and reconstructed every time the people moved.

The ark was so holy that it must not be touched.  ‘Rather, a system of rings and poles is necessary to transport it. As we read in the well-known story of Uzzah, to touch the ark means death (2 Sam. 6:3–7; 1 Chron. 13:9–10).’ (Enns)

“The testimony” – the two tablets of the law.  Here is a testimony, or witness, to the nature of God.

‘In pagan religions those who penetrated into the innermost sanctuary came face to face with some idol, but in the tabernacle they came face to face with the moral law…Until something is done to satisfy the demands of that law and to deal with the way we have broken it, the door into God’s presence must remain shut in our faces.’ (Motyer, Scenic Route)

25:17 “You are to make an atonement lid of pure gold; its length is to be three feet nine inches, and its width is to be two feet three inches. 25:18 You are to make two cherubim of gold; you are to make them of hammered metal on the two ends of the atonement lid. 25:19 Make one cherub on one end and one cherub on the other end; from the atonement lid you are to make the cherubim on the two ends. 25:20 The cherubim are to be spreading their wings upward, overshadowing the atonement lid with their wings, and the cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the atonement lid. 25:21 You are to put the atonement lid on top of the ark, and in the ark you are to put the testimony I am giving you. 25:22 I will meet with you there, and from above the atonement lid, from between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will command you for the Israelites.

“An atonement lid”Cf. Heb 9:5.  A common interpretative translation is ‘mercy seat’.  The underlying word alludes to a ‘cover’ (hence ‘lid’, NET), but this could either be literal or metaphorical (i.e. ‘that which covers, or propitiates’).  Stuart remarks that this metaphorical meaning may well have been understood by the original native Hebrew speakers.

Given the dimensions specified here, the atonement cover was designed to fit precisely over the lid of the ark. The law must be completely covered.

‘The lid of the ark, made of pure gold, was designated an atonement cover (v17; cf. Heb. 9:5, ‘place of atonement’). Lv. 16:1–34 (esp. vs 11–17) describes the annual ritual which took place when the high priest sprinkled blood on the ark’s lid to make atonement for ‘the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been’ (Lv. 16:16).’ (NBC)

‘Sometimes when we hand over money to pay a bill, we say, ‘You’ll find that that covers it’: the payment ‘covers’ the debt, not by hiding it out of sight (like pitch on the woodwork of the ark), but by cancelling it out altogether.’ (Motyer, Scenic Route)

‘The atonement cover was not merely the lid of the ark. It was a special, solid gold appurtenance that fitted on top of the lid and represented a paramount happy and sacred fact of Israel’s existence: their God, the only true God, had in his eternal kindness and love arranged for them to enjoy reconciliation with him as the key provision of his covenant. They were not strangers or enemies; they were his covenant family. He was close to them, not far away. They had a familial connection with him and could even sense that connection spatially in the fact of the ark’s atonement cover, where his divine presence was graciously manifested on their behalf.’ (Stuart)

Stuart says that this structure was not really a ‘seat’ or ‘throne’ (as suggested by the traditional translation of ‘mercy seat’), but rather ‘a pedestal or standing platform than a seat, a reflection of the dazzling slab that appeared under the feet of Yahweh when the elders saw him on Mount Sinai (Ex 24:10)—not a throne or chair or the like. Although it is true that God is elsewhere described in some English translations, including the NIV, as “enthroned between the cherubim,” this English translation may be suspect; a more literal translation would be “cherubim dweller” since the Hebrew wording makes no mention of a “throne” or any “enthronement.”’

It appears that the cover of the ark is alluded to in Rom 3:25, when Paul writes of Jesus Christ having been presented by God ‘as a sacrifice of atonement’.  Chester: ‘When Jesus, God’s King, comes to fully restore God’s rule at his second coming, justice will be done. But at his first coming, justice did not fall. Or rather, it fell on the King himself, at the cross. Jesus was the sacrifice of atonement, who covers the penalty of our sin so we can receive mercy.’

“Two cherubim” – As Enns remarks, the sudden mention of the cherubim suggests that they needed no explanation for the readers.  They were known from other ancient sources, and are mentioned also in Gen 3:24 and Num 7:89.

‘Cherubim were the traditional guardians of holy places in the Ancient Near East. Apart from the two described here, others were woven into the curtains which surrounded the tabernacle and which separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place (Ex 26:1, 31). Cherubim are not to be confused with the ‘cherubic’ children often found in more recent art.’ (NBC)

If Ex 1 and Rev 4 are to be taken as guides, the cherubim were winged sphinxes with human faces.

According to Ex 36:35, cherubim were also embroidered around the the inner curtain of the tent.  Solomon’s temple had two enormous cherubim (2 Chron 3:10).

‘Like the seraphim in Isaiah 6:2, they did not look up at the Lord, but cast their eyes downward toward the cover with their wings shielding their eyes from the Lord’s presence.’ (Bruckner)

‘Frequently in Scripture you find the image of finding safety “under His wings.” Sometimes this refers to the mother bird protecting her young (Pss. 57:1; 63:7; Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34), but it can also refer to being under the wings of the cherubim in the holy of holies (Ruth 2:12; Pss. 17:8; 36:7–8; 61:4; 91:1, 4).’ (Wiersbe)

“I will meet with you there” – Singular.  Through Moses and his successors, God would deliver all of his commands for the Israelites.

Cf. Psalm 132:13f – ‘Certainly the Lord has chosen Zion; he decided to make it his home. He said, “This will be my resting place forever; I will live here, for I have chosen it.”

‘The chest was always regarded as the visible symbol of God’s presence and, as such, in Mosaic days it was hailed when going out or coming in (Num. 10:35, 36). Under Eli, it was wrongly regarded as a magic ‘charm’ ensuring divine protection (1 Sam. 4:4). David refused to abuse its protection in this way (2 Sam. 15:25) and Jeremiah foresaw the day when such a symbol would no more be needed (Jer. 3:16). It presumably perished in the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC. In later temples a symbolic block of stone took its place, and in modern Jewry the carved wooden cupboard that houses the scroll of the law bears its name. The holiest place of all in the tent was the resting-place of this sacred chest, which to touch was death to a commoner (2 Sam. 6:7). It is however typical of Israel’s faith that neither chest nor cherub was an object of worship: the chest, by containing the law, merely witnessed to the nature of the God who was worshipped there.’ (Cole)

‘Exodus established that living under God’s law, forgiveness, and meeting with the living Lord were the foremost purposes of the tabernacle.’ (Bruckner)

As Selvaggio remarks, the ark may be regarded as God’s throne – or, better still, his footstool (see Psa 99:1-5).  Various texts speak of God being enthroned between the cherubim – 1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2; Ps. 80:1; 99:1.

Goldsworthy: ‘Everything about this structure speaks of three great truths: God wills to dwell among his people and to meet with them; sin separates people from God; and God provides a way of reconciliation through sacrifice and the mediatorial office of the priest.’

‘Moses was permitted to enter the holy of holies where God spoke to him from the mercy seat and revealed His will for the people of Israel (Ex. 25:21–22; 29:42; 30:6, 36; Num. 7:89; see Ps. 91:1). God’s people today have access into God’s presence through the blood of Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:19–25), for He is our “mercy seat” (propitiation, Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2). Because of His blood shed for us, the throne of God is for us a throne of grace.’ (Wiersbe)

The Day of Atonement.  ‘The annual Day of Atonement (yôm hakippurîm, Lev 23:27; 25:9) was the most important cultic celebration in the OT. In preparation for this solemn event the high priest sacrificed a young bull as a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering to atone for his own sins and those of the priesthood (Lev 16:11–14). He sprinkled the blood of the bull on the front of the golden lid of the ark designated the “atonement cover” (AV, “mercy seat”—kappōret, meaning “place of atonement”; cf. Exod 25:17). Then the high priest sacrificed the first male goat as a sin-offering and sprinkled its blood upon and in front of the “atonement cover” in the holy of holies, thereby expiating the uncleanness of the people (Lev 16:15–19) and making atonement (kippurîm; cf. Exod 29:36; 30:10; Lev 23:28). According to Lev 17:11, this act of blood-shedding represents God’s ordained means of securing atonement. The helpless animals died in place of the penitent sinner. The high priest then laid his hands on the head of the second goat (the “scapegoat,” AV, NIV) and confessed all the sins of the community, thus symbolically transferring guilt from the people to the victim. The second goat became a sin-bearer as it carried the sins and iniquities of the people into the wilderness. The Day of Atonement ritual dramatically depicted the holiness of God, the gravity of sin, and God’s gracious provision by vicarious sacrifice.’ (Demarest, The Cross and Salvation)

The mythology of Richard Rohr
Richard Rohr develops an impressive mythology based on this teaching.

‘There are many ways to describe [the] underlying reality of awareness, letting go, and how to enter the flow. There are so many good teachers emerging today who use different vocabulary, but who each are teaching us how to rest in this quiet holding place that watches the mental commentary rush by and also lets go of it.  Picture this position as the “mercy seat” situated above the ark of the covenant, the portable presence that traveled around with God’s people, an open-ended horizon that had to be guarded and protected by two golden cherubim.  Such guarding of presence is exactly the way that one becomes aware that the force field even exists. You must guard and protect your inner space. This is precisely where YHWH says to Israel, “I shall come to meet you.”  But most have not been taught the practice or the patience to stand guard over this seemingly empty space where your Inner Witnessing Presence, your quiet Inner Knower, dwells. You must learn to trust this Knower. The Spirit is doing the knowing and loving in you, with you, and for you.  This is at the heart of a contemplative and truly Christian epistemology. Yet so few know about this already-given gift, even few in formal ministry, it often seems. Most Christians have not been taught contemplation. Contemplation is learning how to abide in and with the Witnessing Presence planted within you, which of course is the Holy Spirit, almost perfectly symbolized by the ark of the covenant. If you keep “guard,” like two cherubim, over the dangerous, open-ended space of your transient feelings and thoughts, you will indeed be seated on the mercy seat, where God dwells in the Spirit. The passing flotsam and jetsam on your stream of consciousness will then have little power to trap or imprison you. The only difference between people that matters is the difference between those who allow this space to fill with flow— and those who don’t, or won’t, allow it. Like Mary, the model for contemplatives, “it is done unto you,” and you can only allow. Always. Just guard the landing field of your own consciousness with your own two golden cherubim, which will often be the two sides of almost any argument. Instead of choosing sides, protect the open space between them, and the Presence will always show itself. These will indeed be “the better angels of your nature” that Abraham Lincoln invoked during the American Civil War. They will allow the emergence of what some call “third force” responses, larger and deeper than the ordinary two sides of most arguments. Whether as dove, fire, water, or blowing wind, the Third Force of the Holy Spirit will show itself. You yourself are a traveling ark of the covenant; you hold and guard the space where the Presence shows itself. But the Presence, the Force Field, is already held within you.  It only needs allowing and appreciating.

Rohr, Richard. The Divine Dance: The Trinity and your transformation (Kindle Locations 1920-1948). SPCK.

The Table for the Bread of the Presence, 23-30

25:23  “You are to make a table of acacia wood; its length is to be three feet, its width one foot six inches, and its height two feet three inches. 25:24 You are to overlay it with pure gold, and you are to make a surrounding border of gold for it. 25:25 You are to make a surrounding frame for it about three inches broad, and you are to make a surrounding border of gold for its frame. 25:26 You are to make four rings of gold for it and attach the rings at the four corners where its four legs are. 25:27 The rings are to be close to the frame to provide places for the poles to carry the table. 25:28 You are to make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold, so that the table may be carried with them. 25:29 You are to make its plates, its ladles, its pitchers, and its bowls, to be used in pouring out offerings; you are to make them of pure gold. 25:30 You are to set the Bread of the Presence on the table before me continually.

Whereas at a pagan shrine, food might be laid out to feed the idol, here it represents fellowship between God and his people.  The tabernacle is, after all, a ‘tent of meeting’, and it is ‘Bread of the Presence’ which is placed (and regularly renewed) on the table.  We think, perhaps of our word ‘company’, which in ancient French (and in even more ancient Latin) meant, ‘to eat bread with’.

‘It’s not there because God is hungry! It’s there as a permanent sign that God invites us to enjoy community with him. This is the bread of his Presence.’ (Chester)

According to Lev 24:5-9, the Bread of the Presence was in the form of twelve loaves, one for each of the twelve tribes.  All were welcome.  God is the host, and as host he would both protect and provide for his people.

Chester: ‘In Exodus 24:9-11, the elders of Israel went up the mountain into the presence of God. There they “saw the God of Israel … But God did not raise his hand against” them. Instead “they saw God, and they ate and drank”. A meal in the presence of God is the goal of salvation. And that promise was permanently embodied in the tabernacle table and bread.’

The Lampstand, 31-40

25:31  “You are to make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand is to be made of hammered metal; its base and its shaft, its cups, its buds, and its blossoms are to be from the same piece. 25:32 Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand, three branches of the lampstand from one side of it and three branches of the lampstand from the other side of it. 25:33 Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, and three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on the next branch, and the same for the six branches extending from the lampstand. 25:34 On the lampstand there are to be four cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms, 25:35 with a bud under the first two branches from it, and a bud under the next two branches from it, and a bud under the third two branches from it, according to the six branches that extend from the lampstand. 25:36 Their buds and their branches will be one piece, all of it one hammered piece of pure gold.

The walls of the tabernacle were four layers thick, and over the top was a roof made from the skins of sea-cows. With no windows, how dark it would have been inside! But God provides for a perpetual source of light in the form of a lampstand with candles.

The lampstand is described as having a tree-like form.

Reid notes that it was the lampstand (rather than the later star of David) which stood for longest as the emblem of Judaism.

The lampstand symbolised, writes Ryken, life:

‘The lampstand stood for life because it was made in the shape of a tree. Its central shaft formed the trunk, from which branches spread that were covered with beautiful buds, blossoms, and fruit. This botanical motif was not merely decorative but also symbolic. As the lampstand branched out, it was budding, blooming, and ripening with fruit. In other words, the three stages in the life cycle of a tree were occurring simultaneously. This made the lampstand a potent symbol of God’s life-giving power.’ In this sense, then, it looks back to the tree of life in Gen 2:9.’

The lampstand also, of course, symbolised light:

‘The deeper meaning of the lampstand is that God himself is the light; there is no darkness where God is. As the Scripture says, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5b). The lamp in the tabernacle showed that as the people approached God, they were coming into the light. God gives light to his people. The light is where God is. He is our light and our salvation (see Ps. 27:1).’

God, who is light (1 Jn 1:5) is also the source of all light (Gen 1:3), not least the light of salvation (Psa 27:1) and the light of guidance (Psa 43:3).

25:37 “You are to make its seven lamps, and then set its lamps up on it, so that it will give light to the area in front of it. 25:38 Its trimmers and its trays are to be of pure gold. 25:39 About seventy-five pounds of pure gold is to be used for it and for all these utensils. 25:40 Now be sure to make them according to the pattern you were shown on the mountain.

“It will give light to the area in front of it” – indicating, among other things, that ‘someone is at home”.

“According to the pattern” – ‘The earthly tabernacle was a copy of the heavenly tabernacle where our Lord now ministers to and for His people (Heb. 8:1–5; 9:1). The Book of Revelation mentions a brazen altar (6:9–11), an altar of incense (8:3–5), a throne (4:2), elders/priests (vv. 4–5), lamps (v. 5), a “sea” (v. 6), and cherubim (vv. 6–7), all of which parallel the main furnishings of the earthly tabernacle. It’s a basic principle of ministry that we follow the pattern given from heaven, not the pattern of this world (Rom. 12:2).’ (Wiersbe)

v40 ‘If God was so exact and curious about the place of worship, how exact will he be about the matter of his worship! Surely here everything must be according to the pattern prescribed in his word.’ (Thomas Watson)

‘To have such a portable sanctuary more accurately reflects the way it is with the people of God in the world. This people has left the safety of servitude and headed into the unknown, guided only by promises and clouds. No wonder they grumble and fret, begging to be led by that which they can see and touch. The way of the sojourner, forever wandering, is not an easy way. But that will always be the way of the people of God, and God chooses to accompany them all along that way.’ (Fretheim)

God with us

‘This is a God who does not stand above them, enjoying the precincts of the palace while the people plod through desert sands, with never a secure, fixed place they can call home. This God takes up residence with the people, tabernacles with them. This God dwells, not at the edges of Israel’s life, but right at the center of things. This God is committed to the journey. This is a God who is with and for his people for the long haul, not just for the laser beam-like moments on mountaintops. It is a commitment to intimacy rather than remoteness. In their own times and places this God will be with them always (see Lev. 26:11–12). This language is also used by prophets after the fall of Jerusalem to speak of God’s dwelling once again with the people in the time of restoration (Ezek. 37:26–28; 43:7; Zech. 2:10–11). It is no wonder that the New Testament utilizes this tabernacling language to speak of the Word becoming flesh in Jesus (John 1:14) and of God in eschatological vision (Rev. 21:3).’ (Fretheim)