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1 Kings 8:66 On the eighth day, [the king] let the people go. They blessed the king and went to their tents joyful and happy of heart about all the good that the L-rd had done
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The festival of Shemini Atzeret first appears in Vayikra 23, the chapter devoted to the Mo'edim, the feasts ofHaShem: "On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the L-RD; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations" (Vayikra 23:36, NJPS). It is mentioned again in B'Midbar 28-29, the chapters that list all the sacrifices for the various festivals to match Vayikra 23: "On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations" (B'Midbar 29:35, NJPS). The festival's name comes from the start of the B'Midbar passage: - And-on-the-day the-eighth, an-assembly shall-be for-you. The zakef katan accent over the nun at the end of the second word indicates a break in the flow (where the comma is in my literal English translation), so the two words don't really belong together - they come from two separate clauses - but because they are adjacent, the name has stuck.
The festival is mentioned just three more times in the whole of the Tanakh: a few verses later in Vayikra 23 to emphasise that the day is a shabbat - "a complete rest on the eighth day" (Vayikra 23:39, NJPS); our text above, which is echoed in 2 Chronicles; and "They celebrated the festival seven days, and there was a solemn gathering on the eighth, as prescribed" (Nehemiah 8:18, NJPS). Both the latter two references are to occasions when the festival was kept: the first at the end of the dedication of Solomon's temple; the second the first time the festival was kept after the return from Babylon and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Michael Fishbane reports that "according to ancient practice in the Land of Israel, [our text] was the opening verse of the haftarah; today it marks the conclusion of the reading according to the Ashkenazic and Sephardic rites."
Although the record in 1 Kings is unclear exactly which day this is - after an initial seven days, then a second set of seven days, then this day in which everyone goes home - Fishbane is sure that this is the eighth day "of the second seven-day festival" and invites comparison with the reworked echo by the Chronicler: "At that time Solomon kept the Feast for seven days -- all Israel with him -- a great assemblage from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. On the eighth day they held a solemn gathering; they observed the dedication of the altar seven days, and the Feast seven days. On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he dismissed the people to their homes, rejoicing and in good spirits over the goodness that the L-RD had shown to David and Solomon and His people Israel" (2 Chronicles 7:8-10, NJPS). There, by explicitly naming the twenty-third day of the seventh month, the writer makes it clear that this is Shemini Atzeret. RabbiHirsch agrees, confirming that "the 'dismissal' recorded here refers to the leave-taking from the king and that took place on the eighth day on Shemini Atzeret."
The word , "to their tents" is translated by many English versions as "to their homes" (e.g. ESV, NJPS) and is followed by two clauses describing the demeanour of the people: the first, , is an adjective from the root , "to be joyful, glad" (Davidson) meaning "joyful, glad, rejoicing"; the second is an adjective and a noun - is an adjective from the root , "to be cheerful, joyful" (Davidson) meaning "happy, cheerful, joyful" and is a variant of the noun , 'heart', so "glad of heart". The Israelites leave Jerusalem and the king joyful, rejoicing and glad. Richard Patterson and Hermann Austel explain that "when the people left, they went home rejoicing and fully satisfied in their realisation that G-d's blessing was on the king and on the nation as a whole."1
The ancient rabbis, trying to find an explanation for why Israel would rejoice when leaving Jerusalem and HaShem's presence, suggest that after Israel had spent seven days bringing offerings for the nations during Sukkot, "the Holy One, blessed be He said, 'Let this be a day of rejoicing solely for you and Me. I shall not ask you for too burdensome an offering - only one bull and one ram.' When Israel heard this, they began praising the Holy One, blessed be He, saying 'This is the day that the L-RD has made -- let us exult and rejoice on it' (Psalm 118:24, NJPS)" (Pesikta Rabbati, piska 52.7). Certainly it is a long-standing tradition to start asking G-d for rain on Shemini Atzeret, right through to Pesach - the 'rainy' season in Israel; we add the phrase "who makes the wind blow and who makes the rain fall" to the second stanza of the WhatIf(Left, Amidah) for thrice-daily prayer in the synagogue during that whole time. We rejoice in the day that G-d has made and pray for rain to soften and break up the soil; we pray for the agricultural cycle to start again, ploughing and sowing, preparing the ground for another year's growth and harvest. But we can also hear the voice of the prophet calling, "Sow with a view to righteousness, reap in accordance with kindness; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the L-RD until He comes to rain righteousness on you" (Hosea 10:12, NASB), to remind us that there is more than sheer physicality involved in our lives.
Perhaps the prophet gives us a link between rain and rejoicing. Writing to the people of Judah in the wake of a devastating plague of locusts, Joel told them, "O children of Zion, be glad, rejoice in the L-RD your G-d. For He has given you the early rain in His kindness, now He makes the rain fall as formerly -- the early rain and the late -- and threshing floors shall be piled with grain, and vats shall overflow with new wine and oil" (Joel 2:23-24, NJPS). The rain is both an indication of God's favour and of the harvest to come; creation will once again serve the people and bring forth a yield enabling normal life to resume. After a period of hunger and thirst, of shortage and famine, days of sufficiency, such as have not been seen for many years will return. And the people are to rejoice when they see the rain, because the rain is the water that falls from heaven, enabled and managed by G-d alone. Another prophet also speaks of rejoicing in difficult circumstances: "Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the L-RD; I will take joy in the G-d of my salvation" (Habakkuk 3:17-18, ESV). Here there seems to be nothing in which to rejoice, yet he is finding joy in G-d, the One who saves him. A third prophet exhorts the people to "Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the L-RD" (Zechariah 2:10, ESV) because G-d is coming into the very midst of His people. He then gives a text which is cited by the gospels as a prophecy of Yeshua: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (9:9, ESV).
Rejoicing is part of the kingdom of G-d. Yeshua tells stories about those who rejoice: the shepherd who had lost a sheep, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost" (Luke 15:6, ESV); and the woman who had lost a coin, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost" (v. 9, ESV). When He was about to enter Jerusalem, "the whole multitude of His disciples began to rejoice and praise G-d with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen" (19:37, ESV). Rav Sha'ul writes that "we rejoice in hope of the glory of G-d" (Romans 5:2, ESV) and instructs believers to "Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer" (12:12, ESV). He makes the point again in another letter, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4, ESV). We are to rejoice in Yeshua: who He is, what He has done for us, and look forward to rejoicing even more when we see Him - "I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:22, ESV).
Joy is to be a part of our lives in this world. When driven out of the town of Antioch in Pisidia, Sha'ul and Barnabas shook the dust of their feet off again them and "were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 13:52, ESV). Sha'ul could even later say, "In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy" (2 Corinthians 7:14, ESV) and points out that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control;" (Galatians 5:22-23, ESV); joy is second one the list! Even James writes, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness" (James 1:2-3, ESV).
This festival season, as we celebrate the days of Sukkot, remembering G-d's goodness to our people through forty years of wandering in the desert, and look to the quiet but joyful day of Shemini Atzeret on shabbat, let us rejoice before the L-rd our G-d. Like the ancient Israelites, we too can say "This is the day that the L-RD has made -- let us exult and rejoice on it" (Psalm 118:24, NJPS).
1. - Richard D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel, "1, 2 Kings" in The Expositor's Bible Commentary Revised Edition, Vol 3, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), page 713.
Further Study: 2 Corinthians 6:3-9; 1 Peter 1:3-7
Application: Do you find it difficult to be joyful, to rejoice and be glad? You need to take your eyes off yourself and look around you at all the good things that G-d has done and the blessings that He has poured out on His world from snow-covered mountains to iridescently coloured humming bees. Rejoice above all in Yeshua and the life that we have right now in this world in Him and the hope He gives us for the world to come.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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