My dear readers, you may remember that my Rosh Hashanah post this year was called: “Between the past and the future”. I believe this title would be appropriate for each of these Fall Festivals: while they all are reminders of something that had happened or had been commanded by God – at the same time, they are all powerful prophetic statements speaking loudly about things yet to come. So, as we are now standing within this wonderful season, we can actually look in both directions. In our Yom Kippur post, we looked back: from the book of Leviticus where the Day of Atonement is thoroughly described, to the book of Genesis where we found the first amazing glimpses of the Biblical concept of atonement. Today, speaking about Sukkot, we will cast a glance in the opposite direction: from the Torah, where the Feast of Tabernacles is explained and commanded, to first century Jewish life, to see how the Tabernacles were celebrated there and then.
Why did Peter want to build tabernacles?
One of the most amazing stories in the Gospels is the story of the 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, in later Jewish texts, sukkot became symbols of the Divine Clouds—the Clouds of Glory which miraculously surrounded the Jews for the forty years they spent in the desert. What is the story behind this symbolism?
According to Jewish tradition, Moses came back with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, God forgave His people after their terrible sin of the Golden Calf. However, it is only at Sukkot that God’s presence returned to abide among His people; it’s only at Sukkot that those Divine Clouds covered the hand-made booths. This is the mystery and the joy of Sukkot – the mystery and the joy of God’s return and of renewed fellowship.
That is why Sukkot is indeed the holiday of divine intimacy and divine presence; that is why Sukkot is the most joyous of the Biblical festivals: if Passover is called the “Season of our Liberation,” and Shavuot is called the “Season of the Giving of our Torah,” Sukkot is called zman simchateinu, the “Season of our Joy”—because God, in His mercy, came to tabernacle with His people! And that’s why sukkah has become such a powerful symbol of divine presence! When Peter offered to build sukkot, he just referred to this traditional symbol trying to express the glorious God’s presence he was experiencing. Many details in the Gospels become clear when you see them through the lenses of the first century Judaism – and undoubtedly, this is one such detail.
The importance of the knowledge of these details is clearly seen when we try to understand John 7, telling us about Jesus celebrating Sukkot. We read here that when the “Feast of Tabernacles was at hand,” Jesus’ brothers tried to convince Him to go up to Jerusalem to celebrate it – but he answered: “My time has not yet come.” And then we find an intriguing report: “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 he go “as it were in secret”? Since the first verse of this chapter tells us that “He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him,” the traditional explanation states that he did not go openly because of these threats. But maybe there is more to this statement than simply Jesus’ supposed fear for His life? After all, we know that “no one laid a hand on Him, because His hour had not yet come,” so why did he go up in secret?
Some basic knowledge about Sukkot would be helpful here. First of all, we need to remember that Sukkot was one of the three Feasts during which every Jewish man had to go to Jerusalem for worship. So, of course Jesus would fulfill the commandment and go up to Jerusalem – and when he says to his brothers: “I am not yet going up to this feast,” we need to understand that the emphasis is on “yet”—he is not going yet. He is not going now, with the groups of pilgrims leaving in advance, he will travel at the last minute and incognito (not necessarily alone, but not with a big caravan either). But why is he going incognito?
One of the most important aspects of Sukkot is inviting guests into one’s sukkah (booth). Throughout the week of the Feast, people move from sukkah to sukkah, offering hospitality and experiencing hospitality, switching from being hosts to being guests. Sometimes this custom is called ushpizin (ushpizin, אושפיזין, literally means “guests” in Aramaic), after the original peculiar custom of “ushpizin”—inviting not just physical guests to one’s sukkah, but spiritual, or transcendental guests, like the “seven shepherds” of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. The “spiritual ushpizin” tradition did not fully emerge until sometime in the Middle Ages, therefore of course, it was not there in Jesus’ time. However, the practice of hospitality, inviting physical guests (hachnasat orchim) has always been one of the most important commandments in Judaism. The welcoming of guests during Sukkot is especially significant, since in many ways, the Sukkah represents and reflects the tent of Abraham and Jewish tradition derives the mitzvah of hospitality from Abraham (Genesis 18). So, there is no doubt that the practice of inviting guests to one’s sukkah, especially honored guests, was widespread in Jesus’ day as well. It must be noted also that even though people could invite guests for all the intermediate nights of the Feast, of course, the most festive and important night was the first night – the eve of Sukkot.
Now, back to Jesus—being a famous rabbi and teacher, he would probably be invited for this special night by several people, and inevitably, would have to turn down some invitations. I believe this is the reason he didn’t make his appearance public and went “as it were in secret” – probably to celebrate Sukkot with somebody who was especially dear to his heart (perhaps John himself, “the disciple whom he loved”). When Jesus appeared publicly in the Temple “about the middle of the feast,” it was already Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days of Sukkot, and He was probably ready to accept the additional invitations for the intermediate evenings. While we have no way to know for sure why exactly Jesus went “in secret” to that Feast, this is one of the possible explanations – perfectly plausible to anyone who has ever observed Sukkot in Israel.
CHAG SUCCOT SAMEACH, DEAR FRIENDS!
MAY YOU EXPERIENCE THE PROFOUND JOY OF HIS PRESENCE DURING THIS WONDERFUL SEASON!
 John 7:14
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