Tents and tentmaking

(Photo: Unsplash)

By Elizabeth Prata

The Lord has arranged my life so that now, though I have been a classroom teacher in the past, I am now a teacher’s aide. I am grateful because I still get to teach kids, but I have less stress and more energy after school – so that I can focus on ministry. I can support myself, (mostly) so in this way, the para-professional job I do is my tentmaking.

Let’s take a look at tents.

Now, when we speak of tents in the Bible, don’t think of Coleman tents you might use for a weekend in the nearby Park. These were homes. Portable, but heavy, large, and thick. The temple was actually a tent (tabernacle) for many hundreds of years in the Wilderness, then at Shiloh, before a permanent structure was built.

Noah was drunk inside his tent, remember? (Genesis 9:21).
Uh-oh, Lot pitched his tents near Sodom. (Genesis 13:2).
There were rules in case a person died inside his tent. (Numbers 19:14).
Moses would pitch a tent outside the camp and called it the ‘tent of meeting’. (Exodus 33:7).

It wasn’t easy to raise a heavy tent such as the ones used in those days. But it was a woman’s job to raise them, strike them, repair them, and care for them and their supplies like a large wooden mallet for driving in the pegs, and the women became expert in all the phases of making, pitching and striking tents. That is why Jael had a tent peg on her that she used to kill a man while he slept. (Judges 4:17-22).

In the late 1800s people from western Europe and America became fascinated with the Holy Lands. They flocked there to visit the sites from the Bible. In 1894 a book was published called Earthly Footsteps of the Man of Galilee (Info at the link about the book itself which is fascinating). Tourists visiting the Holy Land slept in tents each night as their hired dragomen set up camp. (There was no Marriott or Holiday Inn). The photo caption described these tourists “sleeping at night in carpeted tents most comfortably furnished”. Caption and photo below from Earthly Footsteps of the Man of Galilee, 1894.

Manners & Customs of the Bible further explains:

The large tents, still assuming they were made like Arab tents, had nine poles, placed in three rows, covering sometimes a space twenty to twenty-five feet long, ten feet wide, and eight to ten feet high in the middle, with the sides sloping. Such tents often had a curtain hung on the middle row of poles, dividing the tent into two parts, one for the men and one for the women. The poles that held up the tent and divided it into sections were further made useful by having hooks driven into them from which were suspended clothes, baskets, saddles, weapons, and various other articles of daily use. Freeman, J. M., & Chadwick, H. J. (1998). Manners & customs of the Bible (p. 343). Bridge-Logos Publishers.

Paul’s tentmaking

Now, we know Paul carried his cloak, scrolls, and likely quills to write with. Or his amanuensis did. But it is unlikely he also carried bags of goat hair with which to make or patch tents, or needles, and other tent making supplies.

In addition, there were the guilds. They were powerful monopolies, fraternal, and territorial. Guilds mentioned in the Old Testament were- 1 Chronicles 4:21 (linen), Nehemiah 3:8 (goldsmith), even the prophets had a guild (1 Kings 20:35).

In the postexilic period, guilds were powerful organizations and were recognized by the government. A guild could prevent a craftsman from another area from working in its territory. It had a trade monopoly in its particular locality. A guild could monopolize the market. Guild members were insured against loss of tools, animals, and boats used in their business, unless the loss was caused by their own negligence. Guilds had their own religious and social institutions, even their own synagogues, next to which there were burial grounds for the members. In some cases, members of a guild collectively built and operated businesses. Source Bible Gateway

Therefore it is unlikely Paul could waltz into a town and become a freelancer, the guild members would run him out. That he was staying with Prisca and Aquila in Corinth and assisting them (Acts 18:3) likely meant that the couple were members of the guild already, had an established business, and Paul could help them.

What were the supplies needed?

This goat’s hair cloth that is used in making these tents is porous when it is dry, but becomes waterproof after the first rains have shrunk it together. … The material that makes up the Bedouin tent is the same as the sackcloth of Bible days. It must be remembered that this Oriental sackcloth is not at all like the Occidental burlap, but is rather a material made of prickly, coarse goat’s hair. Source: Manners And Customs of Bible Lands

New tents are very seldom made among the Bedouins. About the only time this happens is when a young groom and bride set up housekeeping for themselves in a different location from that of the groom’s parents, and this rarely happens. The usual procedure is to accumulate the goat clippings of a year or so, and with these make a new strip with which to repair the old tent. The women do this work. The section of the tent roof that is most worn is ripped out, and a new piece of the cloth replaces it. The old piece is then used for a side curtain. Each year new strips of cloth replace old ones and the “house of hair” is handed down from father to son without its being completely new or completely old at any one time. Source.

As comfortable as the tents seemed, and by the photographs from the 1800s they do seem comfortable, (at least for the more wealthy desert dwellers) it was still a lot of work to care for tents.

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