Feast of Tabernacles in Old and New Testament

Except from God’s Festivals in Scripture and History: Part 2 – The Fall Festivals by Samuel Bacchiocchi available for download here. For an in-depth study of the Feast of Tabernacles by Samuel Bacchiocchi, please read God’s Festivals in Scripture and History: Part 1 – The Spring Festivals by Samuel Bacchiocchi available for download here.

The Feast of Tabernacles in the Old Testament

The Feast of Tabernacles was the most joyous festival celebration in Old Testament times. It was commonly known as “the Feast of Ingathering—asif” (Ex 23:16; 34:22) and “the Feast of Booths—sukkot” (Deut 16:13, 16; Lev 23:34). The Hebrew sukkot, which literally means “booths” or “huts,” is rendered in the Latin Vulgate as tabernacula, from which we derive the English designation of the feast as “Tabernacles.”

The two names of the feast reflect its dual meanings and functions. With reference to the harvest, it is called “the Feast of Ingathering” (Ex 23:16; 34:22) because it is a thanksgiving celebration for the blessings harvest. With reference to the history of Israel, it is called “the Feast of Booths” (Lev 23:34, 43; Deut 16:13, 16; 31:10; Ezra 3:4) because it commemorated God’s protection of the people as they dwelt in booths during their sojourn in the wilderness. Both of these features are preserved in the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles.

The observance of the Feast of Booths at the close of the Fall harvest made it possible for the Israelites to have a double thanksgiving celebration: thanksgiving for the blessing of the harvest and for God’s protection through the sojourning in the wilderness. These dual themes of past and present divine protection and blessings, served to nourish the hope for a future Messianic restoration.

During the seven-day duration of the feast, a considerable number of sacrifices were offered in addition to the regular offerings (Lev 23:36; Num 29:12-39). On no other occasion were so many sacrifices required of Israel to be offered on a single day. Presumably, the vast number of sacrifices were to reflect Israel’s depth of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest.

The distinguishing characteristics of the feast was the dwelling in booths for the duration of the feast (Lev 23:40, 42-43). Various branches of leafy trees were used to build booths that would house the people for the duration of the feast. Living in booths served as a reminder of God’s protection during the forty years of wandering in the desert. (Lev 23:42). The temporary booths symbolized the human need to depend upon God for His provision of food, water, and shelter. This applies to our spiritual life as well, for without the life-giving provisions of divine grace, our spiritual life would be a scorching desert.

Another major ritual of the Feast of Booths was the waving of a bundle of willow, myrtle, and palm branches, which were tied together and waved in rejoicing during the feast. This waving served to express joy, thanksgiving, and praise to God for the material blessings of the harvest and the spiritual blessing of His past and present protection. Praying for rain was an important part of the ritual of the Feast of Booths. Palestine is not rich in water resources. Its fertility largely depends on the amount of rainfall it receives from year to year and not on a river like the Nile which is the major source of irrigation for Egypt. Since the rainy season starts in Palestine at about the time of the Feast of Booths, it was the appropriate time to pray for rain.

Prayers for rain were offered in conjunction with the popular water-drawing ceremony, which was rich in symbolism and high drama. The water was drawn at the pool of Siloam in a golden pitcher by a priest who carried it to the Temple accompanied by a procession of faithful worshippers. The water was poured over the altar while the people chanted to the accompaniment of flutes the ‘great Hallel’ consisting of Psalms 113 to 118. It was at the conclusion of this suggestive ceremony that Christ offered His living water (John 7:37).

Another significant ceremony was the nightly illumination of the Temple’s Court of Women with gigantic candelabra which provided light for the nightly festivities. This provided an ideal setting for Christ to reveal Himself as the Light of the world (John 8:12).

The Feast of Booths fulfilled a vital role in the religious experience of God’s people in Old Testament times. It summoned them annually to rejoice for a whole week over the material blessings of a bountiful harvest and over the spiritual blessings of the protection God had granted them in their past history. The celebration of the material blessings of the harvest and of the spiritual blessings of the divine sheltering during the Exodus experience, served to foreshadow the blessings of the Messianic age when “there shall be neither cold nor frost . . . continuous day . . . living water, and . . . security (Zech 14:6, 7, 11). A highlight of the Messianic age would be the annual gathering of all the surviving nations “to keep the feast of booths” (Zech 14:16) in order to celebrate the establishment of God’s universal Kingdom.

The Feast of Tabernacles in the New Testament

The rich Old Testament typology of the Feast of Tabernacles finds in the New Testament both a Christological and an eschatological fulfillment. The themes of the Feast of Tabernacles are used in the Gospels to reveal the nature and mission of Christ and in the book of Revelation to represent God’s protection of His people through the trials and tribulation of this present life until they reach the heavenly Promised Land. There God will shelter the redeemed with the booth of His protective presence (Rev 7:15) and dwell with them for all eternity (Rev 21:3).

In his Gospel, John introduces the nature and mission of Christ by employing the metaphor of the “booth” of the Feast of Tabernacles. He explains that Christ, the Word, who was with God in the beginning (John 1:1), manifested Himself in this world in a most tangible way, by pitching His tent in our midst: “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). The Greek verb skenoo used by John means “to pitch tent, encamp, tabernacle, dwell in a tent.” The allusion is clearly to the Feast of Tabernacles when the people dwelt in temporary booths.

John chose the imagery of the Feast of Booths to describe the Messiah’s first coming to His people, since the feast celebrates the dwelling of God among His people. Being the feast of thanksgiving for God’s willingness to protect His people with the tabernacle of His presence during the wilderness sojourning, it could serve fittingly to portray Christ’s willingness to become a human being and pitch His tent among us in order to become our Savior.

The connection between Christ’s birth and the Feast of Tabernacles has been recognized not only by modern authors but also by early Christian writers who associate the Feast of the Nativity with the true Feast of Tabernacles. Several significant indications presented in our study suggest that the Feast of Tabernacles in September/October provides Christians today with a much more accurate Biblical timing and typology for celebrating Christ’s birth than the pagan dating of December 25th. The latter date is not only removed from the actual time of Christ’s birth, but also is derived from the pagan celebration of the return of the sun after the winter solstice.

The two suggestive ceremonies of the water libation and night illumination of Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles provide the setting for Christ’s revelation of His nature and mission. He is the living water (John 7:37-38) typified by the water ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles. He is also the Light of the World (John 8:12) typified by the night illumination of the Temple during the feast. Indeed, through Christ the blessing typified by the Feast of Tabernacles have become a reality for every believer.

The themes of the Feast of Tabernacles serve not only to reveal the nature and mission of Christ, but also to depict the glorious destiny of God’s people. In Revelation 7:9-17 and 21:1 to 22:5, the major themes of the Feast of Tabernacles are effectively used to portray the final ingathering of God’s people in their harvest home. The redeemed are described as bearing palm branches which is a feature of Tabernacles (Rev 7:9). Their song “Salvation belongs to our God” (Rev 7:10),” recalls the cry of hosanna of Psalm 118:25 which was used at the feast. The reference to God erecting a booth over His people with His presence (Rev 7:15), is a clear allusion to God’s protection over Israel in the wilderness. The promise of “springs of living water” (Rev 7:17; 22:1) and of the continuous light of God’s glory (Rev 21:23), are allusions to the two central ceremonies of the feast, water pouring and the night illumination, both of which from the time of Zechariah had assumed a Messianic significance. The ultimate fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles is in the new earth when the saints are gathered in their harvest home and God will shelter them with the “booth” of His presence for all eternity (Rev 21:3).

All these references to the Feast of Tabernacles in Revelation presuppose more than an antiquarian interest on the part of John. Since the Temple of Jerusalem no longer stood at the time of John’s writings, the meaning of the feast must have been kept alive by its observance in the synagogues and Christian churches. John hardly could have used so effectively the themes of the Feast of Tabernacles to portray the consummation of redemption, if the feast was unknown in the Christian churches of Asia Minor.

In summing up, we can say that the Feast of Tabernacles commemorates the redemption already accomplished through Christ’s first Advent and typifies the final restoration that will be realized at the second Advent. The feast, then, unites the past redemption to the future restoration. It affords the opportunity to celebrate in the present the salvation and protection Christ has already provided us, while we look forward to the future consummation of our redemption that awaits us in God’s eternal Kingdom.

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