“Every Man Having His Tent”

Anthropological: “What was a Nephite ”tent"? Would the crowd have been seated in sprawling shelters like Arabs? The term tent is used some 64 times in the Book of Mormon, so the question may deserve attention.

Biblical translators have usually rendered the Hebrew root ’hl to English as “tent”; however, it has a rather wide range of possible meanings. Sometimes it referred to full-fledged tents on the pattern of those used by desert nomads of southwestern Asia; but to semi-nomads like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the term could also mean “hut” as well as “tent.” In later usage, as the Israelites became sedentary village or city dwellers, its meanings were extended further. For example, in Psalm 132:3 and Proverbs 7:17 the related word ’ohel means “canopy (over a bed),” while in the New Testament, John 1:14 says literally “he pitched his tent among us” to communicate the thought “he lived among us.” A Hittite account has the god Elkunirsha living in a “tent” made of wood. In writings from South Arabia in Lehi’s day and also in classical Arabic, languages closely related to Hebrew, the root stood for “family” or “tribe” as well as tent. In the related Semitic language of the Babylonians, a word from the same root meant “city,” “village,” “estate,” or “social unit,” and even formed part of the word for bed. An Egyptian equivalent could be read as “hut, camel’s hair tent, camp.” Furthermore, Dr. Hugh Nibley reminds us that “throughout the ancient world … the people must spend the time of the great national festival of the New Year living in tents.” But for this occasion Israelites came to use makeshift booths made of branches, as fewer and fewer of their town-dwelling numbers owned genuine tents. The Nephites, of course, routinely lived in permanent buildings (see, for example, Mosiah 6:3). Alma’s people “pitched their tents” after fleeing to Helam, but then they “began to build buildings” (Mosiah 23:5). Military forces on the move are said to have used tents (Alma 51:32, 34; 58:25), but it is nearly unbelievable that the entire Lamanite army referred to in Alma 51 lugged collapsible tents on their backs through tropical country hundreds of miles from the land of Nephi. Far more likely they erected shelters of brush or whatever other materials could be found in the vicinity, referring to those or any other temporary shelters by the traditional word for tent. Farmers in parts of Mesoamerica still throw together simple brush shelters when they stay overnight at their fields in the busiest work season, and at the time of the Spanish conquest, Bernal Diaz reported that the soldiers of their Indian allies “erect their huts” as they move on campaign. So when we read that Benjamin’s subjects sat in their tents listening to his sermon, we should understand that they might have been under shelter a good deal different from what comes to mind when we hear “tent” (Sorenson, John L. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. FARMS 1975, p. 160).

Of course one of the questions which should be asked is why they would put up their tents. Of course the answer is shelter, but that begs the question. Why do they need shelter?

It is, of course, possible that they are simply for sleeping arrangements, and that they are shelter for possible showers at night. However, the note that they specifically fact the “door” towards the temple so that they might hear Benjamin’s speech suggests that they are to be used during the day, not simply for nighttime sleeping. It is entirely possible that they “tents” stem from the specifics of the Feast of Tabernacles, so named because of the shelters built for that occasion. Szink and Welsh suggest that “they all remained in their tents during the speech, surely for ceremonial reasons. If it had not been religiously and ritually important for them to stay in their tents, the crowd would have stood much closer to Benjamin and been able to hear him…” (Szink, Terrence L. and John W. Welch. “An Ancient Israelite Festival Context.” In: King Benjamin’s Speech. FARMS, 1998 p. 184).

While the ceremonial aspect of the “tents” is certainly compelling, there is also a very pragmatic reason for them. Given the proposed geographic location of Zarahemla is that they “tents” are for shelter from the sun. Ceremonial plazas large enough to hold most of the people who have come to hear Benjamin are, perforce, cleared land. This is in great contrast to the lush green vegetation that would surround the cleared space. Under the trees the shade ameliorates the hot sun, and the shade and breeze can keep conditions pleasant. In an open area, particularly one in a plaza with worked stone, the bright sun could easily get unbearably hot in certain seasons. A “tent” or lean-to would provide shade.

Native homes in this area are typically built of sticks planted in the ground and rising vertically. There is typically a door, but no other opening. The homes have thatched roofs, and no filler in the spaces between the vertically placed sticks. These homes are remarkably cool, with sufficient sun and breeze coming through the openings between the sticks to keep the interior of the home pleasant, even when outside conditions are less so. While the “tents” would not be permanent, a temporary shelter on the same principles would provide the same benefits.

Brant Gardner -

Brant Gardner

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon