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B'Midbar/Numbers 29:12 And on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, there shall be for you a holy assembly ...
Chapter 29 of B'Mibdar contains the detailed description of the offerings to be made during the block of holy days that are known as the Autumn or Fall Feasts: Yom Teruah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. The first four verses of the seventhaliyah form one of the festival readings that is read on the first day of Sukkot, the seven-day festival that starts on the fifteenth day of the month of Tishrei: the seventh month of the religious year, the first month of the civil year. At that point, the reading seems odd because although it is formally two weeks into the new year, it is nevertheless counted as being at the end of the pervious year's reading cycle - followed by the seldom read portion V'Zot HaBracha (D'varim chapters 33 and 34) - before the new year's cycle starts with B'resheet between seven and fourteen days later.
Whereas the instructions for the feast of Sukkot in Vayikra focus on the building of the sukkah and the waving of the lulav and etrog, the instructions here are entirely concerned with the extra sacrifices and offerings to be brought in the sanctuary. As well as the regular offerings, each day of Sukkot saw two rams, fourteen year-old male lambs and a male goat - together with their matching grain and drink offerings. The variable part of the sacrifices was the number of young bulls to be sacrificed each day, starting with thirteen on the first day, decreasing by one each day to seven on the last day. A total of seventy young bulls throughout the week. Ancient commentators have long dubbed Sukkot as the Feast of the Nations or the Feast of the Gentiles aligning the seventy bulls with the seventy proto-nations catalogued in B'resheet chapter 10 as the descendants of Noah's three sons, Ham, Shem and Jafet. "R. Eleazar stated, To what do those seventy bullocks correspond? To the seventy nations" (b. Sukkah 55b). Midrash Tanchuma goes further and asserts that the bullocks were offered as an atonement for the sins of the nations (Midrash Tanchuma: Pinchas). Israel acts as "a kingdom of priests" (Shemot 19:6) for the nations of the world, offering sacrifices for the nations each year at Sukkot.
Thehaftarah reading for Sukkot, from the last chapter of the prophet Zechariah, connects the nations and the Feast of Sukkot again. In the Last Days, the prophet says, the nations will come up against Jerusalem for war, so that HaShem Himself will fight for His nation, leading to a time when "Adonai will be king over the whole world. On that day Adonai will be the only one, and His name will be the only name" (Zechariah 14:9, CJB) quoted in the Aleinu prayer every day in the synagogue. Jerusalem will be restored and rebuilt so that finally, "everyone remaining from all the nations that came to attack Yerushalayim will go up every year to worship the king, Adonai-Tzva'ot [the L-rd of Hosts], and to keep the festival of Sukkot" (v. 16, CJB).
But the rabbinic understanding of these texts and the prophecy of Zechariah were to follow many years after HaShem's instructions to Moshe and the people of Israel were originally given. The people were still in the desert, still waiting to enter the Promised Land. What could they have made of these instructions? Certainly the Torah tells us in just a couple of chapters' time that some of the tribes had many animals: "The descendants of Re'uven and the descendants of Gad had vast quantities of livestock" (B'Midbar 32:1, CJB), so much so that they wanted to settle east of the Jordan river in the land of Gilead which was flat and good for livestock. But to sacrifice seventy bulls in just one week? Why did G-d ordain these sacrifices, which could not be carried out until the people were settled in the Land and the tabernacle or Temple were established?
Like much of the Torah, which was also contingent upon being in the Land and having a central sanctuary where the priests and Levites would maintain the daily and annual cycles of sacrifice and worship, these instructions provided the certainty of a future and a purpose. This was not just for the current generation, to inspire or motivate them to hold on to G-d and His promises and to enter the Land; neither was it just for their children, to provide an incentive for conquering the Land, pushing back the pagan nations destined for destruction. These instructions provided a multi-generational vision of service and witness to the nations of the world, a purpose that - although they did not know it - would span centuries and millenia reaching down to the days of Messiah and beyond, through the years of the church age and the times of the Gentiles until the Last Days in which we now live.
Peter, writing to "G-d's chosen people, living as aliens in the Diaspora" (1 Peter 1:1, CJB), reminds the early Jewish believers that their role as "a chosen people, the King's cohanim, a holy nation, a people for G-d to possess" (2:9, CJB) has not ended but continues as the Gentiles are called to stand alongside the Jewish people to share the good news of the Messiah among all the nations. Now atonement for every man, woman and child is guaranteed in and through the blood of Messiah, shed on the stake at Calvary. The agents of delivery, the means that G-d is using to convey that message of reconciliation to the world, remain the Jewish people who will be a witness for Him forever, aided and assisted by the Gentiles who have come to believe in Yeshua and the G-d of Israel. While Jew and Gentile alike share the good news "to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16, NASB), the Jewish people as a corporate whole, as a set-apart and holy nation, remain G-d's witness to the nations of the world and a standard by which they will be held accountable. Their longevity and continued existence, language and culture after nearly 2000 years out of their Land and dispersed among the often hostile nations of the world is a testimony to Rav Sha'ul's assertion that "From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of G-d's choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of G-d are irrevocable" (Romans 11:28-29, NASB).
So for us today, whether Jew or Gentile, as believers in Messiah Yeshua, G-d's purpose continues to be worked out in our midst. The prophet Isaiah spoke beforehand about Messiah's suffering: "I gave My back to those who strike Me, and My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting" (Isaiah 50:6, NASB); words that were chillingly fulfilled by the Roman and Jewish authorities. Rav Sha'ul speaks of the same treatment as messenger of the gospel: "Till this very moment we go hungry and thirsty, we are dressed in rags, we are treated roughly, we wander from place to place, we exhaust ourselves working with our own hands for our living. When we are cursed, we keep on blessing; when we are persecuted, we go on putting up with it; when we are slandered, we continue making our appeal. We are the world's garbage, the scum of the earth - yes, to this moment!" (1 Corinthians 4:11-13, CJB). The mere fact that it continues shows us that we are still engaged in mortal combat for the souls of the world, partnering with G-d who does not want to give up on anyone (2 Peter 3:9). Indeed, should this not be the case, we should question whether we are still in the centre of G-d's will for us and for these days. "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation" (1 Peter 4:12-13, NASB).
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 2:6-9; Daniel 11:33-35; Psalm 66:8-10
Application: Do you know and walk in G-d's purpose for your life? Is the certainty of your calling tested on a daily basis? Whilst we should not seek persecution, its presence confirms that we are still a threat to the enemy and so serving G-d.
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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