Vol. XXXV No. 4 — April 1957

“The Tabernacle”

No attempt is here made to consider the Tabernacle from the standpoint of Royal Arch Masonry or that of the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite. These pages are concerned only with the Tabernacle as a symbol in the Entered Apprentice Degree of Symbolic Masonry. — Ed.

There is not much to be found in easily available Masonic literature regarding the Tabernacle and its Masonic significance. A few scattered articles in magazines, many abstracted from one or two originals in the early Transactions of Quatuor Coronati research lodge of London; an article in Mackey’s Encyclopedia, occasional paragraphs in a few books, and the subject is dismissed, apparently as of minor importance. In neither of his two fine volumes on symbolism does Charles C. Hunt devote any attention to the Tabernacle, and Oliver Day Street barely mentions it in connection with the orientation of a lodge East and West. Albert Pike has nothing about it in Morals and Dogma, except a reference to the candlestick in a discussion of the importance of the number 7. H. L. Haywood does not find it a subject for discussion in any of his books.

Yet in practically all rituals and monitors it shares with other symbols an approximately equal space and, apparently, importance.

A lodge is situated due East and West because this was the situation of King Solomon’s Temple. It was so situated because, after Moses had safely conducted the children of Israel through the Red Sea, when pursued by Pharaoh and his hosts, he there, by divine command, erected a Tabernacle and situated it due East and West in order to perpetuate the remembrance of that mighty East wind by which their miraculous deliverance was wrought; and also to receive the rays of the rising sun. And as King Solomon’s Temple was an exact model of the Tabernacle, therefore all lodges should be situated due East and West.

The above paragraph is from the official monitor of the Grand Lodge of Wyoming. In other rituals it is the Tabernacle that was the exact model for Solomon’s Temple, rather than the Temple (which was built of course long after the Tabernacle) being the model for the Tabernacle.

It is curious and interesting that the Wyoming paragraph, found also in other monitors, is esoteric work (non-printed) in many United States jurisdictions. Why some grand lodges consider the proper locations of lodges East and West to be secret and others do not is one of those mysteries of ritual in the United States that is probably never to be solved.

Neither the miraculous East wind of the ritual nor the Red Sea are factual; no wind (in which men could live) that ever blew could divide the waters of the Red Sea and make them “stand up like walls.” The “Red Sea” of our ritual, the “sea” of the account in Exodus, was probably Lake Timsah, or perhaps not even that, but a flat shallow body of water, not much deeper than a marsh. The Interpreter’s Bible comment on this states (vol. 1, p. 938):

In flat marshy districts large areas are often intermittently covered by shallow water or laid dry by the action of the wind; almost annually in the spring high winds off the Persian Gulf blow in waters at high tide to cover all the area lying south of Zobeir in Iraq, a distance of about twenty-five miles.

Abingdon Bible Commentary suggests this:

Throughout the night a strong east wind (which may have been from the southeast), drove back the waters. If the passage was made at the southeastern end of the Bitter Lakes, this can easily be understood. In the Gulf of Suez an east wind would have the opposite effect. There may have confronted them an arm, or channel, of the lakes, fordable at low water. Such was the force of the wind that the bed of the channel at the ford was laid bare, while the deeper waters on either side were as walls to the people as they crossed over, preventing a flank attack upon them from either side.

Without prejudice to those who believe the minute description of the Tabernacle in Exodus to be the particulars of an actual structure, the higher criticism of the Old Testament does not accord historical accuracy to any statement that the Tabernacle was actually constructed. In The Interpreter’s Bible it is stated (vol. 1, p. 1027):

The tabernacle here presented never actually existed. It is a product of the priestly imagination, an ideal structure.

Mackey states:

Of the erection of this tabernacle, we have said that there is no historical evidence. It is simply a myth but a myth constructed, of course, for a symbolical purpose.

Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible (p. 888) states:

Modern students of the Pentateuch find the picture of the desert sanctuary and its worship irreconcilable with the historical development of religion and the cults in Israel. In Exodus 25 and following chapters we are dealing not with historical fact, but with the product of religious idealism; and surely these devout idealists of the Exile should command our admiration as they deserve our gratitude. If the Tabernacle is an ideal, it is truly an ideal worthy of Him for whose worship it seeks to provide. Nor must it be forgotten, that in reproducing in portable form, as they unquestionably do, the several parts and appointments of the Temple of Solomon, including even its brazen altar, the author or authors of the Tabernacle believed, in all good faith, that they were reproducing the essential features of the Mosaic sanctuary, of which the Temple was supposed to be the replica and the legitimate successor.

At the time of the Exodus the Israelites were a simple nomadic people, living in tents, their livelihood dependent upon flocks and herds, perhaps some cultivation. Their civilization, if advanced in religion, was crude in technology and the arts. It seems impossible to critics that such a people had either the wealth, the skill or the time actually to make the Tabernacle as described. But because it was not an actual structure does not mean that the accounts of it are fairy tales. Apparently it belongs in the category of allegory; the teaching of a truth by a “story within a story.” Funk and Wagnail’s Standard Bible Dictionary says of it:

The Tabernacle is not a bald fiction, but an honest, sincere attempt to set forth a great ideal on the basis of ancient tradition and established usage.

There seems to be no doubt that the Tabernacle was to be erected “due east and west” although no such definite instructions are set forth in Exodus. What is told at some length is that the hangings and pillars and sockets are to be set up on the North and South and West sides of the structure (the East side was open) and the length and breadth given in connection with these instructions indicate that greatest dimension was from East to West.

Of course the association of the place at which the sun rises, the actual or nearly the actual East, with some conception of one Supreme Being, is common to many religions. Doubtless it is the continuance of the first sun worship, which brought the god again to mankind after every period of night, always in the same or nearly the same place. The East of sun worship, the East of the Tabernacle, the East of Solomon’s Temple and the East of a Masonic lodge are all throwbacks to coming of light after darkness, the place of beginning, the source of life as well as light.

Freemasonry has many symbols and teachings based on myth and legend. The Hiramic Legend, which is the glory of the society, has no factual basis. Our conventionalized aprons, the lodge of the Holy Sts. John at Jerusalem, the wholly symbolic penalties, are in a like class.

History is full of similar teachings of philosophies, moralities, truths, by legend — Romulus and Remus and doubtless Horatius of ancient Rome; the legend of Isis and Osiris; the St. Patrick and the snakes story of Ireland; St. George and the Dragon; King Arthur and his Knights; Parsifal and the Holy Grail; Kipling’s Eddi and his service — a catalog would be wearisome and yet the myths and the legends and the allegories are not wearisome but beautiful.

Thus it is with the Masonic use of the Tabernacle; its commemoration of an event; its foundation of the orientation of lodges and temples; the Red Sea and the East Wind . . . all these have a teaching and a beauty, a sweetness and a glory of conception that join secular and Biblical history and the Ancient Craft in a way impressive and important, and so vital in its bearing of truth, that lack of historic fact is of small account.

Facts alone are often dreary; romance and myth bring out the greatness of the intangibles of life. The Tabernacle emphasizes the ideals of the Israelites; the passage of the Red Sea, the power of the Grand Architect to aid suffering humanity to overcome evil.

So considered, this seemingly simple symbol becomes something as beautiful as it is profound.

Question Box

This column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry

Why is a master addressed as “Worshipful”?

Few Masonic matters are less understood by the non-Masonic public than this. The word worchyppe or worchyp is Old English, and means "greatly respected.” In the Wycliffe Bible “Honor thy father and thy mother” appears as “Worchyp they fadir and thy modir.” English and Canadian mayors are still addressed, “Your Worship.” In some of the Old Constitutions of Masonry is the phrase, “Every Mason shall prefer his elder and put him to worship.”

Worshipful, therefore, in modern Masonry continues an ancient word meaning “greatly respected.” A grand master is “Most Worshipful,” that is, “Most greatly respected” (except in Pennsylvania, where the grand master is “Right Worshipful,” as are Pennsylvania’s and Texas’ past grand masters).

Why does the master wear a hat?

A contemporary relic of the ancient custom whereby the King remained covered under all circumstances, while his subjects were obliged to uncover in his presence. Apparently the custom that began in English lodges is now (not there common) but in American lodges a master wears a hat as a sign and symbol of his authority.

Have I a right to visit in any lodge under a grand lodge that my grand lodge recognizes?

If you can prove yourself a Mason by passing an examination, and have a good standing card, you will have no difficulty in visiting any lodge anywhere. But your “right” to visit is limited. Any master can refuse any visitor permission to visit his lodge if he believes that the visitor will injure the peace and harmony of his lodge. Many lodges do not admit visitors during election or installation communications. As a general rule, all lodges are glad to receive visitors and to make them welcome. But a lodge, like a home, is a private institution and need not admit visitors unless the “head of the household” (the master) so desires.

The Masonic Service Association of North America