Tents, Take II
If you are reading my blogs, you will recall my “tent talk” a week or so ago [“At Home in God’s Tent”]. There we reflected upon the importance of the tent as a symbol of “home” to the seasonally migrating people of early Israel. To a desert people, the tent was far more than just a place where they spent their days and nights. It was the defining unit of their society without soil; the insuring hope of protection against hostile elements, both natural and human. The tent meant security, connectedness and belonging to its inhabitants. No wonder that after sedentism (transition from nomadic to permanent settling) occurs and the nation emerges in a permanent homeland, the tent retains its nostalgic impact upon their imagination. One can take people out of the desert, but never the desert out of people.
For pastoral nomads, there is no more important business than tent making. The process is tedious and requires the utmost care. Women spend months weaving broad “strips” (Heb. talliyot) of goat hair. The strips are then kneaded or clasped together by hooks or splints into a whole fabric. This product is then contoured to form a single portable unit. Goat hair is ideal for tent construction as it is oily, expanding to seal the tent in wet weather, yet contracting to allow ventilation when the weather is dry. Typically, the hair is plucked from black goats, as the desert people are aware that black deflects the harmful rays of the sun while absorbing its heat against the cold desert nights. No article of the “movable property” (Heb. tso’n), even the flocks, is more highly valued by the family or more fiercely protected than its tents. Theft or loss of a unit is a major tragedy.
Because of its societal importance, tent imagery is central to many solemn assemblies in the desert. One particular desert occasion in which the tent plays a crucial role is the wedding ceremony. Marriage partners, usually mounted on a camel, are presented under cover of a stylized tent, or “canopy” (Heb. chuppah). This tradition, practiced in ancient Israel from desert times (cf. Psalm 19:4-5) and reflected in contemporary Jewish nuptials, still serves as a context for the marriage vows. As such, the couple commits (1) to provide a “cover” of identity and security for one another and (2) to acknowledge the divine act whereby they are united forever under the “cover” of God’s “tent.”
The apostle Paul in his epistle to the Colossians draws upon the second temple Jewish wedding ceremony and its image of the wedding tent as a cover for marriage. He says:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, cover yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And above all, take love. Love clasps these together into a complete whole.” (Colossians 3:12-14, translation mine).
Paul, a tentmaker by trade, understood from experience the difficult procedures and lengthy process of producing a tent. He also sensed the power and applicability of tent imagery for marriage: By carefully weaving “tent strips” of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness, and then painstakingly threading them together with love into a whole, a marriage becomes a home. As such, it provides belonging and protection for those who dwell therein. Paul’s desire is that God’s Home, the Church, be built by its members in the same way, with the same precious fabrics, and with the same results. This is the business of the Church. There is absolutely nothing more important.