The Tabernacle: A Concession to Human Religious Needs?
YHWH’s Luxury Home
The Torah’s description of the architecture and implements of the Tabernacle, as well as the vestments of the high priest, contains lush visual imagery with repeated references to gold, silver, rich colors, acacia wood, fine linen, and precious stones. The text here is unusual for a number of reasons:
Detail—No other passage in the Torah contains anything like this amount of visual detail. We don’t know what Abraham was wearing when he took Isaac to the mountain or what Moses was wearing when he encountered God at the burning bush. Even Joseph’s coat leaves us guessing as to exactly what it was—the meaning of the Hebrew term פַּסִּֽים, often rendered as “multi-colored,” is obscure. By contrast, we know exactly what the high priest wears when he enters the Holy of Holies.
Repetition—Even more unusual is the repetition. Until now, the narrative of the Torah has been highly abbreviated, but the description of the Tabernacle appears twice in full—Exodus 25–31 and then again in Exodus 35–40.
Expense—Why does God need a Tabernacle constructed of luxurious materials and a high priest decked out in fine linen and precious stones? The amount of gold required is staggering. To make everything according to God’s commands would require something like 2,000 pounds of refined gold—roughly $43 million worth at today’s price. The closer one gets to the Holy of Holies, the more prominent the use of gold becomes. What does God need all this for?
Simple Religiosity in the Torah
The opulence of the Tabernacle stands in stark contrast with other descriptions of divine worship in the Torah. For example, Exodus 20 notes:
שמות כ:יט ...אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם. כ:כ לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף וֵאלֹהֵי זָהָב לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם.
Exod 20:19 You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens: 20:20 With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.
Here, precious metals are described with contempt and associated with idolatry. The text continues with its description of what constitutes a proper altar:
כ:כא מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת שְׁלָמֶיךָ אֶת צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת בְּקָרֶךָ בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת שְׁמִי אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ. כ:כב וְאִם מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי לֹא תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ.
20:21 Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. 20:22 And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.
Here, God’s altar is made of either dirt or stones, not bronze or gold plating. Moreover, no mention is made of any special clothing for the priests, only that the altar should be made in such a way that those serving in their simple tunics do not expose themselves.
כ:כג וְלֹא תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלֹת עַל מִזְבְּחִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ עָלָיו.
20:23 Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.
Finally, this text discusses different kinds of altars and assumes they will be built in multiple places. The idea is that anywhere an Israelite wishes to build an altar, YHWH will appear to bless the worshipers. The opening of the text explains the theology behind this idea: God lives not on the earth but in the heavens, and thus needs no special earthly place in particular to be set aside for him.
Dwelling Among the Israelites
The idea that YHWH dwells in the heavens and only comes down to earth for visits reflects a very different conception of YHWH’s presence among the Israelites than we find in the Tabernacle texts. God’s first command to Moses about building the Tabernacle states:
שמות כה:ח וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם. כה:ט כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ אֵת תַּבְנִית הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֵת תַּבְנִית כָּל כֵּלָיו וְכֵן תַּעֲשׂוּ. 
Exod 25:8 Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle (lit. dwelling place) and the pattern of all its furnishing – so shall you make it.
What exactly is meant by the Tabernacle as a divine dwelling is not clear. When the Tabernacle is finally built, we hear of YHWH’s kavod (“glory” or “presence”) filling it:
שמות מ:לה וְלֹא יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
Exod 40:35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the kavod of YHWH filled the Tabernacle.
The same description appears in the account of Solomon’s building the Temple:
מלכים א ח:יא וְלֹא יָכְלוּ הַכֹּהֲנִים לַעֲמֹד לְשָׁרֵת מִפְּנֵי הֶעָנָן כִּי מָלֵא כְבוֹד יְ־הוָה אֶת בֵּית יְ־הוָה.
1 Kgs 8:11 and the priests were not able to remain and perform the service because of the cloud, for the kavod of YHWH filled the House of YHWH.
The term kavod is equivocal, i.e., it has different shades of meaning depending on context. Here, the descriptions of YHWH’s kavod “filling” (מלא) the structure imply something less circumscribed than a body, but whether this is a fire or some more ephemeral substance is difficult to say.
Whatever it is, the Tabernacle is meant to house this manifestation of the divine, which buttresses the original theological question about the opulence of the Tabernacle: Why would a God who is described in other places as dwelling in the heavens, and who can appear anywhere on earth, need a structure to occupy?
Critical biblical scholarship approaches such questions by positing that contradictory biblical passages were written by different authors and could thus be working with different theological understandings of YHWH’s physical manifestation and his relationship to Israel. Traditional interpreters, however, need to grapple with the Torah as a whole.
One such interpreter was Moses Maimonides (Rambam, 1138–1204), whose philosophical belief in a non-physical God pushed him to grapple with the Tabernacle texts and explain them in a way that would be commensurate with the Greek-Arabic rationalism of his day. To do so, Maimonides developed a historical model of Judaism’s development that can fairly be described as devolutionary.
From Patriarchal Religion to Tabernacle Religion
Genesis describes Abraham travelling through the Promised Land, setting up altars, and calling on the name of YHWH. Nothing in these texts describes opulent garments like those of the high priest, expensive worship sites, or structures within which God was to dwell.
In the rabbinic worldview, Abraham would have inherited the Noachide Commandments, which set forth the basic principles that any civilized society must adhere to. His building of altars and calling on YHWH appear to have been spontaneous: nothing is said about an appointed time or place. The only ritual practice that marked Abraham as having more than just the typical human’s relationship with God would have been circumcision (brit milah).
But if Abraham’s religiosity is the ideal, why does the Sinai revelation and the Torah come with so many detailed laws? Why is divine worship legislated with such minutiae? And finally, to return to our question, why does YHWH suddenly decide that random dirt altars and temporary visits are insufficient and instead ask for an opulent central worship site?
Maimonides’ Model: The Failure of Simple Religion
The stark difference between Abraham’s simple religiosity and the complex priestly Tabernacle and sacrificial laws was not lost on Maimonides, who had a strong affinity for Abraham, envisioning him as an early philosopher who discovered God on his own. Maimonides describes the principle attractions of Abraham’s faith as philosophical (Mishneh Torah: Book of Mada, “Laws of Idolatry,” 1:3):
וכיון שהיו העם מתקבצין אליו ושואלין לו על דבריו היה מודיע לכל אחד ואחד כפי דעתו עד שיחזירהו לדרך האמת עד שנתקבצו אליו אלפים ורבבות והם אנשי בית אברהם ושתל בלבם העיקר הגדול הזה.
And since the people gathered to him and asked him about his words, he would inform each person in accordance with his understanding, until he would bring him over to the true path, until he gathered to himself thousands and myriads, and these are the people of Abraham’s household, within whom he planted this important foundational belief (=monotheism).
So why didn’t this model of philosophical religion continue? Maimonides doesn’t answer this question explicitly, but he leaves us a clue in his wording at the end of this same halakha:
ונעשית בעולם אומה שהיא יודעת את ה', עד שארכו הימים לישראל במצרים וחזרו ללמוד מעשיהן ולעבוד כוכבים כמותן... וכמעט קט היה העיקר ששתל אברהם נעקר... ומאהבת ה' אותנו ומשמרו את השבועה לאברהם אבינו עשה משה רבינו רבן של כל הנביאים ושלחו, כיון שנתנבא משה רבינו ובחר ה' ישראל לנחלה הכתירן במצות והודיעם דרך עבודתו....
A nation that knew God was born into the world, until Israel ended up spending many years in Egypt and began to learn from their ways and to practice idolatry… The principle [of monotheism] that Abraham nurtured was almost lost to the world… From God’s love for us, and his keeping of the oath to our father Abraham, he made our teacher Moses the chief of all prophets and sent him. Once Moses our teacher prophesied, and God chose Israel as his inheritance, he crowned them with commandments, and taught then the way he should be worshipped…
I suggest that Maimonides’ point here is that Abraham’s religion was too intellectual to have long-term staying power. Once his descendants and followers found themselves entrenched in a compelling pagan culture, they lost their way. This is why, when God decides to rescue the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, to use Maimonides’ expression, he “crowns them with commandments.” The idea is that, wanting to avoid the shortcomings of Abraham’s intellectual religion, God introduces ritual laws into his revelation at Sinai, including festivals, dietary laws, special articles of clothing, and a recognizable place of worship.
The rationale behind this idea is that most people need more than abstract arguments to be full participants in a religious tradition. That is where festivals, dietary laws, and other commandments that are specific with respect to time and place come in. In addition to being concrete, they bring the worshippers together and thus help to establish a sense of community.
To have long-term appeal to a large swath of people, religion needs to have tangible manifestations, such as rituals and temples. A lean, flexible religion of the sort practiced by Abraham and the other patriarchs may work for someone of exceptional piety, but it is difficult to see how it could work for the vast majority of people, especially when the surrounding religious culture was so different.
The Temple Cult as a Concession
Famously, this is Maimonides’ explanation for the Torah adopting a sacrificial cult, but it is also his explanation for the adoption of a specific worship site. Thus, Maimonides writes in his Guide of the Perplexed (33.32, Pines trans.):
Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to his own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted. Thus He commanded us to build a temple for him (Exod 25:8): “And let them make Me a Sanctuary.”
According to Maimonides, God realized that a sudden transition from paganism to monotheism would be impossible. As he put it, people are not capable of suddenly abandoning everything to which they have become accustomed. If the Egyptians had a sacrificial cult, so would the Israelites; if the Egyptians had a formal priesthood and prescribed functions like burning incense, so would the Israelites; if the Egyptians practiced their religion in luxurious surroundings, the Israelites would as well.
Thus, Maimonides explains that the beauty of the Temple (or Tabernacle) does not provide anything that God needs but rather strikes the right chord with human worshipers (3.45):
You know to what extent the Law fortifies the belief in the greatness of the Sanctuary and the awe felt for it, so that on seeing it, man should be affected by a sentiment of submission and servitude…. Also, in order to exalt the Temple, the rank of its servants was exalted, the Priests and Levites were singled out, and the Priests wore the most splendid, finest, and most beautiful garments.
In this way, the Israelites would be weaned away from idolatry in stages. Archaeology has confirmed some of what Maimonides intuits here. Ancient Near Eastern temples were often large and opulent, and the gods or goddesses were believed to manifest themselves in a specially prepared image (or idol) that dwelt inside the temple. Thus, an opulent temple for YHWH and some image of his dwelling within would have been expected among Israelite worshipers. For this reason, Maimonides argues, God decided to allow for this form of worship among his people.
All of this implies that the commandments were not given in a vacuum. Rather, God took into account the historical circumstances in which the people found themselves and adjusted the commandments to fit them.
A Modern-Day Application for Maimonides’ View
Needless to say, modern scholarship would not accept Maimonides’ historical reconstruction. The image of Abraham as an ancient philosopher is a creation of midrash read through a rationalist lens with no historical basis. Maimonides simply assumed that anyone who rose to the level of prophet must have perfected their intellect.
Moreover, no evidence supports the idea that the Torah thinks of its many laws as some sort of compromise because of human weakness and the power of pagan culture. This again is Maimonides’ philosophical reconstruction and not what we would call a peshat (contextual or simple) reading of the text. Nevertheless, his view contains an important psychological insight into human attitudes about worship.
A luxurious Tabernacle, presided over by a high priest adorned with fine linen and precious stones, is designed to inspire awe in a very human, earthly way, thus giving the people a tangible sign of YHWH’s presence. The Israelites could see with their own eyes that God was with them and would guide them through the wilderness.
More than 3,000 years after the purported events in the wilderness, we see quite the same psychology at work: A religion devoid of festivals, rituals, prayers, hymns, etc. would strike most people as unsatisfactory. The idea of building a house of worship out of tin foil or paper mâché would undoubtedly be met with protest: “Does God not deserve the finest structure of which we are capable?” we might ask ourselves.
While we may understand that the divine lacks any earthly bounds, we recognize in ourselves a need for ritual, as well as physical spaces which inspire awe, to help give us a sense of God’s presence.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 12, 2020
January 6, 2021
Prof. Kenneth Seeskin is Professor of Philosophy and Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. He received his Ph.D in Philosophy from Yale University in 1972 and has been at Northwestern ever since. He specializes in the rationalist tradition in Jewish philosophy with an emphasis on Maimonides. Publications include Maimonides on the Origin of the World (CUP, 2005), Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair (CUP, 2012), and Thinking about the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (JPS, 2016).
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series