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… 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.
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.” “But when His brothers had gone up, then He also went up to the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.” 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.’ 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,” 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.
 John 7:38
 Isaiah 12:3
 John 7:6
 John 7:10
 John 7:4
 John 7:8