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Vayikra/Leviticus 23:34 On the fifteenth day of this seventh month [shall be] the festival of Sukkot: seven days to the L-rd.
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Why is Sukkot different from all the other festivals in the Jewish calendar? Apart from the many delights of eating and living in the sukkah, the prophetic nature of the festival for Jew and Gentile and its dual name as both "the festival of ingathering" (Shemot 23:16) and "the festival of tabernacles" (Vayikra 23:34), it is the only festival that is described as "seven days to/for HaShem". This designates a whole week set apart to celebrate beforeHaShem, to remember what He did in the past during the Exodus journey from Egypt, to declare His ongoing grace and provision in the present wilderness journey, and to point prophetically to the future when not only will Jew and Gentile celebrate the festival together in the sukkah, but the time when all the nations will come up to Jerusalem each year to celebrate the festival before HaShem.
Judaism has three festivals of seven and eight days. The newest and, strictly, extra-biblical festival is Hanukkah. Held in the early winter and also known as the Festival of Light or the Festival of Rededication, this festival commemorates the Maccabean uprising against Greek occupation and assimilation in the second century BCE and the restoration of the exclusive worship of HaShem in the Jerusalem Temple and Jewish sovereignty in Israel. It lasts for exactly eight consecutive and contiguous days starting on the 25thKislev, symbolising the eight days for which the menorah in the Holy Place miraculously burned for eight days even though there was only oil for one day. It has no special holy days within the eight day period and normal work is allowed on all eight days.
The first long festival in the religious year is "the festival of unleavened bread" (Vayikra 23:6). This is held in the first month of the year in early-to-mid Spring and starts with the celebration of Pesach on the 14th day of Aviv. It lasts for seven consecutive and contiguous days - "for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread" (23.6) - and on each of those seven days "you shall make offerings by fire to the L-RD" (v. 8). The first and last days of the seven are designated as "a sacred occasion" (vv. 7-8, NJPS) and on those days "you shall not work at your occupations" (ibid., NJPS). This festival rehearses the original Exodus from Egypt, when HaShem brought the Israelites out of Egypt "with a strong hand and an outstretched arm" (Jeremiah 32:21) The festival of Shavuot or Weeks, which comes seven weeks later, is considered to be the eighth or closing day of the Spring festivals, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
The festival of Sukkot is the second long festival in the religious year, in the seventh month. As our text tells us, it is for seven consecutive and contiguous days, of which only the first is designated as "a solemn gathering" (Vayikra 23:35), when no work may be done. During all seven days fire offerings are brought - described in minute detail in B'Midbar 29:12-34 - and the eighth contiguous day is set apart as a separate festival known as Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day closing. That eighth day is "a solemn gathering" (v. 36) and a day of no routine work. We should notice that Sukkot alone is set apart as "seven days to/for HaShem" (v. 34); neither Hanukkah or Matzah is described in that way. The text goes on to say, "You shall observe it as a festival of the L-RD for seven days in the year" (v. 41, NJPS), again a unique designation.
So what is it that makes Sukkot unique? Alone, Sukkot is acknowledged as "the festival" rather than "the festival of ..."; it so well known that simply saying "the festival" is enough to identify it. Although all the festivals - except Yom Kippur - are to be times of great joy with singing, dancing and lots to eat and drink, the rabbis refer to Sukkot as "z'man simchateynu", the time of our rejoicing. All Israelite males are commanded to appear before HaShem at the three pilgrimage festivals each year - "on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths -- all your males shall appear before the L-RD your G-d in the place that He will choose" (D'varim 16:16, NJPS) - and must not come empty-handed; but at Sukkot, everyone, the whole family, is to bring the tithe of their produce and eat it joyfully in the presence of HaShem. Those who live too far away to bring livestock or produce are to convert it into money and then in Jerusalem, "spend the money for whatever you desire -- oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the L-RD your G-d and rejoice, you and your household" (14:26, NJPS).
Both the Tanakh and the Apostolic Writings offer us snapshots of what life will be like in the world to come. Rather like a jigsaw where you don't have all the pieces, or two jigsaws of the same scene but from different angles, it isn't always easy to assemble a totally coherent picture from the fragments we have. Isaiah, for example tells us that "From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before Me, declares the L-RD" (Isaiah 66:23, ESV), which implies that Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh will continue to be celebrated and therefore that days, weeks and months will still exist alongside the sun and moon, while earlier he has told us that "No more will the sun be your light by day, nor will moonlight shine on you" (60:19, ESV). Rav Sha'ul defends the keeping of shabbat, the new moon and the festivals in this age, saying, "These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Messiah" (Colossians 2:17, ESV); in Messiah we will see the full meaning and picture of what we now see only in part.
Another tantalising fragment in this puzzle relates to Sukkot. The Psalmist starts us off with the comment that "All the nations You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name" (Psalm 86:9, ESV), then the prophet tells us that after Yeshua has returned to the Mount of Olives and the nations have come to fight against Jerusalem, "everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the L-RD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles" (Zechariah 14:16). Sukkot will continue to have significance and will be celebrated in Jerusalem each year. This is one of the ways in which G-d will glorify His name: "And My holy name I will make known in the midst of My people Israel, and I will not let My holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the L-RD, the Holy One in Israel" (Ezekiel 39:7, ESV). It is by the keeping of the festivals, by the continual reminders of who G-d is, what He has done and what He has always said, that He is glorified and His people rejoice in Him.
We know that Yeshua went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals. The gospels report Him being there for Pesach and for Hanukkah. Most spectacularly, perhaps, John reports that one year He was not only present but interacted with the festival of Sukkot, using it as an opportunity to reveal G-d's plans and something of His own identity. John writes of Yeshua crying out to the crowd in the Temple on Hoshana Rabbah, what he calls "the last day of the feast, the great day" (John 7:37, ESV). John has already told us (v. 2) that this is the festival of Sukkot and that Yeshua has been teaching in the Temple during the festival (v. 14ff), but now he simply refers to it as "the feast" and records how Yeshua challenged the people and the leaders. Yeshua cries out, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water'" (vv. 37-38), connecting with Isaiah 12 and other passages that speak of water and the Spirit.
Did the people understand something of what Yeshua was saying? Did they make the connections and realise just what they had heard? Apparently so: "When they heard these words, some of the people said, 'This really is the Prophet.' Others said, 'This is the Messiah'" (vv. 40-41, ESV). Others who recognised that Yeshua had been brought up in the Galilee started arguing about whether the Messiah comes from the Galilee or Bethlehem and "there was a division among the people over Him" (v. 43, ESV). The enemy hastily stirred up an argument to try and provoke an incident that would lead to Yeshua's arrest, but this time - as so often - it just fizzled out.
This Sukkot we need to rejoice in the sure and steady knowledge that Yeshua is the Messiah, that He has given us His living water, the Spirit welling up to eternal life within us. We celebrate the festival to show that Yeshua has created from Jews and Gentiles "one new man" (Ephesians 2:15) so that we might live in peace both with G-d and with each other. We point to His return, when all the nations will celebrate the festival as He rules the whole world from Jerusalem. We proclaim peace to all - both those "far of and near" (v. 17) and invite others to come into the kingdom of G-d, under the cover of the sukkah - Yeshua Himself, who "tabernacled among us" (John 1:14) - and rejoice at all the good things that G-d has done and is yet to do in this world and the next.
Hag Sukkot Sameach b'Yeshua!
Further Study: Psalm 96:8-10; Zechariah 8:20-23; John 6:37-39; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
Application: Are you celebrating seven days to the L-rd, this Sukkot, focused on and in Yeshua our sukkah? You can have the most perfect etrog and wave the lulav in every direction under the sun, but unless you celebrate with Yeshua you are not part of the One New Man and cannot rightly make the blessing: Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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