We approach the season of Sukkot, when Jews are commanded to live in tents to remember the 40 years of living in the desert before settling in Israel. Besides entering a new land and ceasing to wander, the ancient Israelites had to get used to a new domicile – the permanent dwelling – the house. Not only do the people undergo this major change, but in a way also God does.
When the Israelites leave Egypt, they go into the Sinai desert. After the disastrous experience with the representatives who were sent to tour the land, God sentences the people to wander the desert for 40 years before settling into their new country. The people must live in tents and be ready to move at any time that God decides. When God’s pillar moves, the entire encampment must be packed up and moved as well.
Not only do the people move, but the tabernacle, God’s house, must also be moved. So important was this process that entire chapters of the Torah are dedicated to exactly how this is to happen and which individuals and families will move which parts of the tabernacle. Theologically, the ability to have a “portable” God is an important development in the ancient world where many gods were associated with just one locale. This God, the God of the Israelites, is different – He can move.
But all things must come to an end and the Israelites settle into the promised land after the 40 years of wandering. They are instructed to “settle” the land – stop wandering and stay put. There are even tribal allotments to keep them hemmed in to a distinct area. All this is seen as progress – not as a negative. This is part of the development of a national identity.
God’s house, the tabernacle, also moves in stages from a movable tent to a permanent structure. Initially, after settling, God’s tent dwelling moves to Shilo. There is stays for 369 years according to tradition – a permanent location, but not a permanent building. The ark of the covenant, the most important element of the tabernacle, however, continues to move. It does not stay in Shilo, but is taken out to war during the battle of Even HaEzer and captured by the Philistines. It is placed in a temple to the Philistine god Dagon in Ashdod, but does not stay there for long either, after destroying the Dagon’s statue. The Philistines place it on an ox-drawn cart to wander, yet again. The oxen take it back to within Israelite territory where it resides within a tent separate from the tabernacle.
King David wants to provide a permanent home for God and put the ark there.
“When the king was settled in his palace and God had granted him safety from all the enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Natan, “Here I am dwelling in a house of cedar, while the Ark of God abides in a tent!” II Samuel 7:1-2
David, however, is not the one who will build God’s house; it is his son, Solomon, who will bring an end to God’s dwelling in a tent. The original movable tent of God, the tabernacle, was stored within the permanent Temple as a reminder of the nomadic past. Josephus describes:
“…it was the seventh month…which month is, by our countrymen, called Tishrei….The Feast of Tabernacles happened to fall at the same time…So they carried the ark and the tabernacle which Moses had pitched, and all the vessels that were for ministration of the sacrifices of God, and removed them to the Temple….and in this manner did they carry the ark; but when they should transfer it into the most secret places, the rest of the multitude went away, and only those priests that carried it set it between the two cherubim…” Josephus Antiquities 8:4:1
History has been written by house-dwelling urban elites. As a result, there are many negative connotations for tent-dwellers and the impermanence of a nomadic lifestyle portrayed throughout time. The Bible paints a different picture; the founding fathers and mothers all lived in tents, the nation of Israel was born in the desert. At this time of Sukkot, we remember that past when not only we, but also God, lived in a tent.