Many Masonic students have greatly erred in the way in which they have referred to the Sinaitic Tabernacle, as if it were represented by the Tabernacle said in the legends to have been erected by Zerubbabel at Jerusalem at the time of the building of the second Temple. The belief that the Tabernacle of Zerubbabel was an exact representation of that erected by Moses, arose from the numerous allusions to it in the writings of Doctor Oliver, but in this country principally from the teachings of Thomas Smith Webb and Jeremy L. Cross. It is, however, true, that although the symbols of the Ark, the Golden Candlestick, the Altar of Incense, and some others were taken, not from the Tabernacle, but from the Temple, the symbolism of the veils was derived from the latter, but in a form by no means similar to the original disposition. It is therefore necessary that some notice should be taken of the real Tabernacle, that we may be enabled to know how far the Masonic is connected with the Sinaitic edifice.
The word tabernacle means a tent. It is the diminutive of the Latin word taberna, and was used by the Romans to denote a soldier's tent. It was constructed of planks and covered with skins, and its outward appearance presented the precise form of the Jewish Tabernacle.
The Jews called it sometimes mishcan, which, like the Latin taberna, meant a dwelling-place, but more commonly ohel, which meant, like tabernaculum, a tent. In shape it resembled a tent, and is supposed to have derived its form from the tents used by the Patriarchs during their nomadic life. There are three Tabernacles mentioned in Scripture history-the Ante Sinaitic, the Sinaitic, and the Davidic.
1. The Ante-Sinaitic Tabernacle was the tent used, perhaps from the beginning of the Exodus, for the transaction of business, and was situated at some distance from the camp. It was used only provisionally and was superseded by the Tabernacle proper.
2. The Sinaitic Tabernacle. This was constructed by Aholiab and Bezaleel under the immediate direction of Moses. The costliness and splendor of this edifice exceeded, says Kitto, in proportion to the means of the people who constructed it, the magnificence of any Cathedral of the present day. It was situated in the very center of the camp, with its door or entrance facing the East, and was placed toward the western part of an enclosure or outward court, which was one hundred and fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, and surrounded by canvas screens seven and a half feet high, so as to prevent any one on the outside from overlooking the Court.
The Tabernacle itself was, according to Josephus, forty-five feet long by fifteen wide; its greater length being from East to West. The sides were fifteen feet high, and there was a sloping roof. There was no aperture or place of entrance except at the eastern end, which was covered by curtains. Internally, the Tabernacle was divided into two apartments by a richly decorated curtain. The one at the western end was fifteen feet long, making, therefore, a perfect cube. This was the Holy of Holies, into which no one entered, not even the High Priest, except on extraordinary occasions. In it was placed the Ark of the Covenant, against the western wall. The Holy of Holies was separated from the Sanctuary by a curtain embroidered with figures of Cherubim, and supported by four golden pillars. The Sanctuary, or eastern apartment, was in the form of a double cube, being fifteen feet high, fifteen feet wide, and thirty feet long. In it were placed the Table of Shewbread on the northern side, the Golden Candlestick on the southern, and the Altar of Incense between them. The Tabernacle thus constructed was decorated with rich curtains. These were of four colors-white or fine twined linen, blue, purple, and red. They were so suspended as to cover the sides and top of the tabernacle, not being distributed as veils separating it into apartments, as in the Masonic Tabernacle. Josephus, in describing the symbolic signification of the Tabernacle, says that it was an imitation of the system of the world; the Holy of Holies, into which not even the Priests were admitted, was axis it were a heaven peculiar to God; but the Sanctuary, where the people were allowed to assemble for worship, represented the sea and land on which men live. But the symbolism of the Tabernacle was far more complex than anything that Josephus has said upon the Subject would lead us to suppose.
Its connection would, however, lead us to an inquiry into the religious life of the ancient Hebrews, and into an investigation of the question how much Moses was, in the appointment of ceremonies, influenced by his previous Egyptian life; topics whose consideration would throw no light on the Masonic symbolism of the Tabernacle.
3. The Davidic Tabernacle in time took the place of that which had been constructed by Moses. The old or Sinaitic Tabernacle accompanied the Israelites in all their wanderings, and was their old Temple until David obtained possession of Jerusalem. From that time it remained at Gibeon, and we have no account of its removal thence. But when David removed the Ark to Jerusalem, he erected a Tabernacle for its reception Here the Priests performed their daily service, until Solomon erected the Temple, when the ark was deposited in the Holy of Holies, and the Davidie Tabernaele put away as a relic. At the subsequent destruction of the Temple it was most probably burned. From the time of Solomon we altogether lose sight of the Sinaitic Tabernacle, which perhaps became a victim to carelessness and the corroding influence of time.
The three Tabernacles just described are the only ones mentioned in Scripture or in Josephus. Masonic tradition, however, enumerates a fourth-the Tabernacle erected by Zerubbabel on his arrival at Jerusalem with his countrymen, who had been restored from captivity by Cyrus for the purpose of rebuilding the Temple. Ezra tells us that on their arrival they built the Altar of Burnt-Offerings and offered sacrifice. This would not, however, necessitate the building of a house, because the Altar of Sacrifices had always been erected in the open court, both of the old Tabernacle and Temple. Yet as the Priests and Levites were there, and it is said that the religious ordinances of Moses were observed, it is not unlikely that some sort of temporary shelter was erected for the performance of divine worship. But of the form and character of such a building we have no account.
Nevertheless, a Masonic legend has, for symbolical purposes, supplied that deficiency. This legend is, however, peculiar to the American modification of the Royal Arch Degree. In the English system a Royal Arch Chapter represents the "ancient Sanhedrim," where Zerubbabel, Haggai, and Joshua administer the law. In the American system a Chapter is said to represent "the Tabernacle erected by our ancient Brethren near the ruins of King Solomon's Temple."
Of the erection of this tabernacle, we have said that there is no historical evidence. It is simply a myth, but a myth constructed, of course, for a symbolical purpose. In its legendary description, it bears no resemblance whatsoever, except in the colors of its curtains or veils, to the Sinaitic Tabernacle.
In the latter the Holy of Holies was in the western extremity, in the former it was in the eastern; in that was contained the Ark of the Covenant with the overshadowing Cherubim and the Shekinah; in this there are no such articles; in that the most holy was inaccessible to all purposes, even to the priests; in this it is the seat of the three presiding officers, and is readily accessible by proper means. In that the curtains were attached to the sides of the tent; in this they are suspended across, dividing it into four apartments.
The Masonic Tabernacle used in the American Royal Arch Degree is not, therefore, a representation of the ancient Tabernacle erected by Moses in the wilderness, but must be supposed to be simply a temporary construction for purposes of shelter, of consultation, and of worship. It was, in the strictest sense of the word, a Tabernacle, a tent. As a myth, with no historical foundation, it would be valueless, were it not that it is used, and was undoubtedly fabricated, for the purpose of developing a symbolism.
And this symbolism is found in its veils. There is no harm in calling it a Tabernacle any more than there is in calling it a Sanhedrim, provided we do not fall into the error of supposing that either was actually its character. As a myth, and only as a myth, must it be viewed, and there its symbolic meaning presents, as in all other Masonic myths, a fund of useful instruction.
In some Chapters a part of the furniture is called the Tahernacle; in other words, a piece of frame work is erected inside of the room, and is called the Tabernacle. This is incorrect. According to the ritual the whole Chapter room represents the Tabernacle, and the veils should be suspended from wall to wall. Indeed, we have reasons for believing that this interior Tabernacle is an innovation of little more than comparatively a few years standing. The oldest Chapter rooms that Doctor Mackey had seen were constructed on the correct principle.
No one who studies the construction of the Tabernacle as described in the Bible but will be somewhat perplexed by the several difficulties pertaining to the structure as well as its equipment.
There will be suggested the unexpected wealth of material and the artistic skill necessary for its construction and A. R. S. Kennedy in writing upon this subject for Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible says (page 888), "Modern students of the Pentateuch find the picture of the desert Sanctuary and its worship irreconcilable with the historical development of religion and the cultus in Israel. In Exodus 25 and following chapters we are dealing not with historical fact, but with the product of religious idealism; and surely these devout idealists of the Exile should command our admiration as they deserve our gratitude. If the Tabernacle is an ideal, it is truly an ideal worthy of Him for whose worship it seeks to provide. Nor must it be forgotten, that in reproducing in portable form, as they unquestionably do, the several parts and appointments of the Temple of Solomon, including even its brazen altar, the author or authors of the Tabernacle believed, in all good faith, that they were reproducing the essential features of the Mosaic sanctuary, of which the Temple was supposed to be the replica and the legitimate successor."