Model of the tabernacle in Timna Valley Park, Israel
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD for the Come Follow Me lesson May 2–8, Exodus 35–40; Leviticus 1; 16; 19
Moses was told in Exodus 26:30, “And thou shalt rear up the tabernacle according to the fashion thereof which was shewed thee in the mount. And thou shalt make a veil of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen of cunning work: with cherubims shall it be made: And thou shalt hang it upon four pillars of shittim wood overlaid with gold: their hooks shall be of gold, upon the four sockets of silver. And thou shalt hang up the veil under the taches, that thou mayest bring in thither within the veil the ark of the testimony: and the veil shall divide unto you between the holy place and the most holy. And thou shalt put the mercy seat upon the ark of the testimony in the most holy place.”
Then we read in Exodus 35:30-35 “And Moses said unto the children of Israel, See, the Lord hath called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; And he hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship; And to devise curious works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in the cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of wood, to make any manner of cunning work. And he hath put in his heart that he may teach, both he, and Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. Them hath he filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of them that do any work, and of those that devise cunning work.”
We are further told in Exodus 36:1 “Then wrought Bezaleel and Aholiab, and every wise hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom and understanding to know how to work all manner of work for the service of the sanctuary, according to all that the Lord had commanded.”
The Tabernacle itself was described in Exodus 38:9-16, “And he made the court: on the south side southward the hangings of the court were of fine twined linen, an hundred cubits: Their pillars were twenty, and their brasen sockets twenty; the hooks of the pillars and their fillets were of silver. And for the north side the hangings were an hundred cubits, their pillars were twenty, and their sockets of brass twenty; the hooks of the pillars and their fillets of silver. And for the west side were hangings of fifty cubits, their pillars ten, and their sockets ten; the hooks of the pillars and their fillets of silver. And for the east side eastward fifty cubits. The hangings of the one side of the gate were fifteen cubits; their pillars three, and their sockets three. And for the other side of the court gate, on this hand and that hand, were hangings of fifteen cubits; their pillars three, and their sockets three. All the hangings of the court round about were of fine twined linen.”
In 2020, Joshua Berman, professor of Tanakh at Bar-Ilan University, discussed the Tabernacle in a paper in AISH (aish.com), entitled “Evidence for the Exodus.” That article was excerpted from his new book, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid, Jerusalem, Israel, 2020). Berman stated, “Some 80 years ago, scholars noted an unexpected affinity between the biblical descriptions of the Tabernacle and the illustrations of Ramesses’ camp at Kadesh in several bas reliefs that accompany the Kadesh Poem. In the image below of the Kadesh battle, the walled military camp occupies the large rectangular space in the relief’s lower half: The camp is twice as long as it is wide. The entrance to it is in the middle of the eastern wall, on the left… At the center of the camp, down a long corridor, lies the entrance to a 3:1 rectangular tent. This tent contains two sections: a 2:1 reception tent, with figures kneeling in adoration, and, leading westward (right) from it, a domed square space that is the throne tent of the pharaoh. All of these proportions are reflected in the prescriptions for the Tabernacle and its surrounding camp in Exodus 25-27, as the two diagrams below make clear.”
Ramesses’ camp at Kadesh in bas relief that accompanied the Kadesh Poem. The camp, reception tent, and throne tent of the pharaoh are highlighted in red.
“To complete the parallel, Egypt’s four army divisions at Kadesh would have camped on the four sides of Ramesses’ battle compound; the book of Numbers (ch. 2) states that the tribes of Israel camped on the four sides of the Tabernacle compound. Some scholars suggest that the Bible reworked the throne tent ideologically, with God displacing Ramesses the Great as the most powerful force of the time.” Berman made his analogy between the Tabernacle and Ramesses military headquarters to show the Egyptian influence in subsequent Israelite behavior.
So where did Bezaleel and Aholiab, and the others, gain their wisdom and knowledge to build the Tabernacle? The Battle of Kadesh, between the forces of Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire at the city of Kadesh near the modern border between Lebanon and Syria, is generally dated to 1274 BC. This battle took place about the time of the Exodus. The Kadesh inscriptions show the Battle Compound of Ramesses II, but what if this battle compound was not unique to the Battle of Kadesh, but was a more common Egyptian battle compound arrangement? And what if skilled workers, such as Bezaleel and Aholiab were familiar with this type of movable camp arrangement?
How was the wisdom to build the Tabernacle gained? Job says (28:28), “And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.” We are told in Ecclesiastes (2:21) that we have to work for wisdom. “For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.”
We also are told in Proverbs (2:1-6) that gaining wisdom takes a lot of work and dedication, “My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding.”
When the Israelites settled in Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple there, we are told in 1 Kings 7:13-14, 40, 44-46 that he sent for someone who was already well-trained and skilled at casting brass to make the baptismal font and the twelve oxen beneath it: “…king Solomon sent and fetched Hiram out of Tyre. He was a widow’s son of the tribe of Naphtali, and his father was a man of Tyre, a worker in brass: and he was filled with wisdom, and understanding, and cunning to work all works in brass. And he came to king Solomon, and wrought all his work. And Hiram made the lavers, and the shovels, and the basins…And one sea, and twelve oxen under the sea; And the pots, and the shovels, and the basins: and all these vessels, which Hiram made to king Solomon for the house of the Lord, were of bright brass. In the plain of Jordan did the king cast them, in the clay ground between Succoth and Zarthan.”
We are told in Doctrine and Covenants 88:118, “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” This revelation tells us that we can gain wisdom by studying the “best books.” Those books include books on architecture. No modern temple is designed or constructed without the guidance of well-educated architects, as well as hard work and dedication. The revelation just cited was given in December 1832 and January 1833 in relation to the commandment to build the Kirtland Temple: (119) “Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God…”
However, by June 1833, nothing had been done toward construction of the House of the Lord. So the Savior came down hard on Joseph Smith and the Church members, (Doctrine and Covenants 95:3) “For ye have sinned against me a very grievous sin, in that ye have not considered the great commandment in all things, that I have given unto you concerning the building of mine house…”
The exterior design of the Kirtland Temple was not much different from the design of New England churches of the time. However, the interior was unique. Here is what the Savior told Joseph Smith about that temple: (Doctrine and Covenants 95:13-14), “Now here is wisdom, and the mind of the Lord—let the house be built, not after the manner of the world, for I give not unto you that ye shall live after the manner of the world; Therefore, let it be built after the manner which I shall show unto three of you, whom ye shall appoint and ordain unto this power.” He then continued with a description of the interior of the temple: (15-17), “And the size thereof shall be fifty and five feet in width, and let it be sixty-five feet in length, in the inner court thereof. And let the lower part of the inner court be dedicated unto me for your sacrament offering, and for your preaching, and your fasting, and your praying, and the offering up of your most holy desires unto me, saith your Lord. And let the higher part of the inner court be dedicated unto me for the school of mine apostles, saith Son Ahman; or, in other words, Alphus; or, in other words, Omegus; even Jesus Christ your Lord. Amen.”
According to the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), “The Kirtland Temple was built between 1833 and 1836 by members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons, led by charismatic prophet, Joseph Smith. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Chagrin River Valley to the east, the Temple is a blend of the classical and Gothic revivals. Typical of period houses of worship and reflecting the New England roots of its builders and their use of carpenter-builder’s manuals, the Temple is rectangular in plan with a centered, prominent bell tower. Architectural features and interior woodwork are influenced by Asher Benjamin’s American Builder’s Companion (1806) and The Practical House Carpenter (1830).” According to that source, the designers were: “Joseph Smith Jr., Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams, designers; Artemus Millet, Jacob Bump, and Truman O. Angell, designers.” (sah-archipedia.org/buildings/OH-01-085-0017) Artemus Millet was especially called and set apart to oversee the construction.
Typical New England church building.
The Lord always calls great craftsmen and artists to do the work on His temples. We can see this principle at work in the first modern temple built in Utah. Margaret Cannon told the following story about the St. George Temple Baptismal Font in the 1995 Utah Historical Quarterly (63:151-157, issuu.com/utah10/docs/uhq_volume63_1995_number2/s/165459; Retrieved 2 May 2022) “Amos Howe was born in New York but moved to St. Louis with his family 1842 when he was twelve. There he apprenticed in the pattern shop of a large foundry and machine shop. He also took night classes from an engineer who worked in the same shop. As a result, Howe was trained in foundry and pattern-making as well as in the profession of engineering. He could calculate stress and tension on what was produced, helping to ensure a suitable product. He was such a successful student that by age nineteen he was made superintendent of the large shops where he had trained.”
“About this same time Howe was introduced to the Mormon church by one of his subordinates at the foundry. He was baptized in 1850 and married Julia Cruse, an English convert living in St. Louis...Amos went into the foundry business with William H. Stone [and the]… company they ran together was ‘the largest Foundry and Machine works west of the Mississippi River’... [in 1864] Howe decided to come West [to Utah].” Stone later wrote of Howe, “‘Few men had opportunities that Mr. Howe had to make themselves masters of their professions, and I can with confidence say to you that when we dissolved partnership but few were his equal and none superior, in the practical management of a Foundry and Machine Shop.’”
In Salt Lake City, Howe joined with Nathan Davis to establish a large foundry there. Cannon continued, “An article published in the Deseret News on July 17, 1875, extolled the Davis-Howe Foundry: ‘Their facilities for heavy casting and machine work are quite extensive.’ The account also reported on the progress of the baptismal font [for the St. George Temple]. By this time six of the twelve life-sized oxen that were to support the font had been finished, being first made in wood, then cast in iron. The writer said, ‘The modeller has done his work well, the imitation being excellent, and the castings are trim and neat.’ …The bottom [of the font] weighs about twenty-nine hundred pounds, and the sides about one ton.” Probably no other foundry, and no other craftsman could have cast such a massive structure in Utah at the time. “The font and oxen…were shipped in parts on the Utah Southern Railroad, probably as far as Spanish Fork. The rest of the way it was transported in three specially built oxen-drawn wagons…”
In an October 1988 Ensign article entitled, “Harvesting the Light: The 1890 Paris Art Mission,” Giles Florence, Jr. stated, “When Latter-day Saints made the Rocky Mountains their refuge in the West, they saw painting and sculpture as integral to their efforts to bring culture, grace, and beauty to their growing settlement.”
“Unfortunately, LDS artists who wished to contribute to that beautification were isolated from the cultural centers where their skills and gifts could be refined. Consequently, in 1890, two LDS artists, John Hafen and Lorus Pratt (son of Orson Pratt), hit upon a solution. They went to the Church and requested financial assistance so that they and several other promising artists could receive the training they needed. In exchange, they would paint murals in the temples and render other art services.”
“President George Q. Cannon, of the First Presidency, informed Brothers Hafen and Pratt in June of 1890 that their proposal had been accepted. Three artists—John Hafen, Lorus Pratt, and John B. Fairbanks (father of sculptor Avard Fairbanks)—were soon set apart as art missionaries and sent to Paris; Edwin Evans joined them three months later, and Herman Hugo Haag arrived the next year.”
“Evidence that these missionaries devoted their talents to the Lord and wished to use them in his service was well demonstrated by John Hafen: ‘Being a firm believer that the highest possible development of talent is a duty we owe to our Creator, I made it a matter of prayer for many years that He would open a way whereby I could receive that training which would befit me to decorate His holy temples and the habitations of Zion.’” (churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1988/10/harvesting-the-light-the-1890-paris-art-mission?lang=eng)
Hafen was the first of those missionaries to return to Utah and began work at the Salt Lake City Temple, using his skills and training to start painting the murals in the Garden Room. He wrote to the other missionaries, petitioning them to return and help in painting the murals. Pratt, Fairbanks, and Evans returned, and together they finished the Garden and World Room murals in time for the temple’s opening.
So why wouldn’t the Tabernacle have been designed after that of some other structure, such as the movable Battle Compound of Ramesses II? We can assume that Bezaleel and Aholiab gained their wisdom to design the Tabernacle by a lot of hard work and diligence, and by learning from existing structures of the time. The same principals apply to our beautiful temples today. The architects are highly trained individuals, who have worked hard to gain the skills, wisdom and knowledge necessary to build the modern Houses of the Lord. Just look at the Salt Lake City Temple, for example, it was built with great skill and wisdom at the time – the end of the nineteenth century, but the architects knew nothing of our modern understanding of how to make a building earth-quake resistant. Now the Salt Lake City Temple is being retrofitted with a new earth-quake resistant foundation. God directs His people and Church by revelation, but that revelation is also built upon the wisdom and knowledge gained by talented, God-fearing people who have put in the time, effort, and hard work to gain their wisdom and skills.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD