Review of Homan, Michael M. “The Divine Warrior in His Tent: A Military Model for Yahweh’s Tabernacle.”

Homan, Michael M.  “The Divine Warrior in His Tent: A Military Model for Yahweh’s Tabernacle.”  Bible Review 16, no. 6 (2000): 22-33, 55. [Israel/Tabernacle/Canaan]

The Old Testament depicts God as dwelling in a Tent/Tabernacle from the Sinai through the desert wanderings, the conquest and settlement of Israel and through the reigns of the first two of Israel’s kings–from Exodus to 1 Kings 8.  Even when David proposed building a permanent house for his God, Yahweh seemed to be content with the portable structure.  Interestingly, the Tabernacle is described in more detail than any other structure in the Bible, including the temple. 

However, the historicity of the Tabernacle has suffered greatly at the hands of scholars.  Today its description is regularly dismissed as a fiction or a retrojection of the Jerusalem Temple’s design.  This is due to the work of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) who developed the documentary hypothesis of the creation of the Old Testament, ascribing portions to four different interest-groups.  He argued that the Tabernacle descriptions were due to the Priestly group who he said wrote after 539 BCE, when Cyrus ended the Babylonian Exile.  Wellhausen said the priests wanted to establish a centralized cult in Jerusalem through stringent ritual legislation.  They were motivated by a desire to secure a strong hold on the business of the post-Exilic Jewish religion.  The greatest evidence of their fraudulent work was the creation of the fictional Tabernacle one-half the size of the temple, making it portable.  Strangely, he dismissed the Tabernacle on the basis of its east-west orientation, which he felt may be required in a permanent Temple, but not a portable tent.  Although several notable scholars have disputed his theory and traced the history of cultic tents “well into the third millennium BCE,” current opinion continues to conform to Wellhausen’s basic premise, that the Tabernacle was influenced by the Temple rather than the reverse.

Homan, who did his 2000 PhD dissertation on tents in the Bible, says the Temple is not the closest parallel to the Tabernacle and does not provide a definite model for it.  This argument is based primarily on a comparison of the plans and courtyards of the two buildings.  The length and width of the Temple is twice as large (a 2:1 ratio) as the Tabernacle, but its height is a 3:1 ratio.  Moreover, there is no Biblical stipulation that the Temple was surrounded by a rectangular courtyard as there is for the Tabernacle.  The Tabernacle has two rooms, the smallest of which is a cube, but the Temple, if the entrance porch is counted, had three rooms.

Kenneth Kitchen who has also studied the Tabernacle, in an article accompanying this one enumerated several ancient structures that mirror the Tabernacle better than the Jerusalem Temple.  Homan concentrates on the model he thinks is the closest–the tent and military camp of Pharaoh Ramesses [Homan’s spelling]  II during the battle of Kadesh in southern Syria about 1275 BCE.  The battle is one of the best documented from the ancient world because Ramesses II put accounts on the walls of five temples throughout Egypt, schoolboys copied accounts on papyrus as part of their studies, and an Egyptian victory stele describing the battle has been found at Beth-Shean.  More importantly, four Egyptian reliefs have images of the camp and its tent.  All four depict the camp as rectangular with a rectangular tent at the center.  The parallels of its dimensions with the Tabernacle are striking according to Homan.  The courtyard is twice as long as it is wide and the main entrance is in the center of the short wall.  It is oriented on an east-west axis, negating Wellhausen’s theory that tents were not so oriented.  The tent is in a 2:1 ratio rectangle.  It has two rooms, the smallest of which is a cube.

Similarities between the Tabernacle and the Egyptian military camp reach beyond the ground plan.  Winged birds made of gold shield the throne of the deified emperor in the Holy of Holies.  Other ANE iconography may also be present in the Tabernacle, according to Homan. Sometimes accounts in the Old Testament describe God in terms of royal and solar imagery very similar to solar deities in the ANE.  Ramesses name means “Begotten by Ra” the solar deity.  Moreover, ANE deities were conceived of as residing in tents.

Most important for Homan, however, is the notion that the Tabernacle may have been the traveling HQ of Yahweh, the divine warrior.  Yahweh is frequently characterized as a warrior, a “man of war,” who single-handedly fights for Israel.  Moreover, when the Tabernacle is disassembled and carried about it is accompanied by trumpets and standards with troops in tribal formation, in four separate units such as the armies of Ramesses.  Homan leaps over nearly a millennium to point out yet one more military similarity–that of the pillar of fire and cloud which guided the Israelites may have been echoed by Alexander the Great when he notified his troops when to break camp by placing on a pillar a signal of smoke by day and fire by night.  For Homan the plan and layout of the Tabernacle reflects those of Egyptian military camps and suggest that the Tabernacle was the “traveling headquarters, the terrestrial office, of Yahweh.”

The article is accompanied by two side-bars.  The first concerns the battle of Kadesh and is not relevant to temple studies.  However the second one by Peter Cooper concerns the meaning of Exodus 26:14 regarding the covering of the Tabernacle with “badger” skin according to the KJV.  Cooper says that scholars have generally agreed that the word designates some kind of animal skin.  In 1534, Martin Luther, who erroneously thought German had many words which were related to Hebrew, found an alleged German cognate which meant badger.  However, later scholars rejected Luther’s premise and looked for cognates in Semitic languages and came up with various sea mammals as the meaning of the Hebrew.  Most recently Stephanie Dalley of Oxford has challenged these presuppositions as well and found a cognate in Akkadian which she postulates is the correct translation–beads or beads of glass.

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