Religious Education hosted a replica of the biblical Tabernacle on BYU’s campus last fall, 25 September–28 October 2017. Our main goal was to provide an educational experience for our students, but we anticipated that others would enjoy the forty-five-minute tour. Having the opportunity to walk through and learn about the biblical Tabernacle provided our students and other visitors with excellent experiential learning. Moving through a replica of ancient sacred space helped bring alive the biblical accounts of the Israelites’ construction, transportation, and worship at the Tabernacle. This experience further enhanced our visitors’ understanding of the concepts of sacred space, degrees of holiness, and the power of ritual in worship.
Given that the Tabernacle courtyard was 150 feet by 75 feet (assuming 18 inches per biblical cubit), there were very few places on campus where we could assemble the replica (without using a parking lot). We settled on the quad east of the McKay Building (just northeast of the Joseph Smith Building). The replica was set up running east–west, which necessitated closing the southern portion of the diagonal sidewalk that runs through that area.
· The Tabernacle replica was originally created by members of the Huntington Beach and Murrieta Stakes in California for a 2016 youth conference. BYU Professor Donald W. Parry accepted their invitation to serve as consultant on their project.
· Religious Education arranged with the replica’s owners and with BYU administration and grounds personnel to bring the replica to campus.
· A committee of seven BYU professors oversaw the effort: David Seely, Dan Belnap, Shon Hopkin, George Pierce, Camille Olson, Don Parry, and Dana Pike. This committee was ably supported by Richard Crookston, Religious Education’s IT guru, and his student employees, as well as by the student receptionists in the Department of Ancient Scripture.
· Approximately 32,000 visitors toured the Tabernacle replica in one of the 830 scheduled tours. Evenings and weekends were set aside for people in the local community, both LDS and non-LDS alike.
· The main guides were sixty-one students from BYU’s Ancient Near Eastern Studies program and our Bible courses, who were paid with “experiential learning” funds, plus another nineteen who volunteered their time. Several of our student guides reported this was their “all-time favorite job” and that they would really miss the Tabernacle when it was gone.
· We held a one-evening interfaith conference on 27 September, at which various local religious leaders presented on the significance of the biblical Tabernacle in their faith traditions. Professor Shon Hopkin presented a Latter-day Saint perspective.
Jews and Christians all share the Tabernacle as part of their biblical heritage. However, every Tabernacle replica is somewhat different, due to two key factors: (1) the Bible does not provide us with a blueprint or complete description of all the details of the Tabernacle, so some educated guessing is always involved, and (2) modern replicas typically make some accommodations for safety and cost (no real gold overlay on the ark!).
The Bible presents the Tabernacle as the portable, symbolic abode of Yahweh/Jehovah/the Lord from the time of the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Hebrew mishkan, “abode,” is usually translated “Tabernacle” in this context). Exodus 25–30 relates revelation from Jehovah to Moses on Mount Sinai regarding the building of the Tabernacle along with related Aaronic priestly activities. Exodus 35–39 presents the Israelites doing what Moses was instructed on the Mount. Exodus 40 relates the culmination of this process, with the Tabernacle assembled at the base of Mount Sinai and there dedicated by Moses. It was eventually transported to the land of Canaan or Israel, where it continued to function as a central component in Israelite worship at least the time of Samuel, a few centuries later. Eventually, Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem.
The Tabernacle represented Jehovah’s presence in the midst of his covenant people and modelled a way for them to interact with each other. The courtyard of the Tabernacle was 100 by 50 cubits, which as mentioned above is about 150 by 75 feet (all the measurements that follow are given in feet, based on the biblical sizes given in cubits). The “walls” of the courtyard consisted of poles and white fabric sheets about 7.5 feet high (Exodus 27:18), and delimited the area inside the courtyard as sacred space. Because the Holy of Holies at the back of the Tabernacle symbolized Jehovah’s throne room, the closer one moved toward that space, the greater the degree of holiness or sanctity, and the greater the restrictions on who could approach there. Thus, Israelites could enter the courtyard up to the altar but never went inside the Tabernacle proper. Levites and Aaronic priests functioned in the courtyard. Only the priests could enter the first portion of the Tabernacle, and besides Moses only the Aaronic High Priest entered the Holy of Holies (Exodus 30:6; Numbers 7:89). Israelites entered the courtyard on the east side, through an entryway consisting of fabric dyed red, blue, and purple. The Bible does not explain the exact scheme nor the significance of these colors. Many people assume they symbolized blood, heaven, and royalty, respectively.
Israelites gathered at the Tabernacle to worship, which included their offering animal and grain sacrifices, praying, singing or chanting psalms, and being taught the word of the Lord. As far as we know, regular Israelites were allowed through the entryway into the first portion of the courtyard but were not allowed past the altar. With the various sounds of people and animals plus the smell of burning animal flesh on the altar, worship in the Tabernacle courtyard did not exhibit the quiet reverence Latter-day Saints experience in modern temple worship!
The Aaronic priests functioned as intercessors or mediators, representing Israelites to Jehovah, and Jehovah to the Israelites. The priests functioned at the altar of burnt offering, the first object one encountered when entering the courtyard (see diagram—IF INCLUDING ONE!]. The Tabernacle altar was made of wood, overlaid with bronze, and was 7.5 by 7.5 by 4.5 feet tall. A focal point of Israelite worship, offering sacrifice was a sign of ancient Israel’s faith in and obedience to Jehovah. It represented giving their best to him and transferring it, through burning, into another realm. Individuals and families brought sacrificial animals to show gratitude and devotion, to repent, and to commune with God. The priests offered a whole burnt offering on the altar every morning and every evening on behalf of all Israelites. In addition to blood sacrifice, which represented the offering of a life, other forms of offerings included flour and wine. The biblical sacrificial system is described in Leviticus 1–7 and elsewhere.
The next item encountered in the courtyard was the bronze laver, or water basin, where the priests washed prior to officiating in their duties. This laver was portable and thus much smaller than the later cast bronze “sea” at Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:23), which rested on the back of twelve oxen (the size of the Tabernacle laver is not recorded in the Old Testament, so estimates vary; the one used in this replica is somewhat smaller than what many consider the Tabernacle laver was). Cleanliness was essential to approaching the presence of God. The priests’ washing with water had both practical and spiritual significance. Practically, priests and Levites washed themselves from the dirt, blood, and other physical impurities. Spiritually, their washing symbolized the clean state necessary to ritually function in Jehovah’s presence.
The Tabernacle itself was forty-five feet long by fifteen feet wide and fifteen feet tall. It consisted of connected wooden frames, covered with linen fabric, which was covered with a layer of goat-hair wool, which was covered with a layer of ram skins dyed red, which was covered with an outer protective layer, the meaning of the Hebrew word for which is uncertain (badger or dolphin skins are often suggested; see Exodus 26; 36). The interior wooden frames were overlaid with thin sheets of gold. This structure consisted of two rooms or partitions, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, often called the Holy of Holies.
Aaronic priests entered the Holy Place of the Tabernacle on its east end through an outer veil containing the colors red, blue, and purple. The Holy Place was about 30 by 15 by 15 feet high, twice the size of the Holy of Holies, and contained the menorah (lampstand), the showbread table, and the altar of incense.
The menorah was made of pure gold (notice the contrast between the bronze items in the courtyard and the gold items in the Tabernacle). It had seven branches (or arms), like an almond tree, each topped with an olive oil lamp (Hebrew menorah means lampstand; KJV “candlestick” is an unfortunate anachronism; there were no wax candles in ancient Israel). These seven lamps provided the only light inside the Tabernacle proper (Exodus 25:37). In the Old Testament olive oil is connected with the Holy Spirit (1 Samuel 10:1–11; 16:13). Possible interpretations of what the menorah symbolized, with its seven branches or arms and lamps, include the tree of life, the seven days of the Creation, and the seven planets of the then-known cosmos.
The table of showbread, or bread of the presence, as it is usually translated now, was where twelve flatbreads were placed each Sabbath by the priests. The table itself was made of wood, covered with gold, and was about 3 by 1.5 by 2.3 feet tall. At the end of each week the bread was eaten in the Tabernacle by the priests, who replaced it with fresh flatbreads. The bread represented the twelve tribes of Israel in Jehovah’s presence and expressed grateful recognition of Jehovah as the source of life and sustenance. The bread on the table further symbolized a sacred meal and the accompanying communion shared by Jehovah and his covenant Israelites, as mediated by the Aaronic priests. Postbiblical Jewish tradition suggests there was also a pitcher of wine on the table. This accords with the biblical indication that the table was to also contain “its plates, its ladles, its pitchers, and its bowls, to be used in pouring out offerings” (Exodus 25:29, NET Bible; see also Numbers 4:7).
The final item in the Holy Place was the altar of incense, centrally placed in front of the inner veil, which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. It was made of wood overlaid with gold and was 1.5 by 1.5 by 3 feet tall. Priests burned incense here every morning and evening. The burning incense helped to create, through sight and smell, an otherworldly atmosphere of sacred space as one approached the Holy of Holies (contrast the burning animal parts on the altar in the courtyard). Incense also signified the prayers of the righteous rising heavenward (Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense”; cf. Revelation 5:8; 8:4), as well as symbolizing that the prayer and the one offering the prayer was smelling sweet and acceptable to Jehovah.
A veil separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Like the outer veil that covered the entryway to the Tabernacle proper, this veil contained the colors red, blue, and purple, plus cherubim. Cherubim symbolically functioned as guardians of sacred space in Israelite and other ancient Near Eastern cultures. The Tabernacle Holy of Holies was a perfect cube, 15 by 15 by 15 feet. Only one cultic item was housed in this Most Holy Place, the ark of the covenant, which sat in darkness.
The ark was a wooden chest covered with gold that represented Jehovah’s throne or footstool. On top of the ark was the kaporet, translated in the KJV as “mercy seat” (Exodus 26:34; translated by others as “atonement lid,” NET Bible). It was a solid gold slab topped with two cherubs facing each other as guardians of the throne of God (Numbers 7:89; 1 Samuel 4:4). The ark of the covenant was the holiest object in the Tabernacle. It functioned as the repository of the two stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments (representing the covenant between Jehovah and the Israelites; see Exodus 25:16), a pot of manna (Exodus 16:33–34), and Aaron’s rod that budded, demonstrating that Jehovah had chosen the Levitical priests to mediate between the Israelites and himself (Numbers 17:1–11).
After Moses, only Aaronic high priests entered the Holy of Holies, and then only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, placing sacrificial blood on the mercy seat to make atonement for Israel (Leviticus 16). (For more on the six ritual items in the courtyard and Tabernacle, see https://magazine.byu.edu/article/6-symbols-ancient-tabernacle/ )
The Why of Worship
The Old Testament prescribes much (not all) of what Israelites were supposed to do in their sacrificial system but provides little specific information about the why, what the various aspects and elements symbolized. Not surprisingly, early Christians tended to see Jesus Christ represented in the Tabernacle features and rituals. For example, according to Hebrews 8–9, the Israelite Aaronic high priest, who year after year entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur with sacrificial blood to make atonement for all Israelites, was foreshadowing Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, who offered his own atoning blood as sacrifice and passed through the “veil,” entering the Holy of Holies of heaven. This act was further connected with Mark 15:38 and Matthew 27:51: at the crucifixion of Jesus, the veil of Herod’s Temple was ripped from top to bottom, symbolizing the power of Christ’s atoning sacrifice to make it possible for all to enter the presence of God (remember that most ancient Israelites were never allowed into Jehovah’s “presence” as symbolized by the Holy of Holies; see other New Testament passages that evoke Tabernacle/temple imagery, such as Romans 12:1–2; Hebrews 4:14–16; 10:1–22).
Latter-day Saints, with their Restoration understanding of the plan of salvation, have seen the Tabernacle (and later temples) as a representation of the path back to God. The biblical Tabernacle did not function to provide the equivalent of latter-day temple ordinances, at least as described in the Bible, but it can be seen as symbolically representing similar truths and processes. So understood, as one leaves “the world” by entering sacred space and making covenants one benefits from the cleansing power of Christ’s Atonement, symbolized by the altar’s fire consuming a blood sacrifice and by the laver’s water (think of the two Christian baptisms—of water and of fire). One is then prepared for greater spiritual encounters. This includes increased communion with God and the gift and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and can be understood as having symbolic connection with the light and bread and incense in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle. In John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the “bread of life” (6:35, 48, 51) and the “light of the world” (8:12; 9:5). And the LDS sacrament (known to other Christians as communion and the Eucharist) is essentially a sacred meal in which participants gratefully remember Christ’s sacrificial offering, renew communion with God, and are nourished by him. Thus, walking in the light of the Lord leads to a sweet and acceptable life, which culminates in the eventual opportunity to enter and remain in the presence of our Father and his Son. This path of faith, obedience, covenant, sacrifice, ritual washing and cleansing, having the light of the Spirit, and divine sustenance is realized in the Tabernacle layout. Of course, ancient Israelites were not allowed to participate in all these processes and sacred spaces—that was left to the priests, who institutionally mediated between Jehovah and his people. But experiencing the Tabernacle provides Latter-day Saints an opportunity to reflect on their own spiritual journey.
As we led our BYU students and others through the Tabernacle replica, we encouraged them to first understand what the items and practices of the Tabernacle were as mentioned in the Bible, then to consider how other people—Jews and traditional Christians—have interpreted these things, and then finally to bring their Restoration insights to further understanding what these features can symbolize. We think it was a worthwhile endeavor.