3.3.8 Acacia: Mortal Life
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3.8
Acacia: Mortal Life
While studying the acacia tree, I was transported back to my Baptist youth, in a way. It’s sort of like sitting in church singing “Just As I Am”—seven verses, and they’re all pretty much the same. Almost all of the Biblical mentions of the acacia tree have to do with the wilderness tabernacle—either its structure or its furniture. In this case, it’s the wood itself—that which is made from the tree’s “body” after it’s cut down—that forms the basis of the symbol. The acacia’s significance is revealed not through its stature, nor its fruit, but only through the sacrifice of the living tree.
Immediately after the exodus, Yahweh told Moses that He wanted the people to contribute a wide range of materials that they either had with them or could get on their travels. “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for Me.” First, the contribution toward the tabernacle’s construction was entirely voluntary: this was not a tax, or even a tithe. Second, everything that Yahweh asked for was something that He, one way or another, had already provided: “And this is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats’ hair, rams’ skins dyed red, goatskins [or more correctly, porpoise hides], acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece….” I can’t be dogmatic, but the acacia wood seems to be the only thing on the list that wouldn’t have been carried out of Egypt in any great quantity, but was rather available in the wilderness.
“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” The sanctuary wasn’t for Yahweh at all, of course. It was for us—a means by which we could come to understand the relationship that exists between God and man. The specific room said to be the “dwelling place” of Yahweh was a cube ten cubits (about fifteen feet) on each side. Needless to say, you can’t “contain” the Creator of the universe in a place like that—but you can meet Him there if He ordains it. “Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.” (Exodus 25:1-9) The Israelites had been “hired” as the contractors on this job, but Yahweh was the Architect: this was His design. The “foreman,” Moses, was shown God’s blueprint on Mount Horeb, and he was charged with requisitioning materials, recruiting and supervising the crew, and overseeing the operation of the complex when its construction was complete. God’s design (the Torah) encompassed more than just the physical tabernacle, more than just its furnishings, more than the physical accoutrements the priests would use and wear in the performance of their duties. It included the directions for what was to go on here—the sacrifices, offerings, rituals, and schedule that Israel was to observe from this point forward, throughout their generations.
To an outside observer, it might have all looked suspiciously like any other man-made religion, but it was nothing of the sort. It was, rather, a complex, multi-layered pantomime—complete with its own dedicated theater and props—designed to teach us all, Jews and gentiles alike, what Yahweh was doing in our world to reconcile lost humanity to Himself. That’s why the pattern had to be followed exactly. Israel was the intended “cast and crew” of this production, and the gentile nations were the intended audience. Of course, if Israel didn’t follow the Plan, it would be incredibly difficult for anyone else to understand the plot.
But here at the beginning, all of that was opaque and mysterious, even to Moses. No problem: he knew the Architect and knew how to follow instructions, so “Moses said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, ‘This is the thing that Yahweh has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to Yahweh. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring Yahweh’s contribution: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats’ hair, rams’ skins dyed red, and porpoise skins, acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece….” Having received their assignments, the exodus generation got busy. “Then all the congregation of the people of Israel departed from the presence of Moses. And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him, and brought Yahweh’s contribution to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments….” At this point, they didn’t know they were going to wander in the wilderness for forty years. So it’s ironic that those who were “moved by the spirit” of greed instead of gratitude for Yahweh, whose hearts were “stirred” to horde their wealth instead of contributing it to Yahweh’s sanctuary project, were thereby doomed to lugging their treasures around with them through the desert until they dropped dead from sheer exhaustion. But we get the impression that most of the Israelites were—as they should have been—enthusiastic participants: “Everyone who could make a contribution of silver or bronze brought it as Yahweh’s contribution. And every one who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work brought it.” (Exodus 35:4-9, 20-21, 24)
The wood exclusively specified for use in the tabernacle, the acacia, is also known as Umbrella Thorn or Israeli Babool. It’s the familiar canopy-shaped tree indigenous from the savannahs of Eastern Africa to Egypt and throughout the Middle East. The Hebrew designation is shittah, the plural of which is shittim, as the acacia is called in the KJV (much to the amusement of generations of pre-adolescent Bible students). Given enough water, these trees can grow as high as sixty feet, though in extremely arid regions they reach only a third of that height. The acacia tree yielded a beautiful, dense, close grained wood with an orange color that darkened with age. It was prized for its insect resistance, making it a popular choice for mummy cases in Egypt, and of course, the carpenters among the Israelite expatriates would have been very familiar with it.
The name of the tree also identified a place—Shittim, alternately rendered “Acacia Grove”—directly across from Jericho on the east bank of the Jordan, in the land of Moab. The Israelites were encamped there for some time. This was where the scheme of Balaam to compromise the Israelites’ ties to Yahweh by having the Moabite women seduce them over to the “dark side” (as it were) took place. “While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel.” (Numbers 25:1-3) A bit later, Acacia Grove served as the base of operations as Israel prepared to invade Canaan as Yahweh had directed: “And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, ‘Go, view the land, especially Jericho.’” (Joshua 2:1)
But this was forty years and two hundred miles from where the tabernacle had first been built. The acacia wood instructions begin with the ark of the covenant. “They shall make an ark of acacia wood.” An “ark” (Hebrew ’arown) was simply a box, a chest, or even a coffin. “Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height.” A cubit was about eighteen inches, so the ark measured 45 inches long, 27 inches wide, and 27 inches deep. “You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it….” This is where the symbology really starts to get interesting. The ark of the covenant—among several pieces that were to reside in the tabernacle—was made of wood, but it was to be entirely covered with pure gold. Something living had been cut down—slain to meet the needs of men—but it was then enveloped in precious metal, incorruptible and immutable.
It’s all a picture of our Redeemer, our Life, Yahshua the Messiah. First, He took on human flesh—in itself an unimaginable act of humility for the Creator of the universe to make. Then He “planted Himself” in a dry and thirsty land—the wilderness of lost humanity. In so doing, He made himself available for our use—or abuse. What we “make of” Christ is the measure of our faith: having “cut Him down” at Calvary, we could (conceivably) leave Him to rot on the ground, use Him as firewood, fashion a weapon, a tool, or even a dead idol out of Him—or we could do with Him as Yahweh instructed: make a box in which He would contain all of our iniquity within Himself. But this box, this ark, couldn’t be left in its “natural” state, for our Messiah is no longer confined to a mortal human paradigm, living or dead. No, the gold overlay indicates that for those of us who follow Yahweh’s Instructions, our Savior will henceforth be seen only in glory: the gold indicates His immutable purity. And the ironic fact is that if we are “in Christ,” we too become covered—in our case, atoned—with the same gold overlay, the same unassailable goodness that defines His true nature. In other words, we can become sinless in God’s eyes by virtue of Yahshua’s sinlessness.
From this point, the design continues to exude symbolic imagery, though it’s a little hard to see in the English. “You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet [i.e., bases or pedestals], two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it….” First, note that the golden rings were to be attached to the “feet” of the ark. “Feet” is the Hebrew pa’am, correctly translated here in the ESV, but often mistranslated “corners.” The word choice is significant: while the idea of attaching the rings to the supporting legs of the ark is literally intended, we should note that pa’am—feet—primarily means “the conduct of one’s life, formally, a footstep, i.e., the patterns of behavior as a figurative extension of a stepping of a foot forward.” (Dictionary of Biblical Languages) So the ark of humanity’s atonement can be carried through the world only by using golden rings, implements that are intimately associated with the “walk” or conduct of Yahweh’s people. No pressure or anything, guys.
The acacia wood “poles” or “staves” that are placed through the gold rings also bear a closer look. “You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold.” Once again, it’s a picture of mortal life encased in Christ’s incorruptible purity. “And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.” (Exodus 25:10-16) The Hebrew term translated “pole” is bad, which actually means “alone, by oneself, isolated—the only entity in a class.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes: “Positively, the word is used of the Lord’s incomparability and uniqueness in His exclusive claim to deity as seen in His extraordinary works....The word also has a negative connotation when a man is abandoned by his community or by God. Thus the unclean leper must suffer alone, apart from human fellowship.” So the word translated “pole” is a concept at its heart akin to the familiar qodesh—holy, or set apart—but it also points out the loneliness associated with being abandoned. Does Yahshua’s quote, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” ring any bells? In the humanity of his sacrifice, Yahshua found Himself bad—utterly alone.
So how do we get “poles” out of that? The plural of the word, baddim, picks up the connotation of being extended from something that stands alone, so it’s properly used of members, limbs, branches, or poles. The reason the poles are left attached, then, is that they are extensions of that which is unique and alone—i.e., Yahweh’s Messiah. And who are these “extensions” who are not to be separated from Him? The poles refer to us. We believers are the means by which Yahshua the Messiah is “carried” to the world. We are never to be removed from His presence. (In point of fact, we can’t be, for the Holy Spirit dwells within us.) This reinforces the concept we saw above that our walk through the world—our righteous conduct—is how we are “attached,” so to speak, to that which contains, covers, and conceals our sins, that is, the ark.
And what about the golden rings themselves? As in English, the Hebrew word for “ring” (tabba’ath) can mean both a round implement used for fastening or carrying things (as it’s used here), or a finger-ring—specifically, a signet ring used by a monarch to seal and authenticate a document or decree. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see the four “rings”—attached to the four “feet” of the ark, through which were placed the gold-covered acacia-wood staves—as that which made the promise of our redemption “official.” It’s like Yahweh told Zerubbabel: “On that day, declares Yahweh of hosts, I will take you… and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares Yahweh of hosts.” (Haggai 2:23) It is significant, perhaps, that a signet ring functions by making an impression on a wax seal. If Yahweh’s Holy Spirit is what “seals” us for His purpose, then the impression made by God’s signet ring is what authenticates, verifies, and validates us as we carry Yahweh’s offer of redemption to the world. The bad news for our adversaries is that breaking the King’s seal without His authorization is a capital offense.
So Moses was instructed to make a chest out of acacia wood and cover it with gold. The lid resting atop the ark (called the “mercy seat”) is of immense significance, but alas, beyond the scope of our present topic. However, since he once again mentioned acacia wood in the account, Moses’ summary of what was to be placed into the ark can be considered germane. “At that time Yahweh said to me, ‘Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain and make an ark of wood. And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets that you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.’” The first set of tablets upon which Yahweh had personally inscribed the Ten Commandments had, if you’ll recall, been thrown down in anger by Moses when he saw the people worshipping the golden calf. It was probably the only time Yahweh ever supported “breaking the Law.” Graciously, He gave Moses a do-over: “So I made an ark of acacia wood, and cut two tablets of stone like the first, and went up the mountain with the two tablets in my hand. And He wrote on the tablets, in the same writing as before, the Ten Commandments that Yahweh had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And Yahweh gave them to me. Then I turned and came down from the mountain and put the tablets in the ark that I had made. And there they are, as Yahweh commanded me.” (Deuteronomy 10:1-5) According to Hebrews 9:4, the ark also contained Aaron’s rod that budded (Numbers 17:10) and a pot of manna (Exodus 16:33-34).
If we look at this from a strictly symbolic point of view, a clearer view of God’s truth may begin to emerge. The ark, as we have seen, is a metaphor for Christ (the Living One who was cut down on our behalf in order to contain our sins and reign in pure, immutable glory). If we are “in Him,” our sins are atoned—covered—with the same golden overlay that defines Yahshua as our Lord and King. But three other things have been placed in the ark with us. (1) Aaron’s rod that budded indicates Yahweh’s role as the source of life—a role that was brought to bear in confirming the anointing of His servant Moses, and conversely, in denying the authority of men over men, no matter how reasonable or logical their arguments might sound. (See Numbers 16 and 17.) It seems to me that we ought to get out Aaron’s rod and parade it around every election year, just to remind us that God, not men, are in charge; but alas, I fear that nobody would get it.
(2) The manna placed in the ark should be a poignant reminder of Yahweh’s constant provision. If you’ll recall, we discussed manna at length in Volume 1, in the chapter exploring Bread as one of Yahweh’s self-revealing symbols. Having designed us, Yahweh knows that we have physical needs, and obtaining those needs is an exercise in trust—either of God or something inferior to Him: ourselves, other people, or blind chance. That being said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3)
That brings us to ark-stuffer (3), the Instructions—the Torah (or at least the heart and summary of it, the Ten Commandments). If the ark represents Christ, then we must come to terms with the idea that Yahweh’s commandments are “in Him.” Somewhere along the road, Christianity (as a religion) somehow picked up the odd notion that the Torah was obsolete. It’s probably a misreading of Paul, who merely pointed out that the Torah was never designed to save anybody—which is perfectly true. That doesn’t mean it’s obsolete or of no value, however. Its function is the same as it always was: to point the way to Christ, Yahweh’s Anointed Redeemer. So the tablets with the Ten Commandments were placed in the ark to demonstrate that God’s Law rests in our Messiah. If we want to be in compliance with them (as we should), we must be “in Christ” as well.
The ark of the covenant wasn’t the only thing made of acacia wood and covered with gold to be found in the tabernacle. We see much of the same imagery in the construction of the table of showbread, also known as the table of the bread of the presence. “You shall make a table of acacia wood. Two cubits shall be its length, a cubit its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height.” In other words, a table surface of 36 by 18 inches, standing 27 inches tall. These pieces aren’t very big, considering their massive symbolic significance. “You shall overlay it with pure gold and make a molding of gold around it…. You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold, and the table shall be carried with these.” (Exodus 25:23-24, 28) It’s a table this time, not a box, but the symbology is virtually identical: living wood, cut down and fashioned into something that is used to honor Yahweh, covered with immutable gold, affixed with rings (v. 26), and carried about with staves made of acacia wood overlaid with gold.
I would direct your attention to Volume 1 for a detailed discussion of what the “bread of the presence” signified. Suffice it to say that here, the object isn’t in the tabernacle furniture (as it was in the ark of the covenant) but rests upon it. Why? Because this time, we’re not talking about individual believers being “in Christ,” but rather on two parallel institutions or “corporate entities”—Israel and the church—both of whom rest on, and are supported by, Yahshua the Messiah (even if Israel doesn’t know it yet). The key is the mandated arrangement of the unleavened “loaves” (think of pita bread, round and rather flat—not the sliced rectangular “blocks” of bread we’re used to). These loaves were to be arranged in two rows or piles of six loaves each, side by side. The two rows were each to be sprinkled separately with frankincense—indicative (you’ll recall) of purity through sacrifice. Why separately? Because the church and Israel would attain their imputed purity at different times, and in different ways, even though it’s the same purity, derived from the same source—Yahweh’s Messiah.
In terms of Yahweh’s annual calendar, the requisite purity was provided for all of us on the Feast of Unleavened Bread (which must be considered in the context of both Passover and the Feast of Firstfruits). But the church received it almost two thousand years ago, on Pentecost (a.k.a. the Feast of Weeks) that same year, and our functional tenure upon the earth will expire with the very next convocation on the schedule, the definitive Feast of Trumpets. The nation of Israel, on the other hand, hasn’t yet been “sprinkled with frankincense.” Remember that Israel’s mission in the earth, as defined in Daniel 9:24-27, still has seven prophetic “years” (of 360 days each) yet to run: the “time of Jacob’s trouble,” as it’s called. Israel as a nation won’t become pure until the definitive Day of Atonement—a date that will fall within those final seven years, something still (obviously) in the future. However, once that happens, both groups will enter the Millennial Kingdom of Christ, walking side by side in fellowship, purity, and reverence for Yahweh. Functionally, our respective jobs will be completed.
Same song, third verse: the altar of incense. “You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth. It shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height.” This one is 18 inches square, and three feet tall—about the size of a bedside nightstand. “Its horns shall be of one piece with it. You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and around its sides and its horns….” These are horn-shaped protrusions at the four corners of the altar, upon which sacrificial blood was to be applied on occasion. “And you shall make a molding of gold around it. And you shall make two golden rings for it. Under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold….”
With the ark of the covenant, you’ll recall, the poles were never to be removed from the rings, but this was not the case with either the altar of incense or the table of showbread. The reason, apparently, is that these last two pieces didn’t directly represent the fact that we were to be “in Christ,” inseparable from Him. The table of showbread speaks of God’s provision of life and purity to both Israel and the church, where (unfortunately) it is possible to separate ourselves from God by ignoring or denying His word and His Spirit. And the altar of incense is a picture of how we (as individuals or as a congregation) may approach Yahweh through prayer: “And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is above the testimony, where I will meet with you. And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it.” (Exodus 30:1-7) Here too, we note with chagrin that our prayers can be hindered through our own faithlessness. But these clouds of incense, filling the tabernacle, were symbolic of our faithful prayers—which are, after all, the only way that we may approach the dwelling place of God. Where? Figuratively, it was beyond the veil in the Most Holy Place, between the two cherubim atop the mercy seat covering the ark of the covenant. As I said, you can’t contain God in a fifteen square foot room—but you can meet Him there.
It’s worth noting that only the acacia-wood articles used in the tabernacle service were to be carried with poles. Neither the solid gold lampstand nor the bronze laver were equipped with rings and poles, removable or not. This fact compels us to revisit the imagery of the poles and their relationship to what they were used to carry. If you’ll recall, the etymology of the word translated “poles” (baddim) led us (well, me) to the conclusion that they’re “extended from something that stands alone.” That “something” is Christ—of whom we believers are extensions or representatives in this world: we are the staves. Add to that the fact that they’re made of acacia wood—something once alive that was cut down and covered in gold or bronze for the service of the sanctuary—and our function as believers is confirmed: we are to be the means by which the Messiah, through the Good News of the salvation He provided for us, is to be carried to the world. In other words, God isn’t going to speak to the lost directly, nor is He going to send angelic messengers (until we’re long gone, that is: see Revelation 14:6). He used Israel for fifteen hundred years, and for the last two thousand or so He’s been employing the church, Christ’s “called-out assembly” (which includes both gentile and Jewish saints). God’s “reliance” on either group to present His Messiah to the world would seem to be, at the very least, less than efficient (and at the worst, a recipe for disaster). But that’s kind of the point: the benefit of being “used” by God falls not only on the lost, but on the saved as well. It’s like us letting our four-year-olds “help” in the kitchen baking a birthday cake. It would be easier (and decidedly less messy) without them, but we’d find the final product missing a crucial ingredient: love.
But why, then, aren’t the lampstand and laver carried about with poles? It’s because what they represent doesn’t picture the work of the Messiah, per se, but rather another of Yahweh’s manifestations among us, the Holy Spirit. In the case of the laver (which follows the altar), the cleansing of our works and walk is subsequent to our salvation—it’s the work of Yahweh’s Spirit in our lives, not our own efforts. And the golden lampstand is there to shed light on God’s provision (the table of showbread)—again, the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is living, but it’s not mortal, nor was the Spirit “cut down” as part of Yahweh’s plan for our salvation. Only those articles directly representing Yahshua are equipped with rings and poles—signifying that He is to be presented to the world by His saints. Remember what I observed a thousand pages back: form follows function.
And there is one more wrinkle to this that bears mention: with two staves each for the altar, the table of showbread, the altar of incense, and the ark of the covenant, it becomes clear that teamwork is required in bringing the Gospel to the lost. No one person, not Paul, not Augustine, Wycliffe, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, or even me is able (or expected) to carry the whole load. All of us are but team members—runners, if you will, in the great relay race of life. If one of us falls, we all suffer, as do those in the stands (the world) watching us. We all need to uphold and strengthen each other.
The tabernacle was commonly characterized as a “tent,” because of the fabric and leather strips that comprised its covering. But it was actually a solid-walled pre-fab acacia-wood structure, designed to be taken apart and put back together as the need arose: some assembly required. The Instructions state: “You shall make upright frames for the tabernacle of acacia wood. Ten cubits shall be the length of a frame, and a cubit and a half the breadth of each frame. There shall be two tenons in each frame, for fitting together. So shall you do for all the frames of the tabernacle. You shall make the frames for the tabernacle: twenty frames for the south side….” Although relatively abundant, acacia trees didn’t grow remotely big enough to mill single planks of the size required for the Tabernacle walls—ten cubits by one and a half, or about fifteen feet long by twenty-seven inches wide. The boards would have had to be assembled from smaller pieces, planed smooth and glued together. In other words, a great deal of labor and skill went into making these boards. I can’t help but reflect that these wall plank sections (called “upright frames” in the ESV) are a bit like those of us who assemble to worship our God. None of us stands alone, and no one starts out perfect; rather, we must all have our crooked places planed down if we hope to stand upright and united with our fellow believers in God’s service. Even if you’re the best board in the lumber yard, you’re not nearly big enough or straight enough to do the job by yourself. Yahweh requires us to work together for the common good—as defined by His master plan.
How did these boards stand upright to form walls? “And forty bases of silver you shall make under the twenty frames, two bases under one frame for its two tenons, and two bases under the next frame for its two tenons.” At the bottom of each plank, two protrusions, or tenons, extended. These would fit into receptacles in solid silver bases or foundations—each with two of these holes (or mortises). The left “leg” from each plank would share a base with the right tenon of the plank next to it, forming an interlocking structure around the perimeter of the tabernacle. “And for the second side of the tabernacle, on the north side twenty frames, and their forty bases of silver, two bases under one frame, and two bases under the next frame. And for the rear of the tabernacle westward you shall make six frames. And you shall make two frames for corners of the tabernacle in the rear. They shall be separate beneath, but joined at the top, at the first ring. Thus shall it be with both of them. They shall form the two corners. And there shall be eight frames, with their bases of silver, sixteen bases; two bases under one frame, and two bases under another frame.” (Exodus 26:15-25)
This is more than mere architectural minutiae. The whole thing is peppered with symbolic significance. (1) Yahweh’s “agenda” is to enable us fallen humans to stand upright in His presence, like the acacia-wood planks forming the walls of the tabernacle. Note that like the other acacia furnishings in the tabernacle, the wall planks were to be covered in pure gold (v. 29)—reinforcing the image of our transformation from dead wood into something useful, upright, and pure.
(2) We, like the planks, are to stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, as we perform our assigned function in God’s sanctuary—which in this case is separating—isolating—what is within the tabernacle from that which is outside. There is only one door, the one God provided. It’s all a picture of attaining holiness—being set apart from the world, set apart for Yahweh’s purpose. It is our job to keep the world from compromising, contaminating or encroaching upon Yahweh’s plan of redemption.
(3) Silver is the Torah symbol for ransom, the payment that makes redemption possible. The bases holding the acacia wood planks were to be cast of solid silver (see Exodus 38:27), leading us to the inescapable conclusion that that which holds us in place, standing upright before God, is the ransom He paid on our behalf—the blood of Christ.
(4) The word translated “base,” indicating these solid silver chunks weighing up to 90 pounds apiece, is the Hebrew ’eden. As you probably know, paleo Hebrew (the language in which the Torah was recorded and transmitted) has no vowels: the pronunciation and connotation is determined by the context. So in this case, it is perfectly logical to translate ’dn as “base” or “foundation” or even “socket” (as in the NKJV). But I’ve noticed that the alternate definitions of Hebrew consonant roots can often shed new and revealing light on the symbolic import of these ordinary literal things. In this case, ’dn is also the root of the Hebrew noun ’adon, meaning lord, master, owner, strong one, or husband. And indeed, these foundation bases are what make the acacia wood “walls” of the tabernacle strong, firm, and immovable. Moreover, they reinforce the symbolic concept that Yahshua, the one who paid our ransom, is our Lord, Master, Owner, and even (since we are the Bride of Christ) our Husband. As with the symbol of the Rock, we are to be both on Him and in Him.
And looking at this from the other direction, we note that Yahweh is occasionally called ’adon in scripture (the emphatic form ’adonay is used). Could it be that calling Yahweh “Lord” (’adonay) is actually a reference to the fact that He—through Christ—is our Foundation, our Basis? Just a thought.
(5) If these silver bases, then, are indicative of Christ, and the upright acacia planks are symbolic of us as believers, then the imagery of the ark of the covenant—in which we are to be “in Christ”—has been revisited. In fact, considering the way we “planks” are built, none of us can stand upright unless our “tenons” have been inserted into Yahshua’s “mortises.” More to the point, we—Christ and His congregation—are a matched set: we’re made for each other; we’re incomplete without each other. It may come as something of a shock to us, but the Messiah is as incomplete without us as we are without Him, as a husband is incomplete without His beloved wife. It’s no wonder God said He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).
If you’re an engineer, you’ve no doubt noticed that the foundation bases, though necessary, are not in themselves sufficient to hold the tabernacle structure together. Sure, they’d be nice and solid at the footings, but they’d need more support further up, right? Not surprisingly, the Instructions covered this too. “You shall make bars of acacia wood, five for the frames of the one side of the tabernacle, and five bars for the frames of the other side of the tabernacle, and five bars for the frames of the side of the tabernacle at the rear westward. The middle bar, halfway up the frames, shall run from end to end. You shall overlay the frames with gold and shall make their rings of gold for holders for the bars, and you shall overlay the bars with gold. Then you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it that you were shown on the mountain.” (Exodus 26:26-30) As usual, the Torah’s instruction concerning the tabernacle’s horizontal wall bracing is fraught with symbolic significance.
(1) The fact that more “support” is provided higher up on the planks is a reminder that there is more to our faith than just the foundation (the ransom paid by Christ), though that is certainly its basis. God provided an entire support system to assist us as we live our lives day by day. Expressing it in military terms, Christianity isn’t like an artillery shell—“fire and forget.” It’s more like a smart bomb—guided toward the target every moment along its journey.
(2) There were to be five horizontal bars (made of acacia wood and covered with gold, as usual) supporting each assembled wall section, north, south, and west. (The tabernacle’s entrance was on the east, so no solid wall was erected on this side.) Four of them were partial, but one was to run the entire length of the wall. If I had to venture a guess as to what the five bars signify, I’d have to consider the things God instituted or provided to hold His “assembly” (whether Israel or the church) together. They would include the fellowship of the saints (koinonia), the privilege of prayer, the written scriptures, and the joyful anticipation of Messiah’s coming. These four things, however, have only sporadically been enjoyed by the Yahweh’s people: whether through our own error or the world’s animosity, there have been gaps in our experience of these factors—hence the four “short” bars attached to each wall. But the fifth bar, the one in the center, surely represents the Holy Spirit—our constant companion and indwelling life-source over the last two thousand years, from the Day of Pentecost until the Feast of Trumpets.
(3) Or, looking at this another way, five is the number symbolizing grace. So perhaps the five crossbars on each wall indicate that grace—the unmerited favor we receive through trust in Christ’s sacrifice—is that which enables us to stand upright before Yahweh.
(4) Following a bit more esoteric line of inquiry, many (including myself) have noticed that the dimensions of the tabernacle’s rooms echo the timeline God has ordained to follow the Messiah’s redemptive act (which is symbolized by what’s outside the tabernacle—the altar of sacrifice and the laver of cleansing). That is, the Holy Place, measuring 10 x 20 x 10 cubits, or two thousand cubic cubits, indicates the length of the church age on God’s schedule—two thousand years. And this is followed by the dimensions of the Most Holy Place, 10 x 10 x 10 cubits or one thousand cubic cubits, indicating the length of the Millennial reign of Christ—one thousand years (see Revelation 20:4), the “Sabbath” of the series. You may protest that the church age wasn’t specifically predicted to run for two thousand years, but actually, between the lines, it was. The prophet Hosea adjures Israel, “Come, let us return to Yahweh, for He has torn us, that He may heal us; He has struck us down, and He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us. On the third day He will raise us up, that we may live before Him.” (Hosea 6:1-2) If Moses (in Psalm 90:4) and Peter (in II Peter 3:8) are to be believed, then Hosea is saying that Israel will be “torn” in God’s anger for only two thousand years (presumably after their national rejection of the Messiah, in 33 A.D.) after which they will be lifted up (subsequent to their repentance—see II Chronicles 7:14) for another thousand years—coterminous with the Messiah’s earthly reign. Thus the era of Israel’s “tearing” and “striking” is, by definition and default, the church age.
(5) If any of these observations have merit, then the three separate but interlocking wall assemblies of the tabernacle must have symbolic significance. Both the south wall and the north wall run the entire length of the timeline—from the passion through the Millennium. I’d take this to mean that God is telling us that both the church and Israel will exist, separately but side by side, throughout this entire time. I’ve found several equally esoteric scriptural hints (some of which I’ve already mentioned) leading me to this very conclusion. It doesn’t guarantee that either branch of Yahweh’s family will remain in the center of His will, unfortunately, for four out of the five support bars in each section come up short in the length department. But it does mean (as we can surmise from history) that we’ll both be here—preserved in spite of our shortcomings for Yahweh’s ultimate glory.
What, then, does the west wall signify? The ten-cubit section at the “back” of the Most Holy Place can signify only one thing: the saints of the Millennial age—those born to the Tribulation survivors who have lived under Christ’s direct rule, and (since they’re still mortals living under Adam’s curse) have chosen to receive God’s redemption, offered in grace through faith—just like the rest of us believers. And what happens after that? Since the acacia wall sections seem to symbolize mortal believers—once living, then cut down in sin and death, only to be covered and preserved in Yahweh’s immutable purity—it would seem to indicate the same thing we’ve seen elsewhere in scripture: at the conclusion of Christ’s Millennial reign, the eternal state will commence. No more mortal humans will be born, for every believer of every age will have received His immortal spiritual body (as described in I Corinthians 15:35-58). Yahweh will introduce His new heaven and new earth, and we shall dwell in the house of Yahweh—in His undiminished presence—forever.
That accounts for three sides of the tabernacle structure. What about the fourth, the east-facing portal? Acacia wood played a part here as well: “You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework. And you shall make for the screen five pillars of acacia, and overlay them with gold. Their hooks shall be of gold, and you shall cast five bases of bronze for them.” (Exodus 26:36-37) Once again, the “structural element” is acacia wood, symbolic of mortal life—cut down, fashioned with skill and purpose, and covered with pure gold. But this time, the acacia isn’t used to restrict access to the tabernacle, but to facilitate it. The point is that there is but one way to enter the sanctuary of reconciliation—God’s way.
That’s not to say anybody could just stroll in. There were still conditions to be met, indicated by Yahweh’s Instructions. First, the seeker had to approach the tabernacle from the east. This means that he had to turn his back on the rising sun—itself a symbol of the best and brightest of created things. Satan would like us to think of him as Lucifer, son of the dawn—the sun god, the great illuminator, the source of earthly light. God is reminding us here (albeit subtly) that even the most magnificent thing He created is not worthy of our worship, but He alone. Second, the seeker had to encounter the bronze-clad altar (which we’ll discuss in a moment), and the bronze laver of cleansing, in which he’d wash his hands and feet (metaphorical of the Spirit’s cleansing of one’s works and walk).
Then, he’d encounter the embroidered linen screen or curtain suspended across the sanctuary’s entrance. It, like the acacia planks, formed a barrier, but this time it was symbolic (and instructive) rather than physical. You could enter the tabernacle this way, but there were still implications, conditions to meet. Linen represents imputed righteousness, or, as it’s put in Revelation 19:8, “the righteous acts of the saints.” This is not a contradiction: the only righteous acts we have to present before God are attributed to us through grace (something every saint should know). On our own, the best of our works are filthy rags. Note that the linen cloth was “fine-twined.” The Revelation description calls it “fine” linen. This isn’t loosely woven and full of holes (like the sloppy Christian doctrine practiced by so many). It’s tight, dense, and impenetrable—totally opaque to those who are not atoned and cleansed. There are no “loopholes” in it. It doesn’t leak like a theological sieve, but rather serves nicely as a sail to catch the wind (read: Spirit) of God.
Note too that this curtain was to be “embroidered with needlework.” I get the impression that Yahweh is inviting us to add our own creative “take” to the portal of His sanctuary—not innovations in doctrine, you understand, but rather individual unscripted expressions of our appreciation of His awesome goodness. (The embroidery was to be wrought in “blue, purple, and scarlet yarn,” together indicative of the sacrifice of the Messiah/King. If our embellishment of God’s linen barrier speaks of anything else—prosperity, prejudice, politics, or pride, for example—then we have not followed His Instructions.) The screen of God’s portal may seem opaque and impenetrable, but He has left it to us—His people—to make it inviting and attractive by presenting our Savior as He is.
The wall components—the acacia planks on the north, west, and south sides—were held upright, you’ll recall, by solid silver ’eden-bases (silver representing the price of redemption). These five columns or pillars at the entrance of the tabernacle were held upright as well, but this time, the foundations were to be cast of bronze or brass, an alloy that speaks metaphorically of judgment. This concept, in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, speaks not so much of condemnation as it does judicial decision, the separation of right from wrong, good from evil, or clean from unclean. The point of the bronze column bases, then, is that one may not pass the tabernacle’s threshold unless he has been declared to be “not guilty.” Since we’re all guilty, however, this symbol necessitates grace—that which was provided at the altar outside. And since we’re all unclean in our natural state, it demonstrates why the laver was made available for cleansing right outside the sanctuary entrance.
There were to be five of these acacia pillars, adding another layer of symbolic significance: five is a reminder of God’s grace toward us. Assuming the outer two pillars were erected at the corners, that would still leave only about three and a half feet of clear space between them. Compare that to any portal in any religious edifice in the world, and you’ll get some appreciation of how “human friendly,” how attuned to our needs, our limitations, and our scale, Yahweh was in His design. He wasn’t interested in impressing us; He wanted to meet with us.
There was a similar portal, also hung with a veil, between the two inner rooms of the tabernacle—the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (sometimes called the Holy of Holies). This too was to be supported by gold-covered acacia pillars. “And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it. And you shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, with hooks of gold, on four bases of silver.” (Exodus 26:31-32) Most of the instructions are exactly the same as for the outer curtain: fine-twined linen, embroidery in blue, purple, and scarlet threads, pillars of acacia wood overlaid with pure gold, and hooks of gold with which to hang the veil. So let us focus on the subtle differences, on the theory that Yahweh wasn’t commanding all of this on a pointless whim.
First, there were to be four pillars, not five. Four seems to indicate God’s design for the earth: there are four sides in a square and four directions on the compass (as in the expression “the four winds,” meaning “everywhere”). This design, you’ll recall, was called “very good,” that is, perfectly suited to Yahweh’s will, when He first presented it. (I plan to do an entire chapter on the symbology of numbers, as you may have surmised.) So whereas entering the tabernacle (the Plan of Yahweh) in the first place demanded that grace (five pillars) be instituted, the picture is a little different as we stand before the Most Holy Place. This is where Yahweh promised the Israelites He’d meet with them personally (in the form of the Shekinah)—manifesting Himself in smoke and glory in both the wilderness tabernacle and Solomon’s temple. Why then, are there four pillars dividing the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies? They seem to represent the same thing the number four represents in the physical world: the complete sufficiency of Yahweh’s Plan. Nothing must be (or can be, for that matter) added to it in order to render us worthy to stand before a holy God.
It’s one thing to enter the Holy Place (having been atoned by the fire of Christ’s sacrifice and washed with the water of the Holy Spirit). This is where (revealed by the furnishings within it) we see the light, experience Yahweh’s provision, and approach Him in prayer. It’s something else entirely to stand in the very presence of God Himself. And yet, that is precisely what Christ enabled us to do—by dying for us. “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed His last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing Him, saw that in this way He breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:37-38)
We should pause to consider precisely what was going on here. The Shekinah—the glorious manifestation of Yahweh that had filled the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple—had never come back to inhabit Ezra’s second temple, or the one that was lavishly remodeled and upgraded by Herod the Great just in time for Yahshua’s use. Nor was the ark of the covenant stationed within the Most Holy Place. That had gone missing sometime between the reign of King Josiah (Judah’s last godly monarch, under whose reign the ark is last mentioned in scripture—about 621 BC) and Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem, in 586 BC—a mere thirty-five years. I have read compelling evidence that suggests that Jeremiah hid the ark in a cave Solomon had prepared, situated between the city wall and the siege wall the Babylonians had built—positioned directly beneath the site of Yahshua’s crucifixion. One thing is certain: neither the ark of the covenant nor the Shekinah were in the Most Holy Place when the veil was torn.
But God had made a specific point of tearing the veil in two. This was no accident, no coincidence. Alfred Edersheim, in his seminal 1880s work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, states, “The Veils before the Most Holy Place were 40 cubits (60 feet) long, and 20 (30 feet) wide, of the thickness of the palm of the hand, and wrought in 72 squares, which were joined together; and these Veils were so heavy, that, in the exaggerated language of the time, it needed 300 priests to manipulate each. If the Veil was at all such as is described in the Talmud, it could not have been rent in twain by a mere earthquake or the fall of the lintel.” The standard, knee-jerk answer as to why Yahweh rent the veil at the moment of Christ’s death is that His sacrifice gave us unrestricted access to God. That’s true, of course, but it misses the point: God was no longer in the Most Holy Place, even figuratively, when the veil was rent. The horse, so to speak, had already departed before the barn door was opened.
The writer to the Hebrews says, “Brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:19-22) Not only is it true that the veil represents the Messiah as the sole portal to the presence of Yahweh, but rending it from top to bottom, as if by the hand of God, demonstrated to all the world that Yahweh was not contained within the inner sanctum. No, He was outside the Most Holy Place, outside the temple, outside of the city walls: He was at this moment hanging on a Roman cross, being torn from top to bottom for our sins, under a sign that read “This is Jesus [i.e., ‘Yahweh is Salvation’], the King of the Jews.” (Matthew 27:37) The rending of the veil didn’t give us access to Yahweh. It merely proved that this access had already been provided. In a very real sense, the veil was Yahweh.
There is one last piece of tabernacle equipment that was to be made out of acacia wood. It’s the largest single item in the sanctuary environs, and first thing the worshipper would encounter as he approached the tabernacle from the eastern entrance to the courtyard. Yahweh told Moses, “You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad. The altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze….” Unlike the furnishings beyond the veil, the altar was not to be covered with gold—which would have indicated that immutable purity had already been attained. Rather, it was overlaid with bronze, speaking instead of judgment—i.e., a judicial determination being made concerning one’s guilt or innocence. Everyone who approached it was guilty, of course (a side effect of being human), but vindication before Yahweh was possible nevertheless, though the price was unthinkable: innocent life had to be sacrificed in order to pay the penalty one’s guilt had brought down upon him. And this big acacia-wood barbecue was where that happened: lambs, bulls, and goats were brought as prescribed in the Book of Leviticus, and atonement was made. One creature died in order than others might live.
It was all symbolic, of course. The blood of bulls and goats didn’t really atone for anything, but the obedience of the Israelite worshippers who complied in faith with Yahweh’s instructions nevertheless found their sins expiated—at least temporarily. In the end, their iniquity was covered the same way Noah’s and Abraham’s was—the same way yours and mine are: through our faith in Yahweh’s solution to our mortal condition. Everything that happened at the bronze-covered acacia altar pointed directly and unequivocally to the sacrifice of Christ. If, by our free will, His blood is applied to our debt of sin, then we are absolved. I am thoroughly confused by people who insist that grace is purely a New Testament concept, an innovation that’s somehow at odds with the Torah. It is no such thing: just ask the guiltless animal whose throat is being cut at the altar. If an innocent lamb giving his life in my stead isn’t a picture of grace, then grace doesn’t exist. Thus it’s not surprising that the dimensions of the altar—five cubits by five—symbolically indicate the same thing: grace multiplied by grace.
The instructions continue: “And you shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze. And the poles shall be put through the rings, so that the poles are on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. You shall make it hollow, with boards. As it has been shown you on the mountain, so shall it be made.” (Exodus 27:1-2, 6-8) As with every wooden article inside the tabernacle, the altar was to be transported with acacia-wood poles running through rings. But this time the metal covering the staves and forming the rings is bronze, again emphasizing that judgment—judicial separation—is in view at the altar.
Not only was the original acacia altar to be sheathed in bronze, there was an incident a bit later in the wilderness wanderings that reinforced the picture. In Numbers 16, a group of politically ambitious Israelites led by a fellow named Korah challenged Moses’ and Aaron’s right to lead Israel. The issue of who was “qualified” to stand before Yahweh and lead His people was settled by burning incense—not just the Aaronic priests, as Yahweh had instructed, but everybody involved, the “incumbents” and their challengers. God was to personally indicate whose “prayer,” so to speak, He would honor. Long story short, the rebel leaders got unceremoniously swallowed by the desert, “going down alive into the pit,” and their two hundred and fifty wannabe “priests” were then consumed by fire from heaven. God had spoken. Again.
But the story didn’t end there. The bronze or brass censers that had been used by the rebels were gathered up, hammered flat, and affixed to the altar. As Moses explained, “‘As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they offered them before Yahweh, and they became holy. Thus they shall be a sign to the people of Israel.’ So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers, which those who were burned had offered, and they were hammered out as a covering for the altar, to be a reminder to the people of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before Yahweh, lest he become like Korah and his company—as Yahweh said to him through Moses.” (Numbers 16:38-40) Apparently, it’s not a very good idea to pray in favor of something Yahweh has already condemned, or against something He has blessed. This in turn means that it behooves us to diligently search the scriptures to determine God’s revealed will. Ignorance is a lame excuse for folly, since folly can get you killed. More to the point, our opinions are totally irrelevant if Yahweh has spoken His mind on a matter.
You tell me: is it significant that every time we see acacia wood specified in scripture, it’s overlaid with either bronze or gold? I think it is. We are living beings, but we’re mortal: we will be cut down. Worse, we’re all subject to judgment (bronze). But judgment can result in either condemnation or vindication. We who have been vicariously exonerated by the sacrifice of Christ—the whole symbolic point of the altar’s function—can go on to be fashioned into implements useful in the kingdom of God, honoring Him, but at the same time being honored by Him—overlaid with pure, immutable gold.
That being said, it is a great comfort to me to discover scriptural references to acacia trees that have not been cut down. This is the state Yahweh always intended for us, the state to which He desires to restore us: it’s a picture of life and blessing under King Yahshua, a.k.a. “Yahweh your God, who dwells in Zion.” The prophet Joel records Yahweh’s description of the Millennial Kingdom: “So you shall know that I am Yahweh your God, who dwells in Zion, My holy mountain. And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers [i.e., those who have estranged themselves from Yahweh] shall never again pass through it. And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water; and a fountain shall come forth from the house of Yahweh and water the Valley of Shittim [that is, the Valley of Acacia Trees].” (Joel 3:17-18) Life, abundant and sweet, will flourish under Christ’s rule, and not just during His thousand-year earthly reign on earth, but in the eternal state to follow.
Isaiah concurs. “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I Yahweh will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar [strength], the acacia [life], the myrtle [rest and restoration], and the olive [the Spirit of God]. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together [apparently a symbolic description of the nations, set in contrast to the fig tree in the promised land, Israel], that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of Yahweh has done this: the Holy One of Israel has created it.” (Isaiah 41:17-20) The wilderness or desert, you’ll recall, is not what it seems—a place of exile or punishment—but rather where we experience inspiration, preparation, and total reliance upon Yahweh. I am eagerly awaiting the day when both Jews and gentiles thrive in unity and harmony under the loving, almighty hand of the Holy One of Israel. The world that exists today won’t recognize itself.