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Nehemiah 8:15 "Go out to the mountain and bring olive leaves, wild olive leaves, myrtle leaves, palm leaves and inter-twined leaves, to make sukkot as it is written."
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This list of trees does not match the standard set specified by the Torah - "the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook" (Vayikra 23:40, ESV) - to be a part of the lulav and etrog used each year as part of the Sukkot celebrations. On the other hand, this material is being used quite specifically to make sukkot rather than for any ritual purpose as the lulav and etrog are today. There is some disagreement about exactly which trees are in view here. While olive, myrtle and palm are all well-known and attested, "wild olives" may be fir or pine, so that "leaves" might be better translated "needles" following the literal translation: "leaves of the tree of oil". The JPS translation carefully avoids that issue by rotating the word order to say "leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and other leafy trees". The last tree - - is unknown; the root is not used in its Qal or simple form in the Hebrew Bible, but is thought to mean "to be twisted or interwoven", so its leaves are described as thick, bushy or inter-twined foliage, type and genus unknown!
In the days of Nehemiah, Israel had gathered in Jerusalem for the first time since the rebuilding of the walls of the city had been completed. The people came up from the towns and villages and gathered in the seventh month of the Jewish year - Tishrei - to hear the Torah being read out loud by Ezra the priest and scribe. On the second day, the elders, the priests and Levites came to study with Ezra and discovered that the people were to build sukkot, booths or tabernacles and live in them for seven days. They obeyed this instruction to go out and collect foliage to cover the sukkot and then built and lived in them all over the city: "each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim" (Nehemiah 8:16, ESV). The text records that all of the exiles who had returned from Babylon celebrated the feast and that there was great rejoicing since "from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so" (v. 17, ESV).
Why was this important to the people? Why did this feast particularly matter and why did they gather and celebrate so joyfully this first year home from Babylon, particularly if Israel hadn't been very faithful in keeping the feast for generations? It might have been because the Torah was not read or observed much during the days of the kings, so that this was the first time that the people had heard these instructions. More likely, perhaps, it was because by doing so they were demonstrating their commitment to put G-d first. After the shock of being exiled, then being allowed to return to the Land with G-d's hand so clearly on them, they were determined not to take G-d for granted again; they were going to make sure that they gave Him first place and position. The rabbis certainly thought so.
Rabbi Berechiah taught in the name of Rabbi Abba bar Kahana: Through the merit of your obeying the precept "Take on the first day, etc." (Vayikra 23:40), I [says G-d], shall reveal Myself to you as "the First", on your behalf punish the first, build you the first and bring you the first. I shall reveal Myself to you as "the First", for it is written of Me, "I the L-rd am the first, I the last - I am He" (Isaiah 41:4); and will on your behalf punish the first - upon the wicked Esav, of whom it is written, "The first came forth ruddy" (B'resheet 25:25); and build you the first - the Temple, of which it is written, "Throne of glory on high from the first, counterpart of the place of our Sanctuary" (Jeremiah 17:12); and bring you the first - the Messiah, of whom it is written, "The first unto Zion will I give [who will say]: 'Behold, behold them [returning to Zion],' and to Jerusalem a messenger of good tidings" (Isaiah 41:27).
Pesikta de Rab Kahana 27.101
Allowing for the time in which this was originally taught, the name "Esav" was widely used as a reference for Rome, so spoke of G-d punishing, on Israel's behalf, the first nation of the known world. Also in this text is the hope that G-d would allow the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The critical items in the the list are the first - God Himself - and the last - Messiah. If Israel observes the commandment to keep Sukkot by taking the lulav and etrog faithfully, then G-d will reveal Himself to them as "the first and the last", and He will send Messiah to His people. As believers in Messiah Yeshua, we know that both of those promises had already been fulfilled once and are still to be gloriously fulfilled. In the revelation shown to John on Patmos, G-d Himself says, "'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, 'who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty'" (Revelation 1:8, NASB), confirmed by Yeshua: "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore" (vv. 17-18, NASB), then repeated by G-d later: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end" (21:6, NASB).
As the disciples watched Yeshua ascending into heaven, the disciples were told, "This Yeshua, who has been taken away from you into heaven, will come back to you in just the same way as you saw Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11, CJB); we are expecting His return. Only a matter of weeks later, speaking to the assembled crowds in the Temple after the healing of the cripple at the Yaffa Gate, Peter explained what was necessary for Yeshua to return: "Therefore, repent and turn to G-d, so that your sins may be erased; so that times of refreshing may come from the L-rd's presence; and He may send the Messiah appointed in advance for you, that is, Yeshua. He has to remain in heaven until the time comes for restoring everything, as G-d said long ago, when He spoke through the holy prophets" (Acts 3:19-21, CJB). G-d will send Messiah to our people and for the Gentiles, when the time is right. He who was first and always has been first, shall be first and "every eye shall see Him" (Revelation 1:7).
How soon may we expect Yeshua to return? This question is asked both within the body of Messiah by believers, and also from outside the body by unbelievers who often scoff at our faith. There are two answers. The first is "We don't know", because Yeshua told us that no-one does know until the Father reveals it. The second is "Soon!"; there is a general and growing expectation that it really will be soon. As the words of a recent chorus say:
We are waiting, anticipating, Your arrival, Your arrival;
Voices raising, celebrating, Your arrival, Your arrival. Haste the Day!2
Are we involved in this process - is there anything that we can do? According to the Bible, there is; Peter wrote, "You should lead holy and godly lives, as you wait for the Day of G-d and work to hasten its coming" (2 Peter 3:11-12, CJB). The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we put G-d first? Do we give Him the first place in everything? Are we concerned to see Messiah return and to have Him take the first place in this world? If so, then we need to make sure that we give Him first place in our lives now and for that to be seen in this world.
Further Study: Titus 2:11-13; Luke 12:35-40
Application: Are you working to hasten the day of Yeshua's return? If you're uncertain or hesitant, then this season of Sukkot would be a good time to refocus your heart and make sure that you share the same priorities as the L-rd!
1. - translated by William G. Braude, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 2002, 0827606796, page 566
2. - Your Arrival, by Phillip Danyew and Philip Wickham, from the album "Heaven and Earth" 2009
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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