On the first day of the first month (Abib or Nisan [mid-March to mid-April), YHWH directed Moses to set up the tabernacle. This was nearly one year after the Israelites had departed from Egypt as a free people. Everything for the tabernacle and the services there had been completed to the specifications YHWH had given to Moses and the visual representations of all parts of the tabernacle and its furnishings that he had shown to him on Mount Sinai. (40:1, 2; 25:40) According to Josephus, the entire project was finished in seven months. (Antiquities, III, viii, 4)
Verses 3 through 15 set forth YHWH’s directive to Moses about setting up everything that had been constructed in the erected tabernacle with its courtyard. The ark of the testimony was to be placed in the Most Holy and screened from view with the curtain that separated the the Most Holy from the Holy. In the Holy, Moses was to position the table with the showbread. After placing the lampstand in the Holy, Moses was to light its lamps. Before the ark of the testimony (or just in front of the curtain that separated the Holy from the Most Holy), Moses was to place the golden altar of incense. At the entrance of the tabernacle, Moses was to hang the curtain that prevented anyone in the courtyard to see the inside of the tabernacle. In the courtyard, the designated position for the altar of burnt offering was before the entrance to the tabernacle, and the basin that needed to be filled with water was to be placed between the tabernacle and the altar. Although the tabernacle had been set up before the furnishings were to be brought inside, the hangings for the courtyard, as well as the curtain that served as a screen at the entrance of the courtyard, still needed to be put in position. (40:3-8; see the Notes section.)
YHWH directed Moses to anoint the tabernacle and its furnishings inside and, in the courtyard, the altar of burnt offering and the water basin and its base. This anointing would serve to sanctify everything or set it apart as holy to YHWH. Moses was to bring Aaron and his sons to the tabernacle and wash them with water. It may be that this is to be understood to mean that Aaron and his sons washed as Moses directed them. After being dressed in his priestly attire, Aaron was to be anointed and thus sanctified as holy in the service of YHWH as high priest. Moses also was to anoint his sons to serve as priests after they were dressed in their priestly garments. (40:9-15)
Verses 16 through 33 relate that Moses did everything “according to all that YHWH had commanded him.” Again the carrying out of YHWH’s command is dated — the “first month [Abib or Nisan (mid-March to mid-April)] in the second year [after Israel’s departure from Egypt], on the first day of the month.” Whereas to work is attributed to Moses, he either accomplished the tasks with the assistance of skilled workers or directed them to complete the needed tasks. To set up the tabernacle, the silver bases or sockets were put in position, the tenons of the frames were inserted therein, the bars were used to join and secure the frames of the tabernacle, and the pillars were set up. From these pillars were hung the curtain at the tabernacle entrance and the one separating the Holy from the Most Holy. Upon the erected framework of the tabernacle, Moses had the covering with the representations of cherubs placed and thereafter the other covering. (40:16-19; see the Notes section.)
Moses put the “testimony,” or the two tablets containing the “Ten Words” or “Ten Commandments,” into the ark, positioned the gold-overlaid carrying poles in the gold rings on each side of the ark, and placed the cover with the two cherubs on the ark. After bringing the ark into the tabernacle, Moses hung the curtain that separated the Holy from the Most Holy. In the Holy, he placed the table for the showbread on the north side and put the showbread on it. On the south side of the Holy, Moses set up the lampstand and lighted its lamps. In front of the curtain that separated the Holy from the Most Holy, he set up the gold altar of incense and burned incense thereon. Moses hung the curtain at the tabernacle entrance. In the courtyard, he then set up the altat of burnt offering and presented sacrifices upon it; put the basin in position and filled it with water so that he, Aaron, and his sons could wash their hands and their feet. Finally, Moses put all the hangings of the courtyard in position and hung the curtain at the entrance of the court. (40:20-33; see the Notes section.)
YHWH’s acceptance of the tabernacle as his representative place of dwelling became visibly apparent when the cloud covered it and the “glory of YHWH” filled it. On account of this development, Moses then could not enter the tabernacle. From that time onward, YHWH’s guidance of the people of Israel through the wilderness was revealed by means of the cloud. Whenever the cloud lifted, the Israelites would break camp and set out on their journey. As long as the cloud remained over the tabernacle, the people would stay where they had encamped. Both during the day and the night, the cloud could be seen, for at night it proved to be like a fire. (40:34-38; see the Notes section regarding what Josephus wrote about the cloud.)
In the Septuagint, the text for verses 7 and 8 is missing. Therefore, verse 7 in the Septuagint contains the text of verse 9, and the numbering of the verses changes accordingly. The numbering of the verses in the Septuagint changes again after verse 27 (in the Hebrew text, but 25 in the Septuagint text). The Septuagint does not include the text of verses 28, 30, 32, and 32.
Chapter 40, by means of repetition, emphasizes that Moses did everything as YHWH had commanded him. Repeatedly, one finds the phrase “as YHWH had commanded Moses.” (Verses 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 32)
In his Antiquities (III, viii, 5), Josephus wrote: “God showed himself pleased with the work of the Hebrews and did not permit their labors to be in vain; nor did he disdain to make use of what they had made, but he came and sojourned with them and pitched his tabernacle in the holy house. And in the following manner did he come to it: The sky was clear, but there was a mist over the tabernacle only, encompassing it, but not with such a very deep and thick cloud as is seen in the winter season, nor yet in so thin a one as men might be able to discern anything through it; but from it there dropped a sweet dew, and such a one as showed the presence of God to those who desired and believed it.”
Regarding the construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings, the Exodus account often repeats information. It records YHWH’s instructions to Moses and then how these were carried out and, finally, YHWH’s commands for setting up the tabernacle and its furnishings and how Moses did everything that he had been directed to do. It appears inconceivable that this kind of information would have been recorded centuries after the tabernacle was no longer in use. The relevance of material that includes so much repetition would not have existed in later centuries. Therefore, one may rightly conclude that the record in Exodus originated when it was most relevant to the Israelites and that it reflects the time when they were in the wilderness in the vicinity of Mount Sinai.