What do you picture in your mind when you think of a tent? Camping? Wedding tent? Circus tent? Have you ever lived in a tent for an extended period of time?
I lived in a tent in our basement while work was being done on our master bedroom. It was dark, damp and cold. Even though I was uncomfortable, I knew it was temporary. My permanent bedroom would be wonderful, and I anticipated its warmth, style and comfort. Looking forward to permanence made my stay in the tent bearable.
In the Bible, tents were a common dwelling place. The tents of the ancient near eastern world were similar, yet different from our nylon and polyester camping tents today. They were portable shelters that came to symbolize living by faith in a body that was temporary. Recognizing our bodies as “tents,” helps us to understand what to prioritize and value in our lives. It teaches us to endure as we anticipate our permanent home, an eternal body in the presence of God.
Description of Tents in the Bible
The tents of the ancient near eastern (ANE) world were probably much like Bedouin tents found in the middle east today. Bedouins are nomadic herders who dwell in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Northern Africa. Their tents are made of goatskin, usually the color black. Wooden stakes or tree limbs form the skeleton. They are approximately the size of a two-car garage. Tents are placed in camps for protections from enemies. Most tents house the entire family, dividing the space into two sections with a curtain as partition. The front area is for the men and guests. The back area is for the women and children. A separate tent hat is segregated for women only is a sign of wealth.
In the ANE, a popular spot was the “door” of the tent. This was a shady spot to pick up any breeze and to keep an eye on things. Abraham was sitting in this spot in Genesis 18.
The tent was furnished inside with rugs or mats and cushions. The interior was smoky due to lamps burning oil (olive or animal fat) and nearby cooking fires. Cooking utensils included a stone mill for grinding grain, oil jars, and clay pitchers and bowls. Goatskin bottles were used to hold wine, milk and water. These were often hung from the ceiling or on a tripod.
Tents in the New Testament were most likely similar to the ones used by the Roman army. The contubernium was the most common tent. It was 10 feet by 5 feet and slept 8 soldiers. The status of the occupant could be determined by the height of the tent. Common soldier tents were 5 feet at the ridge. Centurion’s tents were 8 feet tall, and the General’s tent was 12 feet with multiple rooms. We have drawings of civilian tents from the Roman era that look like pup tents. They slept 2-4 people. These simple tents were erected with two support poles, one cross pole, a large leather sheet and tent pegs to hold the sides down. Paul was a tentmaker during the Roman era, and I can imagine he sewed these type of leather sheets for sale. Click here to see a reconstruction of these Roman leather tents.
Many of the characters in the Old Testament lived a nomadic lifestyle that required their dwellings to be portable. Hence, we see many stories set around these portable homes. Armies lived in tents a few months each year when they went to war. When David offered to send Uriah home from the front, Uriah refused, saying that all the soldiers and even the ark of the covenant slept in tents. Why should he sleep in his house? (2 Samuel 11:11) Shepherds slept in tents while out with the flocks. (Jeremiah 6:3)
Jews live in temporary shelters once a year when they celebrate Succoth. God commanded the Jews to live in temporary shelters for seven days to remember the tents they lived in when God delivered them from Egypt. (Leviticus 23:42-43)
Living in tents symbolized living by faith.
Dwelling in tents was portable and temporary. Its imagery often signified a re-ordering of values from present circumstances to an eternal, permanent home. A great example of this is the tent dwelling lifestyles of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel.
The story of Abraham and Sarah is found in the book of Genesis. God called Abraham to leave his homeland of Ur to live in the land of Canaan. God promised to give the land of Canaan as an inheritance to Abraham’s descendants. He obeyed God, and adopted a wandering lifestyle, moving with his herds across the land, and dwelling in tents. He bought no land, only a burial cave for Sarah, and he built no permanent house. His son, grandson and great-grandsons all lived this way until a great famine forced them to move to Egypt where the following generations were forced into slavery. Abraham’s dwelling in tents became symbolic of his faith in God’s promises to give his family a permanent home in the land of Canaan.
“By faith he (Abraham) made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Hebrews 11:9-10
Abraham did not see the fulfillment of this promise while living in tents, but in faith he saw his permanent home.
The Tent is a metaphor for the body.
Metaphorically, a tent describes our physical body. Our body is the temporary dwelling place, or tent, for our soul. King Hezekiah called his body a shepherd’s tent. When he fell very ill, he thought he was about to die and he said in Isaiah 38:12….
“Like a shepherd’s tent my house has been pulled down and taken from me.”
In the New Testament, both Paul and Peter called their body a tent. In 2 Peter 1:13-14, Peter writes that as long as he was in “this tent”, he would continue to remind Christians to be diligent. Yet, he knew that the removal of the tent was impending. What was he saying by using this tent metaphor? That he knew he would die soon.
In 2 Corinthians 5:1, Paul uses the same metaphor.
“For we know that if our earthly house, the tent, should be destroyed, we have a house from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in heaven.”
A person of faith believes that our body is a temporary dwelling for our soul and looks forward to a permanent body. Paul begins 2 Corinthians 5:1 with the words, “For we know.” What is it that we know? Backing up a verse, we see the context. In 4:18, Paul wrote that he looks not at that which is seen, but that which is unseen. For what he can see is temporary, but what he can’t see is eternal.
Faith is trusting something that cannot be seen, in something beyond the material world around us. It is the ability to focus attention on eternal matters rather than on temporary circumstances. Abraham’s faith was signified by dwelling in tents, yet he believed in God’s promise for an eternal, permanent home.
1 Corinthians 15:42-44 contrasts the tent, our physical body, with our eternal house, a body that God gives to us for eternity. The tent of our current body is compared to the house of our eternal body.
- The tent is perishable. Our house is imperishable.
- The tent has dishonor. Our house is glorious.
- The tent is weak. Our house is powerful.
- The tent is natural. Our house is super-natural.
When I lived in my temporary dwelling, my tent in the basement, I longed for my permanent bedroom to be complete. I didn’t let the discomfort get to me, because I knew it was temporary. I also tempered my investment in my temporary tent, because I knew it would not last and there was no sense wasting money and time on something that would not last. In the same way, a person of faith always keeps an eye on the eternal value of things done in the body, knowing that we dwell in a temporary tent.
How would understanding your body as a tent change your priorities?
In the Bible, tents were a common dwelling place. They were portable shelters that came to symbolize living by faith in a body that was temporary.Tweet