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In our previous lesson, we learned that when Yahweh chose Israel to be His special nation, He wanted her to stand out from the rest of the world in ways that would attract other nations towards her and entice them to know more about the God she worshiped. And when people started asking about the God of Israel, Yahweh wanted to make it clear that He wasn’t just another dumb idol with limited powers who could be manipulated by human beings. Yahweh was the one true God—the Sovereign Authority, the Supreme Power who could pulverize every other idol in existence anytime He wanted to. Having already proved His supremacy over all the gods of Egypt through the ten plagues, it was now time for Yahweh to teach Israel how to revere Him properly. By the middle of Exodus—which our first book in this four book period—God has taken Israel out to a barren wilderness where she will have no other nations around to distract her. And it is in this barren place that He decides to appear to His chosen people in a very personal way.
Up until this point, things haven’t been going very well. The Israelites are not showing any gratitude for the fact that Yahweh has just miraculously saved them from cruel bondage in Egypt. Instead, they’re full of complaints. First they complain about not having water, so Yahweh miraculously purifies a source of poison water so the people can drink it. Next they gripe about not having enough food, so God arranges for sweet tasting flakes called manna to rain down from the sky every morning (see Lessons Learned from Manna). Then there’s another water crisis, and this time Yahweh causes water to come pouring out of a rock. Then there is a military conflict and God gives them victory over their enemies. The miraculous rescues are coming thick and fast, but Israel is still acting quite unappreciative. The moment some new trouble comes, the people start griping about how much nicer life used to be back in Egypt. Yahweh finds it quite irksome to hear the people say they’d rather return to their miserable situation in Egypt than stay in the company of their great Provider and Protector. Clearly these people are lacking in reverence, so Yahweh comes up with a theatrical display of His power in order to help them make an attitude adjustment. Leading the huge mob to the base of Mount Sinai, He announces that the mountain is sacred and anyone who comes near it must be instantly killed. Then in a glorious display of terrifying noise and fire, He descends onto the mountain in front of the entire assembly. It might have looked something like this:
On the morning of the third day, thunder roared and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled. Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because Yahweh had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered His reply. (Ex. 19:16-19)
When the people see this display, they’re scared out of their wits.
The people said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die!”
Moses answered the people, “Don’t be afraid! God has come only to test you, so that you will be in awe of Him and won’t sin.” (Ex. 20:19-20)
This was a reverence building activity, and one that became one of the most memorable moments in Israel’s history (see Volcanic God). Throughout the rest of the Bible, we will find many references back to Yahweh’s awesome display of power on Mt. Sinai. Later on, when Jews have visions of Yahweh sitting on His majestic throne, they will see lightning and hear loud rumbling and roaring noises. When the Holy Spirit comes in Acts, He will also announce His coming with deafening sounds. Even in Revelation, Jewish John will see the famous Sinai symbols associated with his visions of God. Yahweh starts a precedent here in Exodus which He keeps returning to throughout the Bible: He is loud, formidable, terrifying, and not one to be trifled with.
The God of the universe doesn’t lower Himself to grovel to mere human beings. He doesn’t take orders from His own creatures—instead, He gives them. There is only room for one King in Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. There’s no room for her entitled attitude. This display on Mt. Sinai is Yahweh’s way of knocking some sense into bratty Israel and getting her perspective adjusted. He isn’t just another idol that she can lip off to. Yahweh is God Almighty. Israel’s never met a real God before, and she doesn’t know how to respond to Him. No problem—Yahweh is more than happy to educate her.
Now to keep the bond strong, Yahweh wants to give His people a firm sense that His Presence is constantly among them. The pagans feel comforted carrying around their statues of gods and visiting temples to them in the cities. But Israel is currently wandering through a desert, so if God’s going to have some sort of shrine, it will have to be a mobile one.
You’re probably familiar with the idea of a Temple in Israel. There were two Temples built in the city of Jerusalem. The first was a magnificent gilded structure built by King Solomon in the beginning of Period 5. It was destroyed at the end of Period 5, then rebuilt in Period 6. The new Temple received several enhancements during the period between the Old and New Testaments, and then finally we get to Period 7, where Jesus is visiting the current Temple in Jerusalem. That second Temple was eventually destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. The Bible doesn’t describe the second destruction, but it does predict it.
Now the Temple we hear about today was a result of humans wanting to upgrade Yahweh’s first portable House (the Tabernacle) into something much fancier and grander than animal skins and curtains held up by poles and ropes. But the tent Tabernacle came first, and it was personally designed by Yahweh. Yahweh was quite particular about how His movable sanctuary was to be constructed. It had to be designed in a way that constantly reminded people of one very important point: God is holy (see Learning from Yahweh: What It Means To Be Holy).
Today, when we want to emphasize the fact that someone is super important, we often give them a special office that is located in a guarded area which only authorized personnel can enter. This was what the Tabernacle was like. In this post, we’ll get a peek at its inner design, but all the common Jews ever saw was its outer walls. Unless you were an authorized priest, you could never set foot inside the walls (or in this case, curtains) of the Tabernacle.
Just as God told Noah exactly how to build the ark in Period 1, He tells Moses exactly how to construct His transportable Tabernacle in Period 2. Moses wrote down all of God’s instructions and we still have them today, which is why we can make some pretty accurate drawings of what the Tabernacle would have looked like. First, let’s start with how it would have looked when it was all assembled (on this site, you can click on images to make them larger):
As you can see, it’s a pretty simple structure. There was a large rectangular courtyard that was fenced in by heavy curtains. Inside the courtyard, there was a smaller rectangular tent that no one could see into.
The Tabernacle sat in the middle of the Israelite camp, and there were a whole lot of Israelites at the beginning of Period 2—probably at least a couple of million counting men, women and children. When you have this many people wandering about in a desert with tents and animals, you really need to be organized or there’s going to be chaos.
Happily, organization is just another one of God’s specialties. Using His Tabernacle as a center point of reference, He instructed the Israelites to group together by tribes and He told each tribe exactly where to camp around the Tabernacle. Here’s a general idea of how this would have looked (except with a lot more tents):
Now let’s take a closer look at the different sections of the Tabernacle.
INSIDE THE TABERNACLE
If you’re trying to build something from scratch, the more detailed instructions you get, the better. But when you’re not trying to build something, reading through a bunch of construction notes can feel quite tedious. God’s directions for how to build the different elements of the Tabernacle can easily seem like a very dry and boring section of the Bible. The part you want to pay attention to is not the dimensions of everything, but how the items are to be used, because the objects that are made for the Tabernacle are going to keep showing up all throughout the Bible. They are so strongly associated with God in the Jewish mind, that they even show up in visions of Heaven. In the Book of Revelation, when Jewish John finds himself standing in God’s throne room, he is actually standing in a replica of one of the inner rooms of the Tabernacle. We realize this as John looks around him and sees the same sacred objects that were used inside the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). Not being a priest, John would have never been allowed inside the special rooms of the Temple in Jerusalem, but because God preserved such detailed descriptions of all the inner furnishings, and because commoners could talk to the Jewish priests who did enter the sacred areas, everyone could get a good idea of what those inner rooms looked like.
The Tabernacle set up had three areas. Imagine setting up a camping tent in your backyard, and then hanging a curtain across the inside of the tent, dividing its space into two sections. To stand in the outer court of the Tabernacle would be like you standing in your backyard looking at the tent. People who wanted to bring sacrifices to God could come into this area and there they would be met by priests who would help them process their offerings.
Now if you step inside the front section of the tent that you’ve set up, it would be like stepping into the Holy Place of the Tabernacle. You can’t get this far unless you’re an authorized priest. Normal people weren’t allowed inside the tent.
If you push past the curtain you’ve hung up and step into the back section of your tent, you’re now in the Most Holy Place, which was also called the Holy of Holies. You can’t come this far unless you’re the high priest—the one priest who ranks above all the others. Let’s take a look at how these sections looked:
Now the two room tent which only priests could enter was set up at the far end of the large open courtyard which all worshipers could go into. This gave plenty of space for processing animal sacrifices, but it also emphasized the holiness of God. His Presence was viewed as dwelling inside the Holy of Holies—that back room of the tent house where only the high priest could enter. So as you walk into the main courtyard as a worshiper, you were far away from God. Then as you move forward, you can see yourself approaching His very Presence. This was quite exciting for the devout Yahweh worshiper.
Now if you research the Tabernacle online, you’ll come across a lot of conflicting information. Some sources will tell you that only men were allowed inside the outer courtyard. This is not true. God is quite clear in Period 2 that both men and women were allowed to bring their own sacrifices into the courtyard and have that thrilling experience of seeing the tent that housed God’s Presence. But by the time we get to Jesus’ day in Period 7, we find that this has changed. The Temple in Jerusalem was supposed to be a replica of the original Tabernacle, yet in Period 7 we find that multiple courtyards have been created, restricting women and non-Jews from coming as close as Jewish men could to the special inner house where God’s Presence was. This set up was a gross corruption of Yahweh’s original design and it promoted a lot of carnal snubbing.
Yahweh never rejects people based on earthsuit characteristics like gender, age, skin color, or ethnicity. He looks on the heart. In Period 2, He is quite clear that non-ethnic Jews who are sincerely seeking Him should be treated as equals by the ethnic Jews. All of God’s people were to abide by Yahweh’s Old Covenant Laws, and many of those Laws required making trips into the courtyard of the Tabernacle. This intentional exclusion of people based on gender and ethnicity that we find happening in Period 7 is total rot and a direct violation of God’s original Covenant. It shows us how corrupt the religious leaders of the day had become that they would promote such a warped view of God’s acceptance of people. This is another reason why it is so important to study the eight time periods of the Bible in order. When we just focus on the last two periods (the New Testament), we draw false conclusions about how God views people because we think all of the exclusion and bigotry we’re seeing was part of Yahweh’s original plan. God loves Jews, non-Jews, men, women, adults and children with equal enthusiasm. Whenever some passage in the Bible makes us doubt that this is true, we need to ask our Gods to help us get an accurate understanding of how They view us.
THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
Now as a Co-Creator of humans, Yahweh knows how we think. Things seem more real to us when there’s something that we can see and touch. To help His people get a very real sense of His Presence with them, Yahweh not only orders the construction of the tent Tabernacle, but He also orders the construction of a special gold box which will represent His literal throne. In the Bible, this box is referred to as the Ark of the Covenant or the Ark of the Testimony or just the Ark. It was not Yahweh Himself, but instead was viewed as a throne for Him to abide on. Yahweh’s actual Presence was viewed as resting on top of the Ark, between two golden angels which were facing each other. Let’s look at a picture:
Now if Yahweh’s tent dwelling is holy, then the Ark where His Presence abides is super holy. Whenever Israel wasn’t on the move and the Tabernacle was all set up, the Ark was kept in the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place—that little curtained off room at the back of the two room tent where only the high priest could enter.
Because the Ark was ultra-holy, it couldn’t be touched or looked at. When it was time to break camp and move on, the high priest had to fully cover God’s box with special cloths. Only when the main box was totally hidden from view could special Ark handlers come in and pick it up by its carrying poles. The poles were always attached to Ark. If someone got cocky and tried to look at the box, touch it, or open its lid to peek inside, they risked instant death. And instant death is what we see happening when people do violate God’s rules about the Ark in later periods. One of the most well-known occasions is when a man touches the Ark to keep it from falling off an oxcart while it’s being transported. This happens under King David’s watch in Period 4 because David was being very sloppy and not respecting Yahweh’s rules. Many people read this story and think Yahweh was being a jerk for punishing a man who was trying to protect His Ark. But when we read things in order, we realize that Yahweh wasn’t the antagonist in the story. Instead, He’s being grossly disrespected by people who know better. The Ark was never supposed to be jounced around on the back of some wooden cart, it was to be hand carried by authorized Ark handlers. It was never supposed to be touched. So by the time God strikes a man dead for touching His Ark in 1 Chronicles 13, He’s already put up with a lot of disrespect (see When a Man Touched the Ark: Lessons for the Modern Church).
If a country is led by a king, then to help people maintain respect for the king, it’s useful to set up certain rituals. For example, if there’s a law that everyone has to bow in the presence of the king, people are going to be reminded that they are not his equal every time they come into his court. In the same way, Yahweh came up with many different rituals that were designed to help His followers remember that He was holy and that He demanded great respect. First of all, God surrounded His immediate Presence with the threat of death. If someone other than the high priest tried to peek into the Holy of Holies, they would die. If even the high priest stepped into the room with the Ark without first performing the proper preparation rituals, he would die. If anyone other than designated priests looked at the Ark or touched it, they would die. Yahweh didn’t make up these rules so that people would be afraid to come near Him, but so that people would be afraid to disrespect Him—there’s an important difference.
Yahweh wants to relate to us—He makes this very clear throughout the whole Bible. In Period 1, we find Him walking with Adam, Eve, and Abraham. Here in Period 2, we find Him creating visual symbols of His Presence among His people. Don’t get so focused on Yahweh’s threats that you miss the great love that He is communicating by coming up with the whole Tabernacle idea in the first place. Remember that Yahweh is not dealing with a bunch of eager believers. He is working with a huge mob of attitudinal idol worshipers who are still worshiping Egyptian gods in their tents and sneaking off to make sacrifices to demonic idols when they think Yahweh isn’t looking. These people are not committed, nor are they responding to all the kindness Yahweh has already shown them. They’re sorely lacking in reverence, and since reverence is what motivates us to submit to God, they’re not submitting, and that means they’re on their way to Hell. To motivate these people to start making better soul choices, Yahweh doles out some very harsh punishments and He creates many Laws which call for the immediate execution of certain kinds of sinners. When hearts are eager to please, we find God being very gracious and patient. But when He’s dealing with defiance, He gets a lot stricter, and here in Period 2, we have endless defiance.
So if the Israelites are such punks, how is Yahweh going to find people to take proper care of His holy things? It was no small task setting up and breaking down a bunch of heavy poles and curtains. And then there were all the special services that God wanted: special lamps that He wanted to be constantly burning, special bread that He wanted to be displayed in the Holy Place, along with many different types of sacrifices and offerings which He wanted to be handled just so. If the people were going to learn to respect God, they needed to see their leaders modeling great respect for God in their faces every day, and with so much work to be done, God needed a big staff. One or two devoted souls wasn’t enough. He needed many people to serve Him, and it would be very convenient if they all had something in common which would make them easy to pick out of the crowd. So who should Yahweh choose to be His special Law enforcers and Tabernacle caretakers? Here is when something happens which suddenly makes this decision very easy to make.
After God scares the daylights out of everyone with His Mt. Sinai appearance, the people are all too happy to stay back at camp while Moses travels alone up the sacred mountain to speak to Yahweh. Moses does this on several occasions, but one time he remains gone for a particularly long time. He’s gone so long that the people decide he’s never coming back. Well, so much for Yahweh. Who needs a God who is that scary, anyway? It would be a lot more comfortable if the people were to create their own god and pretend that he was the one who rescued them from Egypt. So this is what the little idiots do. They get Moses’ brother Aaron to help them melt down their golden jewelry and hammer it into the shape of a golden calf. Now at this point, Aaron is considered to be the second-in-command over Israel after Moses. Well, this is a fine model of reverence. As the people start freaking out in a frenzied worship of their new idol, the guilt-ridden Aaron declares that the next day will be a celebration to Yahweh—that way He’s not totally forgotten. Nice.
Now while God sometimes gives people visible symbols of His Presence among them, in reality, God is everywhere at once. He’s up on Mt. Sinai talking to Moses and at the same time He’s observing the shocking activity that is going on in the camp below. But Moses is oblivious about what’s happening back at base camp, so it’s quite a shock to him when Yahweh suddenly becomes very angry and says:
“Quick! Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! They have melted down gold and made a calf, and they have bowed down and sacrificed to it. They are saying, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’”
Then Yahweh said, “I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are. Now leave Me alone so that My fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” (Ex. 32:7-10)
Notice how God says to Moses “Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt.” This is distancing language. Yahweh is furious at the betrayal of these people and threatening to kill them all right then and there. He promised Abraham that He’d give Abraham’s descendants a special land to inhabit, but Moses is a descendant of Abraham, so Yahweh can start the whole Jewish nation over with Moses’ family line and still keep His promise to Abraham. There wouldn’t be twelve tribes anymore, but so what?
Feeling very distressed, Moses hurries back down the mountain and returns to the massive camp only to find that the people are running around like kids on a playground who have been fed too much sugar. Moses is ticked. First he yells at his older brother Aaron and demands an explanation. Aaron comes up with the lamest answer of all time:
“They gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (Ex. 32:24)
According to Aaron, the calf idol just popped out of the flames all by itself. What a miraculous event. Too bad Moses isn’t buying it.
Moses saw that Aaron had let the people get completely out of control, much to the amusement of their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on Yahweh’s side, come here and join me!” And all the Levites gathered around him.
Moses told them, ‘Every man must put on his sword and go through the camp from one end to the other. Each man must kill his brother, his friend and his neighbor.’” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day.
Then Moses told the Levites, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of Yahweh. You were willing to kill your own sons and brothers, and God has blessed you for this.” (Ex. 32:25-29)
It is this moment of sacrificial loyalty that earns the Levites the honor of serving Yahweh as His special priestly line. From this point on, only Levites were allowed to handle Yahweh’s holy things, enter the Holy and Most Holy Places, process sacrifices, and perform other sacred rituals. The Levites sided with God when no one else did, and they proved the depth of their loyalty by killing even their closest friends and brothers who were refusing to honor God. This is the kind of devotion Yahweh has been looking for, and now He has found it. From now on, the Levites will be His sacred people. He chooses the entire tribe out for Himself, and declares that He is their inheritance.
When Israel reaches the Promised Land in Period 3, each tribe will be eager to receive what they consider to be their promised inheritance of land. At that time, God will remind the Levites that He is their inheritance, and so they will not receive a region of land like everyone else. Instead, they will be dispersed throughout the nation, with each tribal state giving up some cities and farmland for the Levites to dwell in. In this way, the priestly line will be nicely spread out and easily accessible to everyone. God doesn’t want all of His spiritual leaders clustered in one far corner where no one can reach them. By treating the Levites differently than the rest of the tribes, He sets them up to be a powerful influence that will keep the whole nation on the path of righteousness. And it could have worked out great, if the Levites had remained loyal.
But for now, at least God has His priests. And how convenient that Moses and Aaron are also Levites by birth. As we progress in this period, Yahweh forgives Aaron’s major blunder and designates him to serve as the first high priest in the Tabernacle. Aaron’s four sons become the first regular batch of priests. Two of them turn out to be lemons so Yahweh kills them (see Leviticus 9-10: Abihu & Nadab Offer Strange Fire to the Lord). But at least the priestly line gets established.
From this point forward, Yahweh declares that only direct descendants of Aaron can serve Him as priests inside the Tabernacle. This means that only Aaron’s descendants will be allowed to present sacrifices on behalf of the people, enter the two holy rooms inside the Tabernacle, and perform many other sacred rituals. But there’s a lot more to serving Yahweh than just these things. There’s the breakdown, transporting and setting up of the Tabernacle. There’s carting around animal carcasses, stoking fires, carrying water and wood. You don’t run an animal slaughterhouse of this magnitude with just a handful of priests. Aaron’s group needs help to process the huge number of large and small beasts that will stream into the Tabernacle on a daily basis. Here is where the rest of the Levites come in.
THE GRUNT WORK
Levites are descendants of Levi–one of the twelve sons of Abraham’s grandson Jacob (who Yahweh later renamed Israel). Levi had three sons: Gershon [GIR-shun], Kohath [KO-hath], and Merari [MARE-raw-ree]. This means that everyone in the tribe of Levite could trace their ancestry back to one of Levi’s three sons. This gave Yahweh a handy way of dividing the Levites into organized groups and then assigning them certain tasks depending on which genetic line they belonged to.
Now Moses and Aaron are Kohathites [KO-uh-thites]—meaning they descend from Levi’s son Kohath. With Aaron’s family set apart to be the special priestly line, there are still a whole lot of Kohathite Levites with nothing to do. In Numbers 4, Yahweh assigns the Kohathites other duties. They end up being the designated carriers for all of God’s most special things: all of the sacred objects inside the Holy and Most Holy Places. It’s privileged work—but also very heavy. It takes muscle to haul around large metal altars for burning animals and a bunch of metal dishes.
The Gershonite [GIR-shun-ites] Levites are put in charge of the actual curtains that form the walls and divisions of the Tabernacle’s courtyard and sacred tent. We’re talking about a whole lot of curtains here—and they’re not light fluffy lace. Keeping things neat and clean while you’re walking around a dusty desert takes attentive care and a lot of hands. The Gershonites are also put in charge of the ropes used to hang the curtains. If you want to know how to wind rope quickly without getting things all knotted up, the Gershonites are your go-to guys.
The Merarites [MARE-ruh-rites] are the last branch of Levites and they get assigned to the care and assembly of drapery hardware. A lot of heavy poles and frames are needed to hang up all of the curtains that the Gershonites are carrying about. These three groups had to work together in order to keep Yahweh’s movable Tabernacle in good working order.
THE LEVITE CAMP
Since the Levites were Yahweh’s special workers, He wanted them to act as a protective barrier between His Tabernacle and the rest of the Israelite camp. The goal was to prevent anyone from running into Yahweh’s sacred courtyard by accident or casually or because they were playing around and accidentally kicked their ball into it. To keep Yahweh’s things holy, His things needed to be separated from the main mob and shielded from the chaos of normal life. While Israelites from the other twelve tribes were grouped together in large tribal sections, God divided the Levite tribe into their three genetic groups and had each group guard one side of the rectangular Tabernacle courtyard. The Merarites guarded the right side, the Kohathites guarded the left, and the Gershonites camped in back of the Tabernacle. That just left the front of the Tabernacle courtyard, and there is where Moses, Aaron and their families parked. Here’s a diagram that shows how this worked out:
So now that we have an idea of how the Tabernacle was set up and who the priests were, what exactly did the priests do all day? In our next lesson, we’ll learn about Yahweh’s sacrificial system—that famous set of laws which created a context for the Jews to accept Jesus’ death on a cross as an atonement sacrifice for sins. Without understanding the system Yahweh sets up in this period, the whole idea of Jesus dying for sins doesn’t make any sense at all.
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 6: The Sacrificial System
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