Sukkot Feast of Tabernacles
This article is taken from a class taught in October of 2006 - the week of Sukkot. The first half of the class has been written as a separate article, Hebrew Feasts and Festivals - An Introduction to the Jewish Holy Days.
Table of Contents
- Introduction to Sukkot
- Biblical Basis
- Traditions, Rituals and Foreshadows of Sukkot
- Sukkot, Birthday of Christ?
- Relevance to Christians
- Sukkot in Prophecy
- Shemini Atzeret
Introduction to Sukkot
Now that we've concluded our Introduction to the Jewish Holy Days, we come to the final fall festival and the subject of our study, Sukkot (aka the Feast of Tabernacles, and several other names as we will see). The Festival of Sukkot begins on Tishri 15, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. This year (2006, or Jewish year 5767), it began on Thursday, Oct 6th at sunset and will end Oct 13th at sunset (all Jewish days begin at sunset). It is quite a drastic transition, from one of the most solemn holidays (Yom Kippur - Day of Atonement) to the most joyous. Sukkot is so unreservedly joyful that it is commonly referred to in Jewish prayer and literature as the “Season of our Rejoicing” and “Festival of Joy”. It was also so popular, that many times the Bible refers to Sukkot simply as “the festival” or “the feast”. It is among the oldest of the Jewish holidays, likely predating even Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. King Solomon dedicated the First Temple on Sukkot. It was the festival that Nehemiah re-instituted upon returning to Jerusalem and finding the Book of the Law. It is also the one festival that included the Nations (Gentiles as well as the Jewish people), thus it is also known as the “Feast of the Nations”.
Sukkot is the last of the three pilgrimage festivals. Like Passover and Shavu’ot (Feast of Weeks), Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. Historically, Sukkot commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. The booths also symbolize mankind’s earthly bodies as temporary dwelling for our eternal souls and spirits. After Israel entered the Promised Land, the fall harvest festival was incorporated into Sukkot and as a result, several agricultural-related customs were added to the celebration, and Chag ha-Asif (the “Festival of Ingathering”) was added to the festival's list of names. Prophetically, Sukkot foreshadows the millennial reign of Christ.
The word “Sukkot” means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that we just mentioned. The Hebrew pronunciation of Sukkot is “Sue COAT,” but is often pronounced as in Yiddish, to rhyme with “BOOK us.” The name of the holiday is frequently translated “Feast of Tabernacles.” The Hebrew word used in the Bible for “tabernacle” is mishkan, which usually refers to the portable Sanctuary in the desert (often called the “Tent of Meeting”) that was a predecessor to the Temple, but can also be used for a temporary dwelling such as a nomad's tent. This rarely causes confusion since the intended meaning for “tabernacle” is usually clear from the context. When using “tabernacles” in reference to the festival, we mean temporary dwellings rather than the portable Sanctuary.
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Leviticus 23:33-36, 39-43 states:
The LORD said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites: On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the LORD's Feast of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. For seven days present offerings made to the LORD by fire, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present an offering made to the LORD by fire. It is the closing assembly; do no regular work.
"So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the LORD for seven days; the first day is a day of rest, and the eighth day also is a day of rest. On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. Celebrate this as a festival to the LORD for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God."
We also find instructions from G-d in Deuteronomy 16:13-17:
Celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. Be joyful at your Feast—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. For seven days celebrate the Feast to the LORD your God at the place the LORD will choose. For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.
Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. No man should appear before the LORD empty-handed: Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the LORD your God has blessed you.
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Traditions, Rituals and Foreshadows of Sukkot
Sukkot has many interesting Jewish customs and traditions, not to mention commands from scripture. We’ll limit this study primarily to four that were unique to Sukkot: the Sukkah, Illumination of the Temple, the Four Species, and the Drawing of Water. We’ll look at how they relate to us as Christians and also see many “types” (pictures or foreshadows) of Christ as we go.
Building a Sukkah:
Building and decorating a sukkah is a fun family project, much like decorating the Christmas tree is for Christians. A sukkah (pronounced Sue-KAH - the singular form of the plural word “Sukkot") must have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. The “walls” do not have to be solid; a secured canvas covering is acceptable and quite common. A sukkah may be any size, so long as it is large enough for you to fulfill the commandment of dwelling in it. The commandment to “dwell” in a sukkah can be fulfilled by simply eating all of one’s meals there; however, if the weather, climate, and one’s health permit, one should spend as much time in the sukkah as possible, including sleeping in it. The roof of the sukkah must be made of material referred to as sekhakh (literally, covering). Sekhakh must be something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, sticks, or even two-by-fours. Sekhakh must be left loose, not tied together or tied down. Sekhakh must be placed sparsely enough that rain can get in, and preferably sparsely enough that the stars can be seen, but not so sparsely that more than ten inches is open at any point or that there is more light than shade.
It is common practice to decorate the sukkah. Jews commonly hang vegetables that are common to their location and hang artwork drawn by the children on the walls. Many Americans, upon seeing a decorated sukkah for the first time, remark on how much the sukkah (and the holiday in general) reminds them of Thanksgiving. This is no mere coincidence. Many historians believe that our American pilgrims, who originated the Thanksgiving holiday, borrowed the idea from Sukkot (See our article on the Biblical Roots of American Thanksgiving). The pilgrims were deeply religious people, so naturally looked to the Bible for an appropriate way of celebrating the harvest and expressing their thanks for their survival (not the standard story taught in public schools today).
Illumination of the Temple:
Another feature of the feast was the illumination of the Temple each evening to commemorate the pillar of fire that led the Israelites by night. Four huge candelabras (menorahs) were set on tall bases in the court of the women. Each candelabrum had four branches which terminated in a huge basin along with a twisted wick made from the holy garments that the priest had worn in the past year. At the end of the first day, while the priests and Levites sang praises and waved torches, sixteen young men of priestly descent climbed ladders to pour over seven gallons of oil into each basin. The Mishnah states that the lights from the flames were so intense that every courtyard in Jerusalem was illuminated. This prophetically looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus identified Himself as that saving light in John 8:12 saying “… I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
The Four Species:
Another observance during Sukkot involves what is known as the “Four Species” (or the lulav and etrog). We are commanded to take these four plants and use them to “rejoice before the Lord” (Lev 23:40). The four species in question are an etrog (a citrus fruit similar to a lemon native to Israel; in English it is called a citron), a palm branch (in Hebrew, lulav), two willow branches (aravot) and three myrtle branches (hadassim). The six branches are bound together and referred to collectively as the lulav, because the palm branch is by far the largest part. The etrog is held separately. With these four species in hand, one recites a blessing and waves the species in all six directions (east, south, west, north, up and down), symbolizing the fact that G-d is everywhere. Each day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the people in the Temple courtyard would hold their lulavs and make a circular procession around the altar (today, with no Temple, the processions are made around the bema, the pedestal where the Torah is read). During the procession they would pray a prayer that came to be known as Hoshanos. It is a prayer for G-d’s blessing, ending each phrase of the prayer with the word hoshana ("Please save” or “save now!"). On the first six days they would march around the altar one time. On the seventh day they marched around it seven times. For this reason, the seventh day of Sukkot is known as Hoshanah Rabbah (the great Hoshanah).
This observance makes Jesus’ “Triumphant Entry” come alive for us as we see its significance. John writes in John 12:13 that, as Jesus entered Jerusalem on the donkey colt, the people. “Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.” They were crying “Save us, Son of David.” Matthew 21:15 records the chief priest and scribes became gravely upset because this greeting and prayer was reserved only for the coming of the Messiah. Mark records that the people also cried “Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest.” (Mark 11:10).
Drawing of the Water:
To commemorate the drawing of water at Horeb (Ex 17:1-7), a priest carried a large golden ewer from the temple mount down to the Spring of Siloam (as described in the Talmud). He then drew water from the pool, then surrounded by jubilant worshipers, returned to the temple. On the first six days, the priest and his procession circled the altar once, but on the seventh day, they circled seven times. The priest then pours the water on the altar to wash away the blood of the morning’s sacrifices. This ritual, which concluded the Feast of Tabernacles, symbolized the prayer for the fall rains upon which Israel depended. It also came to be interpreted in a messianic manner, picturing the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon Israel by the Messiah.
Before we go to the next topic, let's look at one last significant detail of the Drawing of the Water. When the priest returned to the altar with the water, there was always a great cheering crowd waiting. Some priests then blew the ceremonial silver trumpets while other priests chanted the words of Isaiah 12:3 -With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. This chant was very prophetic since the Hebrew word used for “salvation” in this verse is hay·šū·‘āh, an alternate spelling of “yeshua” (which translates as “Jesus” in English). They were chanting “With joy you will draw water from the wells of Yeshua (Jesus)”.
Now picture this dramatic scene as documented by the Apostle John. Jesus and his disciples were at the celebration at the temple, singing psalms along with the priest and maybe even following the golden ewer of water around the altar before watching the water wash away the blood of the sacrifices. On the final day of the festival, He stood up and proclaimed in a loud voice “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (Jn 7:38-39). So we witness Jesus explaining to the Jews the true meaning of the ritual they had witnessed. John then writes that some believed: On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet”. Others said, “He is the Christ (Messiah)” (Jn 7:40-41). Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn't you bring him in?” “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards declared (Jn 7:45-46). John also records in v41-44 that some doubted. We have the same choice today. What do you believe about Jesus?
Thus, we see that, by His own declaration, the traditions of Sukkot clearly point to Jesus. He is the Light of the World, the Living Water and the Word made flesh to dwell (or tabernacle) with men.
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Sukkot, Birthday of Christ?
Before we leave the time of Christ, I like to propose one more connection between Jesus and Sukkot. I believe Jesus was possibly born during the Sukkot celebration (late September or early October). Keep in mind that this is mere speculation on my part, but let me offer some interesting thoughts.
First, we have Luke 2:8 - And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. In Israel, shepherds typically were in the fields from Passover to mid October. The end of December would normally have been too cold; although in milder winters, shepherds raising sheep for the sacrifices could be in the field year round.
Next, let’s back up to the beginning of Luke’s chapter 2, where we read, And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed... And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child (Lk 2:1-5). Luke also states that Bethlehem was so crowded that there was no room at the inn (Lk 2:7). Since Bethlehem is less than four miles from Jerusalem, it’s quite possible that the overcrowding was caused by pilgrims attending Sukkot. Also, if you were the Romans, would you schedule the collection of Jewish taxes in the dead of winter or immediately after the harvest, a major agricultural payday for the Jews?
Sukkot was also well known as the “Season of Our Joy”. Listen to the words chosen by Luke to record the announcement of the Messiah's birth. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Lk 2:10). In addition to the “great joy", the phrase “for all the people” would have been a reminder that Sukkot was also known as the “Feast of the Nations” that included both Jews and Gentiles.
Since the rituals of the feasts of Passover and Firstfruits vividly picture Jesus’ death on the cross (and resurrection), it seems reasonable that the Feast of Tabernacles, as the other pilgrimage festival, could illustrate his birth. The apostle John also used language typically associated with Sukkot. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt [or tabernacled - Gk eskēnosen] among us (Jn 1:14). He later used similar language when writing about the new Jerusalem “Now the dwelling of G-d is with men, and he will live with them (Rev 21:3). The same Greek verb translated here as “live” is the same (except future tense) as the word translated “dwelt” or “tabernacled” in John 1:14.
In the mid 1700s, the English writer Isaac Watts wrote a hymn based on Psalms 98. Although it was written about the millennium reign of Christ, its opening lyrics also could have been interpreted as picturing the nativity. In fact, it eventually became very popular at Christmas.
Joy to the World, The Lord is Come.
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature Sing.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nation prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of His Love.
There’s also some evidence that early Christians may have celebrated the birth of Christ on Sukkot, but I’m not sure of its reliability. This all said, the important issue is not which day of the year that Christ was born, but the fact that He was born. We should keep Christmas for its true meaning that G-d the Son came into the world as a man in order to live a perfect life and die in our place to pay our debt of sin, so that we might become children of G-d.
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Relevance to Christians
We addressed the question “Should the Church still observe the Jewish festivals today?” in the Hebrew Feasts and Festivals - An Introduction to the Jewish Holy Days article.
Here, we can mention three basic modes by which Sukkot is relevant and beneficial for Christians today. First, the wilderness booths provide a representation of our physical bodies as our temporary dwelling while on earth. Just of the Israelites temporarily dwelt in the booths awaiting entrance into their Promised Land of Canaan, we await our spiritual resurrection bodies and entrance into our eternal Promised Land (1Cor 15:35-49).
Second, the aforementioned Jewish traditions foreshadow and paint a portrait of many aspects of Jesus’ mission, helping us to a deeper understanding of His attributes and ministry. Finally, the prophetical aspects of Sukkot provide us with a fuller picture of the end times. We’ll now discuss these in more detail in the final two chapters.
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Sukkot in Prophecy
The Feast of Tabernacles looks forward to the seventh dispensation, the millennial reign of the Messiah as prophesied by Jeremiah: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put MY LAW in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:31–33).
This passage of Scripture looks forward to its fulfillment in the New Covenant of Christ. The following verses (34-40) looked forward to the restoration of Israel. Their initial fulfillment occurred physically with the return from exile in the sixth and fifth centuries BC (see the OT books of Ezra and Nehemiah). Many scholars believe the final spiritual fulfillment of these promises for Israel (see also Is 60; Is 66:22; Rom 9-11) will take place in the future. Indeed, this is probably one of the purposes of the millennial age.
So, what the Millennium will be like? Christ will restore peace to the nations. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2: 4).
Creation itself will be restored into harmony with G-d. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:4-9).
A spiritual change will take place among the people. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Of course, these verses have an initial fulfillment (shared by the Church) in Christ, but there is strong evidence of a messianic hope for ethnic Israel (Ezk 37-39, in particular Ezk 37:15-28; see also Rm 11:25-36).
A question related to our topic is, who will observe the Feast of Tabernacles? Zechariah chapter 14 gives us a good look at the millennium, so we’ll quote a few verses: A day of the LORD is coming when your plunder will be divided among you. I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will be captured… Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights in the day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west (v1-4). On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. The whole land, from Geba to Rimmon, south of Jerusalem, will become like the Arabah. But Jerusalem will be raised up and remain in its place (v8-10). Arabah was a low-lying region about 1300 feet below sea level. Jerusalem is currently about 2500 feet above sea level, so this is a picture of Jerusalem towering over the rest of the land.
Continuing with verse 11, It will be inhabited; never again will it be destroyed. Jerusalem will be secure. This is the plague with which the LORD will strike all the nations that fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths (v11-12). Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain. If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. The LORD will bring on them the plague he inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (v16-19). These verses make it very clear that ALL nations will learn to keep the Feast of Tabernacles in the years under the millennial reign of Jesus Christ.
We can also ask, how does the millennium end? I think we can get a more complete picture of G-d's plan for the ages by understanding how each of the ages (sometimes referred to as “dispensations”) ended, or will end. Note that we're only referring to ages here on earth, since eternity past (before Creation) and eternity future (in Heaven or Hell) could be classified as two additional ages. The first, the age of innocence that began with Creation, ended with man expelled from the garden due to willful disobedience (Gen 3). The second, the age of conscience ended with the flood due to universal corruption (Gen 6). The third, the age of human government, ended with disbursement and confusion of the language due to self-worship at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). The fourth, the age of promise, ended with the chosen people enslaved in Egypt (Ex 1). The fifth, the age of the law, ended with man killing his Creator (Mt 27). The sixth and current age, the age of grace (or the church age) will end with universal apostasy, followed by the coming of our Lord (1Tim 4).
The Millennium, the seventh and last age, will end with another attempt to destroy G-d. While the millennium is an age of peace and joy, sin is not yet totally eradicated. The age begins with the tempter (Satan) taken away. And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. (Rev 20:1-3). After John tells us how it begins, he also tells us how it ends. When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth--Gog and Magog--to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever (Rev 20:7-10).
As mentioned in our Introduction to the Jewish Holy Days, the Hebrew festivals provide us with an excellent picture of G-d's plan for our salvation, including its past (justification), present (sanctification) and future (glorification) aspects. Since the Feast of Tabernacles looks forward to the millennial reign of the Messiah, but the Bible declares that all believers will then spend the future eternally in heaven, does the picture of salvation portrayed by the Hebrew festivals stop short of completion? The answer is no. After the seven days of Tabernacles, we find the "assembly of the eighth day". So, in our next article, and we’ll see how this final fall festival of Shemini Atzeret completes the picture.
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