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SBL e-journal

Isaac S. D. Sassoon





The Tabernacle: A Post-Exilic Polemic Against Rebuilding the Temple





APA e-journal

Isaac S. D. Sassoon





The Tabernacle: A Post-Exilic Polemic Against Rebuilding the Temple








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The Tabernacle: A Post-Exilic Polemic Against Rebuilding the Temple

The Priestly Torah discusses the Tabernacle at extraordinary length, emphasizing its portability. Nothing in P ever says this structure was meant to be temporary. P’s Tabernacle was not foreshadowing the Temple, but was a polemic against Haggai and Zechariah’s agitation to build the Second Temple.


The Tabernacle: A Post-Exilic Polemic Against Rebuilding the Temple

Setting up the Tabernacle. Illustration from the 1911 Illustrated History of the Bible by John Kitto

Emphasizing the Tabernacle’s Portability

The Tabernacle/Tent of Meeting (mishkan/ohel mo‘ed)[1] receives by far the most expansive coverage of any subject in P. Besides the disproportionate space the Book of Exodus devotes to its construction and assembling, P never loses an opportunity to remind its readers of the mishkan’s portability. Thirty-seven verses in Exodus deal with the staves and bars and the rings that hold them in place. Ten of these verses specify that the purpose of the staves and bars is to carry the appurtenance to which they are attached.

Transportation of the mishkan and its journeying are recurring themes in P, beginning at Exod 40:36-38. Even its dismantling is lingered over at Num 4:5-19, which describes minutely which part of the Tabernacle each family of Levites is to carry. Later, Num 7:3-9 describes even the wagons and their function in detail.

Such repetition in P often seems to have a polemical dimension.[2] But if so, who or what is the polemic’s target?

Polemic Against Rebuilding the Temple

Several years ago, the penny dropped for me: P is anti-Temple and imparts its antagonism toward the Temple, firmly yet unobtrusively, by harping on the mishkan and its mobility. (For Terence Fretheim’s similar approach, and how this differs from it, see the excursus.) Clearly, P does not reject sacrifices; on the contrary, like the book of Ezekiel, P envisages elaborate cultic rituals. However, as regards the edifice itself, P and Ezekiel diverge starkly.

Ezekiel’s ideal home for the cult is a stone edifice – i.e. a temple – on the model of Solomon’s splendid fane, albeit not its carbon copy. In contradistinction to Ezekiel, P promotes its mobile sanctuary whose design it has Moses bringing down from the mountain. P is not presenting this as a stopgap to serve for the duration of the wilderness wanderings but as its one and only sanctuary. And hence, a comparable portable tent-sanctuary would have been the only legitimate sanctuary for the community newly returned from exile.

Not a Temple in Disguise

Many scholars hold that P’s tent sanctuary is nothing more than a temple in disguise, and that P adopted the tent as a literary device in order to maintain the wilderness scenario. But this contention has a number of weaknesses.

When You Enter the Land

In the first place, P could have given directives for a temple to be built after entry into the land. In fact, other works that present their laws as coming from the wilderness period, such as Qumran’s Temple Scroll and Reworked Pentateuch, include such a directive.[3] P too could have done the same without “blowing its cover.”

What’s more, P does include laws applicable only after entry, introduced by headings such as “when you enter the land.” For example, at the start of the segment dealing with “leprosy” of houses (Lev 14:34-53) we read:

ויקרא יד:לד כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת בְּבֵית אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם.
Lev 14:34 When you come into the land of Canaan which I give you for a possession and I put a plague of tzara‘at [‘leprosy’] upon a house in the land of your possession.[4]

Tabernacle Predates the Wilderness Wandering

Secondly, according to P’s story line, the Tabernacle’s inauguration in the Sinai Wilderness predated the sending of the spies. The former occurs “on the first day of the first month in the second year” (Exod 40:17) while the latter were sent on their mission from the later encampment in the Wilderness of Paran (Num 13:3) on the twentieth day of the second month (Num 10:11-12). Consequently, forty years of wandering were not on the horizon when the Tabernacle was first erected, let alone when its blueprint was revealed to Moses. Instead, the Israelites were poised to enter the land imminently, with their Tabernacle.

One might even venture that in providing these two respective (1st of 1st month and 20th of 2nd month), P was alerting the attentive reader to this very truth – to wit, the Tabernacle was never intended as a temporary measure but rather as the sanctuary valid for perpetuity.[5]

Mishkan is a Miqdash

P identifies its tent with the miqdash many times.

  • They shall make for Me a miqdash … as I am showing you the pattern of the mishkan (Exod 25:8-9)
  • … and to the miqdash she shall not come until … she shall bring a lamb … to the entrance of ohel mo‘ed (Lev 12:4, 6)
  • He shall purge the holy miqdash [or the miqdash of holiness] and the ohel mo‘ed (Lev 16:33)[6]

P attached the designation miqdash to its tent-sanctuary for the purpose of countering arguments, actual or potential, that a miqdash had been sanctioned by prophets and even foretold by Moses himself (Exod 15:17). By subtly interchanging miqdash with mishkan and ohel mo‘ed, P makes the case that its sanctuary is itself a miqdash,[7] and thus it is unnecessary to build a stone and mortar temple.

Echoes of an Anti-Temple Movement

Many scholars, including the present author, date P in its final form to the early post-exilic period. This is the era in which the Judean returnees needed to decide on the make-up of the newly reconstituted Judea, including the important question of whether to rebuild the Temple or not. Significantly, P is not the only one among his contemporaries to express reservations about the matter.

P is similar to more explicit anti-temple voices active during the critical early restoration period before the pro-temple faction finally prevailed. The most explicit statement of anti-Temple sentiment appears in the final chapter of Isaiah:

ישעיה סו:א כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה הַשָּׁמַיִם כִּסְאִי וְהָאָרֶץ הֲדֹם רַגְלָי אֵי זֶה בַיִת אֲשֶׁר תִּבְנוּ לִי וְאֵי זֶה מָקוֹם מְנוּחָתִי.
Isa 66:1 Thus said YHWH: The heaven is My throne And the earth is My footstool: What house could you build for Me? What place could serve as My abode [lit. resting place]?

The survival of Isa 66:1 borders on the miraculous.[8] P’s veiled opposition could more easily be reconciled with a temple setting, as it has been by both traditional as well as many modern commentators. Isa 66:1 is an escapee whose kindred were probably stamped out once a temple became the reality.

The throne-footstool collocation of Isa 66:1 immediately recalls the definition of the prospective temple that Ezekiel announces in God’s name (Ezek 43:7):

…אֶת מְקוֹם כִּסְאִי וְאֶת מְקוֹם כַּפּוֹת רַגְלַי אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁכָּן שָׁם בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְעוֹלָם…
…This is the place of My throne and the place for the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people Israel forever….

When juxtaposed, these two diametrically opposed estimations of temples afford us a glimpse into one of Judaism’s truly momentous debates.[9]

The Fight Over Rebuilding the Temple

The Temple advocates ultimately won out, but this did not happen without a protracted dispute. I say “ultimately” because eighteen years elapsed from Cyrus’ proclamation in 538 B.C.E. allowing Judeans to return to their native land and set up their community from scratch until Darius’s second year, when the building of the Temple finally commenced. In short, if it is clear that a Temple must be rebuilt, why did it take 18 years for its reconstruction to begin?

Ezra Blames Outsiders

The Book of Ezra claims that the Temple’s foundations were laid in Cyrus’ reign (Ezra 3:8-11). Further work was frustrated by disrupters on the ground and by the Persian authorities who had been persuaded by enemies of the Jews that a Jerusalem temple would hurt their interests:

עזרא ד:ד וַיְהִי עַם הָאָרֶץ מְרַפִּים יְדֵי עַם יְהוּדָה (ומבלהים) [וּמְבַהֲלִים] אוֹתָם לִבְנוֹת. ד:ה וְסֹכְרִים עֲלֵיהֶם יוֹעֲצִים לְהָפֵר עֲצָתָם כָּל יְמֵי כּוֹרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרַס וְעַד מַלְכוּת דָּרְיָוֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרָס.
Ezra 4:4 Thereupon the people of the land undermined the resolve of the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build. 4:5 They bribed ministers in order to thwart their plans all the years of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.

Scholars tend to take Ezra’s version with a grain of salt since the ease with which the calumniators are alleged to have swayed the Persian court does not carry a high degree of verisimilitude.[10] If anything, blaming calumniators for the procrastination looks like a face-saving pretext for explaining a delay that, if voluntary, would have been a lapse too egregious to contemplate for the temple-devotee author[s] of Ezra.

Haggai and Zechariah: The Temple’s Advocates

The early restoration prophets, Haggai and (First) Zechariah, who were eye-witnesses to the events, tell a different story. They make no mention of any foundations in the time of Cyrus. Instead, they intimate that there had been no enthusiasm to build prior to their own campaign of goading and cajoling:

חגי א:ב כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת לֵאמֹר הָעָם הַזֶּה אָמְרוּ לֹא עֶת בֹּא עֶת בֵּית יְ-הוָה לְהִבָּנוֹת.
Hag 1:2 Thus said YHWH of Hosts: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for rebuilding the House of YHWH.’”

The entire two chapters of Haggai, all set in the second year of Darius, are one sustained push for the building of the Temple – a project which had not yet been embarked upon. He begins by berating his community for their failure to prioritize the project:

חגי א:ד הַעֵת לָכֶם אַתֶּם לָשֶׁבֶת בְּבָתֵּיכֶם סְפוּנִים וְהַבַּיִת הַזֶּה חָרֵב.
Hag 1:4 Is it a time for you to dwell in your paneled houses, while this House is lying in ruins?

He belabors the people’s cupidity, because he is apparently trying to burden them with feelings of guilt so that they will believe that their poor crops and paltry earnings are punishments for their failure to build a temple.[11] Towards the end of the short book, when the work has finally begun, he praises them and promises in YHWH’s name that the following year will be one of bounty:

חגי ב:טו וְעַתָּה שִׂימוּ נָא לְבַבְכֶם מִן הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וָמָעְלָה מִטֶּרֶם שׂוּם אֶבֶן אֶל אֶבֶן בְּהֵיכַל יְ-הוָה. ב:טז מִהְיוֹתָם בָּא אֶל עֲרֵמַת עֶשְׂרִים וְהָיְתָה עֲשָׂרָה בָּא אֶל הַיֶּקֶב לַחְשֹׂף חֲמִשִּׁים פּוּרָה וְהָיְתָה עֶשְׂרִים. ב:יז הִכֵּיתִי אֶתְכֶם בַּשִּׁדָּפוֹן וּבַיֵּרָקוֹן וּבַבָּרָד אֵת כָּל מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵיכֶם וְאֵין אֶתְכֶם אֵלַי נְאֻם יְ-הוָה.
Hag 2:15 And now take thought, from this day backward: As long as no stone had been laid on another in the House of YHWH, 2:16 if one came to a heap of twenty measures, it would yield only ten; and if one came to a wine vat to skim off fifty measures, the press would yield only twenty. 2:17 I struck you — all the works of your hands — with blight and mildew and hail, but you did not re- turn to Me — declares YHWH.
ב:יח שִׂימוּ נָא לְבַבְכֶם מִן הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וָמָעְלָה מִיּוֹם עֶשְׂרִים וְאַרְבָּעָה לַתְּשִׁיעִי לְמִן הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר יֻסַּד הֵיכַל יְ-הוָה שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם. ב:יט הַעוֹד הַזֶּרַע בַּמְּגוּרָה וְעַד הַגֶּפֶן וְהַתְּאֵנָה וְהָרִמּוֹן וְעֵץ הַזַּיִת לֹא נָשָׂא מִן הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲבָרֵךְ.
2:18 Take note, from this day forward — from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, from the day when the foundation was laid for YHWH’s Temple — take note 2:19 while the seed is still in the granary, and the vine, fig tree, pomegranate, and olive tree have not yet borne fruit. For from this day on I will send blessings.

Haggai’s contemporary, the prophet Zechariah, echoes Haggai’s pep talk to the effect that the people’s troubles would end once they committed to constructing a Temple:

זכריה ח:ט כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת תֶּחֱזַקְנָה יְדֵיכֶם הַשֹּׁמְעִים בַּיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה אֵת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה מִפִּי הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר בְּיוֹם יֻסַּד בֵּית יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת הַהֵיכָל לְהִבָּנוֹת. ח:י כִּי לִפְנֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם שְׂכַר הָאָדָם לֹא נִהְיָה וּשְׂכַר הַבְּהֵמָה אֵינֶנָּה וְלַיּוֹצֵא וְלַבָּא אֵין שָׁלוֹם מִן הַצָּר וַאֲשַׁלַּח אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם אִישׁ בְּרֵעֵהוּ.
Zech 8:9 Thus said YHWH of Hosts: Take courage, you who now hear these words which the prophets spoke when the foundations were laid for the rebuilding of the Temple, the House of YHWH of Hosts. 8:10 For before that time, the earnings of men were nil, and profits from beasts were nothing. It was not safe to go about one’s business on account of enemies; and I set all men against one another.

Zechariah encourages the leader of the exiles, Zerubbabel, who took on the project of rebuilding the Temple:

זכריה ד:י יְדֵי זְרֻבָּבֶל יִסְּדוּ הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה וְיָדָיו תְּבַצַּעְנָה וְיָדַעְתָּ כִּי יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.
Zech 4:10 Zerubbabel’s hands have founded this House and Zerubbabel’s hands shall complete it. Then you shall know that it was YHWH of Hosts who sent me to you.

He also reports that God sent him to speak with the High Priest and convince him of the importance of building the Temple:

זכריה ו:יא וְלָקַחְתָּ כֶסֶף וְזָהָב וְעָשִׂיתָ עֲטָרוֹת וְשַׂמְתָּ בְּרֹאשׁ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן יְהוֹצָדָק הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל. ו:יב וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו לֵאמֹר כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה אִישׁ צֶמַח שְׁמוֹ וּמִתַּחְתָּיו יִצְמָח וּבָנָה אֶת הֵיכַל יְ-הוָה. ו:יג וְהוּא יִבְנֶה אֶת הֵיכַל יְ-הוָה וְהוּא יִשָּׂא הוֹד וְיָשַׁב וּמָשַׁל עַל כִּסְאוֹ וְהָיָה כֹהֵן עַל כִּסְאוֹ וַעֲצַת שָׁלוֹם תִּהְיֶה בֵּין שְׁנֵיהֶם…
Zech 6:11 Take silver and gold and make crowns. Place one on the head of High Priest Joshua son of Jehozadak, 6:12and say to him, “Thus said YHWH of Hosts: Behold, a man called the Branch shall branch out from the place where he is, and he shall build the Temple of YHWH. 6:13 He shall build the Temple of YHWH and shall assume majesty, and he shall sit on his throne and rule. And there shall also be a priest seated on his throne, and harmonious understanding shall prevail between them.”…
ו:טו וּרְחוֹקִים יָבֹאוּ וּבָנוּ בְּהֵיכַל יְ-הוָה וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּן בְּקוֹל יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
6:15 Men from far away shall come and take part in the building of the Temple of YHWH, and you shall know that I have been sent to you by YHWH of Hosts — if only you will obey YHWH your God!

All this implies that the project of rebuilding the Temple was delayed for two decades for internal reasons: it was insufficiently popular among the Judeans themselves. Thus, Temple advocates such as Haggai and Zechariah encouraged leaders such as Zerubbabel and the high priest, Joshua, informing them that it was the will of YHWH to speedily build the Temple and that the Judeans’ luck would change for the better once this was done.

Ideological Debate

Although Haggai 1:4 (quoted above) implies that the project was delayed out of laziness, I submit that there were plenty of righteous individuals, such as the author of Isaiah 66, within the community whose priorities were not mercenary. Rather they were restrained by serious theological reservations about the acceptability of a fixed address on earth to house their deity. P, who was likely writing at this time, would have been a major source for feeding those reservations.


Fretheim’s Model of an Ancient Tent Tradition

The main ideas for this essay arose several years ago, and I contemplated sharing with fellow readers of TheTorah.com back then, but I soon discovered that my thunder had been stolen by others, notably Terence Fretheim, so I decided to hold back. Later, I realized that Fretheim’s grand scheme and my more modest theory do not quite overlap. Hence, the theory was taken out of mothballs and sent, finally, to be published.

At first glance, the theory outlined above and that of Fretheim seem to be the same. He writes:

It is commonly maintained that the Priestly tabernacle is “a description of a temple, under the guise of a portable tent sanctuary” … The Priestly writers could [allegedly] not use the temple for their sanctuary because they were governed by their chosen setting … It is this assumption which we call into question. In fact, we would maintain that the Priestly writers were basically opposed to the idea of a temple…[12]

Fretheim goes on to suggest that “the Priestly document is the crystallization of a long-standing tent tradition” which he traces back to the prophet Nathan, who dissuades David from building a temple (2 Sam 7:5-6):

שמואל ב ז:ה כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה הַאַתָּה תִּבְנֶה לִּי בַיִת לְשִׁבְתִּי. ז:ו כִּי לֹא יָשַׁבְתִּי בְּבַיִת לְמִיּוֹם הַעֲלֹתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וָאֶהְיֶה מִתְהַלֵּךְ בְּאֹהֶל וּבְמִשְׁכָּן. ז:זבְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלַּכְתִּי בְּכָל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֲדָבָר דִּבַּרְתִּי אֶת אַחַד שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי לִרְעוֹת אֶת עַמִּי אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר לָמָּה לֹא בְנִיתֶם לִי בֵּית אֲרָזִים.
2 Sam 7:5 …Thus said YHWH: Are you the one to build a house for Me to dwell in? 7:6 From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle. 7:7 As I moved about wherever the Israelites went, did I ever reproach any of the tribal leaders whom I appointed to care for My people Israel: Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?

He further relates this tradition to Jeremiah. While Nathan’s tent–temple dichotomy seems comparable to some of the biblical attitudes we have been looking at, Jeremiah’s opposition appears more radical.

ירמיה ז:כא כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֹלוֹתֵיכֶם סְפוּ עַל זִבְחֵיכֶם וְאִכְלוּ בָשָׂר. ז:כב כִּי לֹא דִבַּרְתִּי אֶת אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם וְלֹא צִוִּיתִים בְּיוֹם (הוציא) [הוֹצִיאִי] אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם עַל דִּבְרֵי עוֹלָה וָזָבַח. ז:כג כִּי אִם אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה צִוִּיתִי אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר שִׁמְעוּ בְקוֹלִי וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי לְעָם…
Jer 7:21 Thus said YHWH of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat! 7:22 For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. 7:23 But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people…”

Like many of the pre-exilic prophets, Jeremiah, does not set great store by sacrifices.

It is certainly plausible that the anonymous prophecy of Isa 66:1, as well as others, drew on an ancient anti-temple tradition as Fretheim contends. Indeed, P’s tent and its name ohel mo‘ed undeniably draw on the hoariest of traditions namely, the tent-sanctuary associated with Moses in the oldest Pentateuchal sources (e. g. Exod 33:7).

Yet, rewarding as it may be to speculate on P’s prototypes or pre-history, it seems preferable to focus on the exilic and early post-exilic era – the era in which we are inclined to date the advent of P.


January 30, 2018


Last Updated

June 15, 2024


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Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash An Adventure in Torah: A Fresh Look Through a Traditional Lens (KTAV 2023), and most recently the co-editor with Rabbi Steven H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2023).