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The Tabernacle (Hebrew: מִשְׁכַּן, mishkan, "residence" or "dwelling place"), according to the Hebrew Bible, was the portable dwelling place for the divine presence from the time of the Exodus from Egypt through the conquering of the land of Canaan. Built to specifications revealed by God (Yahweh) to Moses at Mount Sinai, it accompanied the Israelites on their wanderings in the wilderness and their conquest of the Promised Land. The First Temple in Jerusalem superseded it as the dwelling-place of God. There is no mention of the Tabernacle in the Tanakh after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE.
The fullest description of the Tabernacle describes an inner shrine (named Holy of Holies) housing the Ark of the Covenant and an outer chamber (Holy Place) with a golden lampstand, table for showbread, and altar of incense. This description is generally identified as part of the Priestly source (P), written in the 6th or 5th century BCE. Many scholars contend that it is of a far later date than Moses, and that the description reflects the structure of the Temple of Solomon, while some hold that the description derives from memories of a real pre-monarchic shrine, perhaps the sanctuary at Shiloh. Traditional scholars contend that it describes an actual tabernacle used in the time of Moses and thereafter. According to historical criticism an earlier, pre-exilic source (E) describes the Tabernacle as a simple tent-sanctuary.
The word sanctuary is also used for the Biblical tabernacle, as well as the phrase the "tent of meeting". The Hebrew word mishkan implies "dwell", "rest", or "to live in", referring to the "[In-dwelling] Presence of God", the shekhinah, based on the same Hebrew root word as mishkan), that dwelt within this divinely ordained structure.
The 19th-century naturalist Eduard Rüppell equated the Arabic word "tucash" (dugong) with "tahash" (tabernacle). From this he deduced that the Tabernacle was covered with hides from the dugong or sea cow, and designated the animal "Halicore tabernaculi". Modern academic opinion considers this reading of "tahash" uncertain.
Historical criticism has identified two accounts of the tabernacle in Exodus, a briefer account and a longer one. Traditional scholars believe the briefer account describes a different structure, perhaps Moses's personal tent. The Hebrew nouns in the two accounts are different, one being most commonly translated as "tent of meeting," while the other is usually translated as "tabernacle".
Exodus 33:7-10 refers to a "tent of meeting", which was set up outside of camp with the pillar of cloud visible at its door. The people directed their worship toward this center. Historical criticism attributes this description to the Elohist source (E), which is believed to have been written about 850 BCE or later.
The more detailed description of a tabernacle is in Exodus 25-27 and 35-40, which describes an inner shrine (Holy of Holies) housing the Ark and an outer chamber (Holy Place), with a seven-branched lampstand, table for showbread, and altar of incense. An enclosure containing the sacrificial altar surrounded these chambers. This description is identified by historical criticism as part of the Priestly source (P), written in the 6th or 5th century BCE.
Some scholars believe the description is of a far later date than Moses, and that it reflects the structure of the Temple of Solomon; others hold that the passage describes a real pre-monarchic shrine, perhaps the sanctuary at Shiloh, while traditional scholars contend that it describes an actual tabernacle used in the time of Moses and thereafter. This view is based on Exodus 36, 37, 38 and 39 that describe in full detail how the actual construction of the Tabernacle took place during the time of Moses.
The detailed outlines for the tabernacle and its priests are enumerated in the Book of Exodus:
In chapter 31 the main builder and architects are specified:
There was a set of strict rules to be followed for the Tabernacle set on the Old Testament. For example: "For the LORD had said to Moses, 'Exempt the tribe of Levi from the census; do not include them when you count the rest of the Israelites. You must put the Levites in charge of the Tabernacle of the Covenant, along with its furnishings and equipment. They must carry the Tabernacle and its equipment as you travel, and they must care for it and camp around it. Whenever the Tabernacle is moved, the Levites will take it down and set it up again. Anyone else who goes too near the Tabernacle will be executed.'" (Numbers 1:48-51 NLT),
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The Tabernacle during the Exodus, the wandering in the desert and the conquest of Canaan was a portable tent draped with colorful curtains called a "tent of meeting". It had a rectangular, perimeter fence of fabric, poles and staked cords. This rectangle was always erected when the Israelite tribes would camp, oriented to the east. In the center of this enclosure was a rectangular sanctuary draped with goat-hair curtains, with the roof made from rams' skins.
Inside, the enclosure was divided into two areas, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. These two areas were separated by a curtain or veil. Inside the first area were three pieces of furniture: a seven-branched oil lampstand on the left (south), a table for twelve loaves of show bread on the right (north) and the Altar of Incense (west), straight ahead before the dividing curtain.
Beyond this curtain was the cube-shaped inner room known as the "Holy of Holies") or (Kodesh Hakodashim). This area housed the Ark of the Covenant (aron habrit),< inside which were the two stone tablets brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses on which were written the Ten Commandments, a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's rod that budded and bore ripe almonds. (Hebrews 9:2-5, Exodus 16:33-34, Numbers 17:1-11, Deuteronomy 10:1-5.)
Twice a day, a priest would stand in front of the golden prayer altar and burn fragrant incense (Exodus 30:7-10). Other procedures were also carried out in the Tabernacle:
During the conquest of Canaan, the main Israelite camp was at Gilgal, (Joshua 4:19; 5:8-10) and the Tabernacle was probably erected within the camp: Joshua 6:14 "...and returned into the camp." (see Numbers 1:52-2:34 "...they shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side.")
After the conquest and division of the land among the tribes, the Tabernacle was moved to Shiloh in Ephraimite territory (Joshua's tribe) to avoid disputes among the other tribes (Joshua 18:1; 19:51; 22:9; Psalm 78:60). It remained there during the 300-year period of the Biblical judges (the rules of the individual judges total about 350 years [1 Kings 6:1; Acts 13:20], but most ruled regionally and some terms overlapped).
The subsequent history of the structure is separate from that of the Ark of the Covenant. After the Ark was captured by the Philistines, King Saul moved the Tabernacle to Nob, near his home town of Gibeah, but after he massacred the priests there (1 Samuel 21-22), it was moved to Gibeon. (1 Chronicles 16:39; 21:29; 2 Chronicles 1:2-6, 13)
The Ark was eventually brought to Jerusalem, where it was placed "inside the tent David had pitched for it" (2 Samuel 6:17; 1 Chronicles 15:1), not in the Tabernacle, which remained at Gibeon. The altar of the Tabernacle at Gibeon was used for sacrificial worship (1 Chronicles 16:39; 21:29; 1 Kings 3:2-4), until Solomon finally brought the structure and its furnishings to Jerusalem to furnish and dedicate the Temple. (1 Kings 8:4)
There is no mention of the Tabernacle in the Tanakh after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in c. 587 BCE.
Some rabbis have commented on the proximity of the narrative of the Tabernacle with that of the episode known as the sin of the golden calf recounted in Exodus 32:1-6. Maimonides asserts that the Tabernacle and its accoutrements, such as the golden Ark of the Covenant and the golden Menorah were meant as "alternates" to the human weakness and needs for physical idols as seen in the golden calf episode. Other scholars, such as Nachmanides disagree and maintain that the Tabernacle's meaning is not tied in with the golden calf, but instead symbolizes higher mystical lessons that symbolize God's constant closeness to the Children of Israel.
Synagogue construction over the last two thousand years has followed the outlines of the original Tabernacle. Every synagogue has at its front an ark, aron kodesh, containing the Torah scrolls, comparable to the Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets with Ten Commandments. This is the holiest spot in a synagogue, equivalent to the Holy of Holies.
There is also usually a constantly lighted lamp, Ner tamid, or a candelabrum, lighted during services, near a spot similar to the position of the original Menorah. At the center of the synagogue is a large elevated area, known as the bimah, where the Torah is read. This is equivalent to the Tabernacle's altars upon which incense and animal sacrifices were offered. On the main holidays the priests, kohanim, gather at the front of the synagogue to bless the congregation as did their priestly ancestors in the Tabernacle from Aaron onwards (Numbers 6:22-27).
The Tabernacle is mentioned several times in the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament. For example, according to Hebrews 8:2-5 and 9:2-26 Jesus serves as the true climactic high priest in heaven, the true tabernacle, to which its counterpart on earth was just a symbol and foreshadow of what was to come (Hebrews 8:5).
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