The Prophet Joseph Smith declared: “What was the object of gathering the Jews, or the people of God in any age of the world? … The main object was to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto his people the ordinances of His house and the glories of His kingdom and teach the people the way of salvation; for there are certain ordinances and principles that, when they are taught and practiced, must be done in a place or house built for that purpose.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 307–308.)
Moses’s mission in the wilderness was to prepare his people to receive these blessings. (D&C 84:18–23.) Part of that preparation included the building of a portable temple, generally called a tabernacle, for use during the people’s migration until a temple could be erected in the land of promise. (D&C 124:38.) This structure was to be a sanctuary (Ex. 25:8), a dwelling place of the Lord (Ex. 29:45; Lev. 26:12; Ezek. 37:37; Rev. 21:3), and was called the house of the Lord (Gen. 28:19; Ex. 23:19).
But the people rebelled against Moses and the Lord; consequently, they forfeited rights to the higher priesthood and its ordinances. (D&C 84:24–26; JST, Ex. 34:1–2; JST, Deut. 10:1–2.) In consequence, the tabernacle was then adapted for use in the ordinances administered by the lesser priesthood but the symbolism of the tabernacle and the way the prophet used it remained essentially the same.
Most commonly called the “Tabernacle of the Congregation,” the textual meaning is the “tent of meeting” or “the place appointed to meet with the Lord”—the place of revelation. (Num. 7:89; Ex. 29:44; Num. 11:16; Deut. 31:14.) The scriptures also refer to the edifice as the “tabernacle of the Lord” or “dwelling place of the Lord” (Num. 16:9), and the tent or tabernacle of the testimony or witness, referring to the tables of stone containing Israel’s law. (Ex. 38:21; Num. 9:15; Num. 17:7–8; Num. 18:2; Acts 7:44; Rev. 15:5.) The pattern for the tabernacle’s construction and furnishings was revealed to Moses. (Ex. 25:9, 40; Ex. 26:30; Ex. 27:8; Num. 8:4; Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:5.) The commission Moses received required the people to offer their most precious materials to build the sanctuary. (Ex. 25:1–9.)
The scriptures give the following description of the tabernacle complex, the tabernacle, and its furnishings.
THE COURT OF THE TABERNACLE enclosed an area approximately 75′ x 150′ with a curtain about 7 1/2′ in height, supported by pillars and held in place with stakes. The entrance faced east. The tabernacle itself was inside the western half of the court, with the bronze altar and laver in the east portion. This arrangement separated Israel’s place of worship from outside worldly influences. (Ex. 27:9–19; Ex. 38:9–31.)
THE BRONZE ALTAR measured approximately 7 1/2′ x 7 1/2′ x 4 1/2′ and was made of shittim (acacia) wood overlaid with bronze. It was equipped with rings and staves for transport and also bronze implements for the proper execution of the altar rites. (Ex. 27:1–8; Ex. 38:1–7.) The burnt sacrifice, whose blood was shed in similitude of the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Moses 5:5–8) and the other burnt offerings which were part of the ordinances of the law of Moses were offered here.
THE LAVER was a bronze water basin used by the priests for washings—ceremonial cleansings or purifications associated with the Mosaic ordinances. Its base was made of polished bronze mirrors donated by the women of Israel. (Ex. 30:17–21; Ex. 38:8.)
THE TABERNACLE itself was a small structure about 15′ x 45′ x 15′. Three outer walls consisted of wooden framework covered inside by decorated draperies supporting the tri-layered outer coverings of goat hair, ram skins, and seal skins. The holy house, facing the east with special entrance draperies, was divided into two inner compartments. The front two-thirds was known as the Holy Place and housed the lampstand, shewbread table, and altar of incense. Here established rites of the Mosaic ordinances were regularly performed by appointed priesthood officiators. The innermost one-third of the tabernacle was known as the “most Holy Place” or “Holy of Holies” and was separated from the outer chamber by a specially decorated veil. (Ex. 26; Ex. 36:8–38.) Only the Levitical or Aaronic high priest and the prophet were allowed within its precincts. The only object within this hallowed portion of the tabernacle was the ark of the covenant.
The furnishings of the tabernacle included the Lampstand or candlestick made of gold providing seven lamps to illuminate the Holy Place. (Ex. 25:31–39; Ex. 37:17–24.) Morning and evening the priests tended the light for the services of the Lord (Ex. 27:20–21; Lev. 24:4.) According to Jewish tradition, the seven lamps represent the seven periods of creation. The menorah used by the Jews was adopted from the lampstand pattern.
THE SHEWBREAD TABLE was a small wooden table overlaid with gold and measuring 3′ x 1 1/2′ x 2′. (Ex. 25:23–30; Ex. 37:10–16.) Each sabbath twelve loaves of unleavened bread were placed on the table in remembrance of the continual blessings and presence of the Lord. Weekly the priest officiators partook of the bread. (Lev. 24:5–9.)
THE ALTAR OF INCENSE was also constructed of wood overlaid with gold. Its approximate size was 1 1/2′ x 1 1/2′ x 3′. As the priests cared for the lampstand, they burned incense daily. (Ex. 30:7–8.) This rite was possibly a reminder of the importance of prayer. (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; Rev. 8:3.)
The most important and sacred furnishing was THE ARK OF THE COVENANT. It was a wooden chest covered with gold, approximately 4′ x 2 1/2′ x 2 1/2′. Rings and poles facilitated its transport and a lid called the “mercy seat” had two cherubs facing each other on it. All these objects were covered with gold. (Ex. 25:10–22; Ex. 37:1–9.) Within the ark was kept the second set of stone tables that Moses received to replace the first. (Ex. 25:16; JST, Ex. 34:1–2.) The ark was to be a continual reminder of the future atonement to be wrought by the Savior. The “mercy seat” on the lid of the chest symbolized the atonement, which is a “covering” of the sins of the repentant. From above the ark within the sacred chamber the Lord appeared or spoke to his representatives for the direction of Israel.
The specific location of all items was necessary for proper function of the Tabernacle. (Ex. 26:34–35; Ex. 40:17–29.) The procedures for disassemblage and transport of the tabernacle were even specified. (Num. 4.) Six large wagons were required to move this portable House of the Lord. (Num. 7:1–9.)
This sacred complex was an important instrument of the Lord in administering to the needs of the children of Israel.