Tabernacle and Constitution

Tabernacle and Constitution April 19, 2023


SCOTUS seat at dusk
The Washington DC seat of the Supreme Court of the United States
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


I spoke for about twenty minutes early this afternoon to members of the Utah Valley Interfaith Association and representatives of local government and other groups in connection with the full-size model of the ancient Israelite tabernacle that is currently located there.  The model, which is open for free tours, stands adjacent to the church at 1230 South 500 East.

Here is a rough text of what I had to say this afternoon.  It’s been a long day — I had another extremely important appointment up in the Salt Lake Valley almost immediately after I was back from Springville — and, frankly, I’m exhausted, so I’m just fleshing the cryptic notes out to make them comprehensible.  Sadly, the coruscating wit that I displayed during my presentation, its sublimely eloquent rhetorical flights, my frequent exclamations of spontaneous iambic pentameter, the artistic embellishments, the brilliantly lucid transitions of my argument, and, needless to say, the ecstatic rhapsodies of my audience, won’t be reflected here.  This is just a workmanlike draft:


Utah County Courthouse
The Utah County Courthouse
(Wikimedia Commons public domain photos)


Our word tabernacle derives from the Latin tabernaculum, which referred to a “tent” or a “hut” — which, in ancient Roman religion, could be a ritual structure.  This seems entirely appropriate, given the way we use to the term to refer to the Israel festival of Sukkot, the “Feast of Tabernacles” (or “Booths”).

According to the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, the instructions for constructing the Israelite tabernacle were revealed by God in Exodus 25-31 and Exodus 35-40.

To a certain degree, the layout of the tabernacle (and of the two subsequent Israelite temples that were modeled on it) resembled Egyptian temples.  In those temples, the holiness of the space increased the further one entered into the structure.  The further into the temple, the darker.  (Open air courtyards gave way to covered pavilions.). The further into the temple, the more restrictive the requirements for entry. In the ancient Jewish temple, the Court of the Gentiles was followed by the Court of Israelites.  There were areas into which only priests could enter and, finally, there was an area — the qodesh ha-qodeshim or “holy of holies” — into which only the high priest could go, and that only once a year.  (It’s even claimed that the high priest wore a rope around his leg so that, if something happened to him in the holy of holies (e.g., a faint, a stroke, or a heart attack), the subordinate priests could pull him out without violating the sanctity of the qodesh ha-qodeshim.

We don’t have textual evidence for how the most ancient Israelites understood the symbolism of the tabernacle, nor even whether they thought in such terms, but we know that the author of the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews saw Jesus as the true high priest, and a heavenly temple as the true archetypal temple of which the tabernacle and the two Israelite temples were mere earthly facsimiles.  He had really, not just symbolically, offered atonement for our sins:

Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens;

A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.

For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.

For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law:

Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.  (Hebrews 8:1-5)

One of the terms used for the tabernacle in the Old Testament is “the tent of meeting.”  Like its temple successors, it represented and facilitated the joining of heaven and earth.

One of the terms used to refer to it was mīškān (roughly “dwelling place”).  God was thought, at least occasionally, to “dwell” in this portable tent rather as the wandering people of Israel themselves dwelt in Bedouin-style tents.  Shekhinah (שְׁכִינָה Šəḵīnā) is a related Hebrew word meaning “dwelling” or “settling” which denotes the presence of God, as it were, in a place.  A similar word, sakina, with closely related meaning, occurs in the Qur’an.  The Hebrew letter shin often becomes the Arabic letter sin in cognate Arabic words; the triconsonantal root for both the Arabic and Hebrew words is s-k-n.  The Arabic verb “to dwell” is sakana/yaskunu.

The relevance of these etymological ramblings will be apparent in just a few seconds.

The tabernacle sat in the midst, in the center, of the Israelite encampments.  Three Israelite tribes were on its north, three on the south, three on the west and three on the east.  Thus, in the same way that Muslims pray toward the shrine of the Ka‘ba in Mecca and that ancient Jews prayed toward the temples in Jerusalem, the ancient Hebrews all worshiped in the direction of the tabernacle.

In Greek, including the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, the tabernacle is called  is translated σκηνή (skēnē; cf. English scene), which is itself a Semitic loanword meaning “tent.”

In that light, John 1:14 is quite interesting, because it seems to borrow the symbolism of the ancient tabernacle:  “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt [ἐσκήνωσεν, eskenosen] among us” (John 1:14).  Think, yet again, of the root s-k-n.  John 1:14 could be translated as saying that “the Word was made flesh, and tented among us,” or that “the Word was made flesh, and tabernacled among us.”  Just like the mīškān of the Lord in the midst of the Israelites, the Lord pitched his tent in the midst of his people when he came to earth.

Eventually, after about 440 years, the idea of the tabernacle took more solid form as a temple in Jerusalem, following its floor plan.  Solomon’s “First Temple” lasted from the tenth to the sixth centuries B.C.  The “Second Temple,” most famous after its grandiose refurbishment by Herod the Great, stood from 516 BC to its destruction at the hands of the Romans in AD 70.

When the temple disappeared, the Levites and the Sadducees, whose status and importance consisted in their connection with the administration of the temple and its liturgy, had no real reason to exist.  But the Pharisees had been setting forth a manner of life for non-Levites and non-Sadducees that would attempt to live the laws of temple purity outside of the temple.  They were ready, in other words, to create a non-temple-centered Judaism.  What rabbinic Judaism became is, effectively, a temple of law.

The notion of sacred space (along with sacred time) is characteristic of most if not all religions and, today, our society is replete with various sanctuaries (e.g., temples, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras, chapels, cathedrals, and the like).  Let’s look at synagogues, in particular:

Every synagogue has at its front an ark, an aron qodesh, containing the Torah scrolls.  This is comparable to the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the tablets with Ten Commandments. The aron qodesh is the holiest spot in a synagogue, corresponding to the Holy of Holies.

Usually, too, there is a lamp, the ner tamid, a candelabrum that is lighted during services.  It stands in the synagogue near a spot analogues to the position of the tabernacle’s menorah.

At the center of the synagogue is a large elevated area that is known as the bimah.  This is the place where the Torah is read, and it is rabbinically equivalent to the tabernacle’s altars, upon which incense and animal sacrifices were offered.

Now, that is pretty much what I had wanted to say.  But I’ve been asked to address a possible way in which the tabernacle can speak to our modern society, which is not only religiously fragmented but, to a considerable (and possibly increasing) degree, secular.  So I’m going to give it a shot.  See whether you find it persuasive or not:

Students of American culture and society and politics sometimes talk about our “civic religion.”  It’s not fully Christian, and certainly not Jewish.  But, as it is expressed in such documents as the Declaration of Independence (“the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”) and in the American Pledge of Allegiance, it does contain obvious religious elements.


Current SCOTUS
Formal group photograph of the Supreme Court as it was comprised on 30 June 2022 after Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the Court. The Justices are posed in front of red velvet drapes and arranged by seniority, with five seated and four standing.
Seated from left are Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Samuel A. Alito and Elena Kagan.
Standing from left are Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Credit: Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States


I’m simply going to suggest that, in civic religion of the United States of America, the central role of the ancient tabernacle is, in a way, taken by the law — and, specifically, by the Constitution.  (Remember how the Law took the place of the tabernacle and the temples in rabbinic Judaism.)  It is at the center of our culture and politics.  It joins us together, and it joins us to our past, to the Framers, the Founders, and to our highest civic ideals.  This is perhaps why our courtrooms often look like temples, and even, maybe, why our judges often wear clerical or priestly robes.

I close with a quotation from my former student Nathan Oman, who is now the W. Taylor Reveley III Research Professor and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Markets at the law school of Virginia’s College of William and Mary.  It comes from the closing passages of his article “Nomos, Narrative, and Nephi: Legal Interpretation in the Book of Mormon,” British Journal of American Legal Studies 11 (2022): 297-322.

Law still functions within practical reasoning as a form of authority. When a lawyer is advising a client on what to do, the law purports to act as an exclusionary reason. In other words, it presses in on our normative deliberations and demands that we set aside our own all-things considered judgments and abnegate ourselves before its superior claims. . . .

Law claims to come from beyond us. It is not something that we subjectively create through our commitment. Indeed, part of what makes it such a fruitful site . . . is precisely the fact that it comes at us from a higher authority rather than arising from our subjective commitment.



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