February 6, 2022

Finding Christ in the Tabernacle Gate and Courtyard

The very first thing that Israelite worshipers would see as they came to the beautiful Tabernacle was the large white linen fence of the courtyard and the beautiful and colorful gate. The Tabernacle was the place where Israel learned of the importance of repentance, atonement, and sacrifice and could symbolically reenter the presence of God through the priests. Learning of the gate and courtyard can help us better understand that it is only through the Savior that we can return to the presence of the Lord.

Before we can understand the gate of the Tabernacle, we first must understand the importance of gates in ancient times. The city gate was a place of protection and strength. Its fortified towers were one of the safest places of any ancient city. The excavated gates at Megiddo and Tel Dan are excellent examples of this with their massive fortified structures and flanking chambers. During an attack on the city, these chambers could be used to protect soldiers from invaders.

Ancient gates were also a place to perform covenants and contractual agreements. After the death of Sarah, Abraham stood at the city gate to negotiate and purchase the tomb where Sarah would be buried (Genesis 23:10, 18). When Ruth was to be married to Boaz, under the levirate law, he likewise did this at the city gate (Ruth 4:1, 10-11). Being at the gate, allowed all the city to witness the covenant or contract, becoming witnesses to the agreement.

Reconstruction of Tel Dan judgment seat (left); Tel Dan today (right, photo by Todd Bolen)

The Law of Moses also prescribed that those who had been accused of sin should be brought to the gate, making it a place of judgment (Deuteronomy 21:19). In fact, ancient city gates often even included an elevated seat, such as the one discovered at Tel Dan. Here the king or ruler would come and sit in judgment and hear the cases brought forward by his people. Because so many people entered and exited the city gate, it was also an excellent place to market goods and services. With the high amount of traffic, ancient prophets also found it an ideal place to preach to the people. Jeremiah stood at the gates when he called the people to repentance, proclaiming that Jerusalem would be destroyed if they did not repent (Jeremiah 7:2). Thus, the ancient gate was seen as a place of protection, covenant-making, judgment, and a place where the word of God could be heard.

Similarly, the Tabernacle gate had many of these same characteristics. As sinners, we all must come to the house of the Lord and seek protection and refuge through the grace of Christ. The Tabernacle and later temples in Jerusalem were also a place of covenant-making, where Israel could promise to obey the Lord. It also is a place of judgment, where Israel was to bring their sins to the Lord, and symbolically have them placed on the altar through the death of an innocent animal. The Tabernacle gate was also a place where Israel could hear the word of the Lord, proclaimed by prophets.

3D model of Tabernacle gate from the entrance

With this background, let’s now examine the construction of the Tabernacle gate and courtyard. Unlike ancient cities with their towering gates and walls of protection, the Tabernacle courtyard had only a linen fabric wall that separated the world from the sacred. This of course was largely because Israel needed the Tabernacle to be a portable structure that could move with them as they traveled in the wilderness. This outer fence was made from white fine linen, the same fabric used in the clothing of the priests. John the Revelator wrote that “the fine linen is the righteousness of saints” (Revelation 19:8). In ancient times the color white in fabric was very difficult to produce, having to go through a laborious process of bleaching or fulling. This would make it uncommon to see white fabrics used except for the wealthy and elite. These white fine linen walls would also stand in stark contrast to the thousands of black coarse goat hair tents. The white linen creates beautiful symbolism of a sacred space that is set apart from the contrasting surroundings.

Bronze bases and silver bands for the courtyard posts of the Tabernacle

This outer linen fence was hung on 60 wooden pillars. Unlike the inner sanctuary walls that rested on a foundation of silver bases, these outer pillars rested on bronze bases. These different metals show the levels of gradation of holiness. The outer courtyard is least sacred so bronze is used for most of the items, including the bases of the pillars. As you progress towards more sacred areas, silver and gold are used more prominently to show the symbolic progression of holiness. This outer linen fence was about 7.5 feet or just over 2 meters tall. Being above eye level would create a visible barrier that separated the profane from the sacred, blocking the view of those on the outside. This would mean that the only way to see inside was to enter through the colorful gate.

The Tabernacle gate itself was made of blue, purple, and scarlet fabric woven into white linen. The colorful gate was surprisingly wide at about 35 feet or over 10 meters, perhaps symbolically showing how despite the fact that there is only one way to enter God’s presence, it is wide enough to allow all who desire to enter. The Psalms gives us the requirement for entering by saying: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart” (Psalms 24:3-4).

3D model of the Tabernacle gate

The gate was located on the east side of the courtyard. This meant that as an Israelite entered the courtyard they went in a westward direction. When Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and were cast out of the presence of the Lord, we are told that they went in an eastward direction. This means that to reenter the garden, they would have to turn around and then go westward, passing the cherubim who guarded the tree of life. Ancient Jews saw the similarities between the Garden of Eden and how the High Priest, who represented all of Israel, reversed the steps of Adam and Eve, bringing Israel back into the presence of the Lord. 

Beautiful symbolism can be found in both the outer fence and gate of the Tabernacle that point us to the Lord Jesus Christ. As we draw closer to the Savior, one of the first things that often will catch our eye is His purity and perfection (symbolized by the white linen fence). In many ways, we may want to turn away because of our own lack of cleanliness, but the Lord beckons us forward, showing us how we can become pure like He is pure. The fine linen used for the outer fence may also remind us of the fine linen strips that were used to wrap the lifeless body of Christ at his burial (Mark 15:46). The colors of the outer gate could symbolize the perfection and attributes of the Savior. The color blue in ancient times often symbolized heaven, the color purple royalty, and the color red death, blood, mortality and sacrifice. These same colors will be replicated throughout the Tabernacle, in the beautiful garments of the High Priest (himself a type of Christ), and the veils of the Tabernacle.

While teaching in the Temple at Jerusalem, Jesus taught: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9 NIV), teaching us that to return to God, the very first thing we must do is pass through the Savior. It is as if the Savior (represented by the beautiful colors) as the Great High Priest, stands at each of the main areas of division, the gate of the courtyard, the door of the Tabernacle, and the veil going into the Holy of Holies. From the very beginning to the very end of our journey back to God, the Savior stands beckoning us to enter through Him. As we pass from one point to the next on our journey back to God, it is always through Him and because of His infinite sacrifice and resurrection that we can progress back into the presence of the Lord!

See Exodus 27:9-19 and Exodus 38:9-20 for the description of the Courtyard and Tabernacle.

(Special thanks to Elder Alex Ducos, Ethan Fullmer, and Brian Olson for their help with creating the 3D model of the Tabernacle, and for Audra Coulson for help with the Tel Dan 3D model.).

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