The Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles)
As we make our way through the Gospel of John, we approach chapter 7, where we’ll find our Lord in the context of a particular Jewish feast, the Feast of Tabernacles. What is this feast? What’s it all about?
Well, it’s one of the 3 major festivals that Israelite males were expected to attend. It comes at the time of the fruit harvest. Grapes and olives would be in abundance. Most of the festivals were somber, but not this one. It was a party. Or, more appropriately, it was a joyous celebratory feast. But why? What does it mean? What were the Israelites supposed to think, feel or do at this time?
They were supposed to construct temporary shelters, lean-tos. And they were supposed to live in them for the week of the feast. It was a reminder of the time of their sojourn in the wilderness. They had nothing except what God’s hand had provided on their way out of Egypt. And they didn’t have access to food or water or directions. In every way they were dependent on the Lordship, the faithful provision and protection and direction of the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt.
So, now that the harvest is in—, now that you have stable homes to dwell in, just as God promised—, you are to celebrate and remember: Celebrate that God is faithful to fulfill his promises. Celebrate that God is faithful to provide for us. And remember that you are still sojourners. You have no real ownership here. Why would you seek it? This age, like your lean-to, is fleeting. And all that you need comes from my hand.
The point of the festival of tabernacles is the same as much of Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount:
22 do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29 And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30 For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you (Luke 12:22–31 ESV)
Rejoice in the fact that you sojourn here. Nothing in this age, fleeting and ephemeral as it is, is worth clinging to or laying claim to. All that is needful for this age comes at the hand of the God who purchased you. And he feeds you with his bounty not because he must, but because he wants to.
There is much more to investigate. Much of it enigmatic and challenging. Let me set forth the data for your meditative, puzzle-solving pleasure:
The sacrificial ritual in the festival is not terribly complex, but it has a pattern to it. For each of the following sacrifices, grain offerings and drink offerings accompanied the whole burnt offerings: Bread and wine to go with the meat of the meal.
Day 1: 13 Bulls 2 Rams 14 Yearling Male Goats
Day 2: 12 Bulls 2 Rams 14 Yearling Male Goats
Day 3: 11 Bulls 2 Rams 14 Yearling Male Goats
Day 4: 10 Bulls 2 Rams 14 Yearling Male Goats
Day 5: 9 Bulls 2 Rams 14 Yearling Male Goats
Day 6: 8 Bulls 2 Rams 14 Yearling Male Goats
Day 7: 7 Bulls 2 Rams 14 Yearling Male Goats
Day 8: 1 Bull 1 Ram 7 Yearling Male Goats
I’m not entirely sure what God is teaching us with respect to the descending number of bulls and the shift that occurs on the eighth day. But it is very evident that Israel is being fed at the King’s table. The Lord is sharing the bounty of his table with them in a meal — a covenant meal.
And as he does so, he reminds them that they are guests at His table. They must leave their homes and dramatically demonstrate their position in the relationship, by living in tents. They received his bounty in the wilderness. They didn’t recognize it as bounty then, of course. They grumbled and complained incessantly. Now that they are in the land, God wants to make sure they know that their position in the relationship hasn’t changed. They have gained no independence from him. They are still as dependent as before. They construct temporary shelters to remind them that where they are and what they have is a provision of their Heavenly Father —Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17 ESV) And as they look on the plenty around them, celebrating with the fruits of the harvest and gorging on plenty, what they are supposed to see is God’s faithful provision, according to His promise.
Our God is faithful. Jesus Christ is faithful. And when we stop whining and grumbling long enough to look at what he has done and is doing for us, we will be amazed at our bounty. Israel could not appreciate the fact that the whip no longer cut their backs. They could only see that their breadbaskets were empty. Can you see that the Son of God bore your shame? What blinds you to Jesus’ bounty?
And if we should be enjoying abundance while ignoring our Host, who provides and guides us still, is that not an even greater apostasy? May the Spirit of our Lord bring us to repentance. May He open our eyes to how small and insignificant and weak and dependent we are, that we might learn to appreciate how faithful and true and powerful and holy God is. He’s proven it all in Jesus.
If you are interested in further study, you can find relevant passages at Exod. 23:14-19; 34:22-24; Lev. 23:33-36, 39-43; Num. 29:12-38; Deut. 16:16-17; 31:9-13.