Updated: Mar 16, 2020
This week's Bible Word is the Greek noun skene, which means "tent". This word appears in the Gospel (Mt 17:1-9) of the Second Sunday of Lent, year A, when, at the Transfiguration of the Lord, Peter suggests building 3 tents: one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.
The noun skéné is one of a group of 8 other related Greek words, all with meanings related to tents, or to making, setting up or dwelling in tents. As with previous episodes of Bible Words, I will consider these skéné words as a single group, since their meanings are closely related – except where I need to focus on one specific variant of the word.
In the secular Greek literature of the ancient world, the basic meaning of skéné as “tent” is common. It is frequently used for military camps, for example in Xenophon’s Anabasis. There are a series of meanings related to tent-like structures, such as a market booth, a cover of a wagon, or a cabin on the deck of a ship. The word is also used for the edifice at the back of a Greek theatre, which originally was an awning to allow actors to put on costumes, and eventually became a permanent structure at the rear of the stage; this meaning gives us, via Latin, our English words “scene” and “scenic”, which have their own theatrical meanings. Skéné words were also extended to dwellings, whether physical (as when Aristotle observes the swallow’s skill in building their nest, in Greek skenopegia) or metaphorical (for example, Plato’s observation about injustice’s tent being widely spread). Skéné was also used occasionally to describe a portable shrine for the gods, a practice that the historian Diodorus observes among the Carthaginians, for example. It is of note that most of the meanings of skéné have an impermanent, transitory nature, whether referring to the structures themselves or their use.
In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ, the word skéné is common (well over 500 occurrences, counting all the variants). This is not surprising when we consider that the Patriarchs were nomadic, pitching tents as they journeyed.
So we see that Abraham’s journey at the Lord’s command describes where he “pitched his tent” [skenén] during his journey (Gen 12:8). Various groups live in tents: nomads in Genesis 4:20; herdsmen in Judges 6:5, and soldiers in 2 Kings 7:7-8.
Most significantly of all, the people of Israel live in tents during the exodus from Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land. During this journey, in Exodus 18:7, Jethro visits Moses, and they go into the tent [skenén] together for a meeting. This formative period of tent-dwelling is commemorated, later in Israel’s history, in the feast of Tabernacles (literally of tents or tent-making: Skénopégia), where the people of Israel dwelt in tents for seven days, to recall this wilderness period, and God’s provision for them, to remind Israel of its continued dependence on God. The feast is instituted in Leviticus 23:34, 42-43, and also mandated in Nehemiah 8:15-16.
The word skéné is extended, metaphorically, to dwellings in general. So in Psalm 118:15, we hear of “the tents of the just”, and Zion is invited to stretch out its tents in Isaiah 54:2-3. Most tragically, in 1 Kings 12:16, the northern tribes, faced with the intransigence of Rehoboam, king of Judah, say “To your tents [skenomata], O Israel!”, and depart in conflict, as a preface to the division of the kingdom, and its consequent weakening, leading eventually to exile.
God Himself maintains creation like a tent as a metaphor of His providence: He lays out creation like a huge marquee in Psalm 104:2, and Isaiah 40:22, making a tent for the sun in Psalm 19:5; and He repairs the tent [skēnēn] of David in Amos 9:11. Psalm 16:9 describes dwelling in safety under the Lord’s protection, using the verb kataskenoo, literally “encamp”. The famous line in Psalm 23:2 “He makes me lie down in green pastures” is – at least in the LXX – another instance of kataskenoo: we could translate it literally as “He sets my camp”. In contrast, illness is like a tent pulled up and removed in Isaiah 38:12, and those in exile are described as going out of the safety of the city and instead camping in the plain in Micah 4:10. In Wisdom 9:15, the metaphor extends still further, to the “corruptible body” being like an “earthly tent” [skenos], weighing down the mind.
Going back to Israel’s period in the desert en route to the Promised Land, Moses sets up a tent of meeting or witness in Exodus 33:7, where He meets the Lord and speaks with Him “as a man speaks with a friend”, while the people watch from their own tents (Exod 33:8-11). Note that this tent is a place to meet God, not where God resides. But God also sets out (in Exodus 25) plans for a tabernacle [skenés], where the Ark of the Covenant is placed. And once Moses has completed it according to God’s design, the glory of the Lord enters the tabernacle and fills it in Exodus 40:34. Later we’ll see how this image of God’s glory inhabiting a tent returns in the New Testament.
Later in Israel’s history, David proposes (in 1 Chronicles 28:2) making a more permanent dwelling for God, rather than Him “moving from place to place in a tent” (2 Sam 7:6-7). But God, through the prophet Nathan, tells David that He cannot contain God in this way. Instead, God will build a house, a dynasty, for David.
Sadly, carrying a tabernacle [skenen] as a portable shrine for false Gods becomes an image of apostasy, when it is an example of Israel’s unfaithfulness, which will lead to their forthcoming exile in Amos 5:26-27.
Eventually, God’s presence among His people is again expressed in mobile terms, when through the prophets, He declares His intention to encamp [kataskenen] among them, in Ezekiel 37:27, Joel 4:17 and Zechariah 2:14.
The New Testament has far fewer occurrences of skéné words, just under 40 in total.
Half of them are the noun skéné, including the Gospel (Mt 17:1-9) of the Second Sunday of Lent, year A. At the Transfiguration of the Lord, Peter suggests building 3 tents: one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter’s proposal is rich with resonance from the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the presence of 2 Old Testament heroes, one of whom erected the tent of meeting in Exodus 33. But we also sense the irony of Peter’s aim to preserve this special moment via a structure (a tent) that is inherently transitory, and also in his futile aspiration to provide an adequate dwelling for the glory of God, as we glimpse a foretaste of the latter in Jesus’s transfiguration.
Kataskéné refers to a nest in 2 places in the Gospels: the mustard seed grows into a place where birds can nest (Mt 13:32 and its parallels Mk 4:32 and Lk 13:19); and Jesus contrasts His own lack of a place to rest with the birds having nests (Mt 8:20 and the parallel Lk 9:58).
The Apostle Paul is a tentmaker (the Greek is skénopoios), as are his friends Aquila and Priscilla, as revealed in Acts 18:3. This is Paul’s means of supporting himself financially, so as not to be a burden on the communities he visits (see 1 Cor 9:12, 15). “Tentmaking” has, in contemporary Christian usage, become a metaphor for those who witness to the gospel alongside their day-to-day professional activity.
Many other uses of skéné words are metaphorical, nearly all of them drawing on the imagery of, or sometimes directly quoting, the Hebrew Scriptures:
- Abraham’s “dwelling in tents” is, in the letter to the Hebrews, an image of the transitory state which all followers of the Lord must imitate in faith, till we reach "the city with foundations, whose builder is God" (Heb 11:9-10). Luke’s Jesus urges his disciples to seek reward in the eternal dwellings [skēnas], in Luke 16:9.
- The idea of a tent as a temporary state recurs in the metaphor of the body as a skéné, which is rare in the Hebrew Scriptures, but occurs twice in the New Testament letters: in 2 Corinthians 5:1, 2 and 4, Paul contrasts the “earthly tent” [skenous] of the body, in which we “groan”, with the more permanent building (for the latter, Paul uses the distinct word oikodomēn), made by God in the heavens; in 2 Peter 1:13-14, the writer uses the tent metaphor to acknowledge that his body [skēnōmatos] will soon be put aside.
- Skéné words refer to shelter provided by the Lord, when the power of Christ may dwell with the Apostle in his weakness in 2 Corinthians 12:9 [episkēnōsē; literally, “raise a shelter over me”]; and Acts 2:26 quotes Psalm 16:9 (“my flesh shall rest [kataskēnōsei] in hope”) as a prophecy of Christ’s resurrection
Other New Testament references to the Hebrew Scriptures, concerning skéné words, relate to tents as tabernacles or shrines: - the martyr Stephen refers to the tent of witness, and to the skénóma that David asked to build, and to the sacrilegious skéné to Moloch from Amos 5:27, during his address to the Sanhedrin in Acts chapter 7 (Acts 7:43, 44, 46); - the book of Revelation has 7 angels with 7 plagues come out of the tent of witness (Rev 15:5). - Later in Acts, James quotes Amos 9:11 to show that the rise of the Church is a fulfilment of the prophecy that promised the restoration of David’s skene (Acts 15:16). - In John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches during the Feast of Tabernacles – in Greek, Skénopégia (Jn 7:2, 14, 37). - But the most numerous occurrences of skéné words appear in the letter to the Hebrews, especially in chapters 8-9, where the author distinguishes between the earthly tabernacle of the Old Testament, and Christ, the true tabernacle (Heb 8:2, 5; Heb 9:2, 3, 6, 8, 11, 21).
The skéné imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures is also drawn on, in the Johannine writings, to describe God’s dwelling. In the book of Revelation, it alludes to those who dwell in heaven in Revelation 12:12 and 13:6, and in Revelation 7:15, God is a shelter for those who now serve before His throne. An even stronger echo of the Old Testament prophetic promise, of God living with his people, appears in Revelation 21:3, where “the dwelling place [skéné] of God is with man, and he will dwell [skēnōsei] with them… as their God.”.
But it is the prologue of John’s Gospel, which describes God living with us, in the most intimate way of all, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. John 1:14a says “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”. The Greek word for “dwelt” is eskēnōsen – literally, he “pitched His tent” among us. This recalls, and then goes beyond Exodus’s tent of meeting and the tabernacle, to become the most complete way in which God meets with man – and also, as John 1:14b goes on to say: “we beheld His glory”. So the skéné of Christ’s humanity is also, like Exodus 40:34, a tent filled with the glory of God.
So, what does all of this mean for us?
1. First, in our life of faith, do we erect a tent, to try to preserve things in a state which we find comfortable? Peter wanted to preserve the moment of the transfiguration, but in the end, he had to move on, back down the mountain. Are we the same, with our faith in a constant state of nostalgia, preserving good things but risking suppressing the Spirit? Or, are we willing to break down our tents of comfort, and move on, as a pilgrim people, with no permanent city here on earth? (Heb 13:14)
2. Second, can we become “tentmakers” wherever we live our day-to-day lives? Whether we’re at work, or parenting, or as carers, can we carry the gospel to others whom we meet in our day-to-day lives, and make our routine activities part of our Christian witness? Because such witness is the duty of all the baptised (Catechism, 900), and the very diversity of our day-to-day occupations provides many places where we can uniquely and distinctively shine the light of the Gospel.
3. Finally, Jesus is “true God and true man” – both dwelling with us, and revealing His glory Do we accept this truth? Or do we emphasize either His divinity or humanity at the other’s expense – either spiritualising Jesus, so we cannot see His face in people in need; or following Jesus just like any other human ethical teacher, and as result relying on our own efforts to make a better world, without God’s grace? Instead, while we are still in our own earthly skéné, let’s pray that, through God’s grace, we will be formed more and more into the image of the one who pitched His tent – eskēnōsen – among us (Jn 1:14)