Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Tabernacle

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(Latin tabernaculum, tent).

Tabernacle in Biblical parlance usually designates the movable tent-like sanctuary of the Hebrews before the erection of Solomon's Temple. The various expressions in the Hebrew text in reference to the Tabernacle ('ohel, tent; 'ohel mo'ed, tent of meeting; 'ohel ha-'eduth, tent of the testimony; mishkan, dwelling; mishkan ha- 'eduth, dwelling of the testimony; mishkan 'ohel, dwelling of the tent; beth Yahweh, house of Yahweh; godesh, holy; miqdash, sanctuary; hekal, temple),while enabling us to form a fair idea of this construction, raise, by the seeming consistency of the passages in which they severally occur, many problems with which all modern commentators of the Scriptures have to grapple. Thus, Exodus describes the ark as sheltered in a tent (xxxiii, 7; Hebr. 'ohel mo'ed), whose position was "without the camp afar off" (Cf. Num., xi, 16 sqq.; 24-30; xii; Deut., xxxi, 14 sqq.), guarded by "Josue the son of Nun" (11), and at the door of which Yahweh was wont to manifest himself to Moses (9-11; cf. Num., xii, 5; Deut., xxxi, 15). That this "tent of tryst" (or better, perhaps, "tent of the oracle") was not identical with the tabernacle modern independent critics urge from the fact that this 'ohel mo'ed was in existence before Beseleel and Ooliab commenced the construction of the Tabernacle (Ex., xxxv-xxxvi) and that the customary place of the latter was in the very midst of the encampment (Num., ii, 1 sqq.; x, 15 sqq.). Much stress is laid upon this and other seeming discrepancies to conclude that the description of the tabernacle found in Ex., xxv-xxxi, xxxix-xl, is the work of post-exilian authors of the Priestly Code.

Assuming, however, the historical accuracy of the Biblical narratives, we shall limit ourselves here to a brief description of that "portable sanctuary" of the Hebrews. In this sanctuary we should distinguish the tent or tabernacle proper from the sacred enclosure in which the tent stood. The "court of the tabernacle" (Ex., xxvii, 9) was a rectangular space, measuring 100 by 50 cubits (probably the Egyptian cubit, 203/4 ins.), screened off by curtains of "fine twisted linen" (xxvii, 9), 5 cubits high, 100 cubits long on the north and south sides, 50 on the east and 15 on the west, and 20 cubits on either side of the entrance. The entrance was closed by a hanging of fine twisted linen , embroidered in violet, purple, and scarlet and "twice dyed" on a white ground (probable meaning of Ex., xxvii, 16). All these curtains were suspended from sixty pillars, but not in a "loose and flowing manner", as Josephus wrongly states, since the total length of the curtains is exactly the same as the perimeter of the court, one pillar being assigned to every five cubits of curtain. These pillars of setimwood, five cubits high, stood on bases ("sockets", Ex., xxxix, 39) of brass and were held in position by means of cords (ibid., xxxix, 40) fastened to brass pegs ("pins", ibid., xxxv, 18) which were stuck in the ground; the pillars ended in a capital ("head", Exod., xxxix, 17, etc.; we must believe that the height given above includes both the base and capital of the pillar) with a band or necking (to hang the curtain) overlaid with silver. East of the entrance were found successively: the altar of holocausts (Ex., xxvii, 1-8, etc.), the brazen layer (xxx, 18-21; xxxviii, 8, etc.),and the tabernacle proper. The latter was conceived to be the dwelling-tent of God; hence it consisted essentially of curtains, the wooden framework, though indispensable, being only of secondary importance. The whole structure measured 30 by 10 cubits, and was divided into two sections; the one to the west, the "Holy Place", containing the altar of incense, the golden candlestick, and the table of shewbreads; and the other, the "Holy of Holies", containing the Ark of the Covenant with the propitiatory and the cherubim. These sections were respectively 20 and 10 cubits long.

Jewish exegetical tradition, followed by almost every Christian exponent of the Bible, understood the wooden framework to be made up of 48 massive boards (rather beams) of setim wood, measuring 10 by 11/2 by 1 cubit, placed side by side. This means a weight (about fifty tons) out of proportion with what these beams would have to bear and very difficult of transportation. Some modern scholars having studied more closely the technical terms used in the original adopt another view. According to them the "boards" of the tabernacle must be understood as light frames consisting of two uprights joined (probably at the top, middle, and bottom) by ties or cross-rails (the "mortises" in Ex., xxvi, 17). Of these frames, overlaid with gold (xxvi, 29), there were 20 on the north side of the tabernacle, 20 on the south, and 6 on the east. To provide solidity and rigidity, a slanting frame was put at the north-east and south-east corners to buttress the structure (xxvi, 23); the lower part of the uprights was sunk deep into silver sockets or bases, probably to be understood as square blocks (about 1 cubit high and 3/4 cubit square); finally, five wooden bars, passing through rings attached to the frames, ran along the sides (xxvi, 26-28). On the west the frames were to be replaced by five pillars of setimwood overlaid with gold, sunk in brass bases, and crowned with golden capitals (xxvi, 37). Four pillars of the same workmanship, with silver bases, separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies.

A curtain, two pieces of fine tapestry joined by golden rings, was spread over the whole framework; each piece of tapestry consisted of five strips, 28 by 4 cubits, fitted together by loops. The total dimension of this being 20 by 40 cubits, it must have reached on the north and south the top of the bases, against which it was possibly fixed (there were loops at the top of the curtains likely for this purpose), whereas on the east it reached to the ground. Covering this curtain was another woven of goats' hair (the ordinary tent material), fitted in somewhat similarly; its dimensions, 11 (6+5)x4=44 by 30 cubits, were so calculated as to cover entirely the inside curtain on the north, east, and south sides and to hang down doubled on the west side, thus covering the tops and capitals of the pillars (Ex., xxvi, 7-13). Two outer coverings (no dimensions are given), one of dyed rams' skin and one of dugongs' skin, protected the whole structure. A hanging of apparently the same workmanship as that closing the entrance of the court, screened the entrance of the tabernacle (ibid., 36); finally, a veil of the same tapestry as the inner curtain, hooked from the four pillars mentioned above, completed the separation of the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place.


Delayed by the people's outburst of idolatrous worship pending the long intercourse of Moses with God on Mount Sinai, the construction was achieved by the skilful workmen selected by God, and was dedicated on the first day of the second year after the flight from Egypt. Henceforth the tabernacle, under the special care of the Levites of the family of Gerson, accompanied the Israelites through their wanderings in the wilderness; during marches, it came after the first six tribes and before the other six (Num., ii, 3-34); in encampments, it occupied the middle of the camp, three tribes being on each side. After the crossing of the Jordan, it remained very likely at Galgala until its removal to Silo (Jos., xviii, 1), where it remained many years. In Saul's time we hear of the tabernacle at Nobe (I Kings, xxi, 1-6), and later at Gabaon (I Par., xvi, 39), until Solomon had it removed to his new Temple (III Kings, viii, 4; II Par., v, 5). It disappeared in the first years of the sixth century B.C., being either taken away by the Babylonian army in 588, or, if credence be given the letter prefacing II Mach., hidden by Jeremias in an unknown and secure place.

JOSEPHUS, Jewish Antiquities, III, vi; PHILO, De Vita Moysis. Talmud Babyl.: Tract. Middoth, a baraitha gives the opinions of the ancient doctors on the subject. BROWN, The Tabernacle (6th ed., 1899); ORR, The Problem of the O.T. (New York, 1906); OTTLEY, Aspects of the O.T. (Oxford, 1897); WELLHAUSEN, Prolegomena (Edinburgh, 1885); WESTCOTT, Essay on the General Significance of the Tabernacle in The Epistle to the Hebrews (New York, 1889), 233 sqq.; B HR, Symbolik des mosaisch. Kultus (1837-39); FRIEDRICH, Symbolik der mos. Stiftshütte (Leipzig, 1841); GRAF, Die geschichtl. Bücher des A. T. (Leipzig, 1866), 51 sqq.; NEUMANN, Die Stiftshütte (Gotha, 1861); POPPER, Der bibl. Bericht ber die Stiftshütte (Leipzig, 1862); RIGGENBACH, Die mosaisch. Stiftshütte (1861); SCHICK, Stiftshütte u. Tempel (1898).