The Tabernacle: Bearing Witness to the Presence of GodApr 18, 2023
As we are in Easter Season (the seven weeks between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday), I have been reflecting on the new covenant depicted in Hebrews 9-10 and its connection to the earthly tabernacle described in Exodus 25-31. In what ways does religious architecture mediate contact between the deity and the people? How do these passages bear witness to God’s presence?
In the Hebrew Bible, the divine is revealed to people in various locations and at certain points in time. According to the text, Moses encountered the Israelite god several times, including speaking with the deity face to face (Exod 33:11). In one of these experiences, Moses is given the blueprints for a holy dwelling place, the tabernacle (Exod 25-31).
The Mosaic Tabernacle was a moveable tent that was stationed in the middle of the Israelite camp during the desert wanderings. Each time the people traveled to a new location, the tabernacle moved with them. The Ark of the Covenant was housed inside this tent, as well as the stone commandments given to Moses at Sinai. This was considered a sacred space. Sometimes, the divine’s presence would descend in a cloud of smoke onto the tabernacle. Eventually, the Jerusalem temple replaced the tabernacle, even though God did not need a permanent structure (2 Sam 7:5-7).
According to Hebrews 9:24, the earthly tabernacle was “a mere copy of the true one,” the heavenly tabernacle. The books of Hebrews and Revelations often describe heaven as a sanctuary, a type of religious architecture.
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself (Heb 9:24-26).
In the earthly tabernacle, the high priest acted as the mediator for the people. On the Day of Atonement, he entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of a goat onto the mercy seat (the lid of the Ark of the Covenant) to atone for the sins of the people. This needed to be done year after year. However, according to Hebrews 9, it is through Jesus, the new covenant’s high priest, that the people gain access to the presence of God without the need for yearly sacrifice.
Jesus bears witness for all people by representing both the sacrificial animal and the high priest. According to this new covenant, the heavenly tabernacle allows open access to the divine. The curtain separating the people from the Holy of Holies is gone. Instead of the fear associated with ritual impurity in the divine’s presence, the text encourages the readers to approach confidently with “a true heart in full assurance of faith.”
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith (Heb 10:19-22a).
In the Exodus story, the tabernacle was a known location to bear witness to the presence of the Israelite god. The story of Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension draws on motifs from the Mosaic Tabernacle story to depict a new covenant between God and the people; a covenant where Jesus bears witness once and for all. And it is in this rich tradition that Christians celebrate the Easter Season from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday.
No matter your faith tradition, the closing admonition from Hebrews 10:24 can be applied to a broader audience:
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.
How can we inspire one another towards lovingkindness? How can we bear witness to the good deeds around us? Bearing witness is an action. We must both “consider” ways to initiate more kindness into the world and "act" on those considerations. Hopefully your actions will “provoke” others to bear witness as well.
by Jennifer Metten Pantoja