The Non-Priestly Ohel Moed
The Priestly and Non-Priestly Ohel Moed Compared
The second half of Exodus describes the construction of the Ohel Moed, Tent of Meeting, likewise called the Mishkan, Tabernacle. Yet Exodus also describes another tent called the Ohel Moed:
שׁמות לג:ז וּמֹשֶׁה יִקַּח אֶת־הָאֹהֶל וְנָטָה־לוֹ מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה הַרְחֵק מִן־הַמַּחֲנֶה וְקָרָא לוֹ אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהָיָה כָּל־מְבַקֵּשׁ יְ־הוָה יֵצֵא אֶל־אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אֲשֶׁר מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה.
Exod 33:7 Now Moses would take the Tent and pitch it outside the camp, at some distance from the camp. It was called the Tent of Meeting, and whoever sought YHWH would go out to the Tent of Meeting that was outside the camp.
Scholars have long noted that the Ohel Moed referred to as the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is from the P source, and reflects the worldview of priestly scribes. The other Ohel Moed, however, is from a non-Priestly text. The two structures differ in nearly every aspect.
a. Material—The Priestly Ohel is an elaborate edifice, with intricate designs, and many accoutrements of gold and other precious materials. In contrast, the non-Priestly Ohel is a simple tent.
b. Construction—The Priestly Ohel is the result of a national project led by the wise craftsman Bezalel. The non-Priestly Ohel is simply pitched by Moses like any other tent.
c. Location—The Priestly Ohel is located at the center of the wilderness camp (Num 1–9) and surrounded by Levites to ensure its purity. The non-Priestly Ohel is outside the camp, where ritual purity cannot be maintained.
d. Divine Presence—In the Priestly Ohel, YHWH’s glory (כבוד) resides in its innermost sanctum (Exod 40:34; Num 14:10). YHWH can therefore be approached to resolve existential problems (Num 20:6–8) and even to punish rebels (Num 16:19, 35; 17:7–10). In contrast, YHWH does not reside in the non-Priestly Ohel, but rather only occasionally descends (י.ר.ד) in front of it in a pillar of cloud (33:10; Num 11:25, etc.):
שׁמות לג:י וְרָאָה כָל־הָעָם אֶת־עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן עֹמֵד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וְקָם כָּל־הָעָם וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ אִישׁ פֶּתַח אָהֳלוֹ׃
Exod 33:10 When all the people saw the pillar of cloud poised at the entrance of the Tent, all the people would rise and bow low, each at the entrance of his tent.
e. Function—The Priestly Ohel is a place for sacrificial offerings and other rituals conducted by priests, as is clear from the sacrificial regulations in Leviticus 1–7, which presuppose this Ohel. In contrast, the non-Priestly Ohel functions as a prophetic space where YHWH speaks to Moses “face to face” (Exod 33:11), and where the people could also seek YHWH (33:7b). Instead of the consecrated priests, only Joshua permanently stays in the non-Priestly Ohel (33:11).
שׁמות לג:יא וְדִבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵהוּ וְשָׁב אֶל־הַמַּחֲנֶה וּמְשָׁרְתוֹ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן־נוּן נַעַר לֹא יָמִישׁ מִתּוֹךְ הָאֹהֶל:
Exod 33:11 YHWH would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another. And he would then return to the camp; but his attendant, Joshua son of Nun, a youth, would not stir out of the Tent.
Stories Set at the Non-Priestly Ohel
The non-Priestly Ohel Moed appears in three further accounts in the Torah, all of which share a thematic connection: Moses’s spiritual authority will be passed on to those who receive his spirit (70 elders and Joshua), and not to priests (Aaron) or prophets (Miriam).
1. Appointment of the Elders
In Numbers 11, Moses complains about the overwhelming task of having to carry the people by himself (11:14–15). In response, YHWH commands him to assemble the seventy elders of Israel at the Ohel (11:16) to create a leadership shift from the single individual Moses to a collective entity of the lay leaders:
במדבר יא:יז …וְאָצַלְתִּי מִן־הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלֶיךָ וְשַׂמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם וְנָשְׂאוּ אִתְּךָ בְּמַשָּׂא הָעָם וְלֹא־תִשָּׂא אַתָּה לְבַדֶּךָ.
Num 11:17 …and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.
Moses then fulfills the command:
במדבר יא:כד …וַיֶּאֱסֹף שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ מִזִּקְנֵי הָעָם וַיַּעֲמֵד אֹתָם סְבִיבֹת הָאֹהֶל. יא:כה וַיֵּרֶד יְ־הוָה בֶּעָנָן וַיְדַבֵּר אֵלָיו וַיָּאצֶל מִן־הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו וַיִּתֵּן עַל־שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ הַזְּקֵנִים וַיְהִי כְּנוֹחַ עֲלֵיהֶם הָרוּחַ וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ וְלֹא יָסָפוּ.
Num 11:24b ...He gathered seventy of the people’s elders and stationed them around the Tent. 11:25 Then YHWH came down in a cloud and spoke to him; He drew upon the spirit that was on him and put it upon the seventy elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue.
This ecstatic prophecy is a one-time event rather than a call to the prophetic vocation; it is a sign of the spirit resting upon the elders, signifying religious and political authorization. In this way, YHWH temporarily empowers the elders to share Moses’s responsibility and authority over the community. The number seventy should be interpreted symbolically, signifying completeness (e.g., Gen 46:27; Exod 1:5).
2. Aaron and Miriam Humiliated
Aaron and Miriam challenge Moses’s spiritual authority, after which YHWH summons them to the Ohel outside of the camp (v. 4):
במדבר יב:ד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה פִּתְאֹם אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל־מִרְיָם צְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתְּכֶם אֶל־אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּצְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתָּם. יב:ה וַיֵּרֶד יְ־הוָה בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן וַיַּעֲמֹד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם וַיֵּצְאוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם.
Num 12:4 Suddenly YHWH called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting.” So the three of them went out. 12:5 YHWH came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, “Aaron and Miriam!” The two of them came forward.
YHWH confirms Moses’s authoritative superiority, explaining that it comes from his incomparable intimacy with YHWH, beyond that of any other prophet (vv. 4–8).
במדבר יב:ח פֶּה אֶל־פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר־בּוֹ וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת וּתְמֻנַת יְ־הוָה יַבִּיט וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה.
Num 12:8 With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of YHWH. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!
By asserting the superiority of Moses over Aaron, who represents the priestly authority, and Miriam, who represents prophetic authority (Exod 15:20), the passage places Moses’s spiritual authority beyond priests and prophet.
3. Joshua’s Succession
The final story to feature this Ohel is Joshua’s succession of Moses, Ohel (Deut 31:14–15, 23), which in contrast to the Priestly version,  mentions neither Eleazar nor the priestly prerogative:
דברים לא:יד...וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. טו וַיֵּרָא יְ־הוָה בָּאֹהֶל בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן וַיַּעֲמֹד עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן עַל־פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל. // לא:כג וַיְצַו אֶת־יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן־נוּן וַיֹּאמֶר חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ…
Deut 31:14 ...Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the Tent of Meeting. 15 YHWH appeared in the Tent, in a pillar of cloud, the pillar of cloud having come to rest at the entrance of the tent. // 31:23 And He charged Joshua son of Nun: “Be strong and resolute...”
Here YHWH simply summons Joshua and Moses to the Ohel Moed and commands Joshua from the pillar of cloud to lead the people to the promised land.
All of the non-Priestly Ohel Moed passages derive from the same hand and seem to undermine priestly authority as well as prophetic authority other than that of Moses. How and when were they composed?
The Non-P Ohel Moed as a Late Literary Creation
In the classic Documentary Hypothesis, according to which J and E predate the Priestly source, the Ohel Moed passages are all part of the E strand. An alternative approach to the composition of the Torah, which has become popular in European scholarship, sees many non-Priestly texts as post-P redactions.
The non-Priestly Ohel passages were likely part of an independent, limited redaction; their main theme is absent from other non-Priestly texts, and the passages themselves are discordant with their surrounding subject matter:
- Exodus 33 is not directly related to the Golden Calf episode which it ostensibly continues;
- The appointment of elders in Numbers 11 has nothing to do with the quail narrative into which it is spliced;
- The complaint about Moses’s prophetic level is not connected to his having married a Kushite woman;
- The scene in which Joshua is appointed in the Ohel interrupts the flow of Deuteronomy 31.
Thus, it seems likely that a redactor added these passages into already existing stories.
The Entrance to the Ohel: Presupposing P
Moreover, the non-Priestly Ohel Moed presupposes and even mirrors the Priestly Ohel Moed in its emphasis on the entrance (האהל פתח: Exod 33:9; Num 12:5; Deut 31:15). In P, YHWH dwells within the Ohel, and thus, the entrance is where he appears in his glory to meet the people (Exod 29:42; Num 14:10; 16:19; 20:6):
שׁמות כט:מב עֹלַת תָּמִיד לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם פֶּתַח אֹהֶל־מוֹעֵד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר אִוָּעֵד לָכֶם שָׁמָּה לְדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ שָׁם. כט:מג וְנֹעַדְתִּי שָׁמָּה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנִקְדַּשׁ בִּכְבֹדִי.
Exod 29:42 a regular burnt offering throughout the generations, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting before YHWH. For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, 29:43 and there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence.
The entrance is spatially equivalent to “before YHWH,” and therefore, it serves as the location of the sacrificial altar, where all animal sacrifices are performed, as are other important rituals, and public ceremonies. The entrance of the Priestly Ohel is thus properly a place of moed (מועד), i.e., “meeting.”
Conversely, the non-Priestly Ohel Moed neither has an altar nor is it for public gatherings. YHWH is not in the tent, and its entrance is, therefore, not “before YHWH” and has no intrinsic spatial significance. And yet, YHWH, in the cloud, specifically addresses people (Aaron, Miriam, and Joshua) at the entrance to the tent (Num 12:5, Deut 31:15).
It would seem, therefore, that the non-Priestly Ohel Moed was created based on the Priestly Ohel Moed, with the deliberate intent to veer away from it and present an alternative.
Priests vs. Elders: Polemicizing with Ezekiel
The non-Priestly Ohel texts are not only polemicizing with the Priestly text, but with the priest-prophet Ezekiel, whose work has a close affinity to P. Ezekiel harshly criticizes seventy elders of Israel in his day for making what he considers adulterous incense offerings at the Jerusalem temple:
יחזקאל ח:יא וְשִׁבְעִים אִישׁ מִזִּקְנֵי בֵית־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיַאֲזַנְיָהוּ בֶן־שָׁפָן עֹמֵד בְּתוֹכָם עֹמְדִים לִפְנֵיהֶם וְאִישׁ מִקְטַרְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ וַעֲתַר עֲנַן־הַקְּטֹרֶת עֹלֶה.
Ezek 8:11 Before them stood seventy men, elders of the House of Israel, with Jaazaniah son of Shaphan standing in their midst. Everyone had a censer in his hand, and a thick cloud of incense smoke ascended.
While the connection between these seventy elders and the ones envisioned in Numbers 11 is unclear, at least on a literary level, these texts seem to be staking out opposite sides in a polemical debate. Moreover, it is possible that Numbers 12 is actually making a swipe at Ezekiel.
In Numbers 12, YHWH tells Miriam and Aaron that he reveals himself to the prophets inferior to Moses “in visions” (במראה) and “in riddles” (בחידת). Notably, Ezekiel is the only prophet in the Bible who is explicitly commanded to speak in riddles (חידה; Ezek 17:2). The use of vision (מראה) as a means of prophetic revelation is also typical of the book of Ezekiel.
Presumably, by specifying riddles and vision among the features of “inferior” prophets, the passage implicitly counters and undermines the authority of Ezekiel, undercutting his criticism of the seventy elders. This is a way of securing the status of the seventy elders who came to share Moses’ authority in the preceding story.
Similarly, the non-Priestly Ohel texts counter the Priestly criticism of the lay leaders in the composite Priestly rebellion story of Korah (Num 16–17). The 250 chieftains of Israel are punished in the incense ordeal at the Priestly Ohel Moed (Num 16:35). Aaron exclusively is authorized (Num 16:11; 17:12–15, 16-24), while the lay leaders are punished.
Conversely, at the non-Priestly Ohel Moed, the seventy elders of Israel—the collective lay leadership—are elevated and empowered (Num 11) over the priests and prophets (Num 12). While the elders alone are authorized, Aaron and Miriam are humbled (Num 12:8, 11).
The Elders of Yehud in the Second Temple Period
The primary goal of the non-Priestly Ohel passages is to present a leadership structure in which the elders or lay leaders have authority superior to those of the priests and prophets. What group or institution do the seventy elders represent?
The non-Priestly Ohel Moed layer is marked by its focus on a new authority and leadership structure especially in a struggle with a priestly group. This fits the social and political circumstances of the kingless, postexilic period, in which various social and religious groups struggled with each other over different ideas of the community’s restoration, in particular about its leadership.
The elders were regarded as major constituents of the post-monarchic leadership collective from the Neo-Babylonian period, together with the priests and prophets (e.g., Jer 29:1; Ezek 7:26). In Ezra-Nehemiah, the lay leaders (e.g., ,חרים זקנים, ראשי אבות) represent the community before the imperial authorities.
Ezra uses the authority of the אצת השרים והזקנים “counsel of the officers and elders” for his religious reforms (Ezra 8:10). Nehemiah also mentions Jews (היהודים) together with the officials among the 150 guests at the governor’s daily meal (Neh 5:17), who were presumably regarded important such as nobles, aristocrats, and chiefs of clans.
These are indicative of the possible existence of a loosely organized council of influential laity. This council anticipates a more authoritative and institutionalized decision-making body in later periods, such as the Hellenistic gerousia (council of elders) and the later Sanhedrin.
The non-Priestly Ohel Moed reflects the voice of the lay leadership as represented by the seventy elders. Thus, this layer represents scribal efforts to authorize and support an early stage of the council of elders against the priestly group in the community of Persian Yehud.
Multiple Voices in the Torah
The Torah, which was probably completed in the mid- or late Persian period, preserves both the voice of the priests, in the Priestly Ohel Moed texts, and those of the scribes who supported the elders or lay leaders. The fact that the Torah contains diverse voices of scribal groups with different social, political, and religious orientations, without suppressing weaker voices, is itself, an important message.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 10, 2021
May 2, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Jaeyoung Jeon is SNSF Senior Researcher at the University of Lausanne's Swiss-French Institute for Biblical Studies. He is also a Research Associate at the University of Pretoria. He holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Tel-Aviv University and an M.A. from Hebrew University’s Rothberg School. Jeon has conducted multiple projects funded by Swiss National Science Foundation and Korean Research Foundation. He is the co-editor (with Louis Jonker) of Chronicles and the Priestly Literature of the Hebrew Bible (De Gruyter, forthcoming) and the author of, The Call of Moses and the Exodus Story: A Redactional-Critical Study in Exodus 3-4 and 5-13 (Mohr Siebeck, 2013); From the Reed Sea to Kadesh: A Redaction-Critical and Socio-Historical Study of the Pentateuchal Wilderness Narrative (Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming); and Social Groups behind the Pentateuch (SBL, forthcoming).
Essays on Related Topics: