A collapsible shelter made of cloth or skin and supported by poles. Tents were one of the earliest types of man-made dwellings (Ge 4:20; 9:21) and were commonly used by nomadic peoples in the Middle East.
Some details of the design and use of tents are available from the Bible. This is supplemented by knowledge of tents used by Arabs in more recent years, since it seems that these do not differ substantially from those of the Biblical period. Many scholars believe that the earliest tents were of animal skins. (Ge 3:21; Ex 26:14) Among modern-day Bedouin, tents made of blackish goat-hair cloth are customary. (Compare Ex 36:14; Ca 1:5.) Strips of this material are sewn together, the overall size of the rectangular tent depending on the wealth of the owner and the number of occupants. The tent is supported by a number of poles about 1.5 to 2 m (5 to 7 ft) long, the highest being near the middle; it is held fast against wind by cords fastened to tent pins. (Jg 4:21) For privacy and protection from the wind, cloths are hung along the sides of the tent, but these can be raised or removed for ventilation.
It appears that in Bible times larger tents were usually divided into at least two compartments by means of hanging tent cloths. The “tent of Sarah” mentioned at Genesis 24:67 may refer to her compartment or to a tent that she alone occupied, for some wealthy men had a number of tents, and women sometimes were assigned their own tents. (Ge 13:5; 31:33) Probably mats were used on the ground inside the tent.
Tents were a distinctive feature of nomadic life, contrasting with the houses of those having a more settled life. Thus, Abraham is described as ‘dwelling in tents’ while he was “awaiting the city having real foundations.” (Heb 11:9, 10) It seems that during their stay in Egypt, the Israelites mainly lived in houses, not tents. (Ex 12:7) But upon leaving Egypt, they reverted to tents (Ex 16:16) and used them throughout the 40 years in the wilderness. (Le 14:8; Nu 16:26) During this period two particular tents were especially important, “the tabernacle” and Moses’ tent.
Even after the Israelites conquered the Promised Land, tents were still used at times by shepherds or agricultural workers in the field. (Ca 1:8) Zechariah 12:7 likely refers to such ones, as they would be the first to be affected and in need of protection if an enemy nation came against the land to attack the city of Jerusalem. Also, tents were used by military commanders and armies when on distant expeditions.
Figurative Uses. This familiarity with tents is also reflected in the Bible’s many figurative references to tents. Regarding the time he was approaching death, Hezekiah wrote: “My own habitation has been pulled out and removed from me like the tent of shepherds.” (Isa 38:12) As a tent occupying a spot could quickly be taken down and removed, the poles taken out and the pegs pulled up, so Hezekiah’s place in the land of the living seemed transitory and easily removed. Eliphaz likened death to pulling out the tent cord, which would make a tent collapse.
Somewhat similarly, Paul used the metaphor of a tent when speaking of the human bodies of spirit-begotten Christians. A collapsible tent is a more fragile and temporary dwelling than a normal house. Though existing on earth in a mortal body of flesh, the Christians who have the spirit as a token of the heavenly life to come look forward to “a building from God,” a heavenly body that is everlasting, incorruptible.
In portraying the destruction to come upon the Jews, Jeremiah used the figure of a tent. (Jer 4:20) He likened the desolated nation to a woman whose tent was down, with its cords cut. Adding to the pathetic condition, her sons were in exile, so there was no one remaining who could help her with the work of raising and stretching the tent. (Jer 10:20) When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, the city as a former collection of dwellings could be described as “the tent of the daughter of Zion” into which God had poured his rage.
A “tent” also served in another figurative way in a number of instances. The tent of an individual was a place of rest and protection from the elements. (Ge 18:1) In view of the customs regarding hospitality, visitors had reason to believe that they would be cared for and respected when welcomed into someone’s tent. Consequently, when Revelation 7:15 says about the great crowd that God “will spread his tent over them,” it suggests protective care and security. (Ps 61:3, 4) Isaiah speaks of the preparations that God’s wife, Zion, is to make for the sons she will produce. She is told to “make the place of your tent more spacious.” (Isa 54:2) Thus, she enlarges the protective place for her children.
At Revelation 21:1-3, God projected John’s vision into the Thousand Year Reign of Christ and said: “Look! The tent of God is with mankind, and he will reside with them [or, tent with them].” In a way foreshadowed by the tent, or tabernacle, in the wilderness, God will dwell, not personally, but representatively with mankind as he deals with them through “the Lamb of God,” who is also the great High Priest.