After the Golden Calf incident in chapter 32, God renewed his covenant with Israel and again wrote the covenant on two stone tablets. Most likely the two tablets were identical, as there would be one tablet for each party in the covenant (God and Israel).
In order for Israel to worship God properly, God gives Moses detailed instructions on the construction of the tabernacle, a sanctuary where God will dwell among the people of Israel. In verses 4-9 of Exodus 35, Moses begins the process of constructing the tabernacle (sometimes called the Tent of Meeting) by asking for the raw materials to be donated by the people.
The materials can be grouped in metals, fabrics, skins and wood, lamp oil, the anointing oil ingredients and incense ingredients, and gemstones. Each of the materials serves a specific purpose in the construction of the tabernacle. It should be noted that the raw materials are valuable, so that a great voluntary sacrifice of material wealth will have to be given by the Israelites. Once the materials for construction are collected, the people are commanded to build the tabernacle and everything that goes along with it.
In verses 10-19, Moses lists what must be built: the tabernacle with its tent and its covering, clasps, frames, crossbars, posts and bases; the ark of the covenant; the table on which the bread of the Presence will sit; the lampstand; the altar of incense; the curtain for the doorway at the entrance to the tabernacle; the altar of burnt offering; the bronze basin; the curtains of the courtyard; the tent pegs for the tabernacle and courtyard; and the woven garments worn for ministering in the sanctuary.
What is the purpose of the tabernacle and all of its contents? Let’s take them one by one. The significance of the entire tabernacle itself is that it is to represent God’s presence among his people. The Israelites were to place the tabernacle (where God is present) at the center of their camp. We know from the Book of Hebrews that the tabernacle was also be an earthly representation of Heaven, a pointer to the place where all of God’s people will forever be in His presence.
What about the ark? There appear to be two purposes for it. First, it would contain the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments as a symbol of the covenant agreement. Second, the lid of the ark would serve as the “mercy seat,” a pure gold sculpture that symbolized a place for God to stand as a contact point for God and the Israelites. Here God would reveal divine truth to his people.
The purpose of the table in the outer room was to hold the bread of Presence. Since the tabernacle was to symbolize God’s house, the table was to symbolize where God would eat. A special group of Levites would bake twelve loaves each week, let them sit on the table, and then the priests would eat them at the end of the week, and start the process over again.
The lampstand (menorah) was to signify that God was “home” in the tabernacle. All of the Israelite tents used lamp light at night to allow them to see, so God’s house also needed lamp light. The seven lamps of this impressive lampstand would have burned extremely bright in the middle of the Israelite camp.
The purpose of the altar of incense in the outer room of the tabernacle was to represent the prayers of the people of Israel to God. In the ancient world, burning incense symbolized prayer, and that is why this altar is located right in front of the curtain that separates the outer room of the tabernacle from the inner room (Holy of Holies). The incense would travel directly to the ark behind the curtain, where God met with the people.
Since the tabernacle was God’s earthly home, the curtain at the entrance to the tabernacle could be thought of as the front door to his house. The curtain at the entrance was often kept open so that people could see into the tabernacle front room which contained the lampstand, altar of incense, and table.
The next objects to be built were outside of the tabernacle, in the large courtyard that surrounded the tabernacle. The courtyard was to serve as a community worship space right outside of God’s house, the tabernacle. The most important component of the courtyard was the altar of burnt offering. Douglas Stuart describes the purpose of the altar of burnt offerings:
In various ways during Old Covenant times, God taught his people the basic principle of salvation from sin: something that God considers a substitute must die in my place so that I may live. Altar sacrifice was the primary way for this substitution to happen. In preparation for Christ’s death on the cross, which was the ultimate sacrifice to which all others pointed, animal sacrifice was required of all Israelites.
Since it is dangerous to eat raw animal meat, God required that it be cooked, and to accomplish this a large outdoor grill was required. By killing an animal, then cooking it on that grill in God’s presence (i.e., in front of the entrance to the tabernacle), and then eating it in God’s presence (symbolically sharing the meal with him), the Israelite worshiper learned over and over again the concept of substitutionary atonement and of covenant renewal. The sacrificial meal always included a portion of a formerly living thing (sacrificial animal) that had been put to death in the place of the worshiper. It was prepared and cooked at God’s house . . . , and it renewed the worshiper’s commitment to his or her covenant with Yahweh each time it was eaten.
The purpose of the bronze basin in the courtyard was simple, but important: the priests must wash their hands and feet each time they prepared to offer a sacrifice and each time they entered the tabernacle. This washing not only symbolized the purity that God demands, but was also important for sanitary reasons.
The curtains of the courtyard were there to mark off the courtyard enclosure where the sacrifices to God were to be made. The tent pegs were used to secure the curtains of the courtyard and tabernacle.
Moses’ brother, Aaron, and his sons were to be set apart from the rest of Israel as priests to God. They were to wear special garments that included a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash. God instructs them to be made out of “gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen.”
As we skip ahead to chapter 40, God commands Moses, in verse 1, to set up the tabernacle, the courtyard, and all of its contents on the first day of the first month of their second year at Mount Sinai (this would have been mid-March to mid-April, or the end of winter). The next 32 verses record the faithful consecration and anointing of God’s earthly home. It is interesting to note that the tabernacle was portable enough that it could be assembled in a single day, most likely in a few hours.
In verses 34-38, we see that once the tabernacle was assembled and consecrated for the first time, a cloud representing God’s presence descended on the tabernacle. God had taken up residence in his earthly home. From that day forward, God, in the form of the cloud, would rise to indicate that Israel was to move camp.