This description is generally identified as part of the Priestly source ("P"), written in the sixth or fifth century BCE. However whilst the first Priestly source takes the form of instructions, the second is largely a repetition of the first in the past tense, i.e., it describes the execution of the instructions. Many scholars contend that it is of a far later date than the time of Moses, and that the description reflects the structure of Solomon's Temple, while some hold that the description derives from memories of a real pre-monarchic shrine, perhaps the sanctuary at Shiloh. Traditional scholars contend that it describes an actual tabernacle used in the time of Moses and thereafter. According to historical criticism, an earlier, pre-exilic source, the Elohist ("E"), describes the Tabernacle as a simple tent-sanctuary.
God gave the specific order for the arrangement of the furniture (Exodus 40:20-38). If you could trace a line around their divine order the following would appear (the ark and mercy seat are two pieces forming one).
The first piece a worshipper would encounter as he came through the door was the altar. It was wood covered with brass (or copper at that time). It was a perfect square with horns on each of the 4 corners. It was where the blood sacrifices of clean lambs and goats would be offered in the heat of fire unto God for atonement (the covering and forgiveness of sins) (Exodus 27:1-8, Leviticus 17:11).
The second piece of furniture was a washing basin for the priests called the laver (lavatory – place of washing). It came after the altar of sacrifice and before the entrance to the sanctuary. It was made of polished copper. Its purpose was “to wash”. The priests had to daily wash their hands and feet from dirt and contamination before they worshipped God at the altar or entered the sanctuary to serve. The laver was not for the shedding of sacrificial blood for sin but for the washing of dirt. One had to be clean to serve. (Exodus 30:18-21).
The holy place contained gold not copper: the golden lampstand, the golden table of bread and the golden altar of incense. Here the washed priests entered to perform service and representative worship unto the Lord. This section tells that God is not only interested in our forgiveness and daily cleanliness but also our worship.
On the south side of the holy place stood the pure golden lampstand. The gold was formed into the shape of an almond tree in the full bloom of life by beating or hammering. It had six fruitful branches with a central shaft or trunk. They were designed to hold seven bowls filled with olive oil to provide light. Light and life merged together in one unit. The light was continual and was never to go out.
There was no light at all in the holy place except that which came from the golden lampstand. The varied colors and beauty of the inner sanctuary could only be seen in this one light.
Directly opposite the lampstand stood the table of showbread on the north side. One could only see the bread by the one light. Twelve loaves of bread were set on it once a week. During the week the bread was to be displayed before God. On the Sabbath the priests were to eat it. Thus God and man shared the same table together in fellowship of the same bread.
The holiest place of all contained the Ark of the Covenant covered with a special lid called the mercy seat. This was where God’s presence resided and where He communed (talked) with Moses (Exodus 25:22). The veil or curtain blocked the way so others could not enter in. However, the minute the Lord Jesus died on the cross the veil, then in the temple, was split in two showing the way was now made for all to come into the communion with God (Matthew 27:51, Hebrews 9:7-8, 10:19-21).
The third and last piece of furniture in the holy place was the altar of incense with its four horns. This stood by the veil, which separated the holy place from the holiest of holies. This altar was for one purpose only: to burn incense, not sacrifice. The incense was a special God-prescribed formula, which sent out a rich fragrant smoke when the priest lit it at morning and evening.
The Ark was a chest made out of wood covered with gold and sporting a crown border like the table and incense altar. It, however, rested in the holiest place where the presence of God dwelt. The chest contained the two tablets of the Ten Commandments: God’s standard of righteousness – a golden pot of manna: Gods provision to sustain His people in life – and Aaron’s rod that budded with life: God’s choice as High Priest to be our continual mediator and intercessor (Psalm 40:6-10, John 6:51, Hebrews 4:14).
The Mercy Seat was the cover of the ark. It was solid gold beaten into winged cherubim; one at each end looking down where God’s presence was. Cherubim are involved with the protection of God’s holiness. Here, once a year, the high priest alone went in with sacrificial blood from the brazen altar to sprinkle it on the mercy seat to obtain forgiveness of sins for Israel.
Synagogue construction over the last two thousand years has followed the outlines of the original Tabernacle. Every synagogue has at its front an ark, aron kodesh, containing the Torah scrolls, comparable to the Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets with Ten Commandments. This is the holiest spot in a synagogue, equivalent to the Holy of Holies.
There is also usually a constantly lighted lamp, Ner tamid, or a candelabrum, lighted during services, near a spot similar to the position of the original Menorah. At the center of the synagogue is a large elevated area, known as the bimah, where the Torah is read. This is equivalent to the Tabernacle's altars upon which incense and animal sacrifices were offered. On the main holidays the priests, kohanim, gather at the front of the synagogue to bless the congregation as did their priestly ancestors in the Tabernacle from Aaron onwards (Numbers 6:22-27).