In the last chapter, we saw how Bezalel and his crew designed and built the interior furniture of the tabernacle. They made the gold pated ark of the covenant with its mercy seat, the table of showbread, the golden lampstand, the altar of incense, and the anointing oil and incense.
Our study of the tabernacle today resumes with its external features, a list of the people in charge of its construction, and an inventory of what was given to build it. While the building of the tabernacle is not extremely exciting reading for someone without building experience, it is nonetheless helpful because it reminds us of why God instituted the tabernacle, what He wanted to accomplish, and what He would later accomplish through Jesus.
- The External Parts of the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:1-20)
We have previously looked at the articles inside the tabernacle. Now, we look at the items that are found outside of it. It may help for you to visualize yourself as a penitent Israelite coming to the tabernacle to offer a sacrifice for his sins. What would you find inside the tall fence which surrounded the courtyard?
a. Altar of Burnt Offering (Ex. 38:1-7)
When someone entered the courtyard at the eastern entrance, the first item they would see would be the large bronze altar.
How was it made?
“Built from acacia wood and overlaid with bronze, it measured 7.5 feet square by 4.5 feet high. At each of the altar’s four corners was a horn-like projection, made of one piece with the altar. All of the utensils of the altar were made of bronze as well. The instructions God gave for the brazen altar also included a grating or network of bronze probably placed within the hollow center of the altar to hold the wood and sacrifice as it was being burnt. Two poles used for carrying the altar were overlaid with bronze and inserted into bronze rings at the altar’s corners (Exodus 27:1–8)” (Gotquestions).
The altar was built of such a size to accommodate large offerings such as a bull. But it was also small enough to be portable. This is why bronze rings were built into the sides and bronze poles were placed into them.
What was it for?
It was for sacrifices. The bronze altar was “where the sin question was settled. The sinner would come to the gate and stand there as a sinner. The priest would lead him into the inner court. The sinner would put his right hand upon the head of the animal he had brought—whether it be lamb, goat, or ox. Then the animal was slain and the priest would offer it on the altar” (McGee 314).
It was for substitution. “The brazen altar—where Israel’s priests offered substitutionary animal sacrifices for the sins of the people—vividly illustrated the basics of atonement for sin. Only by blood sacrifice was sin atoned. The brazen altar, ever ablaze and covered in blood, always stood open to accept the guilt of any Hebrew person who wished to come near to God. There the guilty sinner would offer another life, an innocent one, in his stead” (Gotquestions).
Is it still necessary?
In the past, this was what God required of His people. It must have been a sobering event as the person making the offering considered the price of his sins. The only way that their sins could be forgiven and their relationship be made right with God was to bring a blood sacrifice to the altar year after year. An animal had to die for the individual’s sins. However, this was not meant to be continued after Jesus came.
Do you remember what John the Baptist said about Jesus? He said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Somehow he knew that Jesus was the final offering for sin. This revelation by John the Baptist came true when Jesus willing allowed Himself to be crucified at Calvary where He took the punishment for the sins of the world once and for all. Now all who repent of their sin and place their faith in what Jesus did will be forgiven by God forever.
b. Bronze Laver (Ex. 38:8)
Between the bronze altar and the tabernacle entrance was the bronze laver, an large metal bowl filled with water.
How was it made?
The laver of bronze was as you would assume made of bronze. If you are not a metallurgist, you might appreciate this explanation:
“Copper, brass, and bronze are part of a category of metals known as ‘red metals’, which are characterized by their reddish tint. While copper is a pure metal, brass and bronze are copper alloys (brass is a combination of copper and zinc; bronze is a combination of copper and tin). All three of these metals demonstrate unique combinations of properties that make them ideal for use in metal sheets” (Sequoia).
As the Bible does not mention wood, the laver and its base must have been made completely of bronze. That would take a lot of metal. Thankfully, the women who ministered near the entrance of the tabernacle donated their polished bronze mirrors to be melted down for this purpose. “It is not improbable that [these women] followed the example of the Egyptian women who took their mirrors with them when they went to the temples. Moses may have required them for the laver, in order to put a stop to a practice of which he did not approve” (Bush 280).
What was it for?
You can read Exodus 30:17-21 to find out God’s purpose for the bronze laver. It “was for Aaron and his sons (the priests) to wash their hands and feet before they entered the tabernacle, ‘so that they will not die’ (Exodus 30:20). The priests also had to wash their hands and their feet before they approached the altar with a food offering (verse 21). God declared that this was to be a statute forever to them. The washing of the priests was to be observed by Aaron and his descendants in all ages, as long as their priesthood lasted. God wanted His people to understand the importance of purity” (Gotquestions).
By this we see that God wanted the priests to cleanse themselves before doing the work of the tabernacle. Purity was something that was important to God.
Is it still necessary?
The bronze laver was necessary in the past. The ancient Israelites and their priests were sinful people who needed to be cleansed before coming into God’s presence. “The Levitical priests had to continually wash to ready themselves for the presence of Holy God… . When Christ died, His people were cleansed once for all time by His blood shed on the cross. We no longer need a ritualistic washing with water to come before God, because Christ has ‘provided purification for sins’ (Hebrews 1:3). Now we can ‘approach the throne of grace with confidence’ (Hebrews 4:16), being sure that we are acceptable to Him because we are spiritually clean” (Gotquestions).
It is true that Jesus has cleansed us from our sins. This allows us to have access to God’s presence. However, this doesn’t mean that we should no longer keep ourselves pure for the Lord. We are still told to “be holy for I am holy.” The ritual cleansing of the bronze altar is no longer necessary, but we should still strive to live holy lives for God.
c. Court of the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:9-20)
The activities completed at the bronze laver and altar were not meant for spectators. Instead, God intended these to be private matters between Him, the priests, and the individual who came to Him. So, a courtyard was marked off by a covered fence.
How was it made?
It is interesting to see that the fence around the tabernacle has a longer description than the altar or laver. For whatever reason, 12 verses are given to its description. The area encompassed by the fence was 150 feet wide from east to west and 75 feet from north to south. The curtains of the fence were 7½ feet tall.
“The court walls consisted of linen curtains attached by [silver] hooks to a series of pillars. The pillars were supported on the bottom by bronze sockets and possibly held in place with rope that attached to bronze rings. The gate, always facing east, was about thirty feet of blue, purple, and scarlet woven into a curtain of linen” (Gotquestions).
I must say that the bronze sockets must have been wonderful bases for each fence post/pillar. Our church parking lot entrance is marked by two orange traffic cones which are constantly being knocked over by the wind. Having a heavy bronze base would keep the courtyard posts from being blown over or accidentally knocked over.
What was it for?
The linen fence that roped off the court of the tabernacle was designed to make worship personal between God and the individual. Think about it. Would you invite others to go with you to confess your sins to God and to seek His forgiveness? This kind of action is best done alone. The fencing around the tabernacle court would eliminate the distractions that would take away from the solemnity of the occasion.
While not exactly the same, this does remind me of what Jesus said about prayer.
Matthew 6:6 – “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
The idea there was that private prayer is less likely to be something that is done for show. Personal prayer should be done with the least distractions. And confession of sin should be the same. This is probably why the tabernacle courtyard was covered.
- The Inventory of Material Used (Ex. 38:21-31)
The remainder of the chapter gives us a listing of both the people involved with the construction and the materials collected for it.
a. People involved (Ex. 38:21-23)
The names mentioned are mostly familiar. Moses was the one to whom God had given the instructions. So he told the people what to do. Ithamar (Aaron’s youngest son) was tasked with “an inventory of the materials contributed” (Hannah 161). This was an important job similar to a church treasurer. Next are mentioned the names of Bezalel and Aholiab who were put in charge of designing and overseeing the construction of the tabernacle. We have seen earlier that they were not the only two who built these things (Ex. 31:6). They were the designers and overseers who made sure things were done according to God’s instructions.
b. Materials given (Ex. 38:24-31)
How much wealth was given by God’s people to complete the tabernacle and its furnishings? You might be surprised. “The materials included a little over a ton of gold (38:24), almost four tons of silver (vv. 25-28), and about two and one-half tons of bronze (vv. 29-31; cf. NIV marg.)” (Hannah 161). That is a large amount of wealth!
“It may perhaps be difficult for some to imagine how the Israelites should have been possessed of so much wealth in the desert. But it is to be recollected that they had come out of Egypt with great spoil, which was no doubt very much augmented by what they obtained from the dead bodies of their enemies, cast upon the shores of the Red Sea” (Bush 284). And it may be that they continued trading with various people they met along the way. Whatever the case may be, they willingly gave to the project and there was more than enough to complete it.
Reading through the construction of the tabernacle may seem like an unnecessary project for Christians today. We no longer need a tabernacle with a bronze altar, laver, and a 7½ foot fence around it. However, what is written in this chapter is the inspired record of what God wanted for believers before Jesus came. And what is written here is designed to help us somehow.
Romans 15:4 – “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.”
As mentioned earlier, the bronze altar reminds us of our need for a perfect sacrifice to pay the price for our sins. The bronze laver reminds us of our need to be holy as we come into God’s presence. The fence around the tabernacle courtyard reminds us that our interactions with God should be personal and not for show. And all of this should remind us of what Jesus did for us through His perfect life, his substitutionary death on the cross, and His present work as our high priest. As we look at how God worked in the past, we will better see what God did through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And that (as the Scriptures say) gives us hope.
Bush, George, Exodus Vol. 2, Minneapolis: James & Klock, 1852, reprint 1976, pp. 279-85.
Hannah, John D., “Exodus” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1989, p. 160-61.
McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. I, Genesis through Deuteronomy, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1981, pp. 314-17.
“Metal Alloy Comparison Guide: Copper, Brass, and Bronze” as viewed at https://www.sequoia-brass-copper.com/blog/metal-alloy-comparison-guide/#:~:text=Copper%2C%20brass%2C%20and%20bronze%20are,combination%20of%20copper%20and%20tin) on 1/7/2023.
“What was the brazen altar?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=48838 on 1/7/2023.
“What was the significance of the bronze laver?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=21372 on 1/7/2023.
“What was the tabernacle of Moses?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=2545 on 1/7/2023.