The Festival of Booths

Tabernacles or the Feast of Sukkoth

(This essay is taken from a book on OT typology I've written, currently being edited)

             The third and climactic feast of the Israelite liturgical calendar was Sukkoth (tAKsu), commonly rendered Tabernacles or Booths.[1]  The name is derived from the temporary shelters or “booths”, constructed from the leafy branches of trees, in which the worshipers resided during the eight days of the feast.  The Torah prescribes that on opening day of the holiday, the Israelites were to gather “the fruit of lovely trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and rejoice before YHWH [their] God for seven days,” (Lev 23:40).  Moreover, the Lord ordained that “[42] you shall live in booths for seven days, all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, [43] in order that your generations might know that I made the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.  I am YHWH your God.”  Along with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Tabernacles was celebrated in the autumn of the year, during Tishri, the seventh month.  This eight-day festival was bookended by prescribed days of rest, in between which various sacrifices were offered to YHWH (Num 29:12-39) and rain rituals conducted (see below).  Beginning at least by the second century A.D., Sukkoth became the most popular of the three great feasts of the Jewish year, earning it the simple yet supreme title of hag, that is, the festival par excellence.[2]

            Like Passover and (to a lesser extent) Pentecost, the feast of Sukkoth had both an agricultural and historical focus.  As at Passover, when thanksgiving was offered to YHWH chiefly for his gift of barley, and as at Pentecost primarily for wheat, so during Sukkot, in the autumn of the year, farmers in Israel voiced gratitude to heaven for the various fruits that were gathered in during this season.  Because of this, it is also called the Feast of Ingathering (Exod 23:26; 34:22). 

A highly significant element of the liturgy of Sukkoth were the prayers and rituals by which the worshipers importuned God’s blessing of rain during the forthcoming year.[3]  As we shall observe, even though this rite had an agricultural focus, it also heavily accented the historical and even the eschatological.  The ritual was as follows.  During the first seven days of the festival, the priests filled a golden flagon at the Pool of Siloam, processed back up to the temple, circumambulated the altar, then poured out the water from Siloam (along with wine) at the altar of sacrifice, into receptacles attached to the sides of the altar.  During this ritual, they would recite the following words of Isaiah, a verse of a psalm laden with images of the exodus: “Joyfully will you draw water from the wells of salvation,”(12:3).[4]  At the same time, the Levitical choir intoned Psalm 118, during which, at specified verses, the worshipers waved a lulav (i.e., a bundle of branches gathered from palm, citron, myrtle, and willow trees). 

This water ritual was a multivalent liturgical action.  First, it was a sort of eucharistic commemoration of God’s wondrous provision to his people during their desert wanderings, when he caused a rock to gush forth water to slake the congregation’s thirst (e.g., Exod 17:1-7).  Secondly, reflecting various prophetic statements, it was a petition that, when the Messiah appeared, he would bring forth water for his people in a profusion before unknown.[5]  Thirdly, the pouring out of the water was described in some rabbinic traditions as symbolic of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.[6]  And, lastly, the Sukkot ritual was a prayer that the Creator’s munificence would continue to be manifested in the sending of rain upon their land and crops.[7]  The genesis of this water rite is uncertain, but by the time of our Lord’s sojourn on earth, it was already a well-established practice.  As we shall discuss momentarily, since Jesus alludes to this ceremony in one of his temple sermons (John 7), it is one of the keys to unlocking the typological significance of Sukkoth.

In speaking of this water rite, we have already largely shifted our attention away from the agricultural focus of Sukkoth toward the historic, salvific acts of YHWH that it celebrated.  Whereas the pouring out of water at the altar recalled the miraculous provision of water during the Israelites’ forty-year trek through the wilderness, their construction of and seven-day habitation in leafy tabernancles were a re-living of the conditions in that same era when YHWH “made the sons of Israel live in booths,” (Lev 23:43).  Why did God desire Israel to reside in such “plush accomodations” throughout the feast?  Though these rustic shelters may appear to have served as a humbling reminder of deprivations suffered in the Sinai wasteland, they were not.  On the contrary, they were actually tents of joy.  For immediately after having directed the Israelites to gather the boughs of trees with which to build their booths, Moses explains that they “shall rejoice before YHWH [their] God for seven days,” (23:40; cf. Neh 8:17).  Indeed, as one Jewish tradition puts it, whosoever had not experienced the felicity of Sukkoth was ignorant of what joy truly meant![8]  The booths, therefore, functioned as a kind of pars pro toto for every form of God’s paternal care of the Israelites while they dwelt in the desert.  In much the same way as Christians set up a nativity scene every Christmas as a visual encapsulation of all that this joyful birth means, so the OT believers set up their shelters at Sukkoth as emblematic of all that YHWH had graciously provided for them during their sojourn in the wilderness.

If YHWH designed the OT festivals to be ongoing rehearsals of the drama of salvation manifest in Jesus, then in which ways specifically did Sukkoth do this?  As with most typology, the answer to that question—or at least the beginning of an answer—is revealed already in the sermons of the OT prophets.  In the case of Sukkoth, it is Zechariah who incorporates this feast into one of his sermons about the Messiah (14:1-20). 

A chief theme of the final chapter of Zechariah is the victory that the divine Warrior will win for Jerusalem after she has been beleagured and beaten by the nations.  This day of triumph will be marked by cataclysmic events:  the Mount of Olives will cleave in two (14:4); there will be neither sunlight nor darkness (14:6); living waters will flow eastward and westward out of Jerusalem (14:9); and the holy city shall be hoisted heavenward while the country roundabout will be lowered and flattened (14:10).  Jerusalem will be safe and sound, but the Lord will smite the adversaries of Israel (including even their beasts) with a plague that rots their flesh, their eyes, and their tongues (14:12, 15).  Having thus graphically described the victory of Jerusalem and vanguishment of her foes, Zechariah predicts that thenceforth believers from nations the world over will make annual pilgrimages to Zion to celebrate the feast of Sukkoth.

[16] Then all who remain from all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up annually to worship the King, YHWH Sabaoth, and to celebrate the Feast of Sukkoth.  [17] Whoever of all the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, YHWH Sabaoth, there will be no rain on them.  [18] If the family of Egypt does not go up or enter, there will be no [rain] on them.  The plague with which YHWH plagues the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Sukkoth will be [on Egypt].  [19] This will be the punishment on Egypt and the punishment on all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Sukkoth.

The prophet concludes his sermon with a prediction of mushrooming sanctity.  He declares that the holiness which theretofore had been primarily concentrated in the temple and its accourterments will spread outward so that even the bells on horses will be as sacred as the golden plate adorning the head of the high priest, for both will have inscribed on them the words, “Holy to YHWH,” (Exod 28:36; Zech 14:20).  Even the everyday pots and pans of Jerusalemites will rank as high in holiness as the sanctified vessels employed in temple rituals (14:21). 

What does all this mean?  Translating Zechariah’s idiom into a vernacular more familiar to the NT ear, we might express it this way.  The day of triumph for Jerusalem is the “day” of Christ’s victory over all the foes arrayed against humanity—sin, death, and hell.  As Zechariah forecast, the day was one in which creation appeared to be coming unglued, for the sun was eclipsed, the earth quaked, rocks were split asunder, and tombs were opened, releasing the vivified bodies of saints (Matt 27:45, 51-52).  The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were the exaltation of the church, even as Zechariah beheld Zion uplifted (Eph 2:4-7).  As the preachers whom Christ sends go out to teach and baptize all nations (Matt 28:18-20), those from the nations who believe say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of YHWH, to the house of the God of Jacob.  He will teach us his ways and we will walk in his paths,” as another prophet said (Isa 2:3).  Zechariah describes this ascent to Zion or entrance into the church as the celebration of the Festival of Sukkoth.  Why?  The one who enters the church abides in the body of Christ, which is the new and better tabernacle of God incarnate (John 1:14), in which the saints rejoice without ceasing (1 Thess 5:16).  Isaiah also used tabernacle imagery to describe how God shelters those who dwell atop his holy mountain in the days of the Messiah (4:3-6).  Those who do not celebrate Sukkoth are those who cut themselves off from him who is the source of their life, “the King, YHWH Sabaoth.”  They are, quite simply, unbelievers.  Zechariah describes the plauge which befalls them as a drought, a common biblical image for those under the judgment of God (e.g., Deut 28:22-24; Ps 107:33-34).  For later Jews, this penalty—the withholding of rain—became the biblical proof-text for the pouring out of water at the altar on Sukkoth in an appeal to heaven to send rain in the coming year.[9]

The messianic blessings that the prophet Zechariah foretold in cryptic language are described more clearly in the Gospel of John when Jesus proclaims his identity against the background of the Sukkoth water ritual.[10]  During the Feast of Booths (7:2), Jesus went up to Jerusalem and began to preach in the temple courts.

[37] On the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus arose and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink, [38] that one who believes in me.[11]  As the Scripture says, “From his innermost being streams of living water shall flow.” [12]  [39] This he said concering the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive.  For the Spirit was not yet [given], because Jesus was not yet glorified.  [40] Therefore, some of the crowd, having heard these words, were saying, “This is truly the prophet.”

As in other contexts Jesus had declared, “Something greater than the temple is here,” (Matt 12:16) and “Someone greater than Solomon is here,” (Matt 12:42), so on this feast day he is proclaiming, “Something greater than Sukkoth is here!”  The long-awaited messianic age, when waters would once more stream forth for Israel, had arrived.  The fulfillment of the ritual enacted at the altar was embodied in Jesus.  From his innermost being streams of living water would flow, as indeed they did when the soldier speared the side of the crucified Christ (John 19:34), just as Moses had stricken the rock in the wilderness (Exod 17:6)—the rock that was Christ (1 Cor 10:4).  The water from the pool of Siloam, poured out at the altar, was but a foreshadowing of the water poured out at the cruciform altar.  And this water from enfleshed Word “who tabernacled among us” (John 1:14; cf. Ezek 47:1-12), what is it but the water of holy Baptism, by which sinners stream back into the sukkah of Jesus’ flesh? 

The Evangelist identifies these waters are “the Spirit, whom those who believed in Jesus were to receive.”  There is no inconsistency between the identification of these “living waters” as both literal waters and the Spirit.  For even in John’s Gospel, there is the closest association between the water of Baptism and the Spirit, as we see in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,’” (3:5; cf. 1 Cor 12:13; 1 John 5:8).  Indeed, from the second verse of Holy Writ and onward, the Spirit is intimately associated with water, for there he broods over the face of the deep. 

Also relevant to our understanding of Jesus’ invitation is the prophecy of Zechariah, discussed above.  For the prophet foretells that when YHWH saves Jerusalem in the days of the Messiah, and when the Feast of Sukkoth is faithfully kept by believers around the world, then “living water will flow out of Jerusalem, half toward the eastern sea and half toward the western sea,” (14:8).  Jesus pinpoints the spring of these living waters, flowing from Jerusalem, within himself.  He is the human temple from which the river in Ezekiel’s vision issues forth (47:1-12).  Moreover, as aforementioned, Jewish tradition said that the outpouring of the waters in the Sukkoth ritual were symbolic of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a tradition reflected—indeed, confirmed—by the explanation of the Evangelist.

After hearing Jesus’ invitation, some within the crowd respond, “This is truly the prophet,” (7:40).  What did Christ say that prompted this particular confession?  By the designation, “the prophet,” the worshipers probably meant the prophet like unto Moses, promised in Deuteronomy 18:15 and understood as the Messiah (Acts 3:22).   Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, the people identify Jesus as “the prophet” when he performs the Moses-like action of providing a miraculous amount of bread to them (6:13-14).  During Sukkoth, the people call him “the prophet” because he has identified himself as the one who, like Moses, will give the people water to drink, though in a way that far outdoes Moses.  We see the same thoughts in a Jewish midrash on Eccl 1:9, when the rabbis explain that the latter Redeemer (i.e., the Messiah) will be like the first redeemer (i.e., Moses):  “Just as the first redeemer [Moses] caused a well to arise [when he struck the rock; Exod 17:6], so will the latter Redeemer cause water to arise, as it is written, “a spring will go forth the from the house of YHWH to water the valley of Shittim,” (Joel 3:18 [H 4:18]).[13]  Therefore, the response of the crowd confirms that they understood the words of Jesus as a self-proclamation of his messianic identity.  And more specifically, the words reveal that the worshipers gathered in the temple for the Sukkoth water ritual saw themselves standing in the presence of the new and greater Moses, the “latter Redeemer,” who would truly fulfill this OT festival by quenching their thirst not from a rock but from the stream of living water that would flow from his innermost being.

This third great festival of the Israel’s liturgical calendar, like Passover and Pentecost, finds its true and ultimate meaning in him toward whom all sacred time pointed.  As the liturgical calendar of the Christian church follows the path of Jesus, so Israel’s calendar sketched out beforehand the path that Christ would follow.  Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are thus the festive “Amens” to that which was liturgically proclaimed in Israel during Passover, Weeks, and Sukkoth.  The typological interconnections between the festivals of Israel and the festivals of the church provide homiletical resouces of inestimable worth to the preacher who is holding Christ before his hearers as the one who came “in the fulness of time” (Gal 4:4).  Though the church no longer celebrates these OT festivals—they are, as Paul calls them, a shadow of what was to come, not the reality (Col 2:16-17)—nevertheless these holy days confess the reality they foreshadowed.  Like Abel, though “dead” they still speak (Heb 11:4)!  And what they speak is the Good News that the Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us, the law has been fulfilled in him who pours out his Spirit at Pentecost, and living waters gush from the innermost being of the Word made flesh who tabernacled among us.

[1] For the legislation concerning Tabernacles, see Lev 23:33-44; Num 29:12-39; Deut 16:16.  For descriptions of its historical celebration, see 2 Chron 8:13 and Ezra 3:1-6.  See Zechariah 14 for the connection between Tabernacles and the messianic era. 

[2] In fact, already within the OT, Sukkoth was termed “the feast” (1 Kgs 8:2 = 2 Chron 5:3; 1 Kgs 8:65 = 2 Chron 7:8-9; Ezek 45:25), perhaps alluding already then to its preeminence. 

[3] The earliest detailed elaboration of this ritual is in the Mishnah, Sukkah, 4:9-10.  See also, in the Talmud, Sukkah, 53a.  For a helpful summary of the various rabbinic traditions surrounding this festival, see Joachim Jeremias, “liqoj ,” TDNT 4:277-278.  Also, Bruce H. Grigsby, “‘If Any Man Thirsts...’:  Observations on the Rabbinic Background of John 7, 37-39,” Biblia 67 (1986): 101-108.

[4] The hymn follows immediately upon 11:11-16, in which Isaiah describes the messianic advent as a new exodus.  The phrase from Isa 12:2, “Yah YHWH is my strength and song, and he has become my salvation,” is lifted almost verbatim from the second verse of the Song at the Sea, “Yah is my strength and song, and he has become my salvation,” (Exod 15:2).  And in this verse recited during the water ritual of Sukkoth, the phrase “wells of salvation” (12:3) hearkens back to the miraculous sources of water God provided for the Israelites during their wilderness sojournage (e.g., Exod 17:1-7; Num 20:1-13; cf. Deut 8:15; Ps 74:15; 114:8).

[5] The prophets frequently pictured divine blessings, especially those of the messianic advent, with water images.  See, for instance, Isa 12:3; 33:21; 35:6-7; 41:18; 43:19-20; 44:3; 49:10; 50:2; 55:1; 66:12; Jer 31:9; Ezek 47:1-12; Hos 6:3; Joel 3:18 [H 4:18]; Zech 14:8.

[6] In the Palestinian Talmud, we read:  “R. Joshua ben Levi said, ‘Why was it called “the place of drawing”?  Because from there they drew forth the Holy Spirit, as Scripture says, “Joyfully will you draw water from the wells of salvation,” [Isa 12:3],’” (Sukkah, 5.3a; my translation).  For an English translation of this tractate, see Jacob Neusner, Sukkah:  A Preliminary Translation and Explanation, The Talmud of the Land of Israel, Volume 17, (Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism; Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1988).

[7] This tradition is recorded in the Tosephta on Sukkoth.  Quoting R. Akiva, the Tosephta notes that just as both Passover and Pentecost required that a portion of the crop be brought to YHWH so that the rest of the harvest would be blessed, “[Sukkoth also required] that they bring the libation of water on the Festival [of Sukkoth] in order that the rainwater would be blessed because of it,” (Sukkoth 3:18, my translation).  The Tosephta goes on to quote Zech 14:17-18 (see below) wherein God threatens to punish the peoples that do not celebrate Sukkoth by withholding rain from them.

[8] Talmud, Sukkah, 53a.

[9] See the Tosephta on Sukkoth, 3:18, referenced above.

[10] An excellent discussion of these verses can be found in Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John: I-XII (ABC 29; New York:  Doubleday, 1966), 319-331.

[11] Scholarship is divided over whether the words, “he who believes in me,” belong to the prior sentence or introduce a new sentence.  If the former, they finish off the preceding description of the one who is thirsty, so that Jesus identifies himself as the source of living water.  If the latter, the believer is the one from whom the living waters flow.  Either reading is grammatically and theologically defensible within the context of John’s Gospel.  The former reading is followed in my translation and explanation.  See Larry Paul Jones, The Symbol of Water in the Gospel of John (JSNTSS 145; Sheffield:  Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 153-156, for a discussion of the various readings.

[12] The “Scripture” that Jesus references is not a particular text, but a succinct digest, as it were, of many prophetic and psalmic texts in which waters are iconic of divine benefactions, e.g., Ps 78:15; Prov 18:4; Isa 12:3; 43:19-21; 44:3; 55:1-2; 58:11; Ezek 47:1-12; Zech 14:8.

[13] Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes, 1:9 (my translation).