Jacob’s Tabernacle

Sacred architecture was always a form of promise, a model of what was yet to come. All of the furnitures in the Tent of Meeting found their fulfilment in the offices and ministry of the people of God, and eventually in Christ. So, it should not surprise us to find that the birth order and names of the twelve sons of Jacob, as his “house,” follow the pattern of the cosmic dwelling established in Genesis 1.

How beautiful are thy tabernacles, O Jacob, and thy tents, O Israel! As woody valleys, as watered gardens near the rivers, as tabernacles which the Lord hath pitched, as cedars by the waterside. (Numbers 24:5-6)

The Tabernacle of Adam

The architectural nature of humanity begins in Genesis 2, where the creation of Adam follows the pattern of the Tabernacle elements as it corresponds to Genesis 1.1See The Spirit of Adam. Adam is placed into a Garden at the centre of which are two trees which represent priesthood and kingdom. The Man himself is cut down like a tree (priesthood) and raised up again as a house (kingdom). He then speaks the first recorded human words as a proto-prophet concerning the Woman. Adam himself is the third tree, and he was to be a tree of righteousness, a “booth” (Sukkot), that is, food and shelter for all humanity.2See The Third Tree. Procreation was, and still is, an act of earthly housebuilding.3See Sex and Architecture.

But this is only the first stage of the triune architecture of Garden, Land and World. Moving from Adam and Eve as “two earthen tablets” in the Most Holy Place,4See God-In-A-Box. it would seem from later patterns that they should have had three sons who would fulfill the roles of Priest (Abel – the Golden Table), King (Cain – the Lampstand) and Prophet (the Altar of Incense). But we are told that this “third son,” Seth, was instead born to Eve to replace Abel (Genesis 4:25). When the priesthood of the line of Seth became dissolute through godless intermarriage, there was “no more sacrifice for sin” (Hebrews 10:26).

Enoch had served as a prophetic replacement, a sort of Firstfruits5See Why Was Enoch Taken?, but his ministry was completed in the warnings of Noah, who incidentally had three sons, completing the sacred architecture: Noah and his wife as the Most Holy, their three sons and their godly wives as the Holy Place, the Laver as the waters and the submerged earth as the bloodied Altar of Bronze. The Great Flood, the vengeance of God upon all flesh, was the global expression of the Day of Atonement in Genesis 3.

(Ark behind the Veil)


Ham (kingly)     —     Japheth (prophetic)     —     Shem (priestly)


Flood (Bronze Laver)


Land (Bronze Altar)

So, the architecture of the Messianic line throughout the Old Testament is cross-shaped, a cruciform house of flesh. But Jacob had twelve sons, which does not fit the pattern at all. Or does it?

The House of Jacob

English translations miss many of the allusions and double meanings in the Hebrew texts, and some of these are architectural. The earliest and perhaps the most important is the fact that Eve was not created but constructed, a word which is not used again until Cain constructs his city-fortress.6Peter Leithart, Bridal City. Eve is forever linked to the eschatological city, as either Jerusalem or Babel. The city is always a she, and the storming of the gates of a city often culminated in the rape of the women.

If learning Hebrew is not your thing, the next best approach is reading the works of scholars like Robert Alter, who notices a gem of an architectural allusion in Genesis 30:1-5.

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” Then she said, “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. [ESV]

Here is Alter’s translation of verse 5:

And she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Have intercourse with her that she may give birth on my knees and I too shall be built up through her.”

According to Alter, verse 5 contains a pun that is quite obvious in the Hebrew, “I shall be built up” (’ibbaneh), which plays on banim, sons, and so has the sense of “I shall be sonned.”7Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 186. To bare many sons was to become “built up” as a house.

Of course, the shape of the Tabernacle is more difficult to discern in Jacob’s offspring because there were not three sons but twelve. The problem seems insoluble until we take the meanings of their names into account.

Name Birth Date Mother Name Means Reference
Reuben 2246 AM (1759 BC) Leah see a son Genesis 29:32
Simeon 2247 AM (1757 BC) Leah God has heard Genesis 29:33
Levi 2248 AM (1756 BC) Leah joining Genesis 29:34
Judah 2249 AM (1755 BC) Leah to praise Genesis 29:35
Dan 2249 AM (1755 BC) Bilhah judged Genesis 30:5-6
Naphtali 2250 AM (1754 BC) Bilhah my struggle Genesis 30:7-8
Gad 2251 AM (1753 BC) Zilpah troop, company Genesis 30:10-11
Asher 2252 AM (1752 BC) Zilpah happy  Genesis 30:12-13
Issachar 2252 AM (1752 BC) Leah reward, recompense Genesis 30:17-18
Zebulun 2253 AM (1751 BC) Leah gifts, honor Genesis 30:19-20
Joseph 2259 AM (1745 BC) Rachel  God shall add/increase  Genesis 30:23-24
Benjamin 2266 AM (1739 BC) Rachel son of my right hand  Genesis 35:16-18

Jacob also had a daughter, Dinah, by his wife Leah, about 2254 AM (1750 BC), (Genesis 30:21).

Once their subject matter is seen as a process, it is easy to discern that they are an expression not merely of the Holy Place but of the complete architecture, and the wisdom of our great God becomes apparent.

The following chart is not as complicated as it might appear. I have included the fivefold Covenant pattern, as well as the elements of the Creation/Tabernacle, the process of sacrifice, and Israel’s festal calendar, since they all carry the same ‘tune.’

LIGHT: Ark of the Testimony

Reuben (‘See a Son’)
Simeon (‘God has Heard’)
LAND: Bronze Altar 
Levi (‘Joining’)
Judah (‘To Praise’)
Dan & Naphtali (‘Judged’ & ‘My Struggle’)
SWARMS / HOSTS: Incense Altar (Plunder and Plagues)
Gad & Asher (‘Troop’ & ‘Happy’)
ANIMALS AND MAN: High Priest and Sacrifices (Mediators)
Issachar & Zebulun (‘Reward’ & ‘Honour’)
Joseph & Benjamin (‘God shall Add’ & ‘Son of my Right Hand’)8Thanks to Chris Wooldridge for his helpful suggestions here.

If you are not used to reading this architectural music in the text, it might all be a bit much to take in. So, I will prune this amazing tree down to the branches, that is, just the names. Once that is done, a very interesting aspect is allowed to shine.

Dan & Naphtali
Gad & Asher
Issachar & Zebulun

Joseph & Benjamin

By now, you might be thinking I am raving mad, but what we have here is a Forming and a Filling, another proof that this progression is a replication of the Creation Week.

Days 1-3 are all a process of division, of parting things, with a preliminary “filling” at the end of Day 3, grain and fruit plants as a promise of bread and wine as qualified prophets at God’s table on Day 7 (and at the culmination of history). So each element, each piece of “furniture” aligns with a single tribal name. The first half of the process is Adamic, and you might notice that these first four sons were all the children of Leah.

The process appears to tie Levi to the Land, which seems ironic since Levites had no such inheritance. But the Levite priests were considered by God as a tithe of the Land, a “firstborn” Altar-tribe (Numbers 3:12) within the “firstborn” nation (Exodus 4:22). What the Levites were tied to was the element of Tabernacle which represented the Land, that is, the Bronze Altar.

The first half of this sacrificial architecture ends with Judah as the blameless Firstfruits, the kingly “firstborn” offered on the altar and lifted up into the sanctuary as a Lamb.

Days 4-6 are all days of Filling, of multiplication, and the corresponding sons are all double witnesses. The sons of the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah represent Israel in the wilderness, receiving the Law at Pentecost and being gathered around the Tabernacle at Trumpets. Issachar and Zebulun, sons of Leah, are the Mosaic blessings conferred upon a new generation of Israel before the conquest of the Land. But Day 6, although bridal, is still outside of God’s rest. It should be noted that it is at this point that Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah, is born. Fittingly, her name means ‘Avenged, judged and vindicated,’ which ties her to the Oath/Sanctions of the Covenant.

Bread and Cup

Day 7 concerns the future, and Joseph and Benjamin not only take us right to the end of the book of Genesis, but to the precious and faithful sons of the true bride, the beloved Rachel. The “spiritual” sons serve as bookends in the testing/failure (flesh/bread) and testing/reconciliation (judgment/cup) of the carnal sons.

Joseph’s name speaks of the abundance of the Land and Benjamin’s name speaks of the abundance of the Womb, the two things which were given to Adam and Eve but limited with curses on Day 6 of history. The first two promises two Abraham concerned a fruitful Land and a fruitful Womb, but these both remained barren for some time while his faith was tested.

You might notice that the entire progression begins with the joy of an infant son but ends with a son “at the right hand,” that is, a son not merely by flesh but also in Spirit, a son who not only images the father physically (circumcision of flesh) but also represents him spiritually (circumcision of heart).

Finally, if we sort this Creation pattern into two columns, another surprising facet appears, a correlation which ties the promise of kingdom to its fulfilment in Christ.

Forming (Days 1-3)
Filling (Days 4-7)
Dan & Naphtali
Gad & Asher
Issachar & Zebulun
Land Animals and Man
Grain & Grape Bearers
Joseph – Priestly Bread
BenjaminKingly Cup

Judah brings forth a haul of grapes, the firstfruits of a promised inheritance, but it is Beit-lechem (“house of bread”), a town of Benjamin, where the emperor’s cup is hidden in the grain (Genesis 44:2).9The book of Ruth ties Bethlehem to the promises concerning the fruit of the Land and the fruit of the Womb, if we have ears to hear. Judah and Benjamin, as promise and fulfilment, Golden Table and Temple Shekinah, were the heart of the kingdom of David.

References   [ + ]

1. See The Spirit of Adam.
2. See The Third Tree.
3. See Sex and Architecture.
4. See God-In-A-Box.
5. See Why Was Enoch Taken?
6. Peter Leithart, Bridal City.
7. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 186.
8. Thanks to Chris Wooldridge for his helpful suggestions here.
9. The book of Ruth ties Bethlehem to the promises concerning the fruit of the Land and the fruit of the Womb, if we have ears to hear.

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