- Published: Friday, 11 July 2008 16:23
| Thousands of years ago, in the desert outside Eilat, someone sat and mended curtains for a very special place. Just a couple months ago, in possibly that same spot, someone sat and mended curtains for that same special place - or at least a replica thereof, something unique of its kind. Few such replicas exist in the world at all, and none in the historical location of the original except for this one.
| Thousands of years ago, in the desert outside Eilat, someone sat and mended curtains for a very special place. Just a couple months ago, in possibly that same spot, someone sat and mended curtains for that same special place - or at least a replica thereof, something unique of its kind. Few such replicas exist in the world at all, and none in the historical location of the original except for this one. It is an item central to the beliefs of Jews and Christians, and of fascinating historical interest even to those who do not believe in the Bible.
It is the Tabernacle, the ‘Mishkan’, the dwelling place of the Divine Presence when Moses and the Israelites were crossing Sinai after leaving Egypt for the Promised Land (Exodus). The replica is built to the technical specifications given in the Bible just as the original was, although in our larcenous age you can be sure that not all the original materials were used. Leaving tonnes of gold and silver standing around in the middle of the desert did not seem like a good idea to the planners. (Thank goodness for metallic paint!) The other metals and the priests’ gemstones are also fake, just for the record, as the thousands of Levites present in biblical times have been replaced nowadays by a few roaming gazelle and the occasional sleepy lizard.
Like materials, measurements also change over time. Cubits were the measure of the age, a cubit being the length from the elbow to the longest finger. Since no one knows whose forearm served as the model, or more to the point, his dimensions, 45 cm was decided upon as a reasonable average for the reconstruction.
Because the Israelites were doing a lot of wandering - breaking camp 42 times during their 40 year trek (31 of those times within Israel) - the long wall panels used bars and rings for more efficient assembly. The Ark of the Covenant also used rings and poles for transport, being carried some 2000 cubits ahead of the tribes when travelling and placed in the Tabernacle when camping. The Israelites were incredibly efficient, each group with a designated duty, so that everything ran smoothly and no one was overly burdened when making or breaking camp. Today, however, all the upkeep of the tabernacle and its contents falls on two or three people working and/or volunteering for the non-profit organisation that manages the site, Moving Edge. The unrelenting desert sun takes a rapid toll on textile and everything else exposed to it. On the other hand, at least the staff don’t have to weave their own cloth or spend their days beating gold…
The guides who work there enthusiastically present the story behind each act and item involved in the biblical story, and many tour busses enter the Timna Park for the express purpose of visiting the Tabernacle. Jews and Christians alike are often moved to tears when seeing this central part of their spiritual history brought to life so tangibly.
Michael Lavie (‘ Levco’), one of the founders of nearby Kibbutz Yotvata, and Herby Geer, who is active in tourism in Eilat, are the minds behind the magic. They arranged for the replica, which had been touring Europe, to be transported to the Negev wilderness where the ancient Israelites had camped and set up the Tabernacle anew each time. According to archaeologist Assaf Holzer, the Timna/Yotvata area fits the biblical description of where the campsite must have been. It is believed that the copper used in construction of the Tabernacle and its vessels came from the Timna copper mines, historically known as King Solomon’s Mines and still in service these thousands of years later. The wood came from the acacia tree, the only tree common in the desert of this area. Its wood is strong, light weight and waterproof.
The whole site is surrounded by high white curtains, originally linen but nowadays of a hardier material. In the courtyard before entering the Tabernacle, one sees a huge ‘bronze’ washbasin (‘laver’). There is also a large square ‘bronze’ altar with a mesh bottom, under which a fire was to be kept burning at all times and sacrifices offered morning and evening. Rather than steps, the sacrificial altar is approached by a ramp so that the priests’ ‘nakedness not be exposed’ according to Exodus (suggesting that the Scots-and-kilts question is not as modern or unusual as we thought!). Having done their ritual ablutions and sacrifices in the courtyard, the priests would now turn toward the tent itself, made of layers of fabric all of designated measurements, placement, and bold colours such as white, royal blue, purple, and scarlet, each with its own symbolism.
Entering, one sees a golden table to the right holding twelve pieces of showbread, a flatbread of about 26 cm diameter. Fresh showbread was brought each Shabbat and the older lot was eaten by the priests. On the left side stand mannequins of a priest and the High Priest. The latter wears shoulder boards and a breastplate, each containing the gemstones and names of the 12 tribes of Israel as per the biblical injunction to have Israel ‘on his heart and on his shoulder’. There, also, stands the seven-branched golden candelabra known as the ‘menorah’ (‘lamp’). This menorah, now a symbol of the state of Israel, was fashioned out of a single ‘talent’ (ca. 32 kg) of gold. There was also an altar on which incense of frankincense and other aromatic resins was burned by the priests when tending the menorah lights.
Passing further in, through the veil, one enters the highlight of the Tabernacle: the Holy of Holies containing the Ark of the Covenant, where only the High Priest was allowed to enter. Anyone unauthorised would die even from just looking at, never mind touching, the Ark.
This, where the physical presence of God resided for the Israelites, was made of gold-covered acacia wood, topped by two gold angels whose wings touch at the tips to form the ‘mercy seat’. It represented the footstool of God’s throne, and contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments given to Moses, a plate of manna, and Aaron’s staff which had budded with leaf when his high-priesthood was challenged. All are reproductions, of course, and since no one knows what manna actually was beyond ‘white like coriander seeds’, these were used to represent it.
After the Israelites had settled in the Promised Land and the First Temple was built by Solomon, the holy relics were housed there for good, but they disappeared when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Their whereabouts remain a mystery till this day - except to Indiana Jones, perhaps.