Culture: Queries anthropologist John Sorenson:
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: “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.”
Why did this large assemblage need shelter? Did they want privacy for sleeping arrangements, or possibly shelter against rain? A more compelling reason is that the people need shelter against the sun. Ceremonial plazas large enough to hold the size of the crowd described here are, perforce, cleared land. If this plaza were paved with worked stone, as is typical of many Classical Mesoamerican urban sites, direct sunlight could become unbearably hot. A “tent” or lean-to would provide shade, yet allow the breeze to pass through the loosely assembled sides.
As another detail, the description that the “door” faces toward the temple so that the people can hear Benjamin’s speech suggests that they are used during the day, not simply at night.
Native homes in this area are typically built of sticks fixed firmly in the ground and rising vertically. They typically have doors but no windows. The homes have thatched roofs, and no filler in the spaces between the vertically placed sticks. These homes are remarkably pleasant, with sun and breeze coming through the openings. While the “tents” would not be permanent, a temporary shelter on the same principles would provide the same benefits.
It is also possible, as Szink and Welsh suggest, that the “tents” are part of the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles. They point out that the people “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 [better].”