The Tent of Meeting: Central or Marginal?

By :  Benjamin D. Sommer Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Feb 13, 2023 / 5783 | Monday Webinar The Space In Between

Download Sources

Part of the series, The Space in Between: Thresholds and Borders in Jewish Life and Thought 

With Dr. Benjamin Sommer, Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, JTS 

The Tent of Meeting is described at great length in the Torah as the elaborate sacred tent located in the center of the Israelite encampment that travelled through the wilderness for forty years. But several passages in the Torah describe the Tent of Meeting differently, as a tiny structure located outside the Israelite camp. Why does the Torah include both historical memories of this structure? How does each structure reflect a particular religious worldview, and what does the presence of both in the Torah tell us about Judaism?   

Lecture Notes

  • Sommer introduces documentary theory in which there are four types of writers of the Torah (JEDP)
  • Priestly and Elohist – very different memories of the Mishkan. Priests imagine it inside the camp—at the center. Very elaborate as tents go (glamping). For Elohists, it’s outside. Not central but peripheral. And small—Moses can put it up himself. 
  • Lines up with two different conceptions of religion:  
    • Religious authority, religion, God – all are singular and centralized. Also permanent. God is available there—both dangerous and accessible. We know where God is, who the people are who are closely connected to God. God is powerful yet has allowed godself to be domesticated—which brings a degree of predictability. Sacrifices—we meet God twice every day through the tamid offering. “Locative” or “centripetal” view of religion. God is imminent.  
    • God is in lots of places. Pops in different places temporarily. God is transcendant and therefore unpredictable. [Utopian (u-topos, no place) versus topos, place.] Place is much less important in this view. Place can even be a dangerous concept—can devolve into idolatry. This is why E locates it outside the camp, in an area of chaos, not civilization. There could be many religious authorities in this view, not necessarily one—Eldad and Meidad 
  • Torah embraces both: sacred space as a central value versus a dangerous idea, etc. Etc. (2:07) 
  • Judaism is a both/and religion—not either/or. The Torah is not a book but an anthology.  
  • Two different memories of the same institution. But they probably both have some degree of accuracy. Small Moses tent resembles ancient pre-Islamic Arab sanctuaries. But also Mesopotamian tents described very much like the elaborate P mishkan.  

About the Series

We are living in an undefined time: our daily existence is no longer dominated by the pandemic, yet neither have we settled into a new normal. This sense of being in transition—neither here nor there—  can feel destabilizing; but is the time in between really temporary, or are we always living in between moments, identities, and phases of life?  

In this series, JTS scholars will delve into the idea of liminality—the time or space in between—which we encounter often in Jewish ritual, identity, law, and life. Join us to consider what these many manifestations of “in-between-ness” can teach us about ourselves and about Judaism, and to explore how we might find strength and meaning in an orientation not of “either/or” but of “both/and.” 

We will explore themes of borders, thresholds and transitions as they pertain to the story of Creation, gender, conversion, birth and death, the duality of living as a Jew in America, and more.


At JTS, we are committed to providing the Jewish community with outstanding classes in Judaic studies. We hope you will partner with us so that we can continue to do so. Did you know that you can sponsor a learning session to honor a loved one, celebrate an occasion, or commemorate a yahrzeit? You can find sponsorship information here.