To See Where God Dwells: The Liturgical Meaning of the Tabernacle

by Gary A. Anderson, appearing in Volume 41

Moses with the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Image: Figures de la Bible, 1728, illustrated by Gerard Hoet

The writer of Exodus lavishes more detail on the construction of the Tabernacle than he does on almost any other description. Especially striking is the tendency to repeat the list of appurtenances—essentially, what we would call the furniture—that are found within the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:26–30; 31:7–11; 35:11–19; 39:33–41; 40:2–15; 40:18–33). It would appear that our author exploits every opportunity to provide the reader with a long, detailed list of all these holy items.

     But why would the writer devote so much space on these details? Because the Tabernacle furniture—especially the Ark—was understood as possessing something of the very being of the God of Israel. Though God is not reducible to the Ark, his presence is nevertheless so closely interwoven with it that one can point to the Ark and say, “here comes God.” The Temple is God’s home, the spot where he dwells among men.

In the Second Temple period (roughly 520 BC to AD 70), the Temple and its furniture was treated as quasi-divine. That made them dangerous to look at but at the same time, quite paradoxically, desirous or even compulsory to contemplate. It is impossible to divide with precision the house of God and its furniture from the being of God.

  The early Christians adopted this Jewish theologoumenon (a theological opinion) as a means of clarifying how Jesus could be both God and man. Indeed, this Jewish tradition came to have a formative influence on the rise of Christian mysticism.

God’s Earthly Home

The Bible’s liturgical language is highly realistic. The presumption is that God really dwells in the Tabernacle—a building that will eventually transform into the Temple. The Bible provides legislation for how to prepare and maintain this home. It is to be outfitted with furniture that befits his dignity and maintained in such a way that he will remain there and bless those who come to visit him.

   The close nexus between God and the throne upon which he sits is illustrated in the story of the battle with the Philistines that would eventually lead to the Ark’s capture. Having been routed badly in an initial exchange of hostilities, the Israelites regrouped. “Let us fetch the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh,” they decided, for “thus he will be present among us and will deliver us from the hands of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3).

   The Philistines’ response to the Ark’s entry into the Israelite war camp reveals how closely God’s being was attached to this piece of furniture. They heard Israel “burst into a great shout” and wondered why. “When they learned that the Ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were frightened; for they said, ‘God has come to the camp.’ And they cried, ’Woe to us! Nothing like this has ever happened before. Woe to us! Who will save us from the power of this mighty God?’” (1 Samuel 4:5-8).

     But it is not just the Ark that shares something of the being of God. The divine energies within the Temple pulsate with such force that all the furniture in close proximity shares an element of his presence. One might imagine the Temple as a giant electrical plant that powered the land of Israel. In its core was a nuclear reactor, in which the radioactive rods emit energy that was absorbed by the entire building. Though the danger was highest at the center, even the periphery had to be entered with caution. Not even the thickest cement wall or lead surface could prevent these rods from radiating their energy upon everything in their vicinity.

   Even seeing the furniture is analogous to seeing the very being of God, which would result in death. No better witness to the close nexus between Temple furniture and the presence of God could be seen than in the rules about how to disassemble the Tabernacle. The rules are carefully laid out with one goal in mind: the prevention of inappropriate Levitical groups from laying eyes on the holiest parts of this structure. The Kohathites were not to go inside the sanctuary until Aaron and other priests had completely covered the furniture with cloth and leather, lest they see it and die (Numbers 4:20).

The Temple of Christ’s Body

The New Testament uses this image of God’s inhabiting the physical structure of the Tabernacle-turned-Temple as a standard image of the Incarnation. The classic example of this is John 1:14, when our writer says that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Greek verb that is translated “dwell” is clearly borrowed from the story of the Tabernacle in Exodus, and literally means “to tent, or tabernacle.”

   This tells us, the Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond Brown remarks, “that the flesh of Jesus Christ is the new localization of God’s presence on earth, and that Jesus is the replacement of the ancient Tabernacle [and, by extension, Temple].” Brown also notes the very important connection between the “tenting” of the Word and its becoming visible to the naked eye. “In the Old Testament,” he observes, “the glory of God (Hebrew: kabod; Greek: doxa) implies a visible and powerful manifestation of God to men.”

  This is clear from the description of Solomon’s dedicatory prayer that marked the inauguration of the Temple itself, recorded in 2 Chronicles: “When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’s house.”

  This affected the people as well. “When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed down on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and worshipped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.’”

   On the basis of this dramatic appearance of the glory of the Lord at the Temple, Brown concludes: “It is quite appropriate that, after the description of how the Word set up a Tabernacle among men in the flesh of Jesus, the prologue should mention that his glory became visible.”

Jesus, a Walking Temple

For John, Jesus is imagined as a “walking” Temple, his flesh housing the deity just as the Temple had done beforehand. Just one chapter later, Jesus will declare: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” His interlocutors puzzle over this declaration and wonder how a building that has been under construction for some forty-six years could be so quickly reestablished. At this point the narrator returns to his tabernacling image: “But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2:19-22).

   The Johannine theme that God became visible in the flesh of Jesus had an extraordinary influence in early Christianity. Perhaps the most emphatic was that of the fourth-century Father, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote: “If everyone had the ability to come, as Moses did, inside the cloud, where Moses saw what may not be seen ... there would be no need for the appearance of our God in flesh.”

    Why then did the second person of the Trinity become flesh? Gregory explains that because of the gradual spiritual decline of the human race, people no longer had the capacity of spiritual vision that Moses once possessed. Therefore, like a physician matching his cure to the infirmity of the patient, God took dramatic measures and became visible in human flesh.

    There is one more twist in the story, though, that is worth attending to. If Jesus inhabits flesh the way God inhabited the Temple, just how might we understand the relationship of the Godhead to the building in which it rests? Is the relationship an intrinsic one?

    By this I mean: Is the entire body of Jesus, in all its carnality, divinized by this indwelling? Or is the relationship of the Word to Jesus more extrinsic in nature? On the second view, spiritual adepts can ignore the carnal flesh of Jesus in order to attend to the true source of divinity, namely, the Logos that resides within. This issue, of course, is not an idle matter; the proper way of rendering John 1:14 became one of the major forks in the road for early Christianity.

Athanasius’s Answer

For Saint Athanasius, writing in the fourth century, there was only one answer to that question: the flesh of Jesus participates in the divinity of the indwelling Logos. The manner by which he arrives at this conclusion depends on a construal of the biblical Temple as a structure that physically participates in the life of the God who inhabits it.

  Athanasius is concerned about the readiness of the Arians “to divide” the person of Christ into two, his human side and his divine side. To do so, Athanasius argues, would be idolatrous because when Christians prostrate themselves before Jesus they do so before the whole person, flesh and body.

     If the two are divisible, then the act of venerating the person Jesus results in the worship of a creature. “And we do not worship a creature,” Athanasius declares. “And neither do we divide the body from the Word and worship it by itself; nor when we wish to worship the Word do we set him far apart from the flesh, but knowing ... that ‘the Word was made flesh’ (John 1:14) we recognize him as God also, after having come in the flesh.”

     How does Athanasius justify his argument from the standpoint of sacred Scripture? By attending to the practice of the Jewish pilgrimage feasts. The Arians approve the Jews worshipping at the Temple, “but they will not worship the Lord who is in the flesh as a God indwelling a temple.” The Jews, he continued, “did not, when they saw the Temple of stones, suppose that the Lord who spoke in the Temple was a creature; nor did they set the Temple at nought and retire far off to worship. But they came to it according to the Law, and worshipped the God who uttered his oracles from the Temple.”

    “Since this was so,” Athanasius concludes, “how can it be other than right to worship the body of the Lord, all-holy and all-reverend as it is, announced by the Holy Spirit and made the vestment of the Word? ... Therefore, he that dishonors the Temple dishonors the Lord in the Temple; and he that separates the Word from the body sets at nought the grace given to us in him.”

    Athanasius’ point is crystal clear. The Jews knew that God was not limited to the stones nor the furniture, but they did not use that limitation as license for not going up to Jerusalem. Just as they were completely justified in prostrating themselves before a building of stone and not dividing God from the house in which he dwelt, so the Christian has complete justification in prostrating himself before Jesus and not dividing the indwelling God from the flesh that contains him.

An illustration of Solomon’s Temple, 1682. Image: Biblia, Dat is De gantsche H. Schrifture, 1682

Temple and Incarnation

It has often been stated that because of Israel’s radically anti-iconic stance, it preferred forms of revelation that were mediated by Word rather than sight. This assertion, like all such truisms, is to some extent accurate.

  Nevertheless, it should not be assumed that because Israel rejected the representation of God in statuary form in the Temple, it thereby rejected all linkages of God to a specific physical domain. The realistic language of the cult—that is, the providing of the Deity with light, a pleasing aroma, and food—presume that some aspect of the Deity has actually taken up residence within the confines of the Tabernacle.

The Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod has argued that the Temple provides a close, though not exact, analogy to what Christianity means by the doctrine of Incarnation: “The God of Israel is a God who enters the world of humanity and in so doing does not shun the parameters of human existence that include spatiality.” Indeed, when God assumes residence in the Tabernacle, he so ties his personal identity to that building that praise of the building can come close to praise of God himself.

   This close continuity between God and Temple would seem to be radically compromised by its destruction in 587 BC and again in AD 70. Some Christian apologists used the Temple’s destruction as a basic building block in their argument that God had permanently abandoned the Jews.

    But, in fact, just the opposite occurs. As the Temple vessels are removed from the building just prior to this catastrophic end, God’s presence and future promise of restoration becomes tied to where these vessels are interred and when they shall be revealed. The attachment of God to his home continues even after that home is destroyed.

The Mystical Turn

The impetus to accord such importance to the Biblical material on the Tabernacle begins with Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses. In this work, the ascent of Moses to the top of Mount Sinai to contemplate the heavenly Tabernacle became the very model for the life of serious prayer and contemplation. Moses, as the first mystic adept, paved the way for the rest of humanity to follow.

   But more important than Gregory was the influence of Saint Dionysius the Areopogite. Active in the fifth and sixth centuries, he is the undisputed father of Western mystical tradition.

   He wrote in his Mystical Theology: “It is not for nothing that the blessed Moses is commanded to submit first to purification and then to be separated from those who have not undergone this (Exodus 24:15–18ff). When every purification is complete [his forty days of fasting] he hears the many-voiced trumpets (Exodus 20:18). He sees the many lights, pure and with rays streaming abundantly. Then, standing apart from the crowds and accompanied by chosen priests, he pushes ahead to the summit of the divine ascents (Exodus 25:1ff). And yet he does not meet God himself, but contemplates, not him who is invisible, but rather where he dwells (Exodus 25ff).”

    Here the importance of the furniture of the Temple is stated with startling clarity. Seeing God directly is death dealing—no human can do that. But God has not left us with no signs of his presence. We can contemplate his person by attending to the place where he dwells. Through these holy items—that is, the physical furniture of the Tabernacle—his unimaginable presence is disclosed.

   The striking line here is how Dionysius understands the function of all the textual detail in Exodus 25–40. Moses is called to the top of Mount Sinai for an intimate audience with God, yet what he sees is not God’s own person but the building in which he will deign to dwell.

God’s Presence

How was God to mediate his presence to this budding novice of the religious life? According to Dionysius, who is clearly following the lead of the biblical text, Moses does not see God himself but rather confronts the next best thing. He is allowed to contemplate the invisible God in the visible form of his domestic furniture.

   For, as he argues, it is through this furniture that “his unimaginable presence is shown.” To paraphrase Dionysius, we cannot see God face to face, but he has graciously consented to let us see where he dwells.