Myung Soo Suh, The Tabernacle in the Narrative History of Israel from the Exodus to the Conquest.
(Studies in Biblical Literature 50; New York: Peter Lang, 2003), xvii + 182. Hardcover. US $59.95. ISBN 0-8204-6152-0.
Reviewed by Michael M. Homan
Xavier University of Louisiana

Myung Soo Suh’s monograph furthers scholarship concerning the function of the tabernacle. Claiming that previous authors focused narrowly and excessively on the cultic function of the tent, Suh argues that the tabernacle is best understood in a dual role: 1) a cultic center and 2) the military headquarters and treasury of Yahweh, ancient Israel’s divine warrior. Suh makes this case by employing narrative history, defined as a mixture of history and fiction in narrative form, as Suh argues that the Bible is not “history” in the modern sense of the discipline. Thus Suh takes the reader through the narrative of the tabernacle, beginning with the procurement of the tabernacle’s materials (precious metals, linen, livestock) with the despoiling of the Egyptians (Exodus 3) and ending with the Cisjordanian tribes being sent home with permission to keep the metal spoils of war (Joshua 22). Suh’s scope ends here, as he points out that the tabernacle “all but vanishes” in the narratives of Judges and Samuel, as the shrine at Shiloh is never called a “tent of meeting” or a “tabernacle”; instead, it is referred to as a “house” and a “temple” (p. 2).

Following an introductory chapter on the topic, methodology and previous research, chapter two makes the case that the spoils from Egypt are in fact war booty for a triumphant Yahweh. These spoils will eventually decorate the tabernacle, just as other victorious armies in the ancient Near East used the spoils of war to decorate their temples. Chapter three explores Yahweh’s role as a divine warrior, and here Suh does an excellent job of illustrating how warfare and religion in antiquity were intimately linked. Suh claims that both the ark and the tabernacle owned dual purposes, one cultic, one martial. Thus the ark was the cultic centerpiece for ancient Israel, and a palladium as well. Similarly, the tabernacle served as a shrine and Yahweh’s military headquarters and war treasury. Here Suh’s argument would have benefited from expanding the parallels between Rameses II’s war camp and the tabernacle, by interpreting the pillar of fire in a martial context, and by examining David’s use of a tent to store Goliath’s armor (1 Sam 17:54; see Homan, “The Divine Warrior in His Tent,” BR 16.6 (2000): 22–33, 55). Suh explores in chapter 4 the story of the golden calf, thought by many scholars to be out of place in the narrative. However, Suh argues that it fits well, as the narrator shows how the instructions to build the tabernacle are betrayed in the construction of the golden calf. This calf, Suh argues, is created by the people to symbolize Moses’ military leadership. However, God instead symbolizes Moses’ leadership with either horns or a shiny face (Exod 34:29). The materials belonging to Yahweh as booty are here used with the golden calf to construct a symbol of Moses, and for this, the Israelites are punished. The final two chapters before the conclusion discuss the narrative elements of the rebellions and the ark and tabernacle’s role in the conquest. Suh claims that the tabernacle, as the cradle of both the priesthood and the cultic military leadership, comes to stand as a symbol for the integrity of Israel.

Suh is to be commended on such a broad work that incorporates a wide variety of sources. The book is a revised doctoral thesis completed in 1998 at the University of Sheffield, though the extent to which it was revised is questionable. Consequently, the book reads much like a dissertation, as best exemplified in the section on methodological considerations in which he covers the methodological theories of the advisors on his committee (pp. 2–7). Furthermore, while the bibliography is impressive for publications before 1996, nothing written after that date makes it into the discussion, which is surprising in that Suh’s book was published in 2003. Notable absences include: W. H. C. Propp, Exodus 1–18 (AB 2; Doubleday, 1998) and several publications from the reviewer, especially To Your Tents, O Israel: The Terminology, Function, Form, and Symbolism of Tents in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (CHANE 12; Brill, 2002; revised dissertation 2000). Also, as a bi-product of narrative criticism, much of the book covers narrative elements such as the rebellions and nehushtan which have little to do with the tabernacle. Other difficulties include the citation of long quotations with the author’s name buried in the endnotes, the overuse of rhetorical questions, arguments from silence, and spelling inconsistencies and errors such as bible/Bible (p. 25) and Jebusites (p. 27). Some sentences reveal redundancy. For example:

During the wilderness wandering the main cause for the Israelite murmuring is the matter of food and drink. In most cases, for the Israelites in the wilderness, the key issue is indeed food and drink (p. 35).

Yet, these difficulties are dwarfed by the book’s great value. This monograph is an asset for tabernacle scholarship and provides a sound application of the discipline of narrative historical criticism.