House of God Foundations


The moveable tent-like sanctuary of the Hebrews is the earliest known structure in Judeo culture to establish a sacred place, one that was specifically meant to be a “house of God.” Whereas the tabernacles of the Christian churches are designed to hold the presence of God in His Sacrament of the Eucharist, Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness housed the presence of God in a different way.

The moveable tent-like sanctuary of the Hebrews is the earliest known structure in Judeo culture to establish a sacred place, one that was specifically meant to be a "house of God." In Latin this tent sanctuary is called tabernaculum, meaning "little tent," from which our contemporary word "tabernacle" is derived. Whereas the tabernacles of the Christian churches are designed to hold the presence of God in His Sacrament of the Eucharist, Israel's tabernacle in the wilderness housed the presence of God in a different way.

Under the direction of Moses, the tabernacle was constructed to house the Ark of the Covenant. The ark was built of acacia wood in order to accommodate the stone tablets of the Mosaic law (cf. Ex. 25:10). This was the most sacred religious object and symbol of the Old Covenant, and it represented the presence of God among them.

The ark's purpose was to give the chosen people a center for worship, a place for sacrifices and ceremonies to honor God. Having been released from the bonds of slavery under the Egyptians, the Israelites were a nomadic tribe for 40 long years as they traversed the desert in search of the Promised Land. Thus the ark and the tabernacle in which it was housed were designed to be easily transported.

The dimensions of the ark were approximately four-feet long by three-feet wide by three-feet high. It was covered with gold and carried by gold-covered poles that passed through rings at each corner of the ark. On top was the golden propitiatory decorated with cherubim on either side facing each other and spreading their wings over the propitiatory, which was also called the seat of mercy. God was enthroned between the cherubim. This design, specified in Exodus thousands of years ago, led many Catholic churches to have statues of cherubim flanking the altar of sacrifice, each angel facing the tabernacle.

God also instructed Moses that a table of acacia wood covered in gold was to be built to hold the bread of sacrifice (or shewbread), which was placed before the ark along with a golden seven-branched candlestick and the altar of incense.

Covenantal Archetypes

The ark is rich in symbolism and was interpreted in later centuries as one of the many symbols of Christ. The seat of mercy is a symbol of Christ as judge; the Mosaic tablets of the law are a symbol of Christ as lawgiver and source of justice; and the offerings made before the ark foreshadow the Holy Eucharist. The Church also recognizes the Ark of the Covenant as a powerful symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary since she bore Christ within her womb, just as the ark contained the presence of God.

The "court of the tabernacle" was a rectangular space screened off by curtains of fine twisted linen. These curtains were suspended from 60 pillars that each stood on bases of brass. Such a structure serves as the earliest precedent for the hierarchic separation of the sacred from the profane.

East of the entrance was the altar of sacrifice, the bronze laver (a large basin for the washing of the priests' hands), and then the tabernacle itself, the dwelling tent of God. The tabernacle was divided into two sections. To the west was the "Holy Place." It contained the altar of incense, the golden candlestick, and the table of shewbreads. The section to the east was called the "Holy of Holies," and contained the Ark of the Covenant with the propitiatory and the cherubim.

The Book of Exodus describes the ark as sheltered in a tent that Moses pitched at some distance from the camp. "When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the door of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses" (Ex. 33:9). Then, after the Hebrews crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, the ark remained at Gilgal until it was removed to Shiloh.

Years later King David brought the ark up to Jerusalem, where it was once again placed in a tent until the Temple was erected as a permanent home for the ark. Yet even before Solomon's permanent structure was built, the way in which the ark was housed in the moveable sanctuary provides numerous precedents (e.g., the eastern orientation, the use of cherubim, the veil of the tabernacle, the priests' laver, the use of colonnades, and the very understanding of the tabernacle established as a holy place and house of God set apart from the profane) that informed the architects of the Christian era in establishing holy places that were houses of God.

Temple of Jerusalem

King Solomon's Temple, otherwise known as the first Temple of Jerusalem, provides the second great precedent for the church architect. Solomon reproduced in solid materials and double proportions the transient tabernacle and its enclosure, which Moses had built in the desert: "Thou hast given command to build a temple on thy holy mountain, and an altar in the city of thy habitation, a copy of the holy tent which thou didst prepare from the beginning" (Wis. 9:8), the entire plan of which is therefore outlined.

Completed in just over seven years in 966 B.C., the Temple was built in great splendor and dedicated with much magnificence — "I have built thee an exalted house, a place for thee to dwell in for ever," Solomon proclaims in 1 Kings 8:13. The prophet Ezekiel describes in depth the construction and design of the Temple (cf. 2 Chronicles 3-4).

Solomon employed King Hiram of Tyre to sail the Mediterranean to obtain the finest materials (e.g., the timbers of Lebanese cypresses), skilled craftsmen, and renowned Phoenician smiths to build the great edifice. According to 2 Chronicles the Temple stood on the highest point of Mount Moriah, on the spot where Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac and, centuries later, where King David erected an altar of holocausts to the Lord. Such conspicuous siting serves as the earliest precedent for understanding a church as a "city on the hill."

Well before the Incarnation of Christ, the great Jewish masters — under instructions from God and the direction of Moses and King Solomon — provided the Christian architects and craftsmen of later centuries principles to guide them in establishing houses of God for their own era and for eternity. It is highly significant that God Himself confirms both the title "house of God" (or "house of the Lord") and the eternal nature of the great edifice of Solomon when the Lord said to him, "I have heard your prayer and supplication, which you have made before me; I have consecrated this house which you have built, and put my name there for ever" (1 Kings 9:3).


Michael S. Rose. "House of God Foundations." Lay Witness (Nov/Dec 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

Michael S. Rose is the author of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again, published by Sophia Institute Press. It may be ordered by calling Benedictus Books toll-free at (888) 316-2640.

This is the first installment of a series which explores the epochs of church architecture.

Copyright © 2001 LayWitness

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