What is the Feast of Tabernacles
For most Christians around the world, the New Testament is the foremost source for understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Comprised of the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, a number of epistles or letters exchanged between various leaders and congregations of the early church, and the Book of Revelations, the New Testament allows us to experience the Savior during and directly following his mortal life. We learn his teachings from the Master himself.
But what we sometimes neglect to recognize is that all of Israelite history points towards the coming of the prophesied Messiah. As such, understanding the customs of the people throughout the era of the Old Testament may be just as important as understanding the culture of New Testament Jerusalem. Consider the Feast of Tabernacles.
What Is the Feast of Tabernacles?
Many cultures around the world have a specific time set aside to celebrate bounty and blessings. For North America, Thanksgiving (both the American and Canadian versions) combine harvest time with a celebration and recognition of gratitude. Taiwan and China have a Mid-Autumn Festival, Germany celebrates Erntedankfest, India has Pongal — the list goes on and on. And the people of Ancient Israel were no exception. But what these people had to be thankful for is unique.
The first mention of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Bible comes from the Lord as delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In Exodus 23:16, the Lord commands the Children of Israel, through their prophet, to celebrate a special feast of “harvest” or “ingathering.” Later in Leviticus 23, we learn that the feast should be celebrated in the seventh month, during the autumn season near the end of the year.
But in addition to being an agricultural festival, the Feast of the Tabernacles in the Bible was a celebration of all that God has done to lead and protect his people. From freeing them from their bondage in Egypt, to guiding and sustaining them during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the focus went well beyond simply enjoying a bountiful harvest.
To take things even further, this celebration wasn’t limited to all the good that the Lord had done in the past; it also commemorated the good that the Lord would do. In many aspects, the Feast of Tabernacles is a clear metaphor for the coming of the Messiah, who would redeem and purify his people.
How Is the Feast of Tabernacles Celebrated?
The Hebrew name for the Feast of Tabernacles is ‘Sukkot.’ As part of the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, Israelites would leave their homes and temporarily live within small shelters or booths (called sukkah, which can also be translated as tabernacles). This was done in recognition and remembrance of the many years the Children of Israel spent living as nomads in the wilderness before being allowed to enter and occupy the Promised Land.
Because the Feast of Tabernacles was instituted by the Lord himself, it has been celebrated annually by faithful Israelites from the time of their Exodus from Egypt, across the millennia, and even to today.
The modern Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei (between late September and late October) and the festival lasts for nine days. This holiday comes five days after Yom Kippur.
On the first two days of the celebration, practitioners abstain from doing work. They light candles, perform Kiddush (a ritual ceremony of prayer and blessing over wine) and eat challah (special bread) dipped in honey. The next several days are called intermediate festival days where practitioners dwell (or at least take certain meals) in the small shelters they have put up. These shelters consist of at least three walls, framed with wood and canvas, and covered by a roof of loosely placed branches and leaves so that occupants may still see the stars. The last two days of Sukkot are holidays in their own right — Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, with their own rituals, observances, and traditions.
An Ancient Testament of the Promised Messiah
During biblical times, the Feast of Tabernacles included other ceremonies and lasted for seven days. In one such ceremony, Hebrew adherents would light torches and then proceed to carry these torches around the temple at night. This would brightly illuminate the candelabrum on the walls, symbolizing how the Messiah would one day reign, and the people would not walk in the darkness of sin but instead bask in the light of his salvation.
This act of looking forward towards the coming of the Savior was further elaborated upon in Zechariah 14:16, where he states that “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 Festival of Tabernacles.” In other words, the Feast of Tabernacles was to continue to play an important role in worship even after the Messiah came, and would expand to include the gentiles. The light cast upon the walls of the temple could represent the light, glory, and salvation of the Savior, given freely to all nations.
Personal sacrifice was a major theme of the Feast of Tabernacles. Not only would the faithful choose to leave their comfortable dwellings and instead reside in makeshift huts, but burnt offerings of bulls, rams, and lambs were made to the Lord throughout the week-long observance. This ritualistic sacrifice not only taught the Israelites to be grateful for what they had; it also looked forward to the sacrifice that the Savior would one day make to save his people — and all people — from sin.
Finally, in ancient times during the Festival of Tabernacles, an officiating priest would go to the Pool of Siloam carrying with him a golden pitcher. There, he would fill the pitcher with water and return to the Temple, where he would proceed to pour the water from the pitcher into one of the silver basins situated by the altar. This was accompanied by much rejoicing and fanfare from the people.
Jesus and the Feast of Tabernacles
It was during the Feast of Tabernacle, in reference to the ceremony of pouring water into the silver basin, that Jesus publicly proclaimed his divinity and his mission. In John 7: 37-39 we read:
37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.
38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”
39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
In reviewing the Savior’s life, we know that he never acted rash or careless; there was purpose to everything he ever did. What significance is it then that Jesus chose to reveal himself at the Feast of the Tabernacles, and on the last day of the festival?
Some scholars suggest that his choice to publicly declare himself on the final day was because it was a day with no water-pouring ceremony. Without the waters of Siloam, the people were metaphorically thirsting with no hope of relief. Therefore, the Savior’s proclamation that he is the “living waters,” and his urging “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink” is meant to address all mankind. He is the one true source of salvation and is therefore the only fountain capable of satiating the thirst for redemption. The scriptures further clarify that those who chose to follow Jesus would eventually receive the Holy Ghost to guide them.
Whatever the reasoning behind it, Jesus’ proclamations certainly had an impact on those present. The power behind his words must have touched directly into his listeners’ hearts. The scriptures attest that some were instantly converted to him, with some calling him a prophet, and others recognizing him as the Messiah himself. But not everyone was as open to his teachings. This event would help cement in the minds of certain evil men that Jesus should be arrested and convicted — events that would ultimately lead to his sacrifice for the entire world, as represented by the sacrifices made during the Feast of Tabernacles.
Jesus Is the Living Water and the Light of the World
The Feast of Tabernacles is more than just a harvest festival. It’s more than just a way to memorialize past struggles and celebrate ongoing blessings. At its core, the Feast of Tabernacles is a heavenly-instituted celebration designed to help the Children of Israel look towards the future and their coming salvation. Just as the Israelites sheltered in tabernacles in the wilderness, the Savior would one day dwell in a tabernacle of flesh. And then, in the final days, he would return again to the tabernacle of the earth to set everything right and remain with his people forever (Revelation 21: 3-4).
With this understanding, it becomes clear just how much the people and culture of the Old Testament pointed towards the prophesied coming of Jesus. Essentially every aspect of the Feast of Tabernacles alludes to the promised Messiah. He is the tabernacle. He is the sacrifice. He is the light of the world. He is the living water. As the Lord, Jesus understood these connections better than anyone, and he knew the significance of proclaiming himself during this holy festival of celebration.
Today, it’s not common for Christians to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, but we can still learn the valuable lessons of what the festival represents. By understanding these traditions from the past, we can recognize how God is always with us, and that his promises will be fulfilled.
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