THE WAR TENT OF RAMESSES II
Someone said that the OT was dominated by a record of biblical battles, and while that is somewhat of an overstatement, it is astonishing the number of battles that are recorded in the OT documents.
And while we are given occasional glimpses in the OT of the spiritual forces that stand behind such conflicts, it is not until we reach the New Testament that supernatural forces standing behind such conflicts is fully reveled, both in the ministry of Jesus and the early church as they wrestle with principalities and powers, raise the dead, cast out demons, and heal the sick. And the biblical construct of battle, both natural and supernatural, is then finally given a cosmic context in the book of Revelation.
And so battle is pretty basic to the whole of the Bible—and as most of us are painfully aware—it is also central to any significant kingdom break-through in our own ministries today.
So any models we can find in scripture to strengthen our arms for the fight are important, and one that has come to me recently has been the overt military dimension of Israel’s tabernacle, temple, priesthood, and Levites.
We all know that this institution was centered on atonement and worship, but as you trace it through, it becomes clear that taken together, the whole system of tabernacle, temple, priest, and Levite was also military model designed to advance the kingdom of God, and, as we will see, it would have been impossible for the average Israelite not to see and recognize this.
We then need to add in the fact that the Levites were a representative tribe, they stood in for the whole nation having been substituted for the firstborn after the Exodus. And therefore what they model speaks of God’s purposes not just for tabernacle, temple, priest, and Levite, but for Israel as a whole.
(Perhaps I should also add that some Hebrew scholars now believe that the word Israel means God fights, which would again be very instructive—Israel are the people through whom God is going to fight for salvation and justice in the earth, and the tabernacle, temple, priest and Levite are one of the institutions in Israel that model this aggressive forward thrust of the Kingdom of God.
To begin, a few points to set the scene.
1. First, the work of the priests is described by using military vocabulary
An example would be Numbers 3:8 where we read of them doing “the service of the tabernacle”. The word “service” is a military word in Hebrew, just as it is in English. When someone joins the military we speak of them joining the service, or, in Britain as doing national service. The word in Hebrew was used in much the same way. To serve at the Tabernacle was seen to be as much a military, as a religious duty.
2. The Levites occasionally carried the ark into battle
As far as we know this was not done frequently, but when it was done according the word of the Lord (as at Jericho) again it was the priests who were in the thick of the battle. And it was not simply because no one else could carry the ark. They saw themselves as representing the supernatural side of Israel’s physical conflicts. Which might be why we discover in Chronicles that Levites were not exempted from military service. Unless the battle took place during the months they were serving at the temple they had to serve in the army along with every one else.
3. In 2 Chron 20 we read of the Levitical singers going out into battle ahead of the army
Again this was not normal practice, but the fact that Hezekiah got a prophetic word for the priests to sing and praise the Lord as the spear head of Israel’s military machine is in itself a profound picture of their place in the scheme of things. And this is, of course, picked up in the NT and described graphically in the book of Revelation.
4. The ark is called a “chariot” 1 Chron 28:18.
In the past I thought this was a very remarkable word for the chronicler to use to describe the ark. However, the more one thinks about it the more one discovers it is in fact a very good word. The ark was the Lord’s throne, it was mobile, and it was a chest (not unlike the box-like structure of a chariot). In addition, at the Exodus Yahweh was described as a man of war who had thrown Pharaoh’s chariots into the sea. And when one looked into the holy of holies (which was dimly lit, only being illuminated by the shekinah glory) one saw the ark was overshadowed by the great wings of the cherubim, and must have looked something like a great winged war chariot.
5. Although it is not reflected in most English translations, in 1 Chronicles 29 the temple is called a “citadel”
Again this is a very unusual word with strong military overtones. It is a post exilic word and is not the Hebrew word “bayit” that is normally used to describe the temple. It could be translated “palace” but in light of the fact that the chronicler has just described the ark as a chariot it would seem that the translation “citadel” is the best choice. And once again, it helps us to see that even at this late stage in Israel’s history (Chronicles was written after the exile) the military model of tabernacle, temple, priest, and Levite, had not been lost as a defining metaphor of why Israel existed as the people of God.
6. The tabernacle was a war tent
I have been getting the Biblical Archaeological Review and some time ago they ran an article on the war tent of Ramesses II, who most scholars believe was the Pharaoh over Egypt at the time of the Exodus. And recent excavations and inscriptions describing the war tent shed some important light on the Tabernacle.
Much to everyone’s surprise Ramesses war tent was exactly the same shape and size as the Tabernacle of Moses. The rectangular outer court was the same size and shape and had the entrance in the same place. The holy place was the same rectangular shape and size, except Ramesses called it his reception tent. And the Holy of Holies was the same shape and size (a cube) and Ramesses called it his chamber. In fact if you put a scaled diagram or model of them side by side they are almost identical.
Of course, there was no table of showbread, no golden altar of incense, no golden lampstand, and no ark of the covenant. But what one saw from the outside was remarkably similar to Israel’s Tabernacle. And was similarity reinforced by the fact that when Ramesses was using his war tent on a military campaign, his troops would camp to the north, south, east, and west of his tent, just as the tribes of Israel were commanded by the Lord to camp north, south, east, and west of the Tabernacle.
The interesting thing is that the people of Israel would, of course, have been seen the war tent of Ramesses many times while they were slaves in Egypt, and after the Exodus when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and started to build the Tabernacle they would have immediately recognized its similarity to the war tent of Ramesses II. And the similarity was a sermon in and of itself.
Just as Ramesses had been in his war tent in the midst of his warriors to advance his empire, so now Yahweh was in his war tent surrounded by Israel, his warriors, to advance his kingdom to the ends of the earth. The visual parallels would have been dramatic and obvious to everyone.
They knew from the beginning that God had come down to deliver them from the land of bondage and through them to bring salvation and justice to the ends of the earth. And that in doing this they would be in conflict with both natural and supernatural powers. Moses first encountered them in Egypt and they have been entrenched in the spirit of empire that has oppressed the poor and resisted the people of God ever since.
And for me, this military dimension of the Tabernacle throws new light on the prologue of John’s Gospel where we read that “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” Jesus pitched his war tent among us and went on the offensive healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons, and finally by the cosmic confrontation of the cross, decisively disarmed the principalities and powers and defeated both sin and death itself.
By incarnation Jesus subsumed Tabernacle, temple, priest, and Levite into his own person, and therefore it should come as no surprise that he said that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force”. And now as his body, a holy temple and a royal priesthood, we are to be no less aggressive in pushing back the forces of darkness and extending the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth.
Before I forget I should mention that obviously Ramesses built his war tent some years before Moses built the Tabernacle. However, since the book of Hebrews tells us that the Tabernacle reflects a reality in heaven, and that Moses received the divine blueprint on the holy mountain after the Exodus. This means that Ramesses and his architects and craftsmen were guided in the design of his war tent by the Holy Spirit without knowing it.