An unlikely sight in the desert
Exodus 35:21 Everyone who was willing and whose heart moved them came and brought an offering to the LORD for the work on the tent of meeting.
In A.D. 1144 a great building began to take shape in a village in northwest France. Enthusiasm for the project soon spread across the entire country, and volunteer workers streamed to the site. Working together, the people managed to construct one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the magnificent cathedral at Chartres.
Fifty years later, after a terrible fire, the villagers of France rebuilt their cathedral from scratch. Today, tourists throng to marvel at what was splendidly fashioned to the glory of God so long ago.
A work of art took shape in similar fashion thousands of years earlier than Chartres, and the last chapters of Exodus provide a wealth of details. In a hostile desert landscape, a tribe of just-liberated slaves built something of exquisite beauty: a portable cathedral, or tabernacle.
God directed the project personally, specially endowing the crafters with skill (see Exodus 31:1–6) and elaborating right down to the color choice of woven yarns, the precise length of curtains and wooden frames, and the design of gold filigree. The people of Israel joined together in a flurry of activity, carefully following God’s pattern. A ton of gold went into the project, as well as nearly four tons of silver and stockpiles of precious gems and rare woods.
God Moves In
After describing the tabernacle construction in great detail, the Bible devotes just five verses, the last five in Exodus, to its culmination. In a matter-of-fact tone, those sentences record a remarkable event.
Throughout the book of Exodus God had been progressively revealing himself to Moses: once in a burning bush, once in a mysterious appearance beside a rock, once on a trembling mountain and often in a cloud-covered tent of meeting. God’s presence caused such fear and awe that the people of Israel begged that he not speak to them directly (see Exodus 20:19). When Moses had come down from Mount Sinai after meeting with God, he glowed as if radioactive, and everyone was too frightened to go near him (see Exodus 34:30).
Yet, on the day the tabernacle was completed, this same God moved in. His glory filled the new tabernacle. God took up residence with his people.
A Visible Reminder
From then on, whenever the Israelites marched or camped, their portable cathedral stayed in the exact center of the camp, with their tents and personal belongings radiating out from the Most Holy Place and the ark of the covenant. The tabernacle gave them a visible reminder of God’s central place. Each day priests performed functions of sacrifice and worship there.
The story of the tabernacle, which takes up one-third of Exodus, reveals much about the character of God. He can never be taken lightly—the rituals here and in the next three books show that God must be approached with care and reverence. He cannot be experienced directly, in his fullness, by ordinary people; a holy God is simply too overwhelming. Even Moses, Exodus says, could not look on God’s face and live (see Exodus 33:20).
And yet, amazingly, that same God who seemed so distant came near. Despite the huge gulf separating God and humanity—a gulf that all the rules on holiness and purification only hint at—God allowed personal access to himself. He made himself available.
Where does God “live” now?