The Feast of Tabernacles
"Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days to the Lord'" (Leviticus 23:34).
The Hebrew word sukkah is roughly translated into English as "tabernacle" or "booth." Neither of those terms fully convey what a sukkah is. A sukkah is simply a temporary structure. It is not a permanent building, but is made only to serve a specific purpose. So what is the Feast of Sukkot? Sukkot is simply the plural form of the word sukkah. Therefore the Feast of Sukkot finds a suitable translation in the phrase Feast of Tabernacles.
The Sukkah Represents: God Dwelling With Mankind
God's desire is, and has always been, to be close to His children. As the nation of Israel traveled through the wilderness, God was making the journey along with them (Exodus 13:21). Eventually, God instructed the people to build a tabernacle for Him, and He would let His presence rest there (Exodus 25:8-9). The sukkah reminds us of this tabernacle in the wilderness.
Likewise, when the time has come for the new heaven and the new earth, God will be our eternal home and He will build His tabernacle among His people once again (Revelation 21:3). The sukkah is a picture of God's desire for a relationship with mankind.
The Sukkah Represents: Our Dependence Upon God
As God led Israel through the wilderness, He provided manna to eat, water to drink, and had them dwell in tabernacles for shelter. To serve as a reminder of this great provision, He instructed the people to build the sukkah in future generations (Leviticus 23:42-43). So great was His provision that even after forty years of wandering in the Wilderness, the clothes on their backs and sandals on their feet did not show signs of wear (Deuteronomy 29:5).
The sukkah is a reminder of God's provision in our lives, not only in the physical sense, but spiritually as well (Luke 12:22-23). He has given us the true manna, which is His Son (John 6:33). Through Yeshua (Jesus) we will never be spiritually thirsty (John 4:14). And we can always count on God to be our shelter (Psalm 91:2).
The Sukkah Represents: A Wedding Canopy (Chuppah)
In a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, the bride and groom are married underneath a canopy, called a chuppah. After the wedding, the bride and groom spend a seven-day honeymoon inside the wedding chamber, which was a special room built by the groom. After this time, the bride and groom come out and celebrate with their guests with an extravagant marriage supper.
The sukkah reminds us that we are the bride of Yeshua (Jesus). He has left to prepare a wedding chamber (John 14:3). While He is away, we, as His bride, are to be preparing ourselves for His imminent return (Revelation 19:7-8). Many of Yeshua's parables are about how we are to be preparing for His return and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The sukkah should cause us to consider whether we are ready for His second coming, for truly, "Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb," (Revelation 19:9).
The Sukkah Represents: Our Relationship With the World
The sukkah is, by definition, a temporary structure. As the people of Israel traveled through the Wilderness, their homes needed to be able to be taken down and moved as God led them. Likewise, the sukkah is to be taken down after the Feast of Tabernacles is over each year, to be set up again next year.
Scripture tells us that our bodies and the world around us are not going to last (1 Peter 2:11). The sukkah reminds us that we should conduct ourselves in the same way as those who showed their faith in days of old (Hebrews 11:16). Although the tabernacle of our body is temporary and fading, the decisions we make in it will have consequences in eternity (2 Corinthians 5:1, 10).
The Sukkah Represents: Being Joyful
The Feast of Tabernacles holds a special place among the Appointed Times. Everyone in the community is commanded to rejoice during this time, something which is not done for any of the other feasts (Deuteronomy 16:14). The sukkah represents this joy that should fill our hearts during this time.
Scripture shows that God's desire is for us to serve Him with a joyful heart in all circumstances (Philippians 4:4). Even though life is often difficult and painful, we are able to have joy because of the hope we have in Yeshua (1 Peter 4:13).
The Sukkah Represents: Yeshua's (Jesus') Body
"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us," (John 1:14). In this verse, the Greek word translated as "dwelt" more literally means "tabernacled." This interpretation brings a fuller understanding of Yeshua's incarnation. The word "dwelt" paints a picture of simply residing or living among us. But when the word "tabernacled" is used, it serves to remind us of the tabernacle in which God's presence dwelt. We also see Him in the symbolism of the temporary shelters the Israelites themselves dwelt in, as He did not remain permanently here on earth, but rather ascended into Heaven.
While it stood in the wilderness, the tabernacle was the physical representation of God to the people of Israel, and their entire lives revolved around the worship that it required. Likewise, when Yeshua (Jesus) was born into a human body, He was the physical representation of God to the whole world, and our lives now revolve around Him and our service to Him. God had the tabernacle set up so that He could be close to His people and live among them. In the same way, God sent His Son in the tabernacle of a human body so that He could dwell within us through the Holy Spirit and so that we can dwell with Him for all of eternity.
The Sukkah Represents: The Ingathering of the Harvest
This time of year in the land of Israel marks the end of the harvest time. Signifying this, we see another name for the Feast of Tabernacles: the Feast of Ingathering (Exodus 23:16). The term "ingathering" simply means that it is the time when all the produce has been harvested and "gathered in" to be processed into usable materials, such as flour from grain. Often harvesters would build temporary huts, sukkahs, out in their fields so they could make the most of their short window of time before the autumn rains began.
Because of His audience's familiarity with the agricultural lifestyle, Yeshua taught using the harvest as a focal point of many parables (Luke 10:2). The sukkah is a reminder of our duty to be a harvester of souls while we still have the opportunity, for: "His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire," (Matthew 3:12).
The Sukkah Represents: The Millennial Kingdom
The Feast of Tabernacles is intrinsically connected to the Millennial Kingdom, also known as the Messianic Age, when Yeshua (Jesus) will reign on earth for 1,000 years. In fact, it is specifically mentioned that during this time, the nations will come up to Jerusalem and celebrate this very festival (Zechariah 14:16). Interestingly, any of the nations who decide not to celebrate it will be punished (Zechariah 14:18).
If we are going to be celebrating this festival when Yeshua comes back, why should we wait until then? We have the wonderful opportunity to recognize the blessing this Appointed Time can bring us today.
Traditions of the Festival: Living Water
In the book of John, we see Yeshua celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. On the last day of the feast, He makes an interesting proclamation: "Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, "From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water,"'" (John 7:37-38). Why did He use water as a central theme in these words?
During the time when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, there were many joyful ceremonies which took place during the Feast of Tabernacles. One such ceremony was called the Celebration of Water Drawing. A joyful crowd would accompany the priest down to the Pool of Siloam, where he would draw a pitcher of water; this "living water," as it was called, represented the Spirit of God (Joel 2:28-29). Then they would return, as joyfully as they went out, to the Temple where the water was poured out upon the altar. This ritual draws itself from Isaiah 12:3: "Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation." If Yeshua didn't speak these words during this ceremony, then He was certainly referring to it in John 7 as He beckoned the people to joyfully draw near to Him, the only source of true living water.
Traditions of the Festival: Light of the World
The Feast of Tabernacles is a time of great joy and festivities. When the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, it was the center of these activities. During the Feast, giant menorahs would be lit in the Temple courts, sending a beacon of light out for everyone to see. This was symbolic of the presence of God filling the Temple and emanating out into the world. It is interesting to note that the Jewish rabbis referred to Jerusalem as "the Light of the World" because of the Temple and the light of the menorah within it. There was a menorah lit within the Temple at all times, but the menorahs brought out during Tabernacles were in addition to this.
It was shortly after the Feast, undoubtedly with this image still fresh in people's minds, when Yeshua said, "I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life," (John 8:12). According to verse 20, He spoke these words while teaching in the temple courts. The light of those giant menorahs during the feast were only there bringing joy to the people for a little while. How much greater is the light of Yeshua, which is our source of joy and our guide through the darkness not only for a short time, but forever.
Traditions of the Festival: The Four Species
Leviticus 23:40 is a commandment to take four types of vegetation and celebrate before God. The rabbis identified and standardized the particular types of vegetation to use and injected some interesting symbolism.
Fruit of splendid trees, etrog: The etrog is a yellow, lemon-like fruit. This fruit has a strong taste and a strong smell, and so is said to represent someone who has wisdom (inner attribute, like taste) and also does good deeds (outer attribute, like smell). Because of its shape and size, it is also said to represent the heart, which is considered to be where our desires and motives originate.
Palm branches, lulav: The palm branch is straight and rigid. It has a taste, but no smell, and therefore represents a person who has wisdom, but doesn't do good deeds. Because of its rigidity, it is said to represent the spine, which is considered to be where our actions originate.
Boughs of leafy trees, hadas: The leafy boughs used are those of the myrtle tree. These branches have rows of many small leaves. It has a strong smell, but can't be eaten, and therefore represent someone who does good deeds, but doesn't have wisdom. Because of the shape of its leaves, it is also said to represent the human eye.
Willows, aravah: Willow branches have thin, elongated leaves. It has no taste and no smell, and therefore represents someone who doesn't have wisdom or do good deeds. Due to the shape of the leaves, it is also said to represent the human mouth, or the lips.
A tradition involving these four species of vegetation is that they are taken in the hand and lifted up together before God. As we have shown above, these types of vegetation represent people who have differing relationships with God, and binding them together and lifting them represents how one day, everyone will worship and give an account to God (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10). We also saw them representing parts of the human body which we must keep in check: our heart (Luke 6:45), our spine or actions (James 4:17), our eyes (Matthew 5:28), and our lips (Matthew 12:36). We must put to death the flesh and take on the yoke of the Kingdom.
Traditions of the Festival: The Eighth Day
There is a curious command found in regard to celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. It is a seven-day long celebration, but there is mention of an eighth day: "For seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation," (Leviticus 23:36). It would seem this eighth day is a part of Tabernacles, and it is often celebrated as such; however, it is in fact a separate holiday called Shemini Atzeret, meaning "the assembly of the eighth day." The rabbis came up with an explanation for why there is an extra holiday tacked on to the end of Tabernacles. They compare the festival to a party, and after the seven days are completed, the host (God) has enjoyed the time so much that he begs his guests to stay another day. As our desire is to always spend more time in God's presence, it is His desire as well.
The eighth day is also called Simchat Torah, meaning "Rejoicing in the Torah." Torah is the Hebrew word for "teaching," and is most often used in reference to what we call the Old Testament. Each Sabbath of the year, a portion of Scripture from the first five books of the Bible is read aloud in the synagogue. This cycle is designed to read through the first five books in one year. On Simchat Torah, the last section of Deuteronomy is read, directly followed by the beginning of Genesis, thus never allowing the cycle to end. We also should allow the Word to move us and be our source of joy, for we have: "tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come," (Hebrews 6:5).
Traditions of the Festival: Was Yeshua Born During the Feast of Tabernacles?
The actual date of Yeshua's birth is not explicitly stated in the Bible, which has led to much speculation as to when it actually occurred, and when, or even if, it should be celebrated. Over the course of time, December 25 was established by the early Catholic church, a day that had previously been marked by pagan celebrations. However, most accept the fact that this was not the actual date of His birth. Although the writers of the Gospels didn't record the date, there are some clues we can follow which point to His birth being during the Feast of Tabernacles.
A good place to begin is in the fact that Yeshua was conceived six months after John the Baptist (Luke 1:36). This alone is not enough to pin down a date, since John's birth date is not given either. However, we know that John's father Zechariah was a Levite. The Levites served in the Temple at specific times of the year, each term lasting one week. Zechariah was in the order of Abijah, so his first term of service for the year most likely took place in the 3rd month, with John's conception taking place shortly thereafter. The 9th month of the year would then mark Yeshua's conception. Following this logic, John could have been born around the feast of Passover (in the 1st month). This is interesting, because Jewish tradition says that Elijah will come to announce the Messiah during Passover, and John is the Elijah who was to come (Matthew 17:12). Six months later, we can expect to see the birth of Yeshua in the 7th month. The first day of the Feast of Tabernacles is the 15th day of the 7th month. Yeshua, being Jewish, would have been circumcised on the eighth day. If He was born on the first day of Tabernacles, then this would place His circumcision on the 8th day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the most joyful day.
Another piece of evidence is that Mary and Joseph traveled to partake in a Roman census. It is reasonable to assume that Herod would plan this census at a time when all the people would be making pilgrimage. Three times a year, on Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, God commanded the people to come up to Jerusalem. So, it is very possible that this census was planned around Tabernacles.
While there is a great deal of evidence for the belief that Yeshua was born during the Feast of Tabernacles, since there is no record of the date, the best we can do is speculate; but what better time offers such a rich visual picture of the birth and life of our Messiah?