More possibly significant temple architecture

In the last post I laid out a case for a pervasive contrast between two kinds of temple architecture in Scripture, arising from what I take to be a deliberate contrast between the sacred space described in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and that of Genesis 2:4ff. Here’s a further example – a textual problem that, to me, makes most sense when seen as part of a deliberate set of contrasts.

In Exodus 33, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, there is a confusing mention of a “tent of meeting” that appears to be different from the tabernacle that is, frequently, referred to by the same name (and by the same Hebrew words):

Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, a good distance from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting which was outside the camp. And it came about, whenever Moses went out to the tent, that all the people would arise and stand, each at the entrance of his tent, and gaze after Moses until he entered the tent. Whenever Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent; and the Lord would speak with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would arise and worship, each at the entrance of his tent. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses returned to the camp, his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.

Even the mini-concordance in my NASB notes this confusion:

TENT OF MEETING – perhaps the same as the Tabernacle or at certain periods a separate meeting place.

The distinction was long noted by the rabbis, who gave various explanations, and the consensus of critical scholarship, represented by J P Hyatt in his New Century Commentary of 1971, is that the Tabernacle, in all its complexity, comes from the priestly source P, whilst the simple and “charismatic” tent of Exodus 33 is from the “more primitive” E source, and, in Hyatt’s words:

…has more claim to represent the authentic tent of meeting of the wilderness than the Tabernacle described by P.

Partly, I suppose, the old claim that such a tabernacle would be architecturally impossible has a bearing on this conclusion, together with the supposed lateness of the P source. Unfortunately for this, there is now good evidence that the “priestly” passages are among the earliest, not the last, and as Kenneth Kitchen has shown, just such cubical and partitioned tents existed in Egypt in the right time period.

Also, like so many of the “evidences” of the documentary hypothesis, this explanation depends on the author of Exodus being too stupid to notice a glaring contradiction – in this case, the explanation of Moses’ place of meeting is sandwiched right between the account of his being given the detailed pattern for the tabernacle on the mountain, and the even more detailed account of its construction that is the climax of the book of Exodus. Needless to say, if Moses’s tent is “authentic” and the priestly Tabernacle merely “literary”, the whole point of the book of Exodus – God’s coming to dwell amongst his people as per the promise of the covenant – is lost.

I think it’s time to move beyond the “contradictory traditions” type of explanation, and ask instead why a brilliant author set up such a confusion in the first place. Upfront I will say that I cannot explain why the same term is applied to two very different structures, and is applied in a way that sometimes makes it unclear which is being referenced. But radically different they certainly are, both in structure and function.

The description in Ex 33 is of a simple tent taken from the camp by Moses and pitched some distance outside, perhaps for simple seclusion or, as one source suggests, because at this time Yahweh refused to associate with his people until Moses interceded for them in this very tent. Once completed, however, the official tabernacle was placed at the centre of the camp, with the tribes marshalled around it. This is an irreconcilable difference.

Then Moses is said to stay within this tent until the Lord descends to its doorway to speak to him, as it were, face to face, in a pillar of cloud (compare Gen 18:1-2). Not only that, but his young assistant Joshua, an Ephraimite and not a Levite, is permanently stationed within the tent. Furthermore, it seems that on certain other occasions, other business was done within the tent, such as when Aaron and Miriam, contesting Moses’ authority, are summoned to it, a meeting which results in Miriam becoming leprous. In contrast, the Tabernacle was a place where God’s glory dwelt permanently, from which all but levitical priests in the course of their duties were excluded, and of course only the High Priest could enter the holy of holies and encounter Yahweh in his glory on his annual act of atonement.

The Tabernacle, of course, was for the daily use of all Israel in making their sacrifices, and for the worship of the people through their levitical priests. But as the quoted passage from Ex 33 shows, the lesser tent was for Moses’ exclusive use to hear words from God, and the people took note whenever he went out to it, sometimes going themselves to enquire of the Lord, presumably through Moses or perhaps Joshua, rather than to sacrifice, there being no altar.

Another specific function of the Tabernacle, as opposed to Moses’s tent of meeting, was the placing of the ark containing the tablets of stone in the holy place. This depositing in the shrine of a deity was according to the universal ANE practice in making covenant treaties. It is inconceiveable that such a covenant document would not be placed in the shrine of Yahweh, which is not how Moses’s tent is described. In effect, then, to deny the existence of the Tabernacle is to deny the whole narrative of the Sinai covenant.

It would appear that the Exodus 33 tent of meeting may have been solely restricted to the extraordinary ministry of Moses (Num 12:6-8; Deut 34:10-12), perhaps extended to Joshua, since he had clearly been intimately involved with it in Moses’s lifetime. There may be hints that the edifice, at least, was preserved: In 1 Sam 2:22 the sons of Eli are condemned for sleeping with “the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting.” This is hard to square with the Tabernacle, whose ministry was entirely the domain of the male priesthood (though laxity is another explanation – Samuel was an Ephraimite, not a Levite, and yet slept as a boy within the Tabernacle, called “the Temple” in the text, at Shiloh, ministering with a ephod.)

So there does seem to be a sharp and complete contrast between two tents (albeit bearing the same name), and if we reject the source-critical explanation of a blatant contradiction (fatal to the theme of the book of Exodus), what other possibilities remain?

Suppose, as I have suggested in the previous post and elsewhere, that there is a running theme in the Torah of the contrast between the old creation of the Genesis 1 “cosmic temple”, and the new creation of the Genesis 2 Garden of Eden? This contrast, as I have suggested, continues in the direct encounters with God of the Patriarchs and Moses, comparable to the garden; and with the worship of the Tabernacle and Temple, in which the worshipper is separated from God by curtains and walls comparable to the cosmic divisions of the creation story.

If that is a genuine concern of the writer, then the placing of the description of Moses’s tent of meeting in Ex 33 is significant, because it is sandwiched between two detailed descriptions of the other tent of meeting, the Tabernacle. For after the giving of the plans for the Tabernacle on the mountain, Moses descends to find Israel in the midst of the rebellion of the golden calf, and smashes the tablets of the covenant. Yahweh makes as if to destroy Israel and continue his purposes only through Moses, but the latter, interceding “face to face” in this non-partitioned tent, speaks Christlike words of willingness to be blotted out of God’s book if God will not stay with Israel along with himself. Adam is a blessing to Israel through his intimacy with Yahweh, a theme to be found from Adam to Jesus.

Even the other notable incident involving this tent – the confrontation with Aaron and Miriam, is in essence a statement of the superiority of the unique personal relationship of Moses (established, remember, by the refusal of the rest of Israel to meet God on the mountain soon after they reach Sinai when summoned by the blast of the trumpet) over the levitical priesthood established to serve in the Tabernacle.

In summary, I suggest that we should see Moses’ tent of meeting as being in continuity with the garden sanctuary of Eden, and ultimately with the filling of the earth with God’s glory promised through Christ. It is of the new creation, as opposed to the old creation institution of the Tabernacle. Rather than being the product of contradictory human traditions about Israel’s past, as critical scholarship suggested, this mysterious contrast is an integral part of the prophetic revelation of the whole biblical meta-narrative.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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