Tabernacle: A Theological Metaphor for the Family (Jan-Feb 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by Ryan Noel Fraser
January – February, 2004

The days of the “traditional family,” comprised of Mom, Dad and the kids, are seemingly drawing to a rapid end. But is the so-called “traditional family” really traditional after all? Is this to be the only norm, the only yardstick by which all families ought to be measured? And how will families survive today’s threat to the structural integrity of a traditional family?

It seems that, in the past two hundred years, our American paradigm for “normal” families has actually been somewhat of a misnomer, when one considers the actual data on families beginning in the Garden of Eden and down through history. Haven’t families from time immemorial been asymmetrically configured by their very structure and diversity? Historically families have been anything but normative by our standard of thinking. This may come as a surprise to you, but the American “traditional family” is hard to find in the pages of the Bible. What we find are several accounts of polygamous households within a patrilineal, hierarchical-type structure. In some cases, there are those like Abraham who had one or more concubines. There is Jacob with his two wives and two concubines with children from each one of them. Today’s blended-families can’t hold a candle to some of the famous messy family-systems in the Old Testament, including that of King David’s and Solomon’s. New Testament households are comprised of both blood-relatives and slaves such as Philemon’s family and Onesimus sharing the same roof (Phil 10). Some of the households we find were led by capable and industrious women such as Lydia (Acts 16:14-15).

Today’s families come in all shapes and sizes, due, in part, to the continual rise of divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy in our culture. Each week as ministers throughout the land stand behind pulpits delivering their sermons, they look out, as I do, into the faces of people who come from every conceivable type of family configuration. There are no doubt a few “traditional” type families, but most are either stepfamilies, single-parent households, people “shacking up” (who often don’t realize their preacher knows that they are), gay/lesbian couples, some families with children, others without, some grandparent and even great-grandparent run families where the older relatives are parenting their grandchildren or great-grandkids. In light of all these demographic variances, what do we mean when we say “family”? If we are to dig deeper in the wellspring of God’s word, is there any insight and guidance for families being constructed, deconstructed, or reconstructed in this new era? Is there any theological metaphor we may be able to draw upon to gain some clarity and enlightenment in the face of such familial and relational ambiguity? I believe there is. I will briefly explain the function of the Tabernacle in the life of Israel then explain how Tabernacle can become a metaphor for family life today.

Towards a Tabernacle Theology of Family
Rising up from the desert wasteland, surrounded by a teeming throng of humanity and covered by a mysterious cloud of glory by day that held the semblance of fire by night, there it stood—the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was the centerpiece and core of Israel’s religious life signifying God’s continual presence with them. Even though they had been kept out of the Promised Land for forty years because of their rebellious hearts, still God was willing to protect and accompany them. So the Tabernacle is often called the “tent of meeting” (i.e., between God and man) and “the dwelling place” (of God).

Yahweh wanted to initiate fellowship, an intimate relationship, with Israel and to be able to personally communicate with them (Exod 25:22). The Tabernacle and its courtyard were constructed according to a very deliberate, purposeful pattern designed by God, not Moses. Each time Israel camped (cf. Num 1:50-2:23), the Levites erected the Tabernacle, its entrance always facing toward the east. It stood at the center of the camp, with the Levites’ tents surrounding it on all four sides. Behind them were pitched the tents of the twelve tribes of Israel, three tribes on each side.

The tent was divided into two spaces inside. The smaller one, furthest from the entrance, was called the “holy of holies” or the “most holy place.” Only the high priest, once a year, was allowed to enter the “holy of holies.” A linen curtain separated this from the larger room, which was simply called “the holy place.” The entrance to it was covered by another embroidered linen curtain (Exod 25-27; 30:1-10, 17-21). The precious, cultic furniture located within the tabernacle included, most importantly, the Ark of the Covenant with the Mercy Seat, then also, the Altar of Incense, the Golden Lampstand, the Table of Shewbread (Bread of Presence), the Bronze Laver, and the Altar of Burnt Offering (Bronze Altar).

The Tabernacle was a symbol, a mere shadow of the ultimate reality, namely the heavenly sanctuary where God dwells in all the fullness of His glory, enthroned between the cherubim. Hebrews 8:1-5 reveals to us that the real Tabernacle is in heaven where Jesus Himself serves as our high priest. The earthly tent was designed to capture the people’s spiritual imagination and fill them with hope and eschatological expectation. As we contemplate the Tabernacle in its purpose, construction, and characteristics, we are able to employ it as a powerful, positive and poignant theological metaphor for the family.

There are several profound ways in which the family ought to bear a resemblance to the Tabernacle. Four such theological comparisons or similarities now follow.

1. Family’s Orientation within Community
Like the Tabernacle, the family is to be contained or enclosed within the community, while still maintaining its own individual identity. It is differentiated systemically from the whole, though still forming an integral part of the overall composition. It is a distinctive community existing within a larger community. Furthermore, the family is comprised of individuals in community, who maintain their own unique individuality. Like the tapestry comprised of individual spools of diversely colored and textured yarn, carefully woven into a beautiful and elaborate design, so is the family a weaving of individual lives into one majestic masterpiece—complete, exquisite, and resiliently strong when creatively and ingeniously synthesized together.

As in the regulations of the Tabernacle, systemically the family must define and uphold certain needed constraints (or boundaries) as to access by the surrounding community. Systems that are too open or permeable run the risk of allowing in dangerous and destructive elements. Systems that are too closed are in danger of isolation that prevents opportunity for growth and ministry. The family needs to maintain its rightful autonomy and freedom within the context of society and community, regulating movement through its gates from both directions so as to keep itself “clean” or “unpolluted” from the world.

What types of influences by means of illicit human relationships or through the mass media and internet are we allowing to penetrate and permeate our families? Are our families being built up or torn down by the stimuli we are letting in? These questions speak powerfully to our spousal and parental responsibilities to serve as the gatekeepers that regulate and carefully filter the two-way traffic, which is either attempting to enter or exit at our gates. So, like the Tabernacle, our families help define our existence in the world and in our faith community.

2. Family’s Origin & Way of Being
Correlating to the Tabernacle, the family too is created (or designed) by God but constructed and fashioned by humans. And God evidently has a broad set of parameters for what it is that constitutes a family. The family possesses freedom of form while maintaining the capacity for beauty and efficient functionality. Also, in parallel to the Tabernacle, the family is capable of mobility making it portable. It is designed as a temporal structure, which can be shifted from one locality to another, all the while maintaining its essential identity and structural integrity.

Another parallel to the Tabernacle is that the family also calls people into relationship and unity in the midst of pluralism and diversity. Interconnectedness, interdependence, mutuality, and reciprocity describe its form or mode of relationship between individual members. Each part is needed to maintain balance and symbiosis for the whole system. Its constitution is comprised out of more than simply the sum of its individual parts. No, it indeed has a transcendent quality that cannot be defined in mere material or quantitative terms. Between the individual parts there are corresponding degrees of intimacy based upon the particular status and role of each member. There is a progressively narrowed or limited access as one moves toward the innermost sanctuary (i.e., master bedroom) where the mystical union transpires. The acting out of intimacy (sexuality) is in fact the outgrowth of a spiritual oneness which affects the entire family-system, breathing into it new energy, vibrancy and life.

Just as only the high priest was allowed access to the “holy of holies,” and anyone else would die who presumed to enter into this most sacred chamber, so the marital bed is only lawfully permissible and intended for those joined as one flesh before God (cf. Heb 13:4; Gen 2:24; Mt 19:5). If anyone external to this sacred relationship enters into the bed, thus defiling it, a spiritual death will occur if deep remorse and repentance is lacking afterward. And even with repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation there is a fundamental change that occurs in the marital relationship as faith has irreversibly been broken. Because of these truths, the family is to be simultaneously an inclusive and exclusive institution by its very ontological nature. God designed the family to be this way in order to protect and preserve its survival.

3. Family’s Purpose in Glorifying God
As in the case of the Tabernacle, the family is to be characterized by continual worship and sacrifice (Rom 12:1-2; Eph 5:22-33). The twist in the mysterious plot is that the participants themselves are, in fact, the “living sacrifices” in this case giving freely and fully of their love, commitment, energy, talents, and time to God’s service. The family is in this way a living Tabernacle to God, sanctified and holy. It is consecrated by God for this very purpose.

Similar to the cultic rites instituted and practiced within the Tabernacle, the family also goes about perpetuating, as well as cultivating, its own unique rituals, corporate rules and meaningful traditions. This culture of belief and orthopraxis is imparted from one generation to the next. Celebration, comfort, confession and community are expressed within its precincts providing spiritual support and religious identity—a heritage or legacy that will live on.

The family that experiences meaningful times of devotion and worship in the informal, intimate setting of its home is certainly blessed. When families engage in collective spiritual service, the ripple effects are ultimately felt throughout the furthest reaches of the kingdom of God. Moreover, the impact or reverberations of the godly actions and counteractions resonate throughout the entirety of both the physical and spiritual realms. Hence, the family is able to fulfill its intended existential purpose in glorifying God.

4. Family’s Saving and Eternal Significance
In like fashion to the Tabernacle, the family too is connotative of God’s holy and sacred presence sanctifying humanity. There is thus an incarnational significance to the family by which God’s triune image is to be fleshed out for the world to see. Very much like the Tabernacle, the family is also a copy (or foreshadowing symbol) of the type being the communal, spiritual family in heaven where the fullness of God is experienced.

For this reason, the image of the family carries with it an eschatological significance pointing to the “now” and the “not yet.” Intrinsic and implicit to the theology of family is that of future expectation and hope. In a way, the family forms a microcosm providing a glimpse of the entire saved, spiritual community in the City of God. The soteriological significance of the family must include the cleansing of sins or trespasses between members as confession is made and forgiveness is freely offered in return. Thus, the case may ostensibly and creatively be made that the family is a visible sacrament, which serves as a continual reminder and conduit of God’s presence and grace. In this way, the family carries with it the ultimate purpose of sanctifying humanity as it permeates the society with God’s Spirit of love and peace.

Conclusion
The Tabernacle of Israel’s religious cult serves us well as an ideal theological metaphor carrying the power to redefine, reframe, and redignify the spiritual image of family. The family, for all intents and purposes, appears to be a shadow of a far greater spiritual reality—the household of God! We are able to draw teleological, ontological, liturgical, and soteriological parallels between the Tabernacle and the family, which can inform, strengthen, and shape our theology of the family as it moves forward towards its perfect, glorious consummation at the eschaton. Exodus 40:34 (NIV) says, “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” My heart’s prayer is that the Lord’s glory may fill each of our families so that we may become as a holy and living Tabernacle consecrated to Him in this world!New Wineskins

Ryan FraserRyan Noel Fraser was raised in Cape Town, South Africa on the mission field. He attended Freed-Hardeman University earning a B.A. in Bible (’89) and a Master of Ministry (’91). He is happily married to his college sweetheart, Missy. Ryan has been in ministry for fifteen years and presently serves as preacher for the Henrietta Church of Christ. Ryan and Missy are the adoptive parents of three children, R.C., Olivia, and Austin. Ryan completed his M.Div. at ACU in 2002 and began work on a Ph.D. at Brite Divinity School, TCU (Fort Worth) in Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Counseling.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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