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The Tent of Meeting - cultural parallels

The Old Testament background

Exodus 25-31 describes the Tent of Meeting and the other ceremonial items to be used by the Israelites, for example the priestly garments. This page looks at some parallel material in Ugaritic religious literature to highlight similarities. It is clear that there are a significant number of points of similarity between the two, suggesting that they arose at a common era. There are of course significant differences betwen Ugaritic thought and Old Testament theology. However, the language used, and visual expectations of the desert Tent of Meeting are quite similar to information arising from Middle and Late Bronze Ugarit. By the time Israelite worship had accomodated to its new setting in Canaan the vocabulary had changed. It is therefore reasonable that the Tabernacle pattern of worship, and the Exodus with which it is associated, also spring out of a Middle/Late Bronze setting.

Vocabulary used

A number of words are used in the Pentateuch to describe the Tent of Meeting, translated by a variety of terms such as tent, tabernacle, etc. The main words used in this connection are:
’ôhel
(Strong's 168) This is the common word for a tent of any description, and is derived from the verb ’âhal, meaning to pitch or strike a tent. It occurs nearly 350 times in the Old Testament, of which 214 are in the Pentateuch.
qeresh
(Strong's 7175) This is used about 30 times in Exodus and twice in Numbers, on every occasion relating to the Tent of Meeting. Translations differ in how to render this word - some use 'tent-frame', others 'board' or 'bench'. The only other Old Testament use is in Ezekiel 27, apparently as a technical nautical term.
mîshkân
(Strong's 4908) This is used in a variety of ways to indicate residences of various kinds, ranging from an animal's lair through to the Tent of Meeting as the divine residence. It occurs 139 times in the Old Testament, over 100 of which are in the Pentateuch. The predominant use in the Pentateuch and other early books is with reference to the divine Tabernacle. In the Wisdom literature it is used approximately equally to refer to human and divine residences, and by the time of the prophets is hardly used at all in relation to a dwelling-place for God.
The same terms appear in Ugaritic in an explicitly religious context relating to El and the other gods of the Ugaritic pantheon. For example,

Kothar did depart to his tent tb‘.ktr.l'ahlh
Heyan did depart to his dwelling hyn.tb‘.lmshknth
and again,
The gods returned to their tents t'ity.'ilm.l'ahlhm
The race of El to their habitations dr 'il.lmshknthm

We have Ugaritic ahl corresponding to Hebrew ’ôhel, and Ugaritic mshkn to Hebrew mîshkân. Finally, qrsh is used in Ugaritic explicitly of the abode of El - as head of the other gods having a distinctive dwelling-place. This clearly corresponds to Hebrew qeresh.

Hence we have parallels in Ugaritic to mîshkân as a term for the habitation of a god, and qeresh used to refer to the special abode of the supreme God.

Construction

Within Ugaritic religious thought, the Temple of Baal was constructed by the craftsman god Kothar wa-Khasis (meaning Skilful and Clever). The instruction to do this was given personally by El. The construction of its physical frame was to correspond to a pattern revealed divinely.

This may be seen as analogous to the appointment of the divinely gifted and commissioned (human) craftsman Bezalel (Betsale’el - "in the shadow/protection of El") to construct the Tabernacle and accoutrements (Ex. 31:3). The design of the earthly tabernacle was to correspond to the pattern revealed to Moses at the Mountain of God (Ex.25:9).

Certain details of the priestly trappings also find parallels. For example, Ex.28:33-4 describes how the priestly garments were to have golden bells and pomegranates suspended. Amongst the items found at Ugarit wa a circular bronze pedestal, decorated with pomegranate shapes suspended from the rim. Apparently the symbolism was a common Canaanite one.

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