A Tabernacle on the Move

I’ve never heard anyone describe an assembly manual as “engaging.” It’s not for lack of exposure. I’ve seen a lot of them on the job site—I’ve even read a few, though I’m not proud to admit it. But in two years’ time, no one has ever come up to me and said, “Dude, you’ve got to read this manual. It’s a real page-turner!” There’s a reason no assembly manual was never nominated for a Nobel Prize, and it may have more than a little to do with the fact that they all seem to be translated by a first-year English student (“Please to be having the down-rod not inside fan cradle until sufficient time”). Manuals are a last resort we men turn to in desperation only after failing to convince our wives (and ourselves) that, “No, Darling, those are just optional pieces,” or, “Well I think it works better upside-down anyway.”

I guess it’s no surprise, then, that I have such a hard time reading through the last chapters in Exodus. Staring in chapter 25, God provides Moses with a very detailed set of instructions concerning the furnishings of the tabernacle—their dimensions, their features, their materials, and so on. My eyes instinctively glaze over whenever I hear the word “cubit,” so it’s a struggle to make it through so many chapters dedicated to assembly instructions.

Still, though, my own reluctance to let a poorly translated manual tell me how to put a ceiling fan together doesn’t mean that God preserved these tabernacle instructions as some kind of filler. Like everything in His word, God ensured that these specific chapters survived so many millennia for a reason.

Putting a ring on it

ArkThanks to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the general public is pretty well aware that the ark of the covenant was designed to be carried by two poles inserted into two sets of rings attached to the ark itself. In fact, the Bible is pretty clear that this is the only way it was to be carried—when King David tried transporting the ark on an oxen cart many years later, God killed the man who reached out to steady it with his hand (2 Samuel 6:3-7). What you might not know is that the pole system was not at all unique to the ark. Many of the furnishings of God’s tabernacle were designed with similar rings so that they could be carried on similar poles…but why?

At the time God commanded the tabernacle to be constructed, Israel was en route to the Promised Land. When God’s pillar of cloud or fire moved, Israel packed up camp and moved. When that pillar stopped, Israel set up camp and stopped. No Israelite had a home or property to speak of—the entire nation was just passing through the wilderness on its way to something better. When the time came for building the tabernacle, God provided Israel’s craftsmen with designs that would lend themselves to being easy to move.

In addition to the ark of the covenant, the table for the showbread, the altar of burnt offerings, and the altar of incense were each crafted with a set of rings, allowing them to be easily lifted and transported via poles (Exodus 25:12-14, 26-28; 27:4-6; 30:4-5) and providing God’s tabernacle with the unique feature of mobility. Even the tabernacle itself was built with a modular design that allowed for efficient setup and takedown (Exodus 26:1-36; 27:9-19). From the outer walls to the furnishings within, everything about its design was a reminder that even though the tabernacle was a constant, its location was not. When God moved, Israel and the tabernacle were to follow—not put down roots and stay where they were.

Carrying the tabernacle

Our situation isn’t so different. Israel was following God out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land. We’re following God out of sin, through a spiritual wilderness, and into the Kingdom. Israel’s journey was primarily physical while ours is primarily spiritual, but like Israel, we too are following God with a mobile tabernacle—or “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).

One of the big lessons we can draw from the mobility of God’s tabernacle is a warning: “Don’t get settled. This isn’t the end of the trip.” The rings were a fully integrated part of the tabernacle equipment, reminding everyone who saw them that even though they were stationary at the moment, it was only a matter of time before they moved again on their journey toward the Promised Land. We, too, must remain mindful that where we are at the moment isn’t where we will be staying. This isn’t it; this isn’t home. Home is in the distance; this is a temporary stopping point.

It’s not always easy to remember. In this life we can acquire property and houses in addition to physical responsibilities like school, work, and an ever-growing variety of bills. We can get so entrenched in taking care of things at a particular pit stop on our journey that we forget about even being on a journey. Many of the responsibilities of this life, while certainly valid and important, are not the bigger picture and should never be mistaken for it. The tabernacle must be in a constant state of readiness—to pick up and move where God moves, and to set up and stop where God stops.

The bigger picture

Down through the ages, God’s people have always been travelers. Noah had his ark, Abraham had his tent, and Israel had the tabernacle. And when the Bible speaks about the heroes of faith, it reminds us that “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16, emphasis mine).

We always have the option to throw in the towel and go back to where we started. Israel sought to do that countless times on the journey to Canaan. But the heroes of faith remind us that when we’re willing to pack up and follow our Creator as He leads us, we’re moving toward a future so vastly superior to anything around us that “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

What lies around us is nothing compared to what lies ahead of us—but we’ll never even see it if we aren’t willing to follow God there.

Until next time,

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