Study Guide

Book of Numbers The Tabernacle

The Tabernacle

In case you haven't noticed so far, the tabernacle is kind of a big deal in the Bible. We'd say it's basically just a tent with a fence around it that could be easily moved around the desert, but to the ancient Israelites, the tabernacle was way more.

Whose House? God's House

The word tabernacle (which is also called "the tent of meeting") literally means "residence" or "dwelling." And who lives there? Why, God himself, of course. He's even seen there in the form of a cloud that hovers around the tent:

On the day the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant; and from evening until morning it was over the tabernacle, having the appearance of fire. It was always so: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, then the Israelites would set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the Israelites would camp. At the command of the Lord the Israelites would set out, and at the command of the Lord they would camp. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they would remain in camp. (9:15-18)

Wow, that cloud is good with directions!

So, like any place that's fit for a god, the tabernacle gets a whole lot of attention in the Bible. Back in Exodus, God gave Moses super-specific instructions on how to build it. In Leviticus, he doled out lots of rules on how people should worship there and what kinds of sacrifices he liked to smell wafting through the tent flaps.

Now, since we're gonna be on the move in Numbers, God has tons of thoughts to share about how exactly he'd like the Israelites to schlep this huge thing through the desert every so often. There are chapters and chapters giving very specific details about who is in charge of packing away the incense and who gets the privilege of carrying the tent poles through the wilderness.

This might seem like overkill at first, but not when you think about the significance of this place. This was God's literal home. It's the place he comes to dwell with the people and be in their midst. The Israelites can't risk making God unhappy—he might decide to move out of their neighborhood. Property values would definitely plummet.

A Job For Everyone

And whenever there's something that important in a community, you can bet people are fighting over it. Who gets to go inside the tent? Who gets to sleep right by it? Who gets to carry the Ark of the Covenant through the desert? People would be lining up to do these very prestigious and important jobs.

So, God makes it clear who's gonna do what:

  • Anyone can come into the courtyard to bring offerings and to worship. But regular folks can't be of service at the tabernacle. Bummer (1:51).
  • Levites between thirty and fifty years old can enter the tent. They also get to carry all the heavy and holy items through the hot desert. Score (1:50).
  • But only Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's sons can go all the way inside to the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant is kept. They're also in charge of everything that goes on there. They'll let you know what God says from time to time (3:38).

Numbers also lays out specific sleeping arrangements for the whole community. Basically, everyone sets up camp with the tabernacle in the center (2:2). When they pack up to head out for their next stop, the tabernacle also moves along in the middle of the processional. This makes sense when you consider that the tabernacle would be flanked on either side by warriors in case anyone wanted to try any funny business.

The central location of the tabernacle also makes it a really good gathering place. God and Moses are constantly telling people to meet up there:

They shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting. (6:10)

"The whole congregation shall assemble before you at the entrance of the tent of meeting." (10:3)

The Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent. (12:5)

Korah assembled the whole congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to the whole congregation. (16:19)

Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. (20:6)

They were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. (25:6)

They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting. (27:2)

You get the idea. Basically, the tabernacle doubled as a town hall. Since it was a place that was well known and important to the community, it was a good space to go when there were issues that needed to be addressed and divinely appointed leaders to be challenged.

Bye-Bye, Tabernacle

Once the Israelites get to the Promised Land, the tabernacle isn't needed anymore. When King Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem around 957 BCE, that became God's new dwelling place. Sadly, in 70 CE, the latest version of the temple was destroyed by the Romans. Rumor has it that the Ark of the Covenant was later recovered by one Dr. Henry Jones. That's what we heard in this one movie at least.

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