of the Tabernacle
From the full account of the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the interest of the Tabernacle in Bible symbolism, we might expect a fuller account in Israel's history through the centuries. That is not so; after Israel entered the Promised Land under Joshua almost nothing is known about the structure which was the centre of Israel's worship and sacrifice, the place which more than anywhere else was the place of God's dwelling with His people. The Tabernacle was made at Mount Sinai in the year after the Exodus. It continued until the fourth year of King Solomon nearly five hundred years later when it was superseded by the Temple in Jerusalem. During that five hundred years virtually all that is known about it has to he pieced together by stray allusions and isolated texts.
The Tabernacle was a transportable building consisting of two apartments, the "Holy" and the "Most Holy", surrounded by a "Court" bounded by white curtains carried on poles about seven feet high. Within its limits the central worship of Israel was conducted, the solemn ceremonies of sacrifice and cleansing, including the all-important annual "Day of Atonement" which in ritual fashion cleansed Israel from sin. The Lord was pictured as dwelling within the "Most Holy", forever hidden from mortal sight. Only the High Priest could enter that sacred apartment when once a year he went in to make atonement for the people. Wherever the people went, the Tabernacle went with them, taken down and re-erected every time they moved a stage further in their journeys. When at last they reached the Promised Land, it became the focal centre for meetings of the tribes.
The story begins in Exodus 25 to 31, where Moses, alone on the Mount with God, received the two Tables of the Law and at the same time detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, the institution of the Priesthood, and the ceremonial which was to be observed. Chapters 35 to 40 of the same book record the execution of the work and at its completion, says the chronicler, "the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle". With its central building "overlaid with gold", (gold leaf), the altar in the Court of burnished copper, the gold and silver ornaments, jewels and gorgeously coloured tapestries, this place of Israel's worship presented a magnificent sight. But its true glory was of another world. That glory was symbolized by the "Ark of the Covenant" which reposed inside the Most Holy. A box about four feet long, gold covered within and without surmounted by two solid gold figures of winged cherubim, this was the place where the High Priest met with God.
The unknown history of the Tabernacle commenced when their forty years of wilderness wanderings were over at Jordan and Israel crossed into the Promised Land. Their first thought was to re-erect the Tabernacle in what they hoped would be its permanent location, although that hope was not to be fulfilled. A site undefiled by death had to be found, to be clean in the eyes of the Lord (Num.19. 16). Such a site was found near Jericho, a level uninhabited plain, and here the limits of Israel's camp was marked out with twelve boundary monoliths and the Tabernacle erected in the centre. They named the place Gilgal, meaning a great circle (Josh.4.19-20).
The Tabernacle remained at Gilgal only about seven years, whilst the Israelite warriors were conquering the land. It soon became apparent that Gilgal was not a good choice, right on the eastern boundary of the land and not at all conveniently placed for the gatherings of the tribes. A near central location was needed, somewhere in the natural centre of the land. Another virgin spot, undefiled by human habitation, was found in the territory of the tribe of Ephraim in a locality which was as near to the geographical centre of the land as could be wished. It was just about midway between Dan in the north and Beer-sheba in the south, Gilgal in the east and Joppa in the west. A complete circle of hills creating a plain about ten miles across in the centre of which a slightly elevated area was probably the site of the sacred structure. They named the place Shiloh, and here the entire nation gathered to see the Tabernacle erected and to make this their national place of meeting for conference and decisions (Josh.18.1). It was here that the will of the Lord concerning tribal territories was sought by the casting of lots (Josh. 18). Here the Tabernacle remained until the disastrous time of Eli the High Priest in the days of Samuel, about three hundred and fifty years. Around it there grew, as the years passed by, a settlement of priests and Levites, attendant on the sanctuary, which developed at length into a sizable town. It could have been a holy town, a place memorable for the devotion of its inhabitants to Israel's God. Unhappily, it speedily became the reverse, and its immorality and debauchery became proverbial in Israel, until the Lord allowed it to be destroyed by the enemies of Israel and not inhabited again. Even then, only a few years after the death of Joshua, while Phinehas the grandson of Aaron was still High Priest, it figured in a scandalous proceeding which showed how quickly and how far Israel had fallen from the high ideals of their covenant with the Lord.
The story is recounted in Jud.19-21. A certain Levite of Mount Ephraim, a few miles from Shiloh ‑ probably one of the Levites in attendance at the Tabernacle ‑ whilst passing through Gibeah of Benjamin with his concubine had her seized, maltreated and killed by some unruly Benjamites. The outcome was a punitive expedition against the people of Gibeah which developed into a war of revenge by all the other tribes against Benjamin. Phinehas went into the Tabernacle to ask the Lord if they should continue this war to the death and the Lord told him to do so and He would deliver the Benjamites into their hands. At least that is what Phinehas told his compatriots. The consequence was that the war was pursued with such zeal and fury that the entire tribe of Benjamin, some fifty thousand and probably as many children, were wiped out with the exception of six hundred men. With a swift reversal of sentiment the victors then came to the Tabernacle and bemoaned to God the fact that a tribe had been lost out of Israel, and that because of a great oath they had sworn before God to the effect that none of them would ever give his daughter in marriage to a Benjamite they were precluded from doing anything to rebuild the tribe. In this extremity the elders of Israel evolved a stratagem to overcome the difficulty (Jud. 21.17‑24). There was to be a feast at Shiloh in which the "daughters of Shiloh" came out and danced. The men of Benjamin were to lie in wait, abduct the girls and retreat to their home town and nothing would be done by their erstwhile enemies in war. Thus the terms of the oath would be circumvented. Not made apparent in the story as it appears in Judges is the fact that these 'daughters of Shiloh' were the young attendants in the Tabernacle, their lives consecrated to sacred service, and inviolate, as were Jephthah's daughter and Samuel in much later days. The fact that without any compunction the elders of Israel should recommend and the priests in charge sanction so gross a contempt of the Tabernacle service and worship is a measure of the extent to which, in less than a couple of generations, Israel had fallen short of its own high ideals. Perhaps this is why the historians of the Old Testament did not record the names of any High Priest after Phinehas. Josephus does assert that he was followed by Abishua, Bukki and Uzzi as High Priests at Shiloh but all the OT does is to include their names in the genealogies. The glory of the Tabernacle began to depart almost as soon as it was erected at Shiloh.
For more than two centuries after this, the story of the Tabernacle is a blank; nothing is known of its history. This is the period of the oppression of Israel by the Moabites, the Syrians and the Philistines which of itself indicates that Israel had largely turned away from God and so earned the penalty of the violated Covenant. If, as Josephus asserts, Ahishua, Bukki and Uzzi did indeed serve as High Priests, this would be the time of their service but it is doubtful if there was any real adherence to the ordained Tabernacle ritual and sacrifices. It is of this period that the writer of Judges says "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes". It was a time of anarchy in which a few remained faithful to Israel's God and the rest were indifferent.
Towards the end of the period came the upheaval in the Priesthood which resulted in the line of Eleazar being deposed and priests of the line of Ithamar, Aaron's younger son, seizing the duties of office. So when the child Samuel was brought to the Tabernacle by his mother to be devoted to Divine service, Eli of the line of Ithamar was the serving High Priest. The account in 1 Sam.2 shows how decadent the priesthood had become.
Twenty years later came the crowning tragedy. The warriors of Israel, beaten in conflict with their hereditary enemies the Philistines, decided to take the sacred symbol of the Divine presence with them, the Ark of the Covenant into battle. From its place in the Most Holy of the Tabernacle, they carried it into battle before them, in the belief that God would never allow it to fall into the hands of the uncircumcised, and so victory would be assured. This act of sacrilege met with due retribution. The Lord did allow the sacred Ark to fall into the hands of the Philistines and the Israelites were soundly defeated once again. The High Priest Eli, when news of the Ark's capture was brought to him, fell off his seat and died.
This was not only the end of Shiloh; it also marked a turning-point in the Lord's dealings with Israel. At the first Joseph had received the birthright from his father Jacob and passed it on to his son Ephraim. Now the tribe of Ephraim in whose territory Shiloh stood had become the leading idolatrous tribe in Israel. This supreme example of their godlessness moved the Lord to reject Ephraim and pass the birthright to Judah, as represented in his descendant David, soon then to be born. Psalm 78 records the sad circumstances of that fatal battle, the loss of the Ark and the Lord's consequent action The children of Ephraim, being armed and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle. They kept not the covenant of God and refused to walk in his law…they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images. When God heard this he was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel, so that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men; and delivered his strength into captivity and his glory into the enemy's hand … the fire consumed their young men; their priests fell by the sword... he refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim, but chose the tribe of Judah, the Mount Zion which he loved". (Psa. 78. 9‑70). It was at this point that Judah became the royal tribe of Israel, destined to produce Israel's kings.
Shiloh was destroyed. The Old Testament gives no hint of what happened to the priestly settlement surrounding the Tabernacle. There can be no doubt that the Philistines, flushed with victory and capture of the Ark, soon covered the forty miles from Beth-Shemesh where the battle was fought, and carried fire and sword through the little town. It never recovered. Shiloh was erased from the face of the earth. Five hundred years later the Lord said to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah, reproving them for their apostasy, "Go ye now to my place which was in Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because ye have done all these works. . . . and I called unto you, and ye answered not, therefore will I do unto this house" (the Temple at Jerusalem) 'which I gave unto you and your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh" (Jer.7.12‑14).
The Tabernacle escaped. It is probable that before the Philistines reached the spot, Samuel and those with him succeeded in dismantling the structure and transporting it out of harm's way. With the death of Eli, Samuel remained the only person of authority in Israel and he probably assumed control. He re-erected the Tabernacle on its original site at Gilgal, without the Ark of the Covenant, and there it remained for something like fifty years into the reign of Saul. It was at Gilgal that Samuel offered the sacrifices connected with Saul's appointment as king and at Gilgal that Saul was formally crowned king over Israel (I Sam.10.8; 11.15). The High Priesthood was restored to the legal line of Eleazar in the person of Ahitub, father of the Zadok of David's time. Because in the absence of the Ark, the Day of Atonement ritual could not be performed, he was merely given the courtesy title of "Ruler of the House of God" (1 Chron.9.15; Neh.11.11).
By this time Saul had become king. After his breach with Samuel he took matters into his own hands, dismissed Ahitub and moved the Tabernacle to Nob, on the north side of Jerusalem, then known as Jebus. He appointed as High Priest, Ahimelech, son of another Ahitub, a grandson of Eli, who as a child had survived the massacre at Shiloh. This Ahimelech had sided with Saul in the troublous period of his early kingship and acted as a kind of personal priest to him (1 Sam. 14.3). This arrangement did not last long; Saul, suspecting Ahimelech of treasonable communication with David, who was then on the run from Saul, sent men and massacred the entire priesthood of Nod, Abiathar son of Ahimelech alone escaping, and removed the Tabernacle to his own home town of Gibeon (1 Sam. 22.9‑23). This fact is known only by inference. When, later on, David became king of all Israel, the Tabernacle, complete with the altar of burnt-offering but without the Ark, was standing at Gibeon. Zadok, of the line of Eleazar, was its priest (1 Chron.16.39; 21.29). This must have been done by Saul after his slaughter of the priesthood at Nob. Here it stood throughout the reign of David and until the accession of Solomon (1 Kings 3.4;2 Chron.1.3-15).
Now Saul was dead and David king over all Israel. Somewhere about the twelfth year of his reign he decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant, which had laid in the house of Obed-Edom at Kirjath-Jearim in Judah for about eighty years, to Jerusalem. He erected what was evidently a replica of the Tabernacle Most Holy and Holy, with an altar for offerings, and eventually installed the Ark in its proper place, to the rejoicing of all Israel. He did not, however, interfere with the true Tabernacle, with its Brazen Altar made by Moses, at Gibeon. Thus for another thirty years there were two Tabernacles in Israel, and two High Priests. The original Tabernacle was at Gibeon with Zadok of the legal line of Eleazar as serving High Priest, but the Levitical sacrifices could not he performed there because it did not possess the Ark of the Covenant. The new Tabernacle at Jerusalem had the Ark and a new altar of burnt offering but the High Priest was Abiathar of the condemned line of Ithamar. At neither place could the full ceremonies demanded by the Law be carried out and it is probable that the annual Day of Atonement sacrifice had long since become obsolete.
It was left to Solomon to regularise this state of affairs. As soon as the Temple was completed and dedicated in the fourth year of his reign he had the Ark of the Covenant brought into it (2 Chron.5.5) and instituted a grand opening ceremony. Zadok was appointed High Priest, thus fulfilling the condemnation passed upon Eli and his posterity a century earlier. Although nothing is said about the fate of the original Tabernacle at Gibeon, it is evident that the service conducted there, as well as that connected with David's Tabernacle in Jerusalem, were terminated, and from now on the Day of Atonement ritual was celebrated in the new Temple.
The meeting-place between God and men, made by Bezaleel under Moses' direction at the time of the Exodus, came to its end. It had been the centre of Israel's worship for five hundred years and now gave place to a greater and more permanent Temple, destined, as Solomon said in his dedication, to be "a house of prayer for all nations".
This article appeared in the Bible Study Monthly 20 year ago. It has been slightly abridged. Its author is unknown.