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The most joyous of all festive seasons in Israel was that of the 'Feast of Tabernacles.' It fell on a time of year when the hearts of the people would naturally be full of thankfulness, gladness, and expectancy. All the crops had been long stored; and now all fruits were also gathered, the vintage past, and the land only awaited the softening and refreshment of the 'latter rain,' to prepare it for a new crop. It was appropriate that, when the commencement of the harvest had been consecrated by offering the first ripe sheaf of barley, and the full ingathering of the corn by the two wave- loaves, there should now be a harvest feast of thankfulness and of gladness unto the Lord. But that was not all. As they looked around on the goodly land, the fruits of which had just enriched them, they must have remembered that by miraculous interposition the Lord their God had brought them to this land and given it them, and that He ever claimed it as peculiarly His own. For the land was strictly connected with the history of the people; and both the land and the history were linked with the mission of Israel. If the beginning of the harvest had pointed back to the birth of Israel in their Exodus from Egypt, and forward to the true Passover-sacrifice in the future; if the corn-harvest was connected with the giving of the law on Mount Sinai in the past, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; the harvest-thanksgiving of the Feast of Tabernacles reminded Israel, on the one hand, of their dwelling in booths in the wilderness, while, on the other hand, it pointed to the final harvest when Israel's mission should be completed, and all nations gathered unto the Lord. Thus the first of the three great annual feasts spoke, in the presentation of the first sheaf, of the founding of the Church; the second of its harvesting, when the Church in its present state should be presented as two leavened wave-loaves; while the third pointed forward to the full harvest in the end, when 'in this mountain shall the Lord of Hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things...And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of His people (Israel) shall He take away from all the earth' (Isa 25:6-8; comp.. Rev 21:4, etc.)
The Names of the Feast
That these are not ideal comparisons, but the very design of the Feast of Tabernacles, appears not only from the language of the prophets and the peculiar services of the feast, but also from its position in the Calendar, and even from the names by which it is designated in Scripture. Thus in its reference to the harvest it is called 'the feast of ingathering' (Exo 23:16; 34:22); in that to the history of Israel in the past, 'the Feast of Tabernacles' (Lev 23:34; and specially v 43; Deut 16:13,16; 31:10; 2 Chron 8:13; Ezra 3:4); while its symbolical bearing on the future is brought out in its designation as emphatically 'the feast' (1 Kings 8:2; 2 Chron 5:3; 7:8,9); and 'the Feast of Jehovah' (Lev 23:39). In this sense also Josephus, Philo, and the Rabbis (in many passages of the Mishnah) single it out from all the other feasts. And quite decisive on the point is the description of the 'latter-day' glory at the close of the prophecies of Zechariah, where the conversion of all nations is distinctly connected with the 'Feast of Tabernacles' (Zech 14:16-21). That this reference is by no means isolated will appear in the sequel.
The Time of the Feast
The Feast of Tabernacles was the third of the great annual festivals, at which every male in Israel was to appear before the Lord in the place which He should choose. It fell on the 15th of the seventh month, or Tishri (corresponding to September or the beginning of October), as the Passover had fallen on the 15th of the first month. The significance of these numbers in themselves and relatively will not escape attention, the more so that this feast closed the original festive calendar; for Purim and 'the feast of the dedication of the Temple,' which both occurred later in the season, were of post-Mosaic origin. The Feast of Tabernacles, or, rather (as it should be called), of 'booths,' lasted for seven days--from the 15th to the 21st Tishri--and was followed by an Octave on the 22nd Tishri. But this eighth day, though closely connected with the Feast of Tabernacles, formed no part of that feast, as clearly shown by the difference in the sacrifices and the ritual, and by the circumstance that the people no longer lived in 'booths.' The first day of the feast, and also its Octave, or Azereth (clausura, conclusio), were to be days of 'holy convocation' (Lev 23:35,36), and each 'a Sabbath' (Lev 23:39), not in the sense of the weekly Sabbath, but of festive rest in the Lord (Lev 23:25,32), when no servile work of any kind might be done.
It Followed Close Upon the Day of Atonement
There is yet another important point to be noticed. The 'Feast of Tabernacles' followed closely on the Day of Atonement. Both took place in the seventh month; the one on the 10th, the other on the 15th of Tishri. What the seventh day, or Sabbath, was in reference to the week, the seventh month seems to have been in reference to the year. It closed not only the sacred cycle, but also the agricultural or working year. It also marked the change of seasons, the approach of rain and of the winter equinox, and determined alike the commencement and the close of a sabbatical year (Deut 31:10). Coming on the 15th of this seventh month--that is, at full moon, when the 'sacred' month had, so to speak, attained its full strength--the Feast of Tabernacles appropriately followed five days after the Day of Atonement, in which the sin of Israel had been removed, and its covenant relation to God restored. Thus a sanctified nation could keep a holy feast of harvest joy unto the Lord, just as in the truest sense it will be 'in that day' (Zech 14:20) when the meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles shall be really fulfilled. *
* Quite another picture is drawn in Hosea 9, which seems also to refer to the Feast of Tabernacles (see specially verse 5). Indeed, it is remarkable how many allusions to this feast occur in the writings of the prophets, as if its types were the goal of all their desires.
Three things specially marked the Feast of Tabernacles: its joyous festivities, the dwelling in 'booths,' and the peculiar sacrifices and rites of the week. The first of these was simply characteristic of a 'feast of ingathering': 'Because the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the works of thine hands, therefore thou shalt surely rejoice--thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates.' Nor were any in Israel to 'appear before the Lord empty: every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which He hath given thee' (Deut 16:13-17). Votive, freewill, and peace-offerings would mark their gratitude to God, and at the meal which pursued the poor, the stranger, the Levite, and the homeless would be welcome guests, for the Lord's sake. Moreover, when the people saw the treasury chests opened and emptied at this feast for the last time in the year, they would remember their brethren at a distance, in whose name, as well as their own, the daily and festive sacrifices were offered. Thus their liberality would not only be stimulated, but all Israel, however widely dispersed, would feel itself anew one before the Lord their God and in the courts of His House. There was, besides, something about this feast which would peculiarly remind them, if not of their dispersion, yet of their being 'strangers and pilgrims in the earth.' For its second characteristic was, that during the seven days of its continuance 'all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt' (Lev 23:42,43).
As usual, we are met at the outset by a controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The law had it (Lev 23:40): 'Ye shall take you on the first day the fruit (so correctly in the margin) of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook,' which the Sadducees understood (as do the modern Karaite Jews) to refer to the materials whence the booths were to be constructed, while the Pharisees applied it to what the worshippers were to carry in their hands. The latter interpretation is, in all likelihood, the correct one; it seems borne out by the account of the festival at the time of Nehemiah (Neh 8:15,18), when the booths were constructed of branches of other trees than those mentioned in Leviticus 23; and it was universally adopted in practice at the time of Christ. The Mishnah gives most minute details as to the height and construction of these 'booths,' the main object being to prevent any invasion of the law. Thus it must be a real booth, and constructed of boughs of living trees, and solely for the purposes of this festival. Hence it must be high enough, yet not too high--at least ten handbreadths, but not more than thirty feet; three of its walls must be of boughs; it must be fairly covered with boughs, yet not so shaded as not to admit sunshine, nor yet so open as to have not sufficient shade, the object in each case being neither sunshine nor shade, but that it should be a real booth of boughs of trees. It is needless to enter into further details, except to say that these booths, and not their houses, were to be the regular dwelling of all in Israel during the week, and that, except in very heavy rain, they were to eat, sleep, pray, study--in short, entirely to live in them. The only exceptions were in favor of those absent on some pious duty, the sick, and their attendants, women, slaves, and infants who were still depending on their mothers. Finally, the rule was that, 'whatever might contract Levitical defilement (such as boards, cloth, etc.), or whatever did not grow out of the earth, might not be used' in constructing the 'booths.'
It has already been noticed that, according to the view universally prevalent at the time of Christ, the direction on the first day of the feast to 'take the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook,' was applied to what the worshippers were to carry in their hands. The Rabbis ruled, that 'the fruit of the goodly trees' meant the aethrog, or citron, and 'the boughs of thick trees' the myrtle, provided it had 'not more berries than leaves.' The aethrogs must be without blemish or deficiency of any kind; the palm branches at least three handbreadths high, and fit to be shaken; and each branch fresh, entire, unpolluted, and not taken from any idolatrous grove. Every worshipper carried the aethrog in his left hand, and in his right the lulav, or palm, with myrtle and willow branch on either side of it, tied together on the outside with its own kind, though in the inside it might be fastened even with gold thread. There can be no doubt that the lulav was intended to remind Israel of the different stages of their wilderness journey, as represented by the different vegetation--the palm branches recalling the valleys and plains, the 'boughs of thick trees,' the bushes on the mountain heights, and the willows those brooks from which God had given His people drink; while the aethrog was to remind them of the fruits of the good land which the Lord had given them. The lulav was used in the Temple on each of the seven festive days, even children, if they were able to shake it, being bound to carry one. If the first day of the feast fell on a Sabbath, the people brought their lulavs on the previous day into the synagogue on the Temple Mount, and fetched them in the morning, so as not needlessly to break the Sabbath rest.