When the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the open fields, but Jacob was an even-tempered man, living in tents. – Genesis 25:27 NET
At first glance, this simple statement doesn’t seem all that significant, and has all the appearances of a basic relaying of biographical information concerning Esau and Jacob. When we read something like “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the open fields, but Jacob was an even-tempered man, living in tents,” it might seem like the natural course of action would be to focus on the first piece of information concerning both of these men, drawing analogies based on the fact that Esau is described as a “skilled hunter,” with Jacob referred to as “even-tempered,” and from that, making applications to how we are supposed to live as people of the covenant God.
That may be a useful exercise, but is not that which we will be doing here and now. The far more compelling information is found in the second part of the biographical statements, in which we are told that Esau is “a man of the open fields,” whilst Jacob was “living in tents.” This becomes an important statement when considered within the light and context provided by the larger Scriptural narrative. We must remember that the author of Genesis (presumed to be Moses---and we have no reason to argue that point, though it doesn’t really matter for our purposes) is here recounting the foundational history of man in general, and of Israel in particular. The record of what are commonly known as the five books of Moses indicate that he was doing these things while Israel was living in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, following their exodus, during the forty years of wandering that was imposed upon them by God because of their basic lack of trust in Him. At that time, Israel was dwelling in tents. The Ark of the Covenant was housed in a tent. Moses met with the Lord in a tent. Because of the repeated filling of the tabernacle with the cloud of the presence of the Lord, it could be said that God Himself was also dwelling in a tent. Looking further down the road, it will be said that in the Messiah, God would and did strike a tent in human flesh so as to tabernacle with His own creation. In that context, it becomes singularly interesting that the trade of the Apostle Paul was that of tent-maker.
As we can broadly reflect on Genesis and consider that tents are routinely mentioned inside and along with the stories of Abraham and Isaac, we can consider that there is something significant about tents. Not only were the tents of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Israel instrumental in better facilitating their regular movement, that they might be better positioned to become a blessing to the multiplied peoples of the earth, but the tents would also serve as an ongoing reminder of their exile and their exodus. For Israel, as the narrative that leads up to Exodus and the beginnings of Israel’s history as a distinct people is compiled, the tents of the Genesis narrative take on a particular importance. This is especially so when we consider the yearly Feast of Tabernacles, when the nation is required to take up residence in tents, as an explicit reminder of their exodus and its associated time in the wilderness.
It is simply amazing to consider how much importance is given to Israel’s Egyptian exodus within the history of the nation, with the reminder provided by the feasts of Tabernacles and the Passover, not to mention the regular recitation of the people’s history, and the near constant reference to Egypt in the mouths of Israel’s judges, and prophets. Because Jacob is the immediate father of the nation of Israel, with the fact that his name is changed from Jacob to Israel providing witness to that fact, we are not left to wonder at the reason for this mentioning of Jacob as one who lived in tents. For Israel, it would provide a sustaining and encouraging link to the past and to their forefathers, as they, though they were the covenant people and were in possession of a promise of a specific land of their own, dwelt in tents in a desert during the time of Moses’ leadership. So this becomes a very useful connection in fanning the flames of hope amongst the people of Israel.
Because the Biblical record presents us with relatively short and fleeting periods of time in which Israel is actually in controlling possession of the promised land (implicitly near the end of Joshua’s leadership; sporadically during the time of the judges; consistently during the time of the united monarchy kingdom monarchy of Saul, David, and Solomon; and tenuously throughout the entire period of the divided kingdom), and that apart from the reign of Solomon, this control is always challenged by enemies on various sides, the tents serve a purpose well beyond the time in the wilderness, always reminding promised-land-occupying-Israel of possible exile and triumphant exodus, and ideally, of its responsibility to be a blessing to the nations in spite of its perceived difficulties.