The Mishkan, or sacred tent, was a unique portable temple constructed under the direction of Moses as a place of worship for the Hebrew tribes. It was used during the forty-year period of wandering between their liberation from slavery in Egypt and their arrival in the Promised Land (ca. 1290–1250 b.c.). According to chapters 25 and 26 of Exodus, the warrant and exact specifications for its construction were given by God. The tent seems to have been still in use in the first half of the eleventh century b.c., but it no longer served a religious purpose after Solomon built a permanent temple in Jerusalem in 950 b.c.
Portable shrines existed in Egypt as early as the Old Kingdom (2800–2250 b.c.), and fine examples were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamen, (ca. 1350 b.c.). But they are small in comparison with the Tent of Witness, which differed from all contemporary religious buildings in several remarkable ways. First, it was the only temple constructed by the monotheistic Israelites, in contrast to the many—often several dedicated to the same deity—built by their polytheistic neighbors. Second, it was never associated with one particular sacred geographical location, peculiar to the deity; rather, it was set up wherever Yahweh, the God of Israel, indicated, in the belief that his presence made every location sacred. Third, it was small and outwardly unimposing, and although constructed of the choicest durable materials, it did not have (indeed, could not have) the appearance of weighty permanence common to contemporary religious buildings. Fourth, the materials used imparted a brightness that contrasted with the dark tents of the tribespeople who camped around it and that marked it out against the somberness of other shrines. Finally, its construction was not financed by temple taxes but by the voluntary offerings of the Israelites: according to Exodus, they gave 2,800 pounds (1,270 kilograms) of gold, 9,600 pounds (4,360 kilograms) of silver, and 6,700 pounds (3,050 kilograms) of bronze besides the necessary yarn and textiles. Its architectural character was inextricably linked to the Hebrews’ nomadic life for the first forty years of its existence. The Law of Moses provided instructions for the Levite families of Gershon, Kohath, and Merari responsible for assembling, demounting, and carrying the Mishkan and its court.
The complex invariably stood at the very center of the Israelite camp. It comprised a large courtyard around a comparatively small building that may be regarded as the Tent of Witness proper. The outer court was enclosed by a white linen wall, 150 feet (46 meters) long by 75 feet (23 meters) wide and 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) high, hung on 60 pillars of the brownish orange wood from the durable desert acacia. The pillars, each crowned with a silver capital, stood on bronze sockets, and their guy ropes were fastened with bronze pins. Access to the court was through a “gate” at the eastern end, also of white linen but distinguished from the general walls by an embroidered pattern in blue, purple, and scarlet and fastened to its pillars with gold hooks. Immediately inside the gate was an altar made of bronze-sheathed acacia wood. It is a comment upon the portability of the sanctuary that, at only 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) square and 4.5 feet (1.35 meters) high, this was the largest of the furnishings, designed to be carried on poles, rather like a sedan chair. Nearby stood a bronze basin holding water used for the priests’ ritual ablution.
The Tent of Witness itself stood at the western end of the court. An oblong enclosure, about 45 feet long by 15 feet wide (13.5 by 4.5 meters) and 15 feet high, was framed by walls assembled from 48 gold-sheathed acacia boards, each 27 inches (about 70 centimeters) wide. Standing on foundation blocks of solid silver, the boards were locked together by a system of bars passed through brackets on their outer faces and through their centers.
The plain exterior gave no clue to the richness and brilliant color of the rooms it contained. The ceiling was a draped curtain of the same textile as the courtyard gate, covered with another of goat’s hair, then red-dyed rams’ skins; an outer layer of porpoise skins provided durable protection. The interior was reached through a door of the same embroidered fabric hung on gold-sheathed pillars. By absolute contrast, the floor was simply the earth of the desert. The first compartment, 30 by 15 feet (9 by 4.5 meters), was called the Holy Place. It was furnished with a gold-sheathed table; a small altar for burning incense, also covered in gold; and a seven-branched menorah (lamp stand) hammered from solid gold. Beyond an inner curtain emblazoned with embroidered cherubim (angelic beings) was the Holy of Holies. The only furniture in that inner sanctum was the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-sheathed wooden box containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. This was the dwelling place of the God of Israel, who sat invisibly enthroned above the gold “seat of atonement” that rested on the Ark. Access was denied to all except the High Priest, and then only on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Because of the uniqueness of the spiritual beliefs that the Tent of Witness expressed, it was never a prototype for anything else. When Solomon built the great temple in Jerusalem, the architectural emphases were quite different.