Commentators disagree whether to view the Tabernacle as an ideal vehicle for Divine worship, merely a concession to reality, or something in between. Among those who consider the Mishkan to be inherently positive, R"Y Bekhor Shor and Ramban focus on its serving as a home for the Tablets and Hashem's ongoing revelation, the Biur highlights the appropriateness of dedicating our initial creative endeavors to God, and Shadal emphasizes the social benefits of having a national center.
Other Midrashim and commentators, though, see the Mishkan as a necessary corrective for the Israelites' idolatrous desires. Thus, the Tanchuma presents the Mishkan as both an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf as well as evidence of a Divine amnesty, while Rambam views the Mishkan as an attempt to channel the nation's unfit inclinations to the service of Hashem.
Finally, some exegetes posit that the Mishkan had multiple purposes or evolved as a result of the nation's sins. Abarbanel proposes that originally the Mishkan was to be exclusively an embodiment of Hashem's presence, but that after the sin of the Golden Calf it was modified to become a sacrificial center. Seforno, on the other hand, contends that sacrifices were always a significant part of the Divine plan, but that the people's sin created the need for the centralization of the Divine presence and worship.
Building the Mishkan provided a diverse array of benefits and opportunities for the Children of Israel.
Extension of Sinai
The Mishkan facilitated the continuation of the Divine revelation which began at Mt. Sinai and it housed the Tablets of the Covenant which were given at Sinai.1
"וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם" – All three commentators agree that this verse, as per its literal interpretation, provides Hashem's primary reason for commanding the building of the Tabernacle.2 However, they disagree as to whether Hashem was physically present in the Mishkan:
R"Y Bekhor Shor and Ramban render "בְּתוֹכָם" as "in their center", and thus they understand this phrase to mean that Hashem's presence was literally3 contained within the walls of the Tabernacle,4 which was located at the geographic center of the nation's encampment.5
Cassuto, however, is more circumspect, stating merely that the nation viewed the Mishkan as a symbol that God's presence was among them.
Need for a physical house
R"Y Bekhor Shor explains that, at its most basic level, the Tabernacle was designed to house the Ark, which in turn functioned as a safe deposit box for the Tablets. Building on this, Ramban develops the notion that this connection to the Tablets also mystically transformed the Mishkan and the Ark into an extension of Mt. Sinai,6 thereby facilitating the continued Divine presence.7 For both of them, while Hashem has no personal need for the Mishkan, it was still a necessary condition for His continued presence in the midst of the nation.
In contrast, according to Cassuto, although Hashem can dwell amidst the people without the existence of any physical building, the nation needed to see a tangible structure in order to reassure them of God's continued presence.8
Why now? For R"Y Bekhor Shor and Ramban, it is logical that the command to build the Mishkan comes only at this point, since it is a continuation of the revelation at Mt. Sinai9 and must house the Tablets which Moshe brought down from the mountain. Similarly, for Cassuto, the construction of the Mishkan was timed to be completed before the nation's departure from Sinai.10
Chronology – According to Ramban and Cassuto, the command to build the Mishkan is recorded in chronological order, as it flowed from the Sinaitic revelation and preceded (and was unconnected to) the sin of the Golden Calf.11 R"Y Bekhor Shor, though, maintains that the instructions were given only after the sin of the Golden Calf.12
Relationship of the Mishkan to the sin of the Golden Calf – According to this approach the command to build the Mishkan is independent of the sin.
Ancient Near Eastern parallels – In the Ancient Near East, copies of treaties were often stored in the temples of the gods of the two parties,13 both for their safekeeping and to instill fear of retribution from the divine witnesses for any transgressions. As the Tablets of the Law served as testimony to the covenant (or treaty) between the nation and Hashem, it is not surprising that they were similarly stored in the joint "Temple" of Hashem and the nation, the Mishkan.14
Biblical parallels – Ramban points to a number of linguistic and conceptual parallels which link the giving of the Decalogue at Mt. Sinai and the construction of the Mishkan.15 These parallels highlight how the Tabernacle transformed the initial one-time revelation into a continuous ongoing communication and relationship between Hashem and the Children of Israel. 16
Focal point and the meaning of "מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת" – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and Ramban17 maintain that the Ark of the Testimony ("אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת") which housed the Tablets of the Testimony ("לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת") are the raison d'être for the entire Mishkan (which was thus referred to as "מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת"),18 as it was above the Ark that Hashem would descend in order to commune with Moshe. They assert that for this very reason, the aron is the first vessel commanded to be made.19 R"Y Bekhor Shor also proposes that the innermost Holy of Holies was Hashem's personal chamber and the Aron with its keruvim were his throne, as in a royal palace.20
Altars for atonement – Ramban explains that the sacrifices, by atoning for the nation's sins, insure that the Divine presence does not desert the sanctuary.21 According to him, the altars were subservient to the Aron which was the main focus of the Tabernacle.22
Tabernacle unmentioned prior to Moshe's ascent – According to this approach, it is possible that Hashem initially mentioned only the Tablets to Moshe, since they are what created the need for the Tabernacle.23
Purpose of the Beit HaMikdash – Ramban equates the Mishkan and the Mikdash.24 The primary purpose of both was to be a home for the Divine presence.25
The Mishkan provided an opportunity for the Children of Israel to express their gratitude to and respect for Hashem. Thus, all of the nation's initial collective and creative labors are dedicated to Hashem in the form of the Tabernacle.
Need for a physical house – According to the Biur, consecrating a House for God was for the people's own benefit. In dedicating the first fruits of their building, the nation learned to recognize Hashem's hand in all that they did and made. For this approach, it was the process of building and dedicating a house to Hashem, rather than the resulting completed product, which was most important.27
Why now? As the nation was about to enter the land and begin building an infrastructure, homes, and other institutions, it was incumbent on them to first consecrate the initial fruits of their labor to Hashem.
Chronology – According to this approach, it is logical to assume that the command to build the Tabernacle appears in its chronological place.
Parallels – The Biur compares the Israelite's dedication to Hashem of the first product of their labors to the obligation of giving the first fruits of one's progeny, land, and livestock to God.
Focal point – This position does not focus on any particular vessel or portion of the Mishkan, but rather on the edifice in its entirety.
"וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם" – This approach would view this verse, not as the ultimate purpose of the building, but merely as one of its practical benefits.
Altars for atonement – This opinion also does not see atonement to be the main objective of the Tabernacle.
Purpose of the Beit HaMikdash – Mendelssohn in the Biur explains that when the nation attained a higher economic status in the time of Shelomo, it was appropriate for them to also upgrade the Tabernacle to the more opulent level of the Temple.
The Mishkan ensured the unity of the nation by providing a centralized location for all to gather in their worship of Hashem.
Need for a physical house – Shadal suggests that the house served as a unifying communal center for the nation, helping to keep tribal divisions at bay and instilling feelings of brotherhood as they gathered together in service of Hashem. According to him, only a tangible structure could impress upon the masses a full appreciation of the fact that Hashem, their king, was in their midst.28 As such, the Tabernacle was built in the image of a king's palace with all of its grandeur.29
Why now? Shadal asserts that God did not want to wait to build this center until the nation would finish the conquest and already be dispersed. Thus, while they were still united, He commanded them to build a portable house which could be set up anywhere.
Chronology – According to Shadal, the command to build the Mishkan is in its chronological place.
Relationship of the Mishkan to the sin of the Golden Calf – Shadal emphasizes that the sin of the Golden Calf did not prompt the command, but, to the contrary, delayed its execution, as God did not desire to dwell amongst a sinful nation.
Parallels – Shadal develops similar theories with regard to Shabbat and the Three Pilgrimage Festivals ("שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים"),30 suggesting that they too were designed to unify the nation.31
Focal point – Shadal suggests that the sacrificial service on the altar is the main focus of the Tabernacle, as only through bringing tribute to Hashem would the nation internalize His majesty.32 Here, too, Shadal stresses that this was entirely for the nation's benefit.33
"וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם" – Shadal understands this verse to be describing the nation's perception that Hashem is dwelling in their midst,34 but that this is not the ultimate purpose of the Mishkan and only a means of achieving national unity.
Altars for atonement – According to Shadal,35 the annual procedure of atoning on the altars was to avert a situation in which the masses might think that the Sanctuary had been permanently polluted by their sins or impurities.36
Purpose of the Beit HaMikdash – The Mikdash similarly served as a national center.37
The construction of the Mishkan was intended not as an ideal or an end unto itself, but rather as a means of remedying a problematic situation.
Means of Atonement
The Tabernacle was built to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.38
"וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם" – This verse describes the ultimate goal of the atonement process, which was to have God return to the nation after their sin.
Need for a physical house – Although Hashem does not need a house, the nation needed to donate to Hashem in order to reaffirm their loyalty to Him, and the act of donating gold for the construction of the Mishkan compensated for the sin of giving gold for the making of the Golden Calf.40
Achronological order – The Sifre would likely maintain that although the directive to build the Tabernacle appears before the sin of the Golden Calf, it was actually commanded only afterwards, and in response to the sin. This is explicit in the TanchumaTerumah 8About the Tanchuma.
Chronological order – While Lekach Tov and R. Bachya agree that the building of the Mishkan atoned for the sin of the Golden Calf, they nonetheless assert that the command preceded the sin, as God "provided a cure before the illness" ("הקדים רפואה למכה").
According to the Sifre,41 the command was a direct response to the nation's sin.42
For the Lekach Tov and R. Bachya, as soon as Hashem gave the first set of mitzvot, He also instituted a procedure through which to atone if one transgressed them.
Parallels – Bemidbar 17:1-5 and 31:49-54 describe the giving of materials to the Mishkan in the aftermath of sins.
Focal point – R. Yosi b. Hanina in the Sifre views the golden cover for the Aron, the source for atonement, as the focal point of the Tabernacle.43
The meaning of "מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת" – The Lekach TovShemot 38:21About R. Toviah b. Eliezer explains that once the Mishkan was built and atonement was achieved, the Divine presence testified to Hashem's special relationship with the Children of Israel.44
Tabernacle unmentioned prior to Moshe's ascent – According to the Sifre, it is eminently understandable that Hashem never mentions the Tabernacle before the sin of the Golden Calf,45 as it was not needed until then.46
Purpose of the Beit HaMikdash – It appears from Shemuel I 24 that the building of the Mikdash was a similar attempt to atone for a sin which caused a plague to be visited upon the nation.47
Polemical factors – The contention that the Children of Israel atoned for and were completely forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf may be a response to Christian claims that the Golden Calf caused a permanent breach in God's relationship with the Children of Israel.48 See the following approach for elaboration.
Nature of the Golden Calf – This approach would likely view the Golden Calf as an example of full idolatry, rather than merely the nation's desire for a replacement for Moshe.49
Sign of Forgiveness
The manifestation of the Divine presence in the Mishkan was intended to testify ("מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת") that Hashem had indeed forgiven the Children of Israel for their sin of the Golden Calf.
The nations of the world – The Tanchuma emphasizes that the intent of the Mishkan was to prove to all of the other nations ("כדי שידעו כל האומות", "עדות לכל באי העולם") that Hashem had forgiven the Children of Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf.
The Children of Israel themselves – Rashi modifies the approach of the Tanchuma52 and asserts that the proof was needed for internal consumption ("עדות לישראל"), as the Israelites themselves were concerned that Hashem had not completely forgiven them.
"וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם" – These words point to the reason for constructing the Mishkan, to demonstrate that Hashem was once again dwelling amongst the nation.53
Need for a physical house – Although Hashem had no need for a physical home, tangible proof of Hashem's dwelling was needed to convince the surrounding nations, or the Children of Israel themselves, that He had forgiven them and was once again residing in their midst.54
Chronology – According to the Tanchuma and Rashi, the command is not in its chronological place.55 It was first given on Yom HaKippurim, when Hashem pardoned the nation for the sin of the Golden Calf.
Polemical factors – The Tanchuma emphasizes that the Tabernacle served as testimony to the entire world that Hashem had forgiven the Children of Israel and not rejected them in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. The Tanchuma's depiction of "אומות העולם שהיו אומרים לישראל שאין השכינה חוזרת אלינו לעולם שנאמר רבים אומרים לנפשי אין ישועתה לו באלהים" and its employment of the strong language of the verse "יסכר פי דוברי שקר" appear to indicate that it is reacting to an actual group which was making such a claim. As such, the Midrash may well be a direct response to Christian doctrine that the Golden Calf caused a permanent breach in God's relationship with the Children of Israel and created the need for them to observe all of the mitzvot (as a punishment) rather than merely achieving salvation by having simple faith. According to the Midrash, it is specifically the commandment to build a Tabernacle56 which follows the sin of the Golden Calf, while all other mitzvot were given already at Marah or on Mt. Sinai before the sin.57
Why now? Until the sin of the Golden Calf, no one doubted God's presence, and a pillar of fire or cloud sufficed. Afterwards, though, it was no longer clear that Hashem would continue to accompany the nation. The Mishkan was built to convince everyone of His continued presence.
Tabernacle unmentioned prior to Moshe's ascent – There was no mention since Hashem did not command the nation to build anything during Moshe's first forty days on Mt. Sinai.
Purpose of the Beit HaMikdash – In Shelomo's prayer after building the Beit HaMikdash, he suggests that one of the purposes of the Mikdash was that Gentiles, too, should recognize "כִּי שִׁמְךָ נִקְרָא עַל הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה" (Melachim I:8:43).
Concession to Human Foibles
The Mishkan was not the preferred forum for worship, but simply a necessity given the people's tendencies towards idolatrous practices.
Need for a physical house – Both R. Yehuda HaLevi and Rambam assert that, due to the influences of the surrounding culture of worship, the Children of Israel desired to serve Hashem through physical means.
R. Yehuda HaLevi emphasizes the nation's need for a tangible object to which they could direct their service to Hashem. As the people were used to others worshiping idols, they, too, looked for some concrete representation of God's presence.
Rambam, instead, focuses on the people's need for a sacrificial service. As neighboring religions worshiped their gods through the bringing of sacrifices and incense, the Israelites wanted to serve Hashem in the same manner. Rambam emphasizes that God's allowance of this service was a means of weaning the people away from true idolatry.58
"וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם" – Rambam is opposed to the notion that Hashem's presence can be confined to any one place,59 and would probably prefer to read this verse to mean that God resides amongst the people of the nation, rather than in a building in their midst. R. Yehuda HaLevi might say that the verse is speaking from the perspective of the people who saw the building as representing God's presence amongst them.
Focal point – R. Yehuda HaLevi would probably view the ark and tablets as the central point of the Mishkan as these represented God's presence. For Rambam, in contrast, the altars and accompanying sacrifices were the focus.60
Chronology and relationship to Sin of the Golden Calf – Neither of these sources address the issue explicitly:
Rambam appears to view the Tabernacle and sacrificial service as being a necessary antidote to idolatrous tendencies in general, regardless of the specific sin of the Golden Calf. As such, he might maintain that the command is found in its proper chronological place and was given before the sin.61
According to R"Y HaLevi, regardless of the sin, Hashem had planned on giving the people the Tablets and ark to serve as tangible objects through which to focus their worship of Hashem. It is likely then, that the Mishkan was commanded at the same time and with the same purpose. It served to house these objects and thereby represent Hashem's presence within the nation. Alternatively, though, it is possible that originally Hashem thought that the ark alone would suffice to house the Tablets, without a surrounding Tabernacle. However the sin of the Calf confirmed that the people not only needed a physical symbol of Hashem's presence, but also that there was danger in such symbols, for the people might come to worship the symbols in place of Hashem. Thus, after the sin, Hashem added a Tabernacle to the plan, recognizing that the ark needed to be housed in such a way that the people did not come to mistake it for a god.62
According to R"Y HaLevi, the Tabernacle is directly connected to the receiving of the Tablets (and perhaps also to the Sin of the Calf) and is thus commanded to be built now, right as they are given (or the people sin).
Rambam could suggest that Hashem gave the command regarding the Tabernacle while still in the Wilderness because He needed to provide an alternative to the idolatrous Canaanite worship before arrival in Israel.63 Had there not been an alternative mode of worship set in place before arrival, there would have been a danger that the nation would come under corrosive influences and abandon monotheistic worship altogether.
Parallels – Rambam suggests that many of the specific laws of sacrifices, such as the selection of animals used, the prohibition against leavened bread and honey and the command to include salt, are similarly a reaction to idolatrous practices.
Altars for atonement – Neither of these sources view attainment of atonement as the main purpose of the building of the Tabernacle. Though this might be an important aspect of worship, had the people not been influenced by surrounding societies and therefore in need of a physical Taberncle and sacrificial service, atonement might have been accomplished in a different way.
Tabernacle unmentioned prior to Moshe's ascent
Purpose of the Beit HaMikdash – The Rambam suggests that the main focus of the Beit HaMikdash, too, was the sacrificial service.
Multiple or Evolving Objectives
The Mishkan had multiple purposes or reflected the revision of an originally preferred Divine plan as a result of human failings.
The Mishkan had several objectives, serving as a vehicle through which the nation could honor and show their appreciation to God, as a site which facilitated expiation of sins, and as God's dwelling place.64
R. Saadia Gaon vehemently opposes the idea that Hashem is confined in, or has need of, a physical structure, and asserts that God does not reside in the Mishkan at all.70 He, presumably, understands that in this verse God is saying that He will dwell amongst the people as a whole.
Tanchuma, in contrast, reads this to literally refer to Hashem's dwelling in the Mishkan. Out of His love for the nation, Hashem left His abode on high and moved to a parallel one on earth.
Need for a physical house
Palace for a king – Midrash Aggadah and R. Saadia Gaon suggest that the nation only knew how to relate to Hashem via human models of relationship. Thus, they thought to honor God in the way that subjects glorify a king,71 by building him a palace complete with a candelabrum, table, and incense.72
Parallel home – Tanchuma suggests that Hashem does dwell in a house and views the Mishkan as God's earthly abode.
Response to Sin of Golden Calf – Tanchuma also brings the opinion that building the Mishkan was either part of the atonement process73 or testimony to Hashem's forgiveness.74
Tangential benefits – R. Saadia points to other benefits of the building as well, including the fact that it serves as a focal point for people's prayers, as a disincentive to sin (lest it be destroyed), and as a site for people to prophesy and God to perform signs and wonders.
Chronological – According to Midrash Aggadah and R. Saadia, the story is in its proper place. Though Midrash Aggadah asserts that certain aspects of the Tabernacle were meant to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf (or other future sins), it explains that God preempted the nation's sins with a ready-made cure.75
Achronological – According to the opinion in Tanchuma that the construction was a response to the sin of the Golden Calf, the command is achronological.
Why now? According to Tanchuma, the command was a direct response to the nation's sin and logically followed it. The Midrash Aggadah might alternatively suggest that right after Hashem gave the first set of mitzvot (even before the sin) He instituted a procedure through which to atone if one transgressed them. One might also suggest that it was right after God revealed Himself to the nation at Sinai, that they desired to reciprocate and honor Him via building Him the equivalent of a palace.
Focal point – The Mishkan does not have just one focal point. The edifice as a whole was a means of honoring God, while the sacrificial altars played a role in atonement.
Altars for atonement – Tanchuma and Midrash Aggadah assert that many aspects of the Tabernacle served as means to facilitate expiation of sins. The gold atoned for the gold of the Golden Calf, the half shekel for the nation's mistake in calculating Moshe's arrival down the mountains and acacia wood (עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים) for the future sin of Baal Peor which took place at שִׁטִּים.76 The institution of altars and the daily sacrifices served to amend wrongdoings that might occur on any given day or night.
Mishkan vs. Sacrifices
In Hashem's original plan, there was to be just the Tabernacle, a vehicle through which the nation would feel His presence amongst them. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Hashem added a sacrificial component to facilitate the atonement process.
Need for a physical house – Hashem, not being a physical being, has no need for a house. Yet, as He wanted to ensure that the Children of Israel felt His presence and providence, He commanded that they build a tangible structure in their midst which helped them understand that God was watching over them.
Chronology and Relationship to the Sin of the Calf – The command to build the Tabernacle is chronological, but did not include the laws of sacrifices which were only commanded after the sin of the Golden Calf.77
Why now? The sacrificial service was a direct response to the sin of the Golden Calf, as Hashem realized that it was necessary to institute a process of atonement for when people sin.78
Focal point – According to Abarbanel, there was a dual focus in the Tabernacle, on both the ark and the altars.
"וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם" – This verse presents the main reason for the Mishkan's construction. Abarbanel, though, does not think that Hashem is saying that He will literally dwell in the Tabernacle. Rather, the verse is metaphorical and means that Hashem's presence and providence will be felt amongst the nation.
Altars for atonement – After the nation's sin, these became a crucial aspect of the Mishkan. Abarbanel, though, does not explain why the altar was part of the original command, if at that point, sacrifices were not part of Hashem's plans.
Tabernacle unmentioned prior to Moshe's ascent – It is not clear, according to Abarbanel, why the command is not explicit prior to Moshe's ascent.
Setting Divine Boundaries
Originally God's presence could be accessed anywhere and by anyone, but after the sin of the Golden Calf, an intermediary in the form of the Mishkan and priests was necessary
Need for a physical house – After the sin of the Golden Calf, Hashem preferred not to dwell amongst the nation at all. Due to Moshe's prayers, a compromise was reached through which Hashem's presence would reside amongst them, but only via the Tabernacle and its vessels.
Why now? Hashem's original and preferred plan was not to have a Tabernacle, but rather to be worshiped via individual altars79 and service. After the sin of the Golden Calf, though, the nation proved unworthy of such worship, and a new system was set up.
Chronology – The command is out of place and was only given during Moshe's final ascent up the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf.
Parallels – Seforno asserts that several other laws, such as kashrut, laws of purity, and libations, were similarly instituted only in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf, and were meant to serve as a corrective to the nation's behavior.
Focal point – According to Seforno, the cherubs atop the ark are the focal point of the Tabernacle, for it is through them that Hashem speaks to Moshe and listens to his prayers.
"וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם" – According to Seforno, Hashem is referring to having His providence dwell among the nation. Prior to the sin, no vehicle was necessary to accomplish this, but now that was no longer true.
Tabernacle unmentioned prior to Moshe's ascent – There was no mention of the building of the Tabernacle since at that point, there were no plans for one to be built.