Tent of Meeting

Leviticus 1 tells us that Yahweh called Moses from the tent of meeting to deliver instructions about sacrifice. What is that “tent of meeting” (‘ohel mo’ed)?

Judging by the usage of Leviticus, it would seem to be the tabernacle or a portion of the tabernacle. Most of the 40+ uses of the phrase in Leviticus describes the “doorway” of the tent of meeting where offerings occur, where the priests are ordained, where blood is presented.

The phrase seems to refer specifically to what is called the “Holy Place,” the first chamber of the tent. If you stand before the tabernacle in the court, you’re at the doorway of the Holy Place in any case. But “tent of meeting” is also Leviticus’s specific term for that area of the sanctuary. After the rites of the Day of Coverings, the priest takes off his garments in the “tent of meeting” (16:23), which must be the Holy Place. Priests maintain the “tent of meeting” that is outside the “veil of the testimony” (24:3), again a reference to the Holy Place.

 

Leviticus has an unusual way of describing the areas of the tabernacle. It frequently refers to “most holy” food, but never uses the phrase Most Holy Place (qodesh haqodeshim, which is used with surprising rarity anywhere in the Torah, cf. Exodus 26:33-34). The closest Leviticus comes is “holy sanctuary” (miqdash haqodash) in 16:33. When it describes the three zones of the sanctuary, it uses the classification “holy place, tent of meeting, altar” (Leviticus 16:17, 20, 33). In that description, “tent of meeting” refers specifically to the “holy place,” while “holy place” describes the inner sanctuary of ark.

So, if Moses is called to the “tent of meeting,” it means that the Lord speaks to him from the Holy Place. The problem with that is the preceding chapter at the end of Exodus: After Moses erects the tabernacle, the Lord’s glory descends to “fill” the tabernacle and “cover” the tent of meeting, and Moses is driven out. Moses established the tabernacle system, but he won’t be maintaining it. Once the tabernacle is erected, Aaron and his sons have access but not Moses. Moses is the prophet who founds the sanctuary; Aaron is the priest who serves there.

If Leviticus 1 follows Exodus 40 chronologically (the use of the waw-construction in Leviticus 1:1 seems to indicate that Leviticus continues the narrative of Exodus – wyiqra’, “and He called”), then there’s an anomaly: Moses seems to be right back in the Holy Place, after just being driven out.

There’s another possibility. After Israel fell into idolatry with the golden calf, Moses set up a “tent of meeting” outside the camp, where the Lord spoke to him (Exodus 33:7-8). During a time of similar tension in the wilderness, Moses again meets with Yahweh in an extra-mural tent (Numbers 11-12). It seems that this tent was, as it were, incorporated into the tabernacle, so that the tabernacle became the locus of future revelation. The sequence would be similar to Solomon’s temple, which incorporated both David’s ark-tent and the Mosaic tabernacle into a larger sanctuary system.

There’s no other reference to this oracular tent in Leviticus. And, if Leviticus 1:1 refers to this tent, there must be some chronological glitch between Exodus 40 and Leviticus 1, despite grammatical hint of narrative continuity. A comparison of Exodus 40 with the opening chapters of Leviticus strengthens the case for dischronology. Exodus 40:12-16 refer to the anointing and installation of the priests; Leviticus 8-10 records the same event. Thus, arguably, Leviticus 1-7 occurs before the construction of the tabernacle described in Exodus 40, and thus at a time when the Lord was still meeting with Moses in the original tent of meeting.

That does complicate Leviticus 1. On this reading, the text would move, from verses 1 to verse 3, from one sense of “tent of meeting” to another. The narrative introduction would refer to the oracular tent, but the instructions would refer to the holy place of the tabernacle. Moses might be excused some confusion: “Doorway of the tent of meeting, you say? This tent, where I’m receiving these instructions, or another tent that you’ve told me to construct later?”

The complication may be theologically fruitful, though, for it would imply that every Israel who brings his animal to the doorway of the tabernacle is standing in a place analogous to that of Moses. Yahweh speaks only to Moses “face to face,” but the fact that an Israelite can approach a “tent of meeting” hints that they too have the privilege of drawing near.