BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 68, 2020

SARAH L. HART, From Temple to Tent. From Real to Virtual World (Exodus 24:15–Numbers 10:28)
(Adelaide: ATF Press, 2019). Pp. xv + 195. Paperback. AU$44.95.

At first glance the title of Hart‘s book would seem to clash with the sequence of the text of the Pentateuch in which a temporary, portable tent sanctuary erected at Sinai serves as the forerunner of a permanent temple to be erected in Jerusalem. However, the subtitle From Real to Virtual World provides a very concise explanation for the main title and is the focus of her study. Her thesis is that the temple was the historical reality (along with a tradition about a portable tent at Shiloh) that, after its destruction by the Babylonians, provided the raw material, as it were, for the creation of a virtual cultic centre that exists only in the biblical text and in the imagination of believing readers of this text.

In Hart’s judgment, one needs to examine all the texts she identifies in order to fully appreciate the meaning and function of the tent sanctuary. While a number of scholars have analysed sections of this material, such as the erection of the tent in Exod 24:15–40:38, no one has so far offered an interpretation of the text that follows its construction and erection; namely the liturgy to be performed there (Leviticus), and the conduct of all those who, in their varying capacities, participate in this liturgy (Num 1:1–10:28). Although this extensive text was likely assembled over a period of time and drew on various sources, Hart judges on the basis of “thematic, linguistic and literary reasons” that it was forged into “a coherent unit” (5). Her justification of this involves a close examination of relevant texts and their contexts, the larger context of the ANE, and the contribution of other scholars in the field. Consideration of thematic features shows that construction, cult, cultic functionaries and worshippers all form part of a larger whole. Further support for this emerges in the consistency of language and terminology that is employed.

A notable feature of the way language is employed in the three major sections of the text is what she calls “mimesis.” This involves varying degrees of representation of things from factual to abstract, the symbolic use of terms, descriptors that capture the essence of things, and the artistic creation of an “as-if” world. All this is designed to have an impact on a reader/receiver (141–42). Authors employ mimesis in order to create a text that presents what she calls a “virtual world.” That is, the sanctuary tent that is created in the text effectively replaces a once historical reality that has been destroyed—such as the temple—and by “entering” this text, a reader believes that he or she encounters the same God present in the temple. It is of course a faith claim and depends on the reader accepting that the words of this text are of divine origin.

Additional evidence that indicates the tent sanctuary portrayed in the text is a “virtual world” is the lack of specific time references (in contrast to the account in 1 Kings 6–8), the way in which all the people (and readers) are given “access” via the text to the inmost parts of the sanctuary, and the ideal or unreal world in which this is portrayed as unfolding. In Hart’s judgment, and that of other scholars, it is extremely unlikely that such an edifice could have been actually constructed at a desert site such as Sinai, and that worshippers in this context could have had access to all the animals, wood and other material needed to maintain the sacrificial cult described—over a period of forty years. Added to this is that ANE literature does not preserve anything similar to this text.

According to Hart and most recent scholarship, this text was constructed in the post-exilic period for the benefit of the Jewish diaspora. Even though they lived far from Jerusalem and the second temple, they were assured that they had just as immediate and full an access to God as their counterparts in Judah. By the same token, the authors of the text were careful not to create any rivalry with the temple by making their text part of a storyline that is to reach its fulfillment in the promised land and per-manent dwelling place of God.

Understandably in a volume of this size, not all texts can be examined in the same depth. Overall, however, Hart makes a persuasive case for her interpretation of an extensive and complex section of the Pentateuch. As such it is a valuable contribution to the field.

Review by
Mark A. O’Brien OP
Catholic Theological College
University of Divinity, Melbourne
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