The wilderness tabernacle creates a visible image of holiness.
If a people are to survive as a distinct social entity through the many vicissitudes of life, they must have traditions and institutions that sustain their identity through the generations. That was true of ancient Israel just as it is true of nations today.
One element in Israel’s survival is the story it tells over and over again of its liberation from bondage in Egypt and its journey, under God’s guidance, to a new homeland. That story is enshrined in the five books of Moses along with Joshua—and also in the annual festival of Passover.
A second element is the laws that govern its life with God and with one another. We encounter an initial deposit of those laws in Exodus 20-23, where we encounter the Ten Commandments and the so-called Book of the Covenant. As we work our way through the rest of the five books of Moses, we will find the deposit of law growing, as more and more regulations are laid down.
But we need to notice an important point in how the authors of those books present them. The laws of Israel are not seen as creations of human beings, but as gifts from God. God is the law maker. Law is one of his blessings upon the people. The laws are not meant to oppress life, but to enable life to flourish. We see this sense of the divine goodness expressed in the gift of the Torah celebrated most ecstatically in Psalm 119.
Sustained through Worship
A third element essential to Israel’s existence is its traditions and institutions of worship. The gift of them is presented to us in the next chapters in Exodus, chapters 25-31, and then after a break, again in chapters 35-40. (Regulations on worship continue in the following book, the book of Leviticus.) The fact that these 13 chapters constitute nearly a third of the text of the Book of Exodus gives us some idea of how important the authors/editors of Exodus regarded these institutions of worship.
They likewise, like the laws of Torah, are a gift of God. God gives detailed instructions on what the Israelites are to construct as a focus of their worship life and how they are to construct it. This is underlined in Exodus 25:9 by these words spoken by God:
In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.
That Israel is faithful in following this revealed pattern is stated emphatically at the end of the process of construction, in Exodus 39:42-43:
The Israelites had done all of the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses. When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them.
Icon of Holiness
Throughout the texts on the construction of the tabernacle, we find two words repeated over and over again: the noun holiness and the adjective holy. The wilderness tabernacle and everything related to it becomes a locus of holiness. This becomes the rationale for why God commands Moses in Exodus 30 to anoint every item going into the tabernacle and the priests who serve there with a holy anointing oil. For God says: …you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy (Exodus 30:29)
The very design of the tabernacle is, in fact, to present an image of holiness. One of the striking features of that design is how the layout of the tabernacle complex is carefully structured upon the repeated use of the square. This is shown in the following diagram:
The outer courtyard of the complex composes two squares side by side, each measuring 50 cubits on each side. The tabernacle proper is composed geometrically of three squares. Two squares side by side compose the outer chamber, the Holy Place. A third square forms the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies in fact composes a perfect cube. Its length, width, and height are all equal–ten cubits on each side.
This geometry of the complex becomes sacred geometry. It expresses the progressive sanctification that we encounter as we enter more deeply into the structure. That progression is reinforced by the value of the construction materials. The hardware for the fixtures used to hang the outermost curtains that define the courtyard are bronze. The fixtures used for construction of the Holy Place are silver. And the fixtures for the Holy of Holies are gold.
Let me call special attention to the fact that the Holy of Holies composes a perfect cube. Throughout many cultures, the square and the cube as well as the circle and the sphere become sacred symbols of perfection. It is not by chance, I believe, that the Holy of Holies is a cube.
The belief was that this inner chamber formed the dwelling place of God within Israel. It was God’s throne room. The ark of the covenant is either regarded as the throne of the invisible God or his footstool on which the invisible God rests his feet. This God is absolute holiness. This is expressed in the choice of the cube as the shape of his residential chamber.
The Symbolic Importance of the Cube
Why the cube? (Or for that matter, the sphere?) Why is either a good visible representation of perfection? Because both visibly represent perfect wholeness. All dimensions are in balance and form a unity. And maybe we can say that the essence of holiness is wholeness. Human beings lack that perfect wholeness both in their inner individual lives and in their outer communal lives. We live in the tension and conflicts of disparate forces seeking to come into unity, but we never fully achieve it. Such wholeness, such unity, however, lies at the essence of God. It constitutes God’s holiness. It is also why the psalms describe that holiness as beautiful.
A striking parallel to the Holy of Holies as a cube in found in the New Testament in the vision of the new Jerusalem that the elder John sees in Revelation 21. There he sees the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven at the end of days when God creates a new heaven and a new earth.
This new city composes a perfect cube, although a gigantic cube. It measures 1,500 miles in length, width, and height. We cannot imagine a city constructed this way literally, but then the vision is not of a literal, physical city. It is a symbol of the human community that will flourish in that new creation. That community will be a perfectly united community. It will be balanced. It will be whole. The visible expression of that unity is rightly a cube.
God’s Dwelling with Fences
The holiness of God, however, can be a danger to sinful humanity. In our unwholesomeness we can experience that holiness as judgment and threat.It becomes necessary for the welfare of imperfect Israel for the tabernacle to place progressive fences around the inner core of the sanctuary. And only the High Priest alone is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies and then only once a year at the great Day of Atonement.
Yet paradoxically the tabernacle complex composes the center of the Israelite encampment. The tribes of Israel erect their tents around it in another square, three tribes each making up one of the four sides of the encampment.
When the tabernacle is finally erected in chapter 40, God takes up residence, a residence symbolized by the pillar of fire/cloud that hangs over the tabernacle. God dwells at the intimate heart of the Israelite encampment and yet God does not dwell with them in a cozy complacency. God is not Israel’s best buddy. God is always Israel’s loving father, but also Israel’s majestic king.
Israel is assured that God goes with them. This is the significance that Israel’s sanctuary is a tent, not a stationery stone structure (like Solomon’s later temple). Yet Israel can never be perfectly relaxed with God’s presence with them. God is a principle of mystery. Israel is in awe of this God, but can never be complacent. Maybe that is why the Hebrew Bible aptly describes perfect piety by the phrase the fear of the Lord.
Note: I recognize that in this posting I am trying to express a delicate and perfectly attuned balance that the symbolism of the tabernacle is intended to express. It is easy to distort this balance by choosing inappropriate words. If I have fallen into distortion, please forgive me. It is not easy to express the amazing beauty of the conception of the human relationship to God that we see given concrete expression in the construction of the tabernacle.