Sukkot, Part 1

Sukkah built in Safra Square, Jerusalem in 2009
Image via Wikipedia

Happy Sukkot! Since there is a lot of misunderstanding about the importance of this incredibly rich and important Feast, I thought that instead of trying to jam everything into one post, six or seven would be more appropriate.

In previous posts, we looked at the significance of Yom Teruah (more commonly called Rosh Hashanah), the Feast of Trumpets, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. After the call of Yom Teruah, and the repentance and atonement of Yom Kippur, the way is opened to the most joyous Feast of all:

So on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you shall keep the feast of the LORD seven days: on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. You shall take on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall keep it a feast to the LORD seven days in the year: it is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall keep it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths seven days. All who are native-born in Israel shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 23:39-43)

The Holy One considered this feast so important that he actually repeats and expands the command in the space of a single chapter (ibid., vv. 33-36). Sukkot was so important that it was often simply called the Feast (Num. 28:17, 1Ki. 8:2, 2Ch. 7:8f & 30:22, Neh. 8:18, John 7:10) and God actually commanded us to rejoice on this day (Deu. 16:14). Edersheim describes it as, “The most joyous of all festive seasons in Israel . . . It fell on a time of year when the hearts of the people would naturally be full of thankfulness, gladness and expectancy. All the crops had been long stored; and now all fruits were also gathered . . .” (Temple, p. 212). In discussing its purpose, he goes on to write:

We will not pursue the tempting subject of this symbolism of numbers further than to point out that, whereas the sacred 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 x 7 days after Passover), the Feast of Tabernacles lasted seven days, took place when the seventh month was at its full height, and had the number 7 impressed on its characteristic sacrifices (ibid., p. 219).

The number 7 in Scripture denotes completeness; therefore, the continued repetition of the number in the Feast suggests that it will see the completion of some mighty plan of God.

As with most of the Feasts of the Lord, Sukkot is connected to the regular harvest, and is called the Ingathering in Exo. 23:16 and 34:22. The custom of the Four Species, in which a palm branch, a myrtle branch, a willow, and a citron are waved together, harkens back to when the Ingathering celebrated the fall harvest.

Like the Feast of Matzah (Unleavened Bread) and Shavuot (Pentecost), Sukkot is a pilgrimage Feast, when all the men of Israel were to appear before the King of Eternity in the place which He chose, Jerusalem (Exo. 34:23). It was commanded that during the seven days of this Feast that all Israel would live in sukkot (סכות, pl. of סכה), temporary structures. The warm and dry Judean autumns made this an optimal time to live outdoors, and the entire countryside around Jerusalem would be alight with campfires and alive with the sounds of music and rejoicing. The Temple too would be lit by the flames of four gigantic seven-stemmed menorahs and the innumerable torches with which the priests would dance. The celebration of the Feast—specifically, the seventh day—became known as the House of the Water Drawing for a reason that we will come to in a moment, and it is recorded in the Talmud, “He that has not beheld the joy of the House of the Water-Drawing has never seen joy in his life” (b. Sukkah 5:1).

After the first day, on which God commanded a Sabbath-rest, each morning began with a peculiar ceremony: The Cohen HaGadol, or High Priest, would carry a golden pitcher down to the Pool of Siloam, accompanied by a joyous procession, where he would gather about a quart of water. Meanwhile, a second procession would go down to gather willows from the banks of a nearby brook, which they brought back to hang over the altar in the Temple. The High Priest would re-enter the Temple through the Water Gate, greeted by the blasts of the silver trumpets and all the priests quoting Isa. 12:3 with one voice: “Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation!” Then the High Priest would ascend the altar and pour out the water into a silver basin made especially for this purpose.

The purpose of this ceremony was to pray for God to send the winter rains. It is a little-known fact that Jerusalem gets as much rain per year as London—but nearly all of it falls between the months of November and March. Without these winter rains, the wells would run dry and the ground would not yield its fruit. Therefore, it became a tradition to offer the “firstfruits” of the water that God would send, just as it was commanded in the Torah to offer the firstfruits of each harvest in anticipation of the rest of the bounty.

It was during this water-drawing ceremony, on the seventh day of the Feast (The Hoshana Rabba, or Great Deliverance) that a young Galilean carpenter interrupted to call out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink! He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, from within Him will flow rivers of living water.” Yochanan went on to explain to his predominantly Greek audience, “But He said this about the Spirit, which those believing in him were to receive. For the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Yeshua wasn’t yet glorified” (John 7:37, 39). The Jews in his audience would have already understood the reference:

Ancient Jewish theology connected the water-drawing ceremony with the Holy Spirit. “Why do they call it ‘the house of drawing’? Because there they draw the Holy Spirit” (Gen. Rab. 70:1). And again, “Why is the name of it called, the drawing out of water? Because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit according to what is said: ‘With joy ye draw water out of the wells of salvation’” (Ruth Rab. 4:7). They believed that the Holy Spirit came upon them and manifested Himself through great joy. (Howard and Rosenthal, Feasts, p. 147)

Early the next morning, with the light of the menorahs and the myriad of campfires and torches fresh on everyone’s mind, He went on to claim, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (8:12). That same day, a Sabbath (being the eighth day of the Feast), He proved His claim by healing a man born blind (ch. 9). It may truly be said that just as Yeshua endorsed the bread and the cup of the Passover table, investing them with a fullness of meaning in Himself, He did the same with the lights and water-drawing ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles.

In the coming week, we will examine five important prophetic aspects of Sukkot. Until then, I hope that everyone has a blessed day.

Shalom, and Hag Sameach!

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