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Fall Feasts: Feast of Tabernacles

from the September 28, 2015 eNews issue

Feast of Tabernacles

(Photo credits: Zion USA)

Celebrate the Feast of Tents for seven days after you harvest from your threshing floor and your wine press. Rejoice in your festival—you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, the descendants of Levi, foreigners, orphans, and widows who live in your cities. For seven days you are to celebrate in the presence of the LORD your God at the place where the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in everything you do, and your joy will be complete. “Every male must appear in the presence of the LORD your God three times a year at the place where he will choose: for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Seven Weeks, and the Feast of Tents. He must not appear in the LORD’s presence empty-handed, but each one must appear with his own gift, proportional to the blessing that the LORD your God has given you.

— Deuteronomy 16:13–17 (ISV)

Yesterday, Sunday Evening, Sept. 27 through Monday Evening, Oct. 5 marks the Feast of Tabernacles for this year.

The Meaning Behind the Feast

The Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Unleavened Bread, was one of the three compulsory feasts that required faithful Jews to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem. Its name, Sukkot, means “booths” and these seven festive days during which the Jews construct temporary shelters make for a very colorful visit to Israel. The temporary family-sized tabernacles are built nearly anywhere — on rooftops and in backyards, on balconies and anywhere one will fit. The huts must have three sides and have a part of the roof open to the sky, and they can be built with a variety of materials. Palm leaves are a popular choice for the requirement that they include something that grew from the earth but is disconnected from it.

From inside these temporary shelters the Jews must be able to see the stars at night and the wind must be able to blow through the walls. This is to remind them of Israel’s long encampment in the wilderness under Moses. For one week the people of Israel are to live out in these structures, rejoicing and enjoying themselves. Sometimes it rains, and many eat and relax in the booths, but go sleep inside at night whether or not that was the original intent of the Law. At the end of Sukkot, they leave those temporary dwellings for their permanent homes. This is all done with great color and celebration.

In the days of the Temple the feast opened and closed with convocations of the people. There were daily sacrifices. The final day of the feast may have had the same rules against working as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The remembrance of the wilderness wandering was considered an occasion of joy, connected to God’s saving work on Israel’s behalf. A large number of sacrifices were offered during the week’s celebration (Num. 29:12–38).

Other elements of this feast include remembering the pillar of fire that the Jews followed in the wilderness and the water gushing out of the rock at Moses’ command. Typically, participants waved palm branches and recited Psalm 118:26 — “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” This was also a time for celebrants to welcome and expect special guests.

The climax of the Gospel of John occurs at a celebration of Tabernacles (John 7, 8). Jesus identified himself as the light of the world (referring to the pillar of fire) and the giver of living water. We also see elements of this feast take place when Jesus entered Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, even though it was not the season for this feast. The palm branches, shouting the words of Psalm 118:26, and welcoming a holy visitor to Jerusalem are elements of Tabernacles and identify Jesus as the Messiah.

The Three Chief Features of the Feast

Three things specially marked the Feast of Tabernacles: its joyous festivities, the dwelling in “booths,” and the peculiar sacrifices and rites of the week.

The first characteristic was a “feast of ingathering:”

Celebrate the Feast of Tents for seven days after you harvest from your threshing floor and your wine press. Rejoice in your festival—you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, the descendants of Levi, foreigners, orphans, and widows who live in your cities. For seven days you are to celebrate in the presence of the LORD your God at the place where the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in everything you do, and your joy will be complete. “Every male must appear in the presence of the LORD your God three times a year at the place where he will choose: for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Seven Weeks, and the Feast of Tents. He must not appear in the LORD’s presence empty-handed, but each one must appear with his own gift, proportional to the blessing that the LORD your God has given you.

— Deuteronomy 16:13–17 (ISV)

Votive, freewill, and peace offerings would mark their gratitude to God, and at the meal which ensued the poor, the stranger, the Levite, and the homeless would be welcome guests, for the Lord’s sake. When the people saw the treasury chests opened and emptied at this feast for the last time in the year, they would remember their brethren at a distance, in whose name, as well as their own, the daily and festive sacrifices were offered. so their liberality would not only be stimulated, but all Israel, however widely dispersed, would feel itself renewed before the Lord. There was, besides, something about this feast which would peculiarly remind them, if not of their dispersion, yet of their being “strangers and pilgrims in the earth.”

The second characteristic was that during the seven days of its continuance “every native born of Israel is to live in booths; in order for your future generations to know that the Israelis lived in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 23:43, ISV)

The festival of Sukkot in Israel

The festival of Sukkot in Israel (Yahoo News)

The Booths

As the saying goes, if you have two Jews, you have three opinions. There was a controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees over the interpretation of this part of the Law. The Torah said:

On the first day, take branches from impressive fruit trees, branches from palm trees, boughs from thick trees, and poplars from the brooks. Then you are to rejoice in the presence of the LORD your God for seven days.

— Leviticus 23:40 (ISV)

The Sadducees (as do the modern Karaite Jews) took this to mean the materials that made up the booths, while the Pharisees applied it to what the worshipers were to carry in their hands.

The latter interpretation is, in all likelihood, the correct one; it seems borne out by the account of the festival at the time of Nehemiah (cf. Nehemiah 8:15, 18), when the booths were constructed of branches of trees other than those mentioned in Leviticus 23 and it was universally adopted in practice at the time of Christ. The Mishnah gives most minute details as to the height and construction of these “booths”, the main object being to prevent any evasion of the law. Therefore it must be a real booth, and constructed of boughs of living trees and only for the purposes of this festival. Therefore it must be high enough, yet not too high: at least ten handbreadths (about 90 cm or 36 inches.), but not more than 30 feet. Three of its walls must be of boughs; it must be fairly covered with boughs, yet not so shaded as not to admit sunshine, nor yet so open as to have not enough shade, the object in each case being neither sunshine nor shade, but it should be a real booth of tree boughs.

It is needless to enter into further details, except to say that these booths, and not their houses, were to be the regular dwelling of all in Israel during the week, and except in very heavy rain, they were to eat, sleep, pray and study; in short, entirely to live in them. The only exceptions were for those absent on some pious duty, the sick and their attendants, women, slaves and infants who were still depending on their mothers. Finally, the rule was “whatever might contract Levitical defilement (boards, cloth, etc.), or whatever did not grow out of the earth, might not be used” in constructing the booths.

Lulav Æthrog Set

Lulav Æthrog Set (Boulder Jewish News)

The Fruit and Palm Branches

It has already been stated that, according to the view universally prevalent at the time of Christ, the direction on the first day of the feast to “take branches from impressive fruit trees, branches from palm trees, boughs from thick trees, and poplars from the brooks.” was applied to what the worshipers were to carry in their hands. The Rabbis ruled “the fruit of the goodly trees” meant the œthrog, or citron, and “the boughs of thick trees” the myrtle, provided it had “not more berries than leaves.”

The œthrogs must be without blemish or deficiency of any kind; the palm branches at least three handbreadths high, and fit to be shaken; and each branch fresh, entire, unpolluted, and not taken from any idolatrous grove. Every worshiper carried the œthrog in his left hand, and in his right the lulav, or palm, with myrtle and willow branch on either side of it, tied together on the outside with its own kind, though in the inside it might be fastened even with gold thread.

The lulav was intended to remind Israel of the different stages of their wilderness journey as represented by the different vegetation. The willow has no fragrance and bears no fruit. The myrtle is fragrant, but has no fruit. The palm on the other hand has no fragrance but does yield fruit. Finally, there’s a fourth branch called an œthrog. It looks like a lemon but is as large as a grapefruit. The œthrog is very, very fragrant with an intense taste. It was to remind them of the fruits of the good land which the Lord had given them. A variety of sermons might be pulled from the potential symbolism here, and it might even be tied to the four soils of Matthew 13: 18–23 when Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower.

The lulav was used in the Temple on each of the seven festive days, even children, if they were able to shake it, being bound to carry one. If the first day of the feast fell on a Sabbath, the people brought their lulavs on the previous day into the synagogue on the Temple Mount, and fetched them in the morning, so as not needlessly to break the Sabbath rest.

The Offerings

The third characteristic of the Feast of Tabernacles was its offerings. These were altogether peculiar. The sin offering for each of the seven days was “one kid of the goats.” The burnt offerings consisted of bullocks, rams and lambs, with their proper meat and drink offerings. But the number of the rams and lambs remained the same on each day of the festival that of the bullocks decreased every day by one—from 13 on the first to seven bullocks on the last day, “that great day of the feast.” As no special injunctions are given about the drink offering, we infer that it was usually, 1 ¼ of a hin of wine for each lamb, 1/3 for each ram, and 1/2 for each bullock (the hin = 1 gallon, 2 pints). The “meat offering” is fixed at 1/10 of an ephah of flour (about 3/5 of a bushel), mixed with 1/4 of a hin of oil, for each lamb; 2/10 of an ephah, with 1/3 hin of oil, for each ram; and 3/10 of an ephah, with 1/2 hin of oil, for each bullock.

Three things are remarkable about these burnt offerings:

First, they are evidently the characteristic sacrifice of the Feast of Tabernacles. As compared with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the number of the rams and lambs is double, while that of the bullocks is fivefold (14 during the Passover week, 5 × 14 during that of Tabernacles).

Second, the number of the burnt-sacrifices, whether taking each kind by itself or all of them together, is always divisible by the number seven. We have for the week 70 bullocks, 14 rams and 98 lambs or altogether 182 sacrifices (26 × 7), to which must be added 336 (48 × 7) tenths of ephahs of flour for the meat offering. It is interesting to note the number 7 appeared at the Feast of Unleavened Bread only in the number of its days, and at Pentecost in the period of its observance (7 × 7 days after Passover). The Feast of Tabernacles lasted seven days and took place when the seventh month was at its full height and had the number 7 impressed on its characteristic sacrifices.

It is not so easy to account for the third peculiarity of these sacrifices—that of the daily decrease in the number of bullocks offered. The common explanation was that it was intended to show the decreasing sanctity of each successive day of the feast, while the number 7 was still to be reserved for the last day, is not more satisfactory than the view offered in the Talmud that these sacrifices were offered, not for Israel, but for the nations of the world: “There were seventy bullocks, to correspond to the number of the seventy nations in the world.” It is difficult to imagine that the Rabbis would embed the prophetic character of this ritual into this feast. Clearly, there is something inspired going on here.

On the day before the Feast of Tabernacles—the 14th of Tishri—the festive pilgrims had all arrived in Jerusalem. The “booths” on the roofs, in the courtyards, in streets and squares, as well as roads and gardens, within a Sabbath day’s journey, must have given the city and neighborhood an unusually picturesque appearance. The preparation of all that was needed for the festival—purification, the care of the offerings that each would bring, and friendly communications between those who were to be invited to the sacrificial meal—no doubt sufficiently occupied their time. When the early autumn evening set in, the blasts of the priests’ trumpets on the Temple Mount announced to Israel the advent of the feast.

The Feast of Tabernacles in the New Testament

In Mark 9 and Matthew 17 Christ’s transfiguration seems to take place during the Feast of Tabernacles. The Gospels recount that Jesus went up to the Mount of Transfiguration ((which many scholars believe was Mount Hermon) where He was transfigured in front of the three “insiders,” Peter, James and John. Peter wanted to make three booths, which is why some people think this was in the fall: it was around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. (Peter will allude to this heavily in his second letter.)

Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. His appearance was changed in front of them, his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Then Peter told Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here! If you want, I’ll set up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when a bright cloud suddenly overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love. I am pleased with him. Keep on listening to him!”

— Matthew 17:1–5 (ISV)

After healing a possessed boy, Jesus went back to Capernaum. Jesus went down to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles where He declared Himself to be the Living Water:

On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and shouted, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink! The one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have rivers of living water flowing from his heart.”

— John 7:37–38 (ISV)

Later, in John 8, He forgave the woman taken in adultery, and returned to Galilee.

The Fulfillment of the Feast

It’s been suggested that of the three feasts held in the seventh month (Feast of Trumpets, The Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles), this one represents the Millennial Kingdom. There the people of God will live until it is time to leave their temporary shelters and enter into their permanent home. Sukkot suggests a temporary delay before receiving our permanent habitation, as alluded to by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:2, “For in this one we sigh, since we long to put on our heavenly dwelling.”(ISV)

Most scholars agree the spring feasts — the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Firstfruits — are predictive of the first coming of Christ. All the elements of those first three feasts were fulfilled and not only that, they were fulfilled on the very days they are observed. That fact is both fascinating and potentially enlightening as well. This leads many to expect the Fall Feasts anticipate Christ’s Second Coming. One should study and review the details of the Feast of Trumpets, The Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles on your own and pray for understanding so that you can make your own conclusions accurately.

(With excerpts from Chuck Missler’s and Dan Stolebarger’s book The Feasts of Israel and Alfred Edersheim’s book The Temple, Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ)

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