T may seem strange that the Israelites, after all that God had done for them, and while Mount Sinai was still showing God's glory, should fall away from the service of God to the worship of idols, as we read in the last Story (Story 26). But you must keep in mind that all the people whom the Israelites had ever met, both in Canaan and in Egypt, were worshippers of images; and from their neighbors the Israelites also had learned to bow down to idols. In those times everywhere people felt that they must have a god that they could see.
God was very good to the Israelites after they had forsaken him, to take them again as his own people: and God gave to the Israelites a plan for worship, which would allow them to have something that they could see, to remind them of their God; and yet, at the same time, would not lead them to the worship of an image, but would teach them a higher truth, that the true God cannot be seen by the eyes of men.
The plan was this: to have in the middle of the camp of Israel a house to be called, "The House of God," which the people could see, and to which they could come for worship. Every time that an Israelite looked at this house he might say to himself, and might teach his children, "That is the house where God lives among his people," even though no image stood in the house.
And as the Israelites were living in tents, and were often moving from place to place, this House of God, would need to be something like a tent, so that it could be taken down, and moved, as often as the camp was changed. Such a tent as this was called a Tabernacle. The Tabernacle then was the tent where God was supposed to live among his people, and where the people could meet God. We do not know just how the tent looked but from the description given of it many have tried to draw it. We give you one picture drawn in this way.
The tabernacle in the wilderness
We know that God is a Spirit, and has no body like ours; and that he is everywhere. Yet it was right to say that God lived in the Tabernacle of the Israelites, because there God showed his presence in a special way, by having the pillar of cloud over it all day, and the pillar of fire all night. And it was believed by the Israelites that in one room of this Tabernacle the glory and brightness of God's presence might be seen.
This Tabernacle stood exactly in the middle of the camp of the Israelites in the wilderness. In front of it, and a little distance from it, on the east, stood the tent where Moses lived, and from which he gave the laws and commands of God to the people.
Around the Tabernacle there was what we might call an open square, though it was not exactly square, for it was about a hundred and fifty feet long by seventy-five feet wide; that is its length was twice its width. Around it was a curtain of fine linen, in bright colors, hanging upon posts of brass. The posts were held in place by cords fastened to the ground with tent-pins or spikes. Some think that these posts were not of brass, but of copper; for we are not sure that men knew how to make brass in those times. This open square was called the Court of the Tabernacle. The curtain around it was between seven and eight feet high, a little higher than a man's head. In the middle, on the end toward the east, it could be opened for the priests to enter into the court; but no others except the priests and their helpers were ever allowed to enter it.
Inside this court, near the entrance, stood the great Altar. You remember that an altar was made generally of stone, or by heaping up the earth; and that it was the place on which a fire was kindled to burn the offering or sacrifice. The offering or sacrifice, you remember, was the gift offered to God whenever a man worshipped; and it was given to God by being burned upon his altar. (See Story 2.)
But as a stone-altar or an earth-altar could not be carried from place to place, God told the Israelites to make an altar of wood and brass, or copper. It was like a box, without bottom or top, made of thin boards so that it would not be too heavy, and then covered on the inside and the outside with plates of brass or copper, so that it would not take fire and burn. Inside, a few inches below the top, was a metal grating on which the fire was built; and the ashes would fall through the grating to the ground inside.
This altar had four rings on the corners, through which long poles were placed, so that the priests could carry it on their shoulders when the camp was moved. The altar was a little less than five feet high, and a little more than seven feet wide on each side. This was the great altar, sometimes called "The Altar of Burnt-Offering," because a sacrifice was burned upon it every morning and every evening. Near the altar in the court of the Tabernacle, stood the Laver. This was a large tank or basin, holding water which was used in washing the offerings. For the worship of the Tabernacle much water was needed; and for this purpose the Laver was kept full of water.
The Tabernacle itself stood in the court. It was a large tent, not unlike the tents in which the people lived, while they were journeying through the wilderness, though larger. Its walls, however, were not made of skins or woven cloth, as were most tents, but of boards standing upright on silver bases, and fastened together. The boards were covered with gold. The roof of the Tabernacle was made of four curtains, one laid above another; the inner curtain being beautifully decorated, and the outer curtain of rams' skins to keep out the rain. The board-walls of the Tabernacle were on the two sides and the rear end; the front was open, except when a curtain was hung over it. The Tabernacle, half tent and half house, was about forty-five feet long, and fifteen feet wide, and fifteen feet high. Its only floor was the sand of the desert.
This Tabernacle was divided into two rooms, by a vail which hung down from the roof. The larger room, the one on the eastern end, into which the priest came first from the court, was twice as large as the other room. It was thirty feet long, fifteen feet wide, and fifteen feet high, and was called the Holy Place. In the Holy Place were three things: on the right side, as one entered, a table covered with gold, on which lay twelve loaves of bread, as if each tribe gave its offering of feed to the Lord; on the left side, the Golden Lampstand, with seven branches, each having its light. This is sometimes called the Golden Candlestick, but as it held lamps, and not candles, it should be called "the lampstand."
At the further end of the Holy Place, close to the vail, was the Golden Altar of Incense: a small altar on which fragrant gum was burned, and from which a silvery cloud floated up. The fire on this altar was always to be lighted from the great altar of brass or copper that was standing outside the Tabernacle in the court. Everything in this room was made of gold, or covered with gold, even to the walls on each side.
The inner room of the Tabernacle was called the Holy of Holies; and it was so sacred that no one except the high-priest ever entered it, and he on only one day in each year. It was fifteen feet wide, fifteen feet long, and fifteen feet high. All that it held was a box or chest, made of wood and covered with places of gold on both the outside and the inside; and with a cover of solid gold, on which stood two strange figures called cherubim, also made of gold. This chest was called the Ark of the Covenant, and in it were placed for safe-keeping, the two stone tables on which God wrote the Ten Commandments. It was in this room, the Holy of Holies, that God was supposed to dwell, and to show his glory. But in it there was no image, to tempt the Israelites to the worship of idols.
The High Priest, the table for bread and the Holy Ark
Whenever the camp in the desert was to be changed, the priests first carefully covered with curtains all the furniture in the Tabernacle,—the Table, the Lampstand, the Altar of Incense, and the Ark of the Covenant; and they passed rods through the rings which were on the corners of all these articles. They took down the Tabernacle and tied its gold-covered boards and its great curtains, its posts and its pillars, in packages to be carried. And then the men of the tribe of Levi, who were the helpers of the priests, took up their burdens and carried them out in front of the camp. The twelve tribes were arranged in marching order behind them; the Ark of the Covenant unseen under its wrappings, upon the shoulders of the priests, led the way, with the pillar of cloud over it. And thus the children of Israel removed their camp from place to place for forty years in the wilderness.
When they fixed their camping-place after each journey, the Tabernacle was first set up, with the court around it, and the altar in front of it. Then the tribes placed their tents in order around it, three tribes on each of its four sides.
And whenever an Israelite saw the altar with the smoke rising from it, and the Tabernacle with the silver-white cloud above it, he said to himself, "Our God, the Lord of all the earth, lives in that tent. I need no image, made by men's hands, to remind me of God."