What Is the Tent of Meeting in the Bible?
- Rev. Kyle Norman Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2022 24 Jan
Israel’s journey through the desert, known as the Exodus, is a defining moment for the nation. It speaks to their liberation from slavery and declares their identity as the chosen people of God. Similarly, God reveals God’s own identity in a dramatic fashion. Yahweh is the one who fights for Israel, who provides for the nation, and who ultimately leads them to the Promised Land.
As the people of God, Israel was to live in a covenant relationship with Yahweh. After all, the Lord is relational in nature; God wishes to be known. The tent of meeting is erected for this very purpose. The tent of meeting was the location of divine interaction, a place where the people of Israel could plead their needs before the Lord. The tent of meeting, therefore, was a visual representation of the availability of God throughout Israel’s journey to the Promised Land.
3 Things Christians Should Know about the Tent of Meeting:
1. The Presence of God
The name “Tent of Meeting” actually refers to two different tents, each with the same purpose. As the name suggests, this was a place to meet the Lord God. At the start of the Exodus, this tent was placed outside Israel’s camp. Scripture records “Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting” (Exodus 33:7). The implication is that only Moses or Aaron would make use of this tent. The cloud of God’s glory would descend upon tent of meeting while Moses talked with the Lord. The people of Israel watched from afar.
An important change happens with the construction of the official tent of meeting, sometimes referred to as the Tabernacle. Rather than being outside Israel’s camp, this new tent of meeting is erected in the middle of the camp (Numbers 2:17); it becomes the heart of the community. God's glorious presence is revealed in the midst of his people.
Similar to before, the cloud of God’s glory rests upon the tent of meeting. We read that “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34). What is significant here is that the cloud of God’s glory now fills the tent of meeting at all times. Previously, God’s glory remained apart from the people and would only descend when Moses entered the tent. Once the new tent of meeting is erected, God’s glory is constantly present. It lifts only as a sign that Israel will embark on the next phase of their journey. The tent of meeting, therefore, spoke to God’s enduring presence with the people of Israel.
2. Assurance of Faithfulness
The construction of the tent of meeting is very specific. It contains lampstands, and curtains, tables, and washbasins. Each element is described in detail. We read about this in the final chapters of Exodus, between chapters 35 and 40. Furthermore, scripture declares that Moses is told exactly where to put each element. The tent of meeting follows a precise and detailed blueprint. Moses constructs the tent of meeting “as the Lord commanded” (Exodus 40:16).
One may ask why this is the case. Could not Israel approach the Lord in whatever fashion they chose? In short: No. Throughout their wanderings, Israel was frequently tempted to accept the practices and devotions of idolatrous nations. Furthermore, Israel’s own history shows a willingness to accept such practices. The debacle of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) is case in point. The tent of meeting was an important guard against falling into idolatry, it ensured Israel’s sincere desire to worship the God who lead them out of Egypt.
Similarly, by following such detailed instructions, Israel displayed their willful obedience to God’s commands. Just as Noah was asked to build a boat in the middle of an arid desert, so too, the intricacy of the tent of meeting provides a continuous testimony to Israel’s faithfulness. Use of the tent of meeting, therefore, became an expression of Israel’s dedication to the Lord.
3. A Foretaste of the Temple . . . and the Heavenly Kingdom
As previously mentioned, the tent of meeting is constructed in an intentional way. A tent was erected in the middle of the camp; tables and lamps were placed in certain positions along its borders. At one entrance a wash basin was placed, wherein the Israelites purified themselves prior to making an offering. Within the tent was an altar upon which sacrifices would occur. There was also a curtain surrounding the ark of the covenant.
This may seem overly finicky until we realize that the Solomon’s Temple is built along the same outline. The temple had a clear distinction between the outer courts and in the inner courts. The inner sanctuary contained an altar upon which sacrifices were made. The center of the temple, known as the holy of holies, contained the ark of the covenant, surrounded by a curtain (Matthew 27:51). Just as Israel made use of the washbasins, the Jews purified themselves in pools known as mikvah’s prior to entering the temple for worship.
All of this is to say that the tent of meeting is a movable picture of the future Temple. It foreshadows what will become the centerpiece of Israel’s spiritual life. Yet the foreshadowing does not stop there. The earthly temple was understood to be a physical representation of the heavenly temple. The temple, and thus the tent of meeting before it, stood as a physical representation of God’s kingdom.
To make use of the tent of meeting, therefore, was to engage in the kingdom of God in the context of the desert wanderings. The tent of meeting spoke to the new life Israel was called to live. In fact, this association with new life is even implicit in the date through which the tent of meeting was constructed. Some scholars note that the “First day of the first month of the second year” (40:17) is approximately 9 months from the start of the Exodus. The tent of meeting symbolized the new life Israel was in the process of journeying towards.
Why Is The Tent of Meeting Important?
As Christians, it is easy to ask “Why do we need to know about the tent of meeting?” After all, Christians are freed from the demands of the law, no longer bound by the religious structures and practices that governed Israel’s life. Why then spend time learning the ins and outs of a tent that no longer holds value?
The reason it is good to know about the tent of meeting is to see how the tent gets reworked throughout the biblical narrative. Many of the objects and practices implicit in the tent of meeting get reinterpreted by Jesus himself. Knowing about the tent of meeting, then, helps us recognize the truth of Christ in our lives.
Take the “bread of the presence” for example, (Exodus 40:23). This bread is not the same as the Manna, which sustained the Israelites through the desert wandering. Manna was placed in the ark itself. The bread of the presence, however, was bread that was used in certain rituals and offerings. It was part of sacrifices made for Israel’s forgiveness. The bread of the presence was a physical sign of God’s care and sustenance of the people, and the forgiveness that God bestowed upon the people.
Bread is a constant theme throughout the Bible, and is often used as a symbol of both the physical and spiritual nourishment provided by God. As noted, this was an important theme for Israel’s history. This changes however, with the incarnation. Jesus takes up the image of bread and applies it to himself. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says (John 6:35). Here, Jesus refers to himself as the source of spiritual and physical nourishment for the faithful; he is the visible sign of God’s care and provision. Jesus himself is the “bread of presence.”
This same reinterpretation occurs with the curtain that surrounds the ark of the covenant. In the tent of meeting, it is only Moses and Aaron who are able to enter into this most holy of places. With the establishment of Solomon’s temple, it is the High Priest who enters this holy place, and only one day a year – the day of atonement. This holiest of places, housing the ark of the covenant, was thought to be the place where the glory of God resided. Thus, a large ornate curtain sectioned off this area. The curtain of the tabernacle created a barrier, and with it, an understanding that experiencing God’s glorious presence was reserved for the holy few.
Again, things dramatically change with Jesus. Mark records that at the time of the crucifixion “The curtain of the tabernacle is torn in two” (Mark 15:38). This is a significant event. The very barrier that separated Israel from God's glory is destroyed at the time of the crucifixion. The implication is clear. The spirit of God is available to all. God’s presence is received in the deepest of ways by those who believe in salvation by the cross.
It’s easy to dismiss the tent of meeting. Its description in the last few chapters of Exodus seems boring and irrelevant. Yet when we look at these things from the eyes of faith, tracing the various elements throughout the scriptural witness, we see how the tent of meeting points to the temple and the temple points to Christ. Taking the time to know about the tent of meeting, therefore, helps Christians understand what Christ accomplishes on the cross. With that knowledge, we are better equipped to meet the Lord in our own lives.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/ Virojt Changyencham
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.