Understanding the Wilderness Tabernacle

As many of you know, for about seven years, I directed a project to rebuild a full scale 1:1 replica of the Tabernacle of Moses in Israel. After thousands of visitors went through, we eventually had to shut it down due to the constant tensions in the region. Visitors bought a booklet when they went through that included the information in this article. 

Understanding the Wilderness Tabernacle

A replica in the Judean Desert


The Tabernacle or “tent of meeting” was the place where the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob met with His people (Ex. 25:8; Num. 17:7-8). It was a place for the leaders and people to come together in holy convocation and observe the necessary sacrifices instructed by God. It was built according to a design given by God himself (Ex. 25:9). The design was etched into Jewish memory as a place most significant, demonstrated by the forty-six chapters of the Hebrew Bible that are devoted to its construction and worship (13 chapters in Exodus, 18 chapters in Leviticus, 13 in Numbers, 2 in Deuteronomy). God instructed every facet of its construction, and ordered it set up exactly one year after the Passover that set the people free from bondage (Ex. 40:2,17).

Our replica at Kibbutz Almog is not exactly like the original built by Moses and the children ofIsrael, because there are many details that were not given in the Hebrew Bible to disclose the exact appearance of the original. Educated speculation was used to compose the replica we present to you. Using the Hebrew Bible, along with the teachings and ideas of the Sages, we have followed the pattern given as closely as we were able. Where debates and disagreements existed in the rabbinical record, we have simply chosen a position that seemed suitable, always in complete harmony with the sense of the Biblical text. The sizes conform to the Biblical account, as do the surfaces in appearance.

The Name of the Tabernacle

The term tabernacle is derived from a Latin form, and generally means “a tent or temporary dwelling”. Two Hebrew terms for the Tabernacle of Moses are used in the Hebrew Bible:

1. Mishkan (mish-kawn’): a residence or hut. This term is also used of an animal den, a shepherd’s temporary shelter, or a tent. This is the most common term for the Tabernacle in Exodus, and is taken from the primary root shakan (shaw-kan’), which means to reside or dwell within.

2. Ohel (o’-hel): a tent or place of dwelling. Used often in the Exodus account, this term is apparently derived from the word ‘ahal (aw-hal’), or “to be clear” (as in obvious) or “to shine”. Scholars believe the connection was the obvious conspicuous presence of a tent as a place of residence and hospitality in the desert that linked the term “conspicuous” with the term for a tent. The Psalmists appear to prefer this term for the place of God’s dwelling.

The Purposes of the Tabernacle

The Tabernacle was a place where God met at least three needs of the Israelites in their travels through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. First, the people had a need for a visual place of worship. When Moses went up into the mountain of the law, he did not return for forty days (Ex. 32:1) and the people grew impatient. They combined their golden earrings (the symbol of their former slavery) and fashioned a golden calf (32:4). Though a clear act of disobedience, it demonstrated that the people felt the need for something visual to illustrate the God they followed. After ten generations of slavery, fashioning elaborately decorated temples for foreign gods of the Egyptians, it is no wonder they wanted a visual of their own God. Had they only waited, they would have discovered that God understood their need, and provided the plans for the Tabernacle, complete with the Holy Ark of stunning gold.

Second, the Israelites also had a need for formation, to bond together as a people working on a common goal. The other parts of the Mosaic covenant gave the people instructions to obey, but nothing in the law gave them so clear an immediate common objective. This was a positive opportunity to become organized in a task. Every willing person could bring a gift (35:5). The skilled women could spin the tapestry; the skilled men could begin to build (35:10). Teachers and leaders were brought together to organize the effort (35:29-35).

A third need the Tabernacle met for the Israelites was also illustrated by the story of disobedience with the golden calf. With the extended absence of Moses (32:1), the people showed the need to see their leader meeting with God. They needed to sense the presence of God with them and with their leader. Truly this is recognized by God’s specific promise that He would meet with them there (Ex. 25:22).

The Tabernacle was not only a place where God met the needs of the people, but it was also a place where He tested the obedience of the people. There are at least two tests that can be observed. First, the Israelites were tested in their generosity. The newly set free slaves of the Exodus had spent their lives in a lowly state. They toiled hard (Ex. 1:11) without gaining most of the spoils of their work until the time of the first Passover, when the fearful Egyptians suddenly gave them great wealth (Ex. 12:32-36). They leftEgypt with the greatest combined wealth the children of Jacob had ever known. The Tabernacle was a place where God gave them the opportunity to give their first free will offering to Him (Ex. 25:2) out of their new found wealth.

Another test for the Israelites was one of obedience. The Tabernacle had a specific design that they were to follow and not vary (Ex. 25:9). The work was difficult (it required Divine wisdom – cp. Ex. 35:35), and the designs were intricate. Transporting such a building and all of the vessels would tax the people and their ability to move in the wilderness. Just the transportation of the Holy Ark was a major task. The existence of such a building as a symbol for people who were forced into a nomadic lifestyle was powerful.

The Journey of the Tabernacle

In function, the Tabernacle was a portable place of worship for the Israelites. Born out of the most difficult circumstances, the sanctuary was first erected in the desert, on the journey from the Mountain of the Law (Sinai), to the Promised Land. It was built by artisans who had been trained to build cities and temples for the Egyptian taskmasters. Because the people were on a journey, a permanent shrine was inappropriate, so this moveable version was to be the center of their religious life. The Tabernacle was dismantled for each leg of the journey, theArkand two altars were carried by the sons of Kohath (the Levite) and the remainder of it was moved by 6 covered wagons pulled by oxen (Num. 7).

From the time of the instruction at Sinai (some time between 1600-1300 BCE), to the building of theTempleatJerusalemby Solomon (950 BCE) the Tabernacle and its furnishings were central to the religious foundation of the Israelites. The Tabernacle stood in the desert at Kadesh with the Israelites for 35 years (cp. Amos 5:25), and the Israelite advances included the Holy Ark (Num. 10:33-36).

The Holy Ark with the Mercy Seat cover was very much a part of key events and battles. These events include the crossing over the Jordan River (Josh. 3:6); the march onJericho(6:6); the establishment of a worship center at Shiloh (1 Sam. 1:3); and the celebration of the conquest ofJerusalemby David (2 Sam. 6). It remained at least until theTemplewas built (circa 930 BCE). So related to the early victories of the Israelites, it was poetically recalled as “the ark of God’s strength” (Ps. 132:8). The power of the presence of God is nowhere more clear than the story of theArk’s travels after the Philistine’s took it in the battle of Ebenezer (1 Sam. 4-7).

Though not specifically described, the Tabernacle may have been first erected in the “Promised Land” at Gilgal (Josh. 4:19) after the Israelites crossed over theJordan River. The structure was then moved onto the Benjamin plateau at Shiloh, and remained so long it took on a sense of permanency (hence referred to as a “temple” – 1 Sam. 1:9; 3:3). With the heavier rains and colder temperatures of the mountains, some scholars feel the fabric tent, which had worked well in the desert, was retired in favor of a more durable structure. The excavations atShilohbear a northern flat area of the approximate size that may have been for that purpose.

Because so much of the specific design is part of the Hebrew Bible, the courts, posts and pieces of Holy Furniture can be approximated. Each part of the construction is detailed in both the Bible and Rabbinic writings.

Posts and Courtyard Enclosure (Ex. 27:9-15,17-19; 38:9-17, 20; 40:33)

(Court: Heb. khaw-tsare’, a yard from a verb form to surround, a stockade, a separation; post: Heb. ‘am-mood’, a stand as in a pillar or column from the verb ‘amad, to stand).

The first part of the Tabernacle that you can observe is the “Outer Court”, an area 100 cubits long (150 feet) and 50 cubits across (75 feet), a great rectangle barrier made of a hanging fabric fence five cubits (about 7.5 feet) high. On each side of the enclosure pillars of acacia wood, topped with caps of silver held the fabric. Rods or bands of silver were also connected to the wood.

On the south side of the courtyard, there was a hangings of fine twined linen (probably like meshwork) 100 cubits (150 feet) long. To hold the hanging, there were 20 pillars, with 20 bases of bronze (copper). The hooks on the pillars and their fillets (bands or bars) were made of silver. Opposite the south side, the north side of the courtyard enclosure was made in an identical way.

To the west (rear) side of the enclosure, a hanging of 50 cubits (75 feet) was made. To hold the hanging, 10 pillars were made with bases of bronze (copper). Again, the hooks and bands on the pillars were made of silver. Closed at the corners, this closed the rear from any entry.

On the east side, an opening that functioned as the door was centered (see below: “The Door to the Enclosure”). The opening was 20 cubits wide (or about 30 feet). From each corner 15 cubit wide hangings (about 22.5 feet) extended from the corners on either side of door. Three pillars held the hangings on each side of the door (each with sockets as other sides of the enclosure). All of the anchoring pegs of the courtyard were made of bronze (copper).

The Door to the Enclosure (Ex. 27:16, 38:18-19)

(Door: Heb. shah’-ar, an opening from the verb shaw-ar’ to split or make open)

The courtyard was oriented with its only opening to the east. This side was 50 cubits wide (75 feet) with a centered opening of 20 cubits (about 30 feet) that acted as the gate to the entire enclosure. The gate screen measured the size of the opening, and may have covered the opening, or may have been pulled away from the white enclosure.

The Biblical description defines a fine twined linen (“sheshet” cloth, probably open weave) door screen 20 cubits (30 feet) long and 5 cubit high (7-1/2 feet) that was embroidered in blue, purple and scarlet thread (probably wool). There are some rabbinic records that suggest this measurement was a summary and the entire screen was actually built at the height of 15 cubits (22-1/2 feet). The gate had 4 pillars set in 4 brass or copper bases, and hooks and fillets of silver.

The Brazen (Copper) Altar (Ex. 27:1-8; 38:1-7; 40:29)

(Bronze/brass/copper: Heb. nekh-o’-sheth, copper or something made of copper, later used of brass; altar: Heb. miz-bay’-akh, an altar, from the verb zaw-bakh’, to slaughter or sacrifice).

Upon entering the great enclosure, two of the furnishings stood out in the open air – the Brazen Altar and the Laver. Closest to the door was the altar. At 5 cubits square and 3 cubits high, the altar was made of acacia wood and overlaid with copper (brass). Built as one piece with the altar each corner had a raised area called a “horn” because of its shape.

A mesh grating was also made of copper. This grating was placed inside the altar halfway down from the top ledge. Made with four rings attached to its corners, it was inserted into the hollow area created by the four altar walls. The four rings probably aided in removing the mesh. Four copper rings were made and attached to the outside of the altar, placed on each corner. Poles were made of acacia wood and overlaid with copper, and could be used to transport the altar shell. Each pole was passed through two of the rings, so that the poles were on two sides of the altar when it was carried. Some have suggested the mesh could also be removed by using the poles. Pots were made to receive the ashes from the altar. Shovels, basins, forks and fire pans were also made of copper.

Rabbi Rashi, in a Talmudic commentary, says the altar sat upon a 1 cubit high base, and the altar walls (hollow in the center) acted like a container. Other commentators said the altar had no base at all.

The Laver (Ex. 30:17-21; 38:8; 40:30-32)

(Laver: Heb. kee-yore’, something round or bored like a pit, a washbowl, from an unused root koor’,  to dig through, a pot or furnace).

Continuing toward theHoly Place, but still in the open court, A copper washstand stood, made with a copper base. It was filled with water for the priests to wash hands and feet before entering the tent or before sacrificing on the altar. They washed their feet and their hands. The washstand was a large pot with 2 spigots. The Bible records it was made of the polished copper mirrors of the women that assembled at the door of the congregation.

Door (Screen) to The Holy Place (Ex. 26:36,37; 36:37:38; 40:28)

(Screen: Heb. maw-sawk’ , a veil or screen from a root word saw-kak’ , to entwine or embroider, by implication to cover, to protect).

Standing before the tent of theHoly Place, a screen veil hung as the door to the structure. Made of blue, purple and scarlet thread (probably wool) woven on fine twined linen, it was embroidered with needlework. It measured 10 cubits square (about 15 feet). Five pillars of acacia wood overlaid with gold were supporting the screen. Hooks of gold protruded from the pillars to hold the screen in place. Each of the five pillars stood in its own base of bronze (or copper).

The Coverings

(Covering: Heb. yer-ee-aw’ ,a hanging curtain,

from the root yaw-rah’ , to be broken up).

Draped over the outside of the wooden enclosure around theHoly Placewe observe tent coverings. There is substantial debate over the number of fixed coverings that were placed over theHoly Place. The difficulty stems from the Biblical text’s detailed description of the linen covering, a detailed description of the goat hair covering, followed by single sentence descriptions of the last two coverings. As a result, it is possible that ram’s skin and tachash (an animal of uncertain description) coverings may be a covering for the transportation of the tent materials, or may be a description of the roof (as we are showing).

The Goat Hair Covering (Ex. 26:7-13; 36:14-18; 40:19)

(Goat hair: Heb. ay-zim’ plural form of she goat, used as goat hair).

Along the north, south and west sides, we can see goat hair woven into panels. In the Biblical description, eleven panels were made of goat’s hair, each panel 30 cubits long (about 45 feet) and four cubits wide (about 6 feet). Five of the panels were sewn together, and the other six were sewn together, leaving two pieces. Fifty loops were made (presumably of goat hair) along the edge of the two pieces corresponding to one another (each about 10-3/4 inches apart). Fifty copper (or brass) tasches (hooks or knobs) were made to clasp the pieces together. When buttoned together, it made one whole covering. The panel above the entrance door was doubled (probably 2 cubits wide folded over above the door and overhanging). The extra material pulled around to the rear of the building.

The Roof: The Ram’s Skin Dyed Red (Ex. 26:14a; 36:19a) and

The Tachash (Ex. 26:14b; 36:19b)

(Covering: Heb. yer-ee-aw’ ,a hanging curtain,

from the root yaw-rah’ , to be broken up).

The description of the erection of the Tabernacle simply states that Moses put up the tent and the cover (suggesting one cover over the linen and not the three additional coverings, cp. Ex. 40:19). Several rabbis argued that the third and fourth covering were on the top of the building as a roof, not covering the sides. In this case, they suggested that two materials were sewn together into one covering. It was only visible from the top of the building, not on the sides. One material was the ram’s skin that was dyed red, and made as a covering for the tent. No size or shape was specified. In addition, the “tachash” skin (transliterated because we are uncertain what it was) was to be used as a covering for the tent. This look of this animal is also uncertain. Some have suggested a grey waterproof and expanding material like the skin of a marine animal. Others have translated the skin as a manatee, a large shark, a beaver, and a variety of other ideas.

The Boards, Tenons, Sockets and Bars (Ex. 26:15-30; 36:20-34; 40:18)

(Boards: Heb. keh-resh’ , from a root to split off, a slab or plank, bench or board; Tenons: Heb. yaw-thade’ , from a root meaning to pin, peg or fasten; sockets: Heb. eh’-den , a base, a foundation of strength, from the root aw-done’, to rule or be in control; bars: Heb. ber-ee’-akh , bars from baw-rakh, to bolt (also used to flee away).

Stepping into theHoly Place, impressive gold covered walls surrounded you. The walls consisted of 48 beams were made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. Each beam was 10 cubits high by 1-1/2 cubits (about 27”) wide by 1 cubit thick (about 18”). The width of the boards is not stated in the Bible, but if the six boards go across the west, and the interior width of theHoly Placeis 10 cubits, the board width can be calculated as 1 cubit.  A groove was made in the bottom of each beam to create 2 pegs (called tenons). Twenty beams were placed in forty silver sockets on the south side, and twenty more beams were placed in forty silver sockets on the north side. On the western wall, six beams spanned the wall, with two additional beams set in the corners (a total of eight). Sixteen silver bases were constructed for this wall.

Holding the walls together, in addition to the sockets at ground level, were five strips (or bars) of acacia wood were laid horizontally across the beams on each side of the tent. The middle bar was continuous from one end to the other of the wall it was supporting, and may have been drawn through the boards (36:33). The strips were held on by metal rings, which were nailed to the beams. All of the beams and the strips were overlaid with gold.


The Linen Covering (Ex. 26:1-6; 36:8-13; 40:19)

(Linen: Heb. shaysh , white woven linen, sometimes used as alliteration from meh-shee’ ,  from a cocoon or silk).

Inside the Holy place, the view to the ceiling was stunning. Ten separate panels of fine twined linen were woven, each twenty-eight cubits long (about 42 feet) and four cubits wide (about 6 feet). According to the Biblical description, each panel had cherubim of blue, purple and scarlet embroidered on them with thread (probably wool). The look of the Cherubim is uncertain. Rabbi Rashi taught the cherubim pattern appeared like that of a lion and an eagle.

Five of these tapestries were sewn together, as were the second set of five, leaving two pieces. Fifty loops of blue were made on the edge of the end tapestry in each of these two sets of tapestries (each about 10 inches apart). Fifty clasps of gold were made. These threaded through the loops of the two sets of tapestries, so that the two sets were connected together.

Table of Bread of Presence (Shewbread)

(Ex. 25:23-30; 26:35; 37:10-16; 40:22-23)

(Shewbread: Heb. le-khem pan-im’, literally “bread of

the face”, used as bread ever before, in My Presence).

On the inside of theHoly Placewere three pieces of furniture: a table (on the north wall side), a golden altar (centered near the curtain), and a lampstand (on the south side). The table was fashioned of acacia wood and covered with gold. The table surface was 2 cubits long (about 3 feet), 1 cubit wide (about 18”) and 1-1/2 cubits high (about 27”). A molding of gold was made around the top like a crown. A second molding of gold was one handbreadth inside the outer molding. The edge was entirely framed in gold.

Four gold rings were made and fastened to the four corners at the legs. The rings were used as holders for the poles to carry the table. The poles were also made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. Plates (pans) for bread, dishes for incense, and bowls to pour libations (drink offerings) were made of gold. Bread was kept on the table, always present before God.

The Incense Altar (Ex. 30:1-10; 30:34-38; 37:25-28; 40:26-27)

(Incense: Heb. ket-o’-reth , a fumigation or sweet smelling perfume,

from verb kaw-tar’ , to smoke out occupants from a closed place)

In front of the veil to theMost Holy Place, an altar of acacia wood was made for burning of incense. Shaped as a box, it stood 2 cubits high, and had a surface of1 Cubit Square. Each corner had a horn extending from it, made as one piece with the altar. The altar was completely covered with pure gold. A molding (rim) of gold was placed around it, perhaps just below the horns (The Biblical record does not say exactly where, and Rabbinic opinion varies).

Two gold rings were made and attached to the corners along the molding (rim). These rings may have been on each side, or possibly on opposite corners. It is difficult from the narrative to tell if there were a total of two or four rings. These held the staves for transportation of the altar. The staves (poles) were also covered with gold.

The normal use of this altar was the burning of a sweet incense (described in Exodus 30:34-38) each morning and each evening when the lamps were trimmed. Though it was not to be used for any other incense, and no drink offering was poured upon it (as well as no meat offerings), there was a special offering one time each year that was not incense. Once a year the horns were sprinkled with the blood of the sin offering as an atonement symbol.

The Menorah (Ex. 25:31-40; 26:35; 27:20-21; 37:17-24; 40:24,25)

(Cups: Heb. gheb-ee’-ah , from an unused root meaning to be convex, a goblet or cup, the bell of a flower; knobs: Heb. kaf-tore’ , from root to encircle, the capital of a column or a disk; blossoms: Heb. prakh-ee’-ah , bud of flower or blossom, from the verb paw-rakh’ , to break forth as a bud or blossom).

Along the south wall stood a lampstand of pure gold, a menorah. Beaten from one talent (58 to 80 lbs.) of solid gold, it was made as a single piece with a base, stem, decorative cups, orbs (almond shaped) and flowers fashioned from the same block of gold. In design, it featured a center upright stick, which had three branches extending from each side. Each branch extended from an orb at the joint, and contained three embossed almond-shaped cups, a disk (orb), and a blossom. The center shaft displayed four almond-shaped cups, with knobs and blossoms (maybe four of each).

The top of the stand held seven lamps (six on branches and one in the center) that were filled with oil and lit with wicks. The lamps were filled with a special olive oil (beaten not pressed) and burned continuously. They were positioned to give light on the space in front of the menorah (toward the center of the room), with all wicks facing the center stem. The lamp snuffers and trays along with a set of tongs were fashioned from gold, and used each morning and evening to service the lamps.

The Veil of the Holy Place (Ex. 26:31-33; 36:35,36)

(Veil: Heb. po-reh’keth , a separator from an unused

verb root – peh’rek , to break apart, fracture.)

Guarding theMost Holy Placefrom view, there was a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet thread (probably wool) woven on fine twined linen. Adorning the curtain were cherubim, which have been pictured in a variety of ways (Rashi said they were like the figure of a lion on one side and a figure of an eagle of the other side.) Some rabbis held the curtain was a handbreadth thick (Shekalim 8:5), while others thought this to be the size of the pole and clearance of the curtain from its hooks.

The curtain was hung on 4 pillars of acacia wood, which were overlaid with gold and were attached with hooks of gold. Each pillar was placed in a base of silver.

The Holy Ark and Mercy Seat (Ex. 25:10-22; 26:34; 37:1-9; 40:20,21)

(Ark: Heb. aw-rone’ , a box or gathering place from verb aw-rah’ , to gather or pluck; Mercy Seat: Heb. kap-po’-reth , only used of the top of the Holy Ark, from the primary root verb kaw-far’ to cover with (originally a maritime word for covering a boat with bitumen), used in a figurative sense to appease or pacify.)

Inside theMost Holy Place, a solitary piece of furniture sat in isolation from the rest of the tented building. Surrounded on three sides by walls of gold, and on the fourth by the curtain adorned with guardian cherubim, The Holy Ark was essentially a wood box overlaid with gold. Made of acacia wood, it measured 2-1/2 cubits long (about 45”), 1-1/2 cubits wide (about 27”) and stood 1-1/2 cubits high (about 27”). Covered with a layer of pure gold both inside and out, a gold rim was fashioned around the top. (According to some commentators the artisan Bezalel made 3 boxes – an inner gold box, a middle box of plain wood and an outer box of gold).

On the outer corners, four gold rings were cast for the ark and placed on each corner. (Rashi said they were placed on the upper third of the ark. Ramban said the rings were fixed at the bottom corners). Two carrying poles were made of acacia wood, and covered with a layer of gold. The poles were placed through the rings and were not to be removed.

On top of theArk, a lid of pure gold was positioned. Its size matched the surface area of the box (2-1/2 cubits long and 1-1/2 cubits wide). The lid was beaten from a block of gold, and had two gold cherubim (keruvim) on top. Facing each other from the two ends, the wings of the cherubim were spread upward over the lid of the Holy Ark. The cherubim faced each other, but their faces inclined downward toward the lid. The exact appearance of the cherubim is not known. Some Commentators wrote the cherubim facial features were like those of a child. Still others interjected that one cherub was male and the other one was female, both childlike in appearance. Some commentators suggest a distance of ten handbreadths between the lid surface and the top of the outstretched wings.

The lid was referred to in the Hebrew Bible as the “mercy seat”, where the Shechinah (manifest presence of the Most High) met with the High Priest to offer instruction for the people. The Bible says theArkcontained the testimony (stone tablets) of the covenant.