The primary passages for the Feast of Sukkot can be found in: Leviticus 23.33-43, Numbers 29.12-38, Deuteronomy 16.16, and Nehemiah 8.14-17.
This week, our focus is on the third and final major fall feast that Israel celebrates and has celebrated for some 35 centuries. Consider that statement for a moment. This holiday which is a holy day has been celebrated for over 3400 years. In America, some of the most celebrated days are Mother’s Day (officially a holiday beginning in 1914), Thanksgiving (official in 1863, though first celebrated in 1621), Independence Day (declared in 1776), and Christmas which although it hasn’t been celebrated for the full time, was initiated about 4 BC.
These are four of the most celebrated holidays in America today. However, none of these comes close to matching the length of time that the feasts of Israel have been celebrated. And while we may not commemorate the Feasts specifically, Christians do recognize them yearly on days such as Resurrection Day and Pentecost, especially. Furthermore, it is possible that the first Thanksgiving coincided with the dates of the Feast of Sukkot. The reasoning for the observance may have been different (the Jews celebrated the harvest while the Pilgrims were preparing for a harsh winter), but one former vice-president of the Plimoth Plantation suggested the date was Sept. 29, and was almost certainly between Sept 21 and Nov 11, 1621. Any of these dates until October 20th would fit the necessary requirements of the Hebrew calendar.
So what is this feast and why is it significant? Let us look at a few crucial elements and then turn to the Bible to see how Jesus fits into the equation.
The feast is called Sukkot. We usually refer to the feast as the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles, which are a translation of Sukkot. However, the feast is also known as the Feast of Ingathering because it represents the final harvest of the Fall. It is the greatest harvest of the year – the fruit is brought in (mainly grapes, olives, pomegranates, figs, and dates) and the rest of the wheat is harvested as well.
The date for this feast begins on the 15th day of Tishri, which is five days after the Day of Atonement. By the time Jesus was born this holy day was a major time of celebration, yet the celebration of God’s goodness in the present contains a definite reminder of His faithfulness in the past. And that is where this feast derives its name.
In Leviticus 23.42, God commands that “all native Israelites shall dwell in booths for seven days.” This is to be done throughout all generations as a reminder that the people dwelled “in booths when I brought them out of Egypt” (v. 43). These booths (or sukkahs) were what the ancient people lived in in the wilderness, and the annual celebration is a reminder to each generation since. Imagine, decades later when the Israelites were in the Promised Land, tents popping up everywhere in remembrance of their time in the wilderness. Consider an older woman walking to get some water when a young girl (perhaps a granddaughter) asks why all of the tents are up. The woman would walk along and tell stories about the faithfulness of God to His people – including her and that she was there to cross the Jordan. Perhaps a grandfather sat down with his grandchildren in one of these tents/booths before a meal and told them of the mighty acts of God and that he, personally, was there when the walls of Jericho fell. Such reflections and stories being passed to subsequent generations were a major concern of God for the celebration of this feast.
According to the Bible, three specific commands are given in the Torah with regard to Sukkot. The people were to dwell in their sukkah, gather four species of plant, and rejoice. Subsequently many traditions were added including various recitings and readings (including the Book of Ecclesiastes), inviting symbolic guests from Israel’s past (ushpizin) to the sukkah, and other rituals associated with the seventh day of the festival (Hoshana Rabbah). (1)
Over the total of the eight days, the following would have represented the full number of sacrifices during the festival, all of which were to acknowledge God’s sovereignty:
22 bushels of fine flour
65 gallons of olive oil
The Sukkah has been declared to be a temporary structure with a minimum of three walls. The dwelling is often decorated with flowers, leaves, fruits, and vegetables. The wind must be allowed to pass through to some degree and the roof must have a gap in it in order to see the stars. Seeing the sky above and feeling the wind blow through is reminder that security is not from the walls or ceiling but, rather, true security is from the Lord.
The command was to live in it during the time of the feast. Some do live in it for this week, but many just eat meals there. Harvesters in the field often build “field shelters” in order to remain near the crops to protect them. Additionally, synagogues even today may build a sukkah for the benefit of those congregants who do not have their own. (2)
Now, think ahead to the Spring. Each year, we remember the day that Jesus enters Jerusalem on the Sunday before His death. We call this Palm Sunday because of the text which says they waved palm branches. It is important to remember (or realize) that all Jewish males who were able were required by God to travel to Jerusalem at the time of Passover in the early Spring, Shavuot in the late Spring, and during Sukkot in the Fall. Thus, the custom of waving branches is not just something that the people did for Jesus, it was something that Jesus would have done in rejoicing before the Lord for much of His life.
The two primary ceremonial rituals have to do with water and light. The climate of Israel is very dry between May and October (which is largely between the two times of harvest). The ground becomes dry and barren in many places and the people realize their need for God so they cry out for rain. Thus the first ceremony is a water drawing ceremony which is called Simchat Beit Hashoevah.
The water ceremony consists of the following elements (3)(broadly):
- A priest filled a golden pitcher with water from the Pool of Siloam. (pics) while the choir sang Isaiah 12.3
- The priest then carried water from Siloam to the Water Gate.
- Once inside the gate, it was taken to the temple which symbolizes the whole world will know God when Messiah comes. (Isaiah 11.9)
- The Priest climbed altar steps and poured water on the alter with the crowd singing around him. (The pouring of the water came to symbolize the water flowing from the rock in the wilderness. See Exodus 17.1-7 and Numbers 20.8-13.)
After the completion of the water portion, the focus turned to light.
- Golden lampstands were lit in the temple courtyard.
- The people carried torches around temple, and then set the torches around walls of temple to show that Messiah would be a light to the Gentiles (Is 49.6)
Keep these ceremonies in mind as we move from tradition (as rich and symbolic as it truly was) to the truth of Jesus!
We do not have a great deal of information in the Bible about Jesus celebrating at the various feasts, and what we do have often causes a bit of debate. But very clearly, Jesus was present at the Feast of Booths as we find in John 7. Let me provide a quick overview of this magnificent scene, by drawing attention to a few specific verses. As I begin, remember, that if this is like a typical year, it is very dry. Perhaps it has not rained in months. The people are in the midst of celebrating the harvest, but also praying for rain – that is, for water to come down and nourish them and the land.
v. 2 Jesus was preparing to go to Jerusalem for Feast of Booths.
vv. 3-5 His brothers are seemingly taunting Jesus to do something significant to show He who thinks He is.
v. 10 Jesus sends them on to Jerusalem, but goes later in private.
v. 14 In the middle of the feast, Jesus is teaching and the people marvel.
v. 16 Jesus claims He is from God. (In verse 33, He says He is returning to God Himself.)
v. 20 The crowd claims Jesus has a demon.
v. 25 Some people wonder if Jesus might be Christ.
vv. 30, 32 Religious leaders try to arrest Jesus.
vv. 37-38 Jesus stands up and announces Himself.
vv. 40-44 Different opinions about who Jesus really is.
Now, the important part is found in considering verses 37-38. In the middle of the water ceremony described above, while the Jews are focused on pleading for God to send them water, Jesus proclaims that He is the source of their refreshment. And all who believe will have living water (i.e the water that does not grow stagnant, it is flowing and moving). This is stunning!
I mentioned above that a part of their tradition was taking the water into the temple to show that the whole world would know when the Messiah comes. Jesus is basically announcing “I am He. And I am here.” And yet they miss it.
But that isn’t all.
Remember I also just mentioned a ceremony involving the lighting of torches. These torches were left to burn overnight. And the next morning, as Jesus walked through this very area, while the torches burned nearby, Jesus proclaimed that He is the “light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8.12). Again, it is a stunning declaration and even more stunning that no one understood!
In a matter of less than a day, Jesus has announced to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Sukkot – the feast of our focus today – that He is both the living water and the light of life. Like the people in Jerusalem that day, it is our choice to believe this claim or not. But if it is true, it is true because of one other aspect – that Jesus chose to dwell with us. Remember, God commanded Moses to build a tabernacle (the Tent of Meeting) for God to have a place among the people. But John 1 says that Jesus came to dwell among the people.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1.14
The word translated as “dwelt” is the same word for “tabernacle.” So Jesus tabernacled among mankind and at the Feast of Tabernacles announced His presence as both the water and light of life. That life is not just for the Jews, but for all who believe. Remember, it is not just the Feasts of Booths, but the Feast of Ingathering. And Zechariah 14.16-19 talks about people from every nation coming to Jerusalem to worship the King during this time of the Feast.
During each Feast I have mentioned three main lessons: God’s Protection, God’s Provision, and God’s Promise. Let’s review these now and then will also see how these lessons apply to us.
Protection: God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness – the tents were to serve as a reminder.
Provision: The abundance of offerings were a reminder of the blessings of the Lord.
Promise: Just as He brought the Israelites out of Egypt, God will deliver His people again.
One Word: Joy
The previous week’s words were: Dedication (Rosh HaShanah) and Mercy (Yom Kippur).
|Arrangement of the Camp of Israel|
God always has a plan. And each of the feasts will be fully realized according to God’s plan. Jesus first coming fully satisfied the feasts of Passover and Firstfruits. The Feast of Pentecost was satisfied when the Holy Spirit came. However, even though elements of the three Fall Feasts have been satisfied (e.g. Jesus in John 7), the full realization of their meaning awaits. The Feast of Trumpets will coincide with the event many commonly refer to as the rapture. After that all will be judged and those that have accepted the atonement made for them (by Jesus) and will thus tabernacle forever with Him.
Our church concluded the service this week by considering the water and light ceremonies described above. In a symbolic way, each person poured out water and then lit a candle while reflecting on Jesus fulfillment of this feast. I then mentioned Jesus words about us praying to the Lord of the harvest for harvest workers with a focus (during this actual harvest season) on the people who need to be a part of the ingathering (Matthew 9.37-38).
My encouragement to you is to consider how God might use you to work in His fields in the coming days, weeks, months, and years ahead. We get to share in that harvest. We get to be the workers of that harvest. We have been called to work the harvest. But the question is: how will we respond?
1. Eisenberg, R. L. (2004). The JPS guide to Jewish traditions (1st ed., p. 228). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
2. Ibid., 230.
3. Gary M. Burge. Jesus and the Jewish Festivals (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2012, 67-82).
Next week, this blog will return to the series from Mark – “Follow Me...In the Footsteps of Yeshua.”