Where did the Tabernacle Go?
The Tabernacle (Mishkan) was Israel’s portable shrine to Adonai in the wilderness. It has five names in the Hebrew Bible:
- Sanctuary (Mikdash), emphasizing that this was holy space (Exod 25:8).
- Tabernacle (Mishkan), from a word for “dwell,” emphasizing God’s Presence within (Exod 25:9).
- Tent (Ohel), emphasizing its portable nature (Exod 26:36).
- Tent of Meeting (Ohel Mo’ed), emphasizing that it is the place appointed for Israel to meet God (Exod 29:42).
- Tabernacle of the Testimony (Mishkan HaEdut), emphasizing the tablets of the covenant stored in the Ark (Exod 38:21).
For more on “God’s House,” see my 2006 book, A New Look at the Old Testament at this link or on amazon.
After the wilderness, what happened to the Tabernacle? And where did Israel worship?
According to Joshua 18:1, in the days of Joshua it was set up in Shiloh:
Then the whole congregation of the people of Israel assembled at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them.
Before this, it seems to have briefly been set up in Gilgal (Jos 4:19; 5:10), a place whose location is uncertain but which was probably near Jericho and certainly near the Jordan River.
There is an interesting story in Joshua 22. The Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites settled east of the Jordan River (in north part of the land known as Jordan today (Gilead) and also on the Golan Heights (Bashan)). These tribes built an altar just like the one built at Shiloh and the tribes of Israel were angered by this. They assumed Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh were setting up a rival sanctuary and even that they might worship Canaanite gods there. They came to make war after gathering first at Shiloh. When they came to Gilead, though, to meet with the eastern tribes, they had an answer for them: “We built this altar as a memorial and witness and will not make any offerings on it.”
The Tabernacle remained at Shiloh from the days of Joshua (c. 1200 BCE) until sometime in the lifetime of Samuel the prophet and priest (c. 1050 BCE). The existence of the Tabernacle at Shiloh is mentioned in Judges 18:31, when the Danites moved north to Laish (the city that became Dan and which we always visit in Israel, Tel Dan). The Danites set up a rival sanctuary at Dan (and later, Jeroboam of Israel did the same thing). Jeremiah 7:12 refers back to the days when the Tabernacle was in Shiloh and promises that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem will become just as desolate as the former Tabernacle platform at Shiloh.
The Tabernacle was at Shiloh in the days of Eli the priest and in the stories of young Samuel, who was devoted by his mother, Hannah, to the service of the Tabernacle at Shiloh (1 Sam 1-3).
But later in Samuel’s days, Shiloh was destroyed by Philistines who captured the Ark (1 Sam 4-6).
Then Samuel made offerings at many different altars, at Zuph (1 Sam 9:5-25), Gilgal (1 Sam 10:8; 11:14); and perhaps Bethel (1 Sam 10:5).
The Tabernacle (same one or a new one?) was set up in Saul’s reign at Nob (1 Sam 21). But later Saul murdered the priests at Nob. What happened to the Tabernacle then? It seems it was set up at Gibeon in the days of David (1 Chron 16:39; 2 Chron 1:3-5), but without the Ark, since David made a new Tent for the Ark in Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:17; 8:17; 1 Chron 6:31; 16:1-7).
Why did David leave the Tabernacle and priesthood at Gibeon and set up a new Tent in Jerusalem with Levites for music? Perhaps his reasons were political. Solomon made offerings at Gibeon before building the Temple (1 Kgs 3:4). So, perhaps Gibeon was the place for the Altar and offering while the Tent of the Ark in Jerusalem became a place for musical worship.
But the final mystery of what happened to the Tabernacle lies with Solomon. In his book Who Wrote the Bible?, Richard Friedman explains the evidence that the Tabernacle was placed in Solomon’s Holy of Holies, between the giant statues of the Cherubim that he had made.
So the Tabernacle went:
- from the wilderness to Gilgal;
- from Gilgal to Shiloh;
- from Shiloh to Nob;
- from Nob to Gibeon;
- from Gibeon into the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple.
But Israel was not faithful to worship only at the Tabernacle. Instead the people made offerings on every high place in the land, where the Canaanites also had made offerings. On some occasions, even prophets like Samuel and Elijah made offerings on high places. Israelites wanted God to have a wife or consort like the Canaanite gods, so they made Asherah’s and erected poles and planted trees beside altars in keeping with ancient customs of worshipping gods and goddesses at sacred places.
The Biblical ideal of one sanctuary, of centralized worship, of God alone as the Lord of all the earth, was limited to a few in Israel who understood and kept the faith.
The history of the commandments of Israel and Israel’s worship is featured in my online, self-paced course, “Bible History for Beginners” in section 102.
Want to learn more about the history of Israel and Judah, the history of the faith? At AncientBible.net you can begin taking “Bible History for Beginners” (BH4B) My goal at AncientBible.net is to make the Hebrew Bible simple. BH4B 101 and 102 are already complete and ready to take. BH4B 103-110 are being written and posted over the next few months. Want to learn history? Sign up today at AncientBible.net.