The Tabernacle and Eden: God Dwelling with Man
While reading through the first books of the Bible, one of the things that may cause people to stumble and lose comprehension of what’s going on are the more technical parts of the book. Certainly, many a yearly reading plan has been busted somewhere in the wilderness of Leviticus! These dryer sections of the Bible, while perhaps lacking the narrative excitement of the stories of the Patriarchs or the Exodus from Egypt, are critical parts of Israel’s story, and shouldn’t be skipped over. They possess a wealth of knowledge, and often provide important insight into how God operates amongst His people, why He sets the rules He does, and what the ultimate objective of God’s relationship with mankind is. One of the best examples of a technical section of the Bible providing invaluable theological insight is the description of the Tabernacle, its utensils and tools, and the priestly garments. The Tabernacle, even to the untrained reader, is obviously important: it’s the dwelling place of God amongst Israel, it foreshadows the Temple (and later Jesus!), and it’s where Israel would offer sacrifices to God throughout their wilderness journeys. Did you know, however, that there’s enormous symbolism in the actual nuts and bolts construction of the Tabernacle? If we read carefully, we can see some incredible visuals of how God is at work not just to dwell with mankind, but to restore the entire Creation back to its original state of glory.
The centerpiece of the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, is one of the big keys of interpreting the symbols of the Tabernacle. Notice that the Ark, which is essentially a wooden rectangle overlaid with gold, has a very important symbol on top of it: a “mercy seat” (literally the lid or covering of the box) with two cherubim on top of it, wing’s outstretched and faces down towards the mercy seat. It was here that God says “I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment of the sons of Israel,” (Ex. 25:22). The cherubim were a particular type of heavenly being that are always used in the Old Testament to symbolize the presence of God: it is two cherubim who guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden after man’s fall, and it is cherubim that hold aloft the throne of God in Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly court. The cherubim here signify that the Ark, centered in the Tabernacle’s holiest space, was where God’s presence would dwell amongst the Israelites. While God is outside of our reckoning of space and time, and subsequently not bound to a single locale, the mercy seat of the ark was a veritable hot spot of God’s holiness and power. In the Garden, mankind and God had been able to walk freely together and rule as God had intended creation to function; here, in the Tabernacle, God is once more creating a place where He can be with His creation.
Outside of the Ark’s room, called the Holy of Holies, were three more important symbols. A large table, again made of wood covered with gold, was set with dishes, pans, jars, and bowls of wood. It was here that twelve unleavened loaves of bread (a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel!) would be laid out every Passover by the priest, and this would symbolize again the dwelling of God together with man. A feast meal has been laid out, and God has been invited to eat and reside with His people. The second item was a lampstand of pure gold, but this lampstand was crafted in such a way that it had six branches coming off its sides that ended in almond flowers. This lampstand would depict the Tree of Life, again serving as a reminder of the great blessings of Creation and the Garden – and the hope that Israel would enter the new Promised Land with its great blessings of bounty and sustenance. With an additional lamp on the main stand, the seven lamps would provide another symbol of God: the number seven held special significance to the Israelites due to God creating the world in six days and then resting on the seventh. It was because of this that the Israelites rested on the seventh day (the Sabbath), and the number seven represented the Spirit of God – with seven lamps burning in the Tabernacle, it showed clearly that the Spirit of God was present in this holy place (particularly since fire was also associated with the presence of God, as seen at both the Burning Bush and Israel’s vision at Mt. Sinai). The third item in the Tabernacle was an altar of incense, where a spice mixture of frankincense, galbanum, onycha, and stacte would burn perpetually before the Lord as a “soothing aroma.” It was on this altar that the High Priest, once a year on the day of Atonement, would put the blood of the nation’s sin offering on the horns of the altar. This altar reminded Israel of its constant dependence upon God’s mercy and grace: it would be only through His power that the covenant promises would be fulfilled rather than any earned righteousness of Israel.
There’s even more symbolism beyond just the items in the tabernacle; the physical construction of the Tabernacle itself pointed towards the holiness, presence, and goodness of God! The curtains of twisted linen that made up the Tabernacle itself were of violet, purple, and scarlet material were covered in cherubim, again pointing towards the presence of God within this space. Some Jewish sources associated the colors of blue and red, and their mixed color of purple, with the idea of blood (the veins that blood flowed in are blue), which is consistently depicted as the essence of life. The entrance to the Tabernacle was always facing the East, just as Eden itself had been described. The land around Eden is described in Genesis 2 as being “rich in gold and onyx,” and both of these materials show up in the Tabernacle descriptions: gold is used everywhere, inside and out of the Tabernacle, and the High Priest’s garment contained onyx stones with the names of the tribes of Israel on them. The High Priest’s garment also had a fringe on the bottom that was decorated with small woven pomegranates and golden bells, which would gently ring as he entered and left the Tabernacle.
So, what’s the point of all of this? It’s cool to see the symbolism, but does this really matter to us today? Well, yes! Remember that the Tabernacle was pointing towards the Temple that would be built in Jerusalem: many of these Eden images are repeated in the accounts of Solomon’s construction in 1 Kings. The Temple (and its several rebuilt versions) pointed towards the ultimate fulfilment of God dwelling with Man: Jesus Christ. The ultimate purpose of man is to dwell with God in His creation, and it is through Immanuel (God with us) that we can achieve this purpose. The Tabernacle served as a portable Eden for Israel through their journeys, the Temple served as a sign of God’s covenant promise of a new Eden land, and Jesus Christ serves to us still today as our guide and example of God dwelling with us. God dwells within us now through the Holy Spirit, but there is also an even greater fulfillment coming still: the day where the Lord will return, Creation will be redeemed, and we will dwell with God in the fullest sense! When we consider the Tabernacle and read of all the beauty and grandeur of this little tent, we are getting a glimpse into God’s eternal plan: He is re-creating all of us in His image so that we can dwell together in eternity. Hallelujah, what a King and Savior we serve!