Thorns in the Tabernacle

Bible References: Exodus chapters 25, 35-38.

Acacia wood was the only wood used to build the Tabernacle.  Gold covered acacia posts and cross bars stabilized the acacia wood panels and held Tent of Meeting curtains in place. In the Tent of Meeting, the Table of the Presence (Showbread), the Altar of Incense (Golden Altar), and the Ark of the Covenant were built from acacia wood then overlaid with gold. Gold covered acacia poles were placed in gold rings on the four corners of each piece of furniture. When Israelites moved camp, poles were used to lift and carry structures and furniture.

In the Tabernacle Courtyard, the Altar of Burnt Offering (Bronze Altar) was built from acacia wood, then overlaid with bronze. Bronze-cast rings were placed half-way up the Bronze Altar at each corner. Bronze-covered acacia wood poles were inserted into the rings to carry the Bronze Altar. The Courtyard was rectangular (approximately 150 by 75 feet). Unlike the Tent of Meeting, no acacia wood panels or boards were used to construct Courtyard sides. Sides were made of linen; however, the linen curtains were attached to acacia wood posts (top and sides) with silver hooks.

When Israelites traveled from one camp to another, the Tent of Meeting and Tabernacle were deconstructed, then moved. God didn’t permit sacred furnishings and the Tent of Meeting to be transported on wagons or carts. He required that they be carried on shoulders of Levites. Acacia wood is beautiful, light, and practical indestructible. It was ideal for the multiple moves that  Israelites made prior to entering Canaan.

The Bible identified the wood used in the Tabernacle as shittah, which translates as acacia. The genus and species of  acacia tree used in the Tabernacle can’t be established with 100% accuracy. Over the years, several acacia trees were suggested as the wood source. In the early twentieth century, scholars suggested acacia wood was from the Mimosa nilatica. Supposedly, Israelites brought this wood out of Egypt.

Another scholar proposed that the Tabernacle acacia wood was from the Acacia tortillis, which grew in the Judean and eastern Negev Deserts. Jewish rabbinic writings asserted that acacia trees were cut by the patriarch Jacob and acacia wood taken into Egypt.8 During their approximately 450-year captivity, Israelites retained the acacia wood and left Egypt with it. Thus, when Moses asked for offerings to build the Tabernacle, Israelites offered their acacia wood.

Although Mimosa nilatica and Acacia tortillis could have been sources of acacia wood used in Tabernacle construction, many scholars favor the Acacia seyal tree. The A. seyal is indigenous to the dry desert-like climate of southern Sinai. It grows in stony soil at the base of hills. The A. seyal can grow at altitudes from 65–7000 feet and with annual precipitations as low as three-and-one-half to nine inches. The A. seyal tree grows up to thirty-feet tall and has a broad somewhat flat canopy.

Despite A. seyal plentiful presence on the Saini Peninsula, the tree had a drawback: The acacia tree has a pair of straight, light gray thorns at the base of each leaf. When Israelites cut down trees and fashioned boards (planks) for the Tent of Meeting and furniture they had to contend with these sharp projections. Further, when poles were created to carry the Tabernacle and courtyard furniture, sharp thorns had to be removed from poles.

The acacia wood used in the Tabernacle symbolizes the humanity of Jesus, while the gold overlay of the boards and poles symbolizes Jesus’s deity. Isaiah described the  Redeemer as a “a root out of dry growth” similar to the acacia tree growing out of arid desert soil (Isaiah 53.2 NIV).

As Christians, we know that Jesus was fully human. It was in his human strength that Jesus endured unbelievable torture and death on the cross.  Acacia wood is virtually indestructible, but, Jesus is fully indestructible.  In his human body, Jesus died once for all people—those present on the earth when he lived and individuals of all future times.  The indestructible Jesus rose after death and now sits at God’s right hand in heaven.  Burnt offerings on bronze-covered acacia wood altars are no longer needed for sins to be forgiven and for man to be reconciled to God.

Jesus’s death and resurrection invites each of us to become a child of God. Christians “are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 1.10 NIV). Part of our work on earth is to be like acacia wood—virtually indestructible—as we walk out God’s plans for our lives.

God could have supplied trees without thorns for the Israelites to make boards for Tabernacle structures. Why did God have Israelites use a tree with thorns? One answer is that thorns on the acacia tree were to assist Israelites to realize that just because they were out of Egypt didn’t mean that all would be smooth in their lives. Their new world plants had thorns and projections that could/would pierce and puncture their skin.

Similar to Israelites on Sinai, Christian believers in the twenty-first century need to work with what is available in their world. In the Sinai, an acacia tree was available. In a world filled with diverse individuals, social media, and twenty-four-hour news television, Christians find thorns. At times thorns are other persons. Some days, I think that there are more thorns than flowers in my environment. Nonetheless God put me in this life to live and interact with what and who is in my environment. All of these interactions are designed to be for his glory.

Reflection: What are some items, events, people in your life that you need to learn to work with rather than avoid? Some people just have so many thorns (and, of course, I don’t)! How does learning to interact with thorny people enhance your spiritual life?

2 responses to “Thorns in the Tabernacle

  1. susanhackman4807

    Thank you. Is Figure 3.1 coming? I love the visuals to help me make it all stick. Great discussion piece!

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