A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Field Trip to the Tabernacle Reproduction

Last week, two colleagues from Elizabethtown College and I took a field trip to a reproduction of the biblical Tabernacle.  It’s housed in the Mennonite Information Center in Lancaster, PA– close to Amish tourist sites, a Target, and two outlet malls.


We arrived early for the 3 pm tour, so we watched “Who are the Mennonites?”    Although it included a little history, the film focused on contemporary Mennonite life (or what was contemporary in 1993).  It highlighted the hospitality, diversity, and community outreach of the Mennonite church.

At 3, our tour guide Miriam invited us to room adjacent to the reproduction of the Tabernacle courtyard. We sat on benches and peered through glass at cut-out figures reenacting the process of sacrifice.


One figure placed its hand on an animal, transferring guilt.


Others slaughtered the animal and poured out its blood.


Another stood at a laver, used for ritual washing.


I was allowed to take pictures of the figures (through the glass) and of the wall mural of the Israelite camp in the wilderness.


While discussing the mural, Miriam described the graded levels of holiness:  Moses and the priests could camp near the Tabernacle, while others were kept at a greater distance.

As we watched, Miriam recounted the basic biblical story from Abraham to the wilderness, stressing the themes of redemption, delineation, and relationships.  Throughout the story, she explained, God saved the people in various ways; kept them from getting too dangerously close to a holy God; and called for total commitment to the human-divine relationship.  In explaining the logic of sacrifice, she emphasized that blood had to be shed for the forgiveness of sins and that the rituals had to be performed over and over.

I had to put my camera away when we moved into the interior of the Tabernacle, so my inside pictures are actually those from the gift shop.

IOnce inside, we sat on pews and looked through the cut-away walls at reproductions of the table of the showbread, the lamp stand, and the Ark of the Covenant.


Separating us from the Holy of Holies hung a heavy curtain adorned with cherubim.


After inquiring about our allergies, Miriam burned incense on the altar and then energized the High Priest, who rumbled along a track to the altar.  We learned about the front of his clothing, and then when the motor spun him around and returned him to his starting line we learned about the back of his garments.


As the tour drew to a close, our guide revealed why the Tabernacle matters today.  Every part of the Tabernacle, we learned, pointed forward to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.   Her typology was extensive, correlating all the pieces of the sacrificial ritual with the process of seeking forgiveness for sins through the waters of baptism and relating each piece of the Tabernacle furniture with Jesus’ atoning work.

the sacrificial animal had to be perfect: Jesus was the perfect sacrifice whose blood covered the sins of all people forever

Lamp stand:  Jesus said, “I am the Light of the World”

Table of showbread:  Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”

The curtain, separating the people from God: according to Matthew 27:51, when Jesus died the curtain was torn from top to bottom

The gate in the courtyard:  Jesus said, “I am the gate” (John 10:9)

The High Priest:  Jesus is the Great High Priest

To end the tour, Miriam blessed us with the Aaronide blessing:  “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;  the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

After the tour, we browsed the bookstore and gift shop. I bought gemstones from Aaron’s breastplate and a piece of acacia wood, as well as postcards from the Tabernacle interior.

stones acacia

I looked at the Amish romance novels and wondered what kind of reality series they would make.

amish-romances romances-close

Since Miriam was running the cash register, I got to talk to her a little and learn that she had been working at the Tabernacle since 1992.

I also learned some of the history of the reproduction.  It was originally erected by a Baptist pastor in Florida.  When the pastor retired, a Mennonite involved in the project transported it to Pennsylvania, where it has been since 1975.   Its goal is to provide a spiritual element to the tourist industry in the area.  If folks are going to come for buggy rides and to eat at smorgasbords, they also should be offered spiritual nurture.

Evaluating our experience at the adjacent Starbucks, my colleagues and I had a lot to talk about.  As three people who have spent a lot of time looking at ancient Near Eastern art, we were amazed that no one had done any research on what sacred furnishings looked like in the ancient world.  We were especially appalled by the images of the cherubim on the curtain, who looked cartoonish.


The furniture looked more like props for a Vacation Bible School play than like the elaborate art known from Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Egypt.

But, of course, the theology interested us most.  We’re all Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholars who try to help people see the value in this text on its own terms, without Christological readings.  So while typological interpretation didn’t surprise us (given that a lot of it is in the New Testament anyway), it still grated on our ears.

Mainly, our conversation focused on how the blood atonement theology presented at the Tabernacle differed from our own experience of Mennonite values.  The Mennonites we know are working toward the peaceful resolution of interpersonal and international conflict–justice for Palestinians and for reconciliation in a racially diverse Lancaster city.  I want to talk to some of those Mennonite friends and ask them if they’ve visited the Tabernacle and, if so, what they think about it.

I leave this experience the way that I leave many other “biblical” attractions–amazed at what people consider “authentic” reproductions of the ancient world and even more amazed that the founders claim that they are honoring the past and contemporary diversity.  According to the brochure, “The Tabernacle Reproduction is a reminder of Christianity’s rootage in Judaism and is appreciated by guests representing many faiths and cultures from all over the world.”


A tour that ends with an appeal to the saving work of Jesus Christ honors Judaism?  People from diverse faiths and cultures are supposed to appreciate the claim that salvation comes only through the shedding of Jesus’ blood?

I’m not even sure that all Mennonites would appreciate this definition of why and how Jesus matters.

2 Responses to Field Trip to the Tabernacle Reproduction

  • I wonder how folks at the Tabernacle Reproduction would respond to this new book by Mark George, Israel’s Tabernacle as Social Space .
    Here’s the blurb from SBL:

    The narratives about Israel’s tabernacle are neither a building blueprint nor simply a Priestly conceit securing priestly prominence in Israel. Using a spatial poetics to reexamine these narratives, George argues that the Priestly writers encode a particular understanding of Israel’s identity and self-understanding in tabernacle space. His examination of Israel’s tabernacle narratives makes space itself the focus of analysis and in so doing reveals the social values, concerns, and ideas that inform these narratives. Through a process of negotiation and exchange with the broader social and cultural world, the Priestly writers portray Israel as having an important role in the divine economy, one that is singularly expressed by this portable structure.


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