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Christmas and Christ's 'mortal tabernacle'

Literally central to the worship and organization of the wandering camp of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai was what the King James Bible calls “the tabernacle of the congregation.” (The Jewish Publication Society translation terms it “the tent of meeting.”)

According to Numbers 2:2-33; 3:21-38, the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulon were to pitch their tents to the tabernacle’s east. The tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad were to camp to its south; Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin to the west; and Dan, Asher and Naphtali to the north.

The Levites, specially tasked with priestly service, were to camp immediately around the tabernacle, on all sides, at the very center of the overall encampment.

Sometimes, though, and perhaps particularly when the Lord was displeased with Israel, the tabernacle was pitched some distance outside the camp (see, for example, Exodus 33:4-7).

It’s difficult to imagine that such specific and detailed instructions involve no symbolism or meaning, and the most obvious interpretation of the idealized camp layout given in Numbers is that it represents the centrality of God and his worship in the life of Israel.

Known in the Hebrew Bible as the “mishkan,” the “residence” or “dwelling place,” the tabernacle was essentially a tent, larger and finer but otherwise not fundamentally different from those surrounding it. But, from the time of their exodus from Egypt through the conquest of Canaan (where the temple of Jerusalem eventually replaced it), it was also the portable earthly dwelling place of God among the Israelites.

According to Exodus 33:7-11, those who “sought the Lord” would go to the tabernacle, and it was there that “the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” The “cloudy pillar” that, traveling with them, represented God’s presence among the Israelites (see Exodus 13:21-22) and the warning boundary between divine and human “stood at the door of the tabernacle” during such encounters.

The term “mishkan” stems from the Hebrew verb “shakan,” which (like the related Arabic verb “sakana”) means “to settle,” “to inhabit” or “to dwell.” In early postbiblical Judaism another term arose, derived from the same verb: The word “shekina” (“settling,” “dwelling”) refers, specifically, to the dwelling or settling of God’s divine presence.

It’s very possible that the author of John’s gospel had in mind the concept of the “mishkan” among the children of Israel, and of the divine presence or “shekhina,” when he wrote his account, given at John 1:1-14, of the entry of the divine Word into our mortal world, of God taking upon himself a physical human body:

“And the Word was made flesh,” says John 1:14, “and dwelt among us.”

The term rendered here as “dwelt” is a form of the Greek verb “skeno’o” (pronounced roughly “skay-NO-o”), which means not only “to dwell” but, specifically, “to pitch a tent.” (We derive our English word “scene” from the Greek noun “skene” — pronounced “skay-NAY” — which means “tent.”) Thus, John 1:14 might well be translated as “the word was made flesh and tented among us.”

The likelihood of deliberate wordplay here in John’s gospel seems even higher when we note the resemblance in sound between the Hebrew root “sh-k-n” (and its even more obvious Arabic cognate “s-k-n”) and the quite unrelated Greek verb “skeno’o”).

John’s gospel seems to be telling us that, just as God — represented by the “tent of meeting” — dwelt amidst the wandering children of Israel in the desert of Sinai, God himself tented among us mortals when he took upon himself our flesh and walked with us.

Matthew 1:23 seems to make much the same point when it cites Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”

“God with us.” God “tenting” in our midst, assuming a mortal “tabernacle” like ours. That is the radical, deeply revolutionary message of Christmas.

The Book of Mormon’s Alma, prophesying of Christ in the Americas nearly a century before the Savior’s birth, declared that “he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.” Thus, said Alma, will begin “the time of his dwelling in his mortal tabernacle” (see Alma 7:8, 10).