Sukkot In The New Testament

How did the Jews celebrate Sukkot in the time of Jesus? Today, we are going to talk about that Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus came to celebrate in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago. We will learn a few new things about Sukkot along the way.

 

The Water and the Light

In John 7, we hear the famous words of Jesus:  out of his heart will flow rivers of living water…[1]  Christians have always understood these words as a spiritual metaphor only, speaking about  God’s spirit, given to those who believe in Jesus. However, if you have been to Israel before and during Sukkot, you would know why Jesus spoke about water at this particular time.

When you open the text of the Amidah – traditional Jewish prayer – you will see a clear difference between what we say in fall and winter (between Sukkot and Passover) and what we say in spring and summer (between Passover and Sukkot). In winter, we say: He makes the wind blow and the rain fall. In summer, we say: He causes the dew to fall. The reason for this difference is very simple: in Israel, we don’t have rains during the summer. As you can imagine, by the end of the summer everything around is dry and brown and cries for water  – that is why we always look forward to Sukkot, the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. In fact, it’s always amazing to see how precise God’s clock is: we just had our first rain here!

It was the same in the time of Jesus, which is why in the days of the Second Temple, the height of the Festival’s joy was the water libation ceremony. It has been believed, that on Sukkot, judgment is passed in regard to the rainfall, and the libation of water was performed to invoke God’s blessing on the year’s rains. During the ceremony, a large procession carrying water would go through Jerusalem and circle the Temple, and then the water would be poured onto the altar. The sages of Israel testify to the celebrations of the water libation from the days of the Second Temple. The description of this ceremony can be found in the Mishna, which tells us that a golden pitcher was filled with water by a Kohen and brought to the Temple. Even though the water libation ceremony is not mentioned specifically in Torah, Rashi explains that it was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s verse: you shall draw forth water with gladness[2]

Jesus uses the images of this celebration, to illustrate His words. It is in the context of this celebration, while the procession with water was taking place in Jerusalem, that Jesus speaks His famous words about “living water”.  We also know that during this ceremony, the lamps were lit in the Temple courtyard as a sign of the festivities.  It is in this context, while all Jerusalem was glowing with the light from the Temple, that Jesus speaks about the light: “I am the light of the world. Once we understand the historical context of Jesus’ words, the spiritual truth of these sayings becomes even more clear and profound.

 

The Honorable Guest

Did Jesus observe Sukkot? You probably know that Sukkot was one of the three Feasts during which every Jewish man had to come to Jerusalem for worship, so of course, Jesus would have fulfilled the commandment and gone up to Jerusalem; yet, in John 7, when his brothers tried to convince Him to go up to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot, he answered: “My time has not yet come.[3]But when His brothers had gone up, then He also went up to the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.[4] Why did Jesus go “as it were in secret”?

I believe that first and foremost it had to do with Jesus being at this point the ‘Hidden Messiah’. His brothers are virtually saying to him: ‘Reveal Yourself! If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’[5] His response only confirms his “secret status”: “My time has not yet come”. I think this is one of those crucial moments in the gospels where we clearly see Jesus still concealing his messianic identity.

However, there is an additional possible explanation to this story. One of the most important aspects of Sukkot has always been inviting guests into one’s Sukkah (booth). The welcoming of guests on Sukkot is especially significant since in many ways Sukkah represents and reflects the tent of Abraham, and Jewish tradition derives the mitzvah of hospitality from Abraham (Genesis 18). Even though people invite guests for the intermediate nights of this week-long Feast, the most festive and important night was the first night – the Eve of Sukkot.

Being a Rabbi, Jesus would probably be invited for this special night by several people, and inevitably would have to turn down some invitations. Therefore, when he says to his brothers: “I am not yet going up to this feast,”[6] the emphasis is on “yet” – he is not going yet. He will be travelling at the last minute and incognito –because he didn’t make his appearance public and went “as it were in secret”. He wanted to celebrate Sukkot with somebody who was especially close to his heart.

Let Us Make Tabernacles

There is another story in the New Testament that involves tabernacles. One of the most amazing stories in the gospels is the story of transfiguration. All the synoptic gospels describe Jesus going to the mountain and being transfigured there: shining “like the sun” and talking to Moses and Elijah. The whole scene presents a beautiful picture of heavenly glory. And what is the reaction of the apostles witnessing this scene? All of a sudden, Peter suggests that they should build tabernacles: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” What a strange, unexpected suggestion! Where did it come from?

We all know that tabernacles (sukkot) are these little huts that Jews are commanded to build on Sukkot in order to remember those huts in the wilderness they lived in when God took them out of Egypt. However, as I wrote last time, according to Jewish tradition, only at Sukkot were those hand-made booths covered with Divine Clouds. That’s why sukkah became such a powerful symbol of divine presence! When Peter offered to build sukkot, I believe he was referring to this traditional symbol as a way of expressing the glory of God’s presence he was experiencing. Many details in the gospels become clear when seen through the lenses of first-century Judaism – and undoubtedly, this is one such detail.

 

 

 

[1] John 7:38

[2] Isaiah 12:3

[3] John 7:6

[4] John 7:10

 

[5] John 7:4

[6] John 7:8

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Larry N Baker

    Sukkot in John 7:37-39, “37On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. 38He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ 39But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” By connecting Jesus’ Transfiguration with the Sukkot one can see a connection to the “Day of the LORD” [Yom YHWH], as Peter described this in 2 Peter 1:16-18, “16For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ 18And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.” Peter appears to be describing this yet-future “power and coming,” as Jesus’ Second Advent for His future Messianic Kingdom during “The Day of the LORD,” that Joel describes regarding the Holy Spirit in Joel 2:28-32, “28And it shall come to pass afterward That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions. 29And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. 30And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: Blood and fire and pillars of smoke. 31The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the LORD Shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be deliverance, As the LORD has said, Among the remnant whom the LORD calls.” Earlier Peter tied this prophetic, yet-future outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Day of the LORD and being saved with the first century CE coming of the Church in Acts 2:17-21 “17And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams. 18 And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in heaven above And signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke. 20 The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. 21 And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the LORD Shall be saved.”

  2. Lois

    Thank you for offering more depth to my understanding of Peter’s response on the Mount of Transfiguration! As always, I greatly appreciate your insights!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your kind words, Lois! Indeed, the knowledge of the Jewish Background adds more depth to the understanding of NT. That’s what this blog (and eTeacher’s mission in general) is all about – to deepen and enrich the understanding of the Scriptures!

  3. Gladys Fox

    Thank you again Dear Teacher,
    As always your teaching is superb .
    I always think of living water not only as the Spirit of God , but also His word . I think about water that is constantly moving and as water moves over rocks it is purified . When we allow God’s word to flow over the ” rocks ” in our lives we become stronger and wiser . This means we must constantly study His word and learn from teachers such as you . If we don’t constantly study ,our learning can become stagnant like standing ( not moving ) water and we won’t grow spiritually . Each time I read through the Bible I see many new and amazing things and with your help Julia ,I see even more .
    May God Bless you many times over !

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Gladys! Such a beautiful image!