“Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes” (Isaiah 54:2 ESV)
‘You shall not build a house; you shall not sow seed; you shall not plant or have a vineyard; but you shall live in tents all your days, that you may live many days in the land where you sojourn’ (Jeremiah 35:7 ESV)
Subsistence pastoralism has been a major livelihood strategy in the Near East throughout history. The genealogy (History) of Cain’s people includes the entry: Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock (Genesis 4:20 ESV). This passing note documents the rapid rise of this semi nomadic existence among the descendants of the first human family. Based upon breeding and herding of pasture animals, this migratory lifestyle, known by the term transhumance, emphasizes the easy portability of household belongings including habituating in tents (Isaiah 38:12). Other texts associate tents with Noah and his sons (Genesis 9:21-27, Psalm 78:51). Some nomadic groups consisted of small, family or kin based encampments while others were much larger, often vast, in number (e.g., Judges 6:5; 2 Chronicles 14:14-15). This mostly tent-based society or culture, best exemplified by the Bedouin community, endures today, albeit on a much smaller, more limited scale. Ethno-archaeological studies of the modern Bedouin and their ancestors, conducted throughout the Negev, Sinai and Jordan, provide priceless windows into the world of the Old Testament and Israel’s tribal origins. These studies, augmented by 19th and 20th century explorer or missionary accounts as well as surviving photos, reveal a landscape and society that has largely disappeared (e.g., Abujaber 1989; Abujaber and Cobbing 2005; Bienkowski and van der Steen 2001; Jabbur 1995; Keohane 2003; LaBianca 2003; Nevins and Wright 1969; Rosen 2017; Rosen and Avni 1993; van der Steen 2004; 2013).
Originally made of animal skins, Bedouin tentmakers used coarse, but sturdy hand-woven black goat’s hair as the favored material throughout biblical history and antiquity. It remains in limited use today, despite the easy availability of cheaper semi synthetic substitutes. Goat’s hair swells when dampened, providing protection from rain. Many tents incorporated vertical “curtains” for use as room partitions. Depending on its size, these hanging walls enabling privacy for women (e.g., Genesis 18:9) as well as a hospitality area for visitors. Bridal canopies common at Jewish weddings may represent tent extensions or a separate tent (bridal chamber) a restricted space for wives (Psalm 19:5-6; Joel 2:16 cf., 2 Samuel 16:22). The well-known Semitic term ḥarem refers specifically to this part of the tent that is restricted or “banned” from males. Furnishings were rather sparse, with mats and rugs for floors and portable ovens/stoves, copper pots and basins, iron coffee roasters, stone grinders and mills as well as other basic living accoutrements. Animal skins largely, but not entirely replaced pottery for ease of transporting foodstuffs and liquids. The more prosperous the family, the larger their tent. The Patriarchs had separate tents for wives and servants (Genesis 24:67, 31:33). The Old Testament Tabernacle (e.g., Exodus 25-31, 35-40) and Tent of Meeting (e.g., Exodus 33:7-11) served as tents for YHWH’s abode while traveling with His people and during their initial settlement in Canaan.
The biblical texts associate various peoples as pastoralists following a nomadic lifestyle and living in tents. These groups include the Arabs and Ishmaelites, Cushites, Edomites, Hagrites, Kedarites, Kenites, Meunites, Midianites, Moabites, Rechabites and other peoples sojourning in marginal areas of the southern Levant (e.g., Numbers 31:10; Judges 4-5, 6:5, 20:8; 1 Chronicles 4:41, 5:10; 2 Chronicles 14:15; Psalm 83:6, 120:5; Isaiah 13:20; Jeremiah 35:7; Habakkuk 3:7).
Relevance to the Biblical Account
Dwelling in tents plays a prominent role in various Old Testament accounts and most markedly in the lives of the semi-nomadic-pastoralist Patriarchs, beginning with Abraham (e.g., Genesis 12:8, 13:3-18). Abraham and Sarah entertaining three visiting angels at their tent is perhaps the most memorable example of their pastoralist life (Genesis 18:1-15). Tents continue to serve as the primary dwelling places for Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 24:67, 25:27, 26:25; 31:25-34, 33:19, 35:21; Numbers 24:5; Jeremiah 30:18; Malachi 2:12).
The Israelites lived in tents or fragile shelters during the Exodus and Wilderness Sojourn (e.g., Exodus 16:16, 33:8; Numbers 1:52, 11:10, 16:27; Deuteronomy 1:27-33; 11:6, 16:7), which partly became the basis of the Jewish festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths; cf. Matthew 17:4; Mark 9:5; Luke 9:33). Israelites continued to dwell in tents during their initial Settlement Period in Canaan (Joshua 3:14; 7:21-24, 22:4-8; cf., Judges 13:25, 18:12). The assassination of Canaanite military leader Sisera by Jael the Kenite (Judges 4) occurred in her tent. In an ironic twist of fate, Jael used a tent peg to impale Sisera’s head to the ground. An early Israelite scribe recited this highly symbolic account in moving poetic form in the following chapter (Judges 5).
One should not necessarily interpret the various forms of the Hebrew idiom “to go to one’s tent” literally, especially relating to later contexts when most Israelites lived in stone and mudbrick houses. The phrase simply implied returning home to one’s family, clan and tribal inheritance. This picture joins other texts that also symbolically reflect on Israel’s origins (e.g., Deuteronomy 5:30, 33:18; Judges 7:8; 1 Samuel 4:10, 13:2; 2 Samuel 20:1; 1 Kings 8:66, 12:16; 2 Chronicles 10:16; Psalm 78:67; Isaiah 38:12; Jeremiah 4:20; Hosea 9:6, 12:9; Zechariah 12:7). The Bible extends this metaphor as a broad reference to the vast regions settled by Noah’s descendants. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant (Genesis 9:27 ESV); He struck down every firstborn in Egypt, the first fruits of their strength in the tents of Ham (Psalm 78:51 ESV).
The interestingly named “Way of the Tent-Dwellers” (Judges 8:11), likely refers to a seasonal migratory-transitory route used by Bedouin linking the Jordan Valley with the Ammonite Hill Country, the Madaba Tableland and the desert beyond.
Tent related vocabulary attested in the Bible reflects its common usage and understanding in the culture. Terms include the dark goat hair material (Exodus 26:7, 36:14; Song of Songs 1:5), the tent center pole (Isaiah 40:22), the tent cord (Job 4:21; Isaiah 54:2; Jeremiah 10:20), a tent peg and a large wooden mallet for driving the pegs into the ground (Judges 4:21-22, 5:26; Zechariah 10:4). Paul worked for a time as a tentmaker, probably in Tarsus, an area known for its goat’s-hair cloth. Later on, while living in Corinth, Paul joined Aquila and Priscilla and again practiced this profession (Acts 18: 1-4, cf. 2 Corinthians 5:1-4).
The Horn Museum owns two authentic goat hair Bedouin tents. Purchased in 1999, the first tent measures approximately 9 x 33 feet. The second tent, ordered in 2016 and received in 2017, measures 9 x 22 feet. The dimensions of the two tents are roughly two-thirds and one-half size respectively of a standard Bedouin tent. Both tents came from tentmaker Ziad Maiah of Madaba, Jordan and included wooden poles and ropes. An old Arabic idiom for a Bedouin tent is “house of hair” and only a brief intrusion is required to convince the guest of the appropriateness of this moniker! Our display tent invites Horn Museum visitors to enter and relax on its cushions while viewing the various modern and ancient artifacts exhibited in and in front of the tent. This very carefully prepared exhibit intends to recreate the biblical world of the Patriarchs for the museum guest. Related artifacts on display include authentic Bedouin rugs and clothes, a camel saddle, coffee roaster, charcoal stove, goatskin butter churn and incense burner and heater. The Horn Museum collection includes an iron tent pin (92.0059), a bronze tent needle (64.0091), two tent poles (87.0403) and a tent line tightener (76.0516).
Abujaber, Raouf Sa’d
1989 Pioneers Over Jordan: The Frontier of Settlement in Transjordan, 1850-1914. Second edition. London: I. B. Tauris & Co.
Abujaber, Raouf Sa’d, and Cobbing, Felicity
2005 Beyond the River: Ottoman Transjordan in Original Photographs. London: Stacey International.
Bienkowski, Piotr, and van der Steen, Eveline J.
2001 Tribes, Trade, and Towns: A New Framework for the Late Iron Age in Southern Jordan and the Negev. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 323: 21-47.
Homan, Michael M.
2002 To Your Tents, O Israel! The Terminology, Function, Form, and Symbolism of Tents in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 12. Leiden: Brill.
Jabbur, Jibrail S.
1995 The Bedouins and the Desert: Aspects of Nomadic Life in the Arab East. Translated from Arabic by Lawrence I. Conrad. Albany: State University of New York.
2003 Bedouin: Nomads of the Desert. London: Kyle Cathie.
LaBianca, Øystein S.
2003 Subsistence Pastoralism. Pp. 116-123 in Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader, edited by Suzanne Richard. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
Nevins, Edward, and Wright, Theon
1969 World without Time: The Bedouin. New York: John Day.
Rosen, Steven A.
2017 Revolutions in the Desert: The Rise of Mobile Pastoralism in the Southern Levant. New York: Routledge.
Rosen, Steven A., and Avni, Gideon
1993 The Edge of the Empire: The Archaeology of Pastoral Nomads in the Southern Negev Highlands in Late Antiquity. Biblical Archaeologist 56/4: 189-199.
van der Steen, Eveline J.
2004 Tribes and Territories in Transition. The Central east Joran Valley in the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age: A Study of the Sources. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 130. Leuven: Peeters.
2013 Near Eastern Tribal Societies during the Nineteenth Century: Economy, Society and Politics between Tent and Town. Approaches to Anthropological Archaeology. London: Equinox and Routledge.