From the very earliest of Bible times up to the present day the tent has been a major feature of the Palestinian landscape. Today it is the Bedouin Arabs that dwell in the black goat's hair tents that dot the barren desert; yet the Bible shows us that for hundreds of years tent dwelling was a regular part of Hebrew life. Thus if one wishes to visualize and comprehend the living conditions in which much of the Old Testament it set it is wise to understand the extent to which tent-dwelling pervaded Hebrew life. The aim of this paper is to consolidate and highlight some of this information into one place.
There can be no doubt that tent dwelling was prevalent during the earliest stages of the Biblical narrative. In Genesis 4:20 Jabal is described as the father of those that live in tents. Post flood we read of Noah retiring to his tent (Gen 9:21) and then of Japheth dwelling in the tents of Shem (Gen 9:27). We are told repeatedly of Abraham pitching his tent (Gen 12:8, 13:18, 18:1) and that Lot had one too (Gen 13:5).
A rather more controversial question is: when did Israel stop dwelling in tents? Fausset states:
The stay of Israel in Egypt weaned them from tent life and trained them for their fixed home in Canaan
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia appears to concur as it describes the time that David wanted to build the temple as 'long after the time the Children of Israel had given up their tents for houses.' In contrast Wight still places many Israelites in tents at the time of the revolt under Jeroboam citing 1 Kings 12:16 ('To your tents, O Israel'). Fausset is aware of that verse but considers it to be a lingering artifact of a previous tent dwelling existence.
I suspect that the correct answer is rather simpler but also rather less tidy: tent dwelling diminished steadily as the Israelites took up residence in Canaan although it remained a part of life when viewing the society as a whole. For example Torrey notes that tents were a feature of all the recorded Israelite wars. The last reference he gives is 1Kings 16:15-16 which documents the reign of Zimri: showing tents used during war well into the divided kingdom. He also notes that tents were still used East of Gilead during Saul's reign (1Chr 5:10) and that in the time of Isaiah shepherds' tents were still a common site (Isa 38:12).
It is the reign of David however that gives us the keenest insight into the 'tipping point' between tent and house dwelling. David was a shepherd and a soldier and thus he would have been a tent dweller on many occasions. It was David though that felt that as he was now dwelling in a building it was time for God to move out of a tent too (2Sa 7:1-10). It was also during David's reign that Uriah made the (albeit slightly hyperbolic) statement:
2Sa 11:11 And Uriah said unto David, The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? as thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing.
It would appear that by the reign of David camping in tents, or even under the stars, was still a common condition amongst the Jewish population. In contrast the rich and elite had largely transitioned to buildings and this was considered the preferable alternative for those that could do it.
Most of the information we have regarding the construction of tents comes from observation of the ones that are being used today. The Arab bait shaer (house of hair) is made from black goat's hair which has been woven into strips about twenty seven inches across which are then sewn together and laid parallel to the length of the tent. This goats hair roof is then suspended from a number of poles which may be as few as one but which generally number nine clustered into three groups of three. When first woven these roofs are not waterproof, but once sodden and shrunk they offer good protection against the elements. The sides of the tents, used mainly in winter, are made either from 'old' pieces of roofing material or from woven rushes. The partitions within the tent are also made from matting material. The tent is secured to the ground by ropes which are attached to pins which are driven into the ground using a mallet. It is probably just such a fastening that Jael used in Judges 4:21 to kill Sisera.
Wight then provides a very interesting detail regarding the maintenance of these tents which explains a number of Biblical verses. They are not generally 'made new' and then 'replaced'. Rather a new strip is made from a year's worth of goat clippings; this strip then replaces the oldest and most worn strip of the existing tent. Thus at any given time a given tent will be from one to about seven years old. For this reason expansion is achieved not by buying a bigger tent but by adding strips to the existing one at a faster rate! This is almost certainly the process alluded to in Isa 54:2. Further, these tents are essentially a family heirloom: in Gen 24:67 we a see a tent passing from Sarah to her daughter-in-law.
For a small family a single tent could provide accommodation for the whole family unit. In such a situation the tent would be divided into three sections. The outer section nearest the door contained the men's quarters. This would also double as the reception area for sharing hospitality with guests. The second compartment, screened from the first, is the women's quarters. The third compartment, if it existed, contained the servants or cattle. This arrangement explains how Sarah was able to overhear the conversation between Abraham and the Lord even though she was not a part of it (Gen 18:10-17).
As a family grew in size, wealth or stature it was possible that one family would own multiple tents. As we have already seen Rebecca took the tent of Sarah. By the time of Jacob his two wives each had their own tents and the two maidservants had a tent too (Gen 31:33). Second Chronicles 14:15 even details a case where Cattle were allocated a tent. Today when multiple tents form an encampment they are generally encircled to construct a safe enclosure for livestock. It is possible the patriarchs followed a similar pattern. In contrast we know that the Israelite encampment in the wilderness was aligned in orderly rows and is compared to lines of trees in a formal garden (Num 24:5-6).
As any hiker will attest it is vital to keep weight to a minimum; for this reason the furnishings inside a tent are typically Spartan. The ground may be covered with rugs or matting during the day with softer matting brought out at night. The clothes worn during the day typically function as the bed-spread during the night. Foodstuffs are stored near the center of the tent with a few cooking utensils and pots and pans available to cook food and some leather skins for storage of liquid. Light is provided by an oil lamp and potentially by the light of the fire. There would generally be two of the latter: one inside the men's quarters and the other outside close to the women's area. The closest one might approach luxury would be having a camel saddle to double as a chair; a situation Rachel found herself in in Genesis 31:34.
As can be seen from the foregoing tent life was a hard life with much work and few luxuries. It was the norm for the patriarchs and for the Israelites that left Egypt. It was probably the norm for most people right up until the time of David. From then it appears that those that could forsook the nomadic tent for a more pastoral lifestyle. However the simplicity and pilgrim mentality that allowed man to move from place to place at a moment's notice held a charm and honor in Israeli thought that kept tent imagery prominent even amongst the later prophets (eg Zec 12:7).