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Sukkot and the Gentiles

Christians Gather for Feast of Tabernacles in 2012

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25 Oct 2012 (All day)
Sukkot and the Gentiles

Along with Passover and Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles is one of three major pilgrimage feasts given by God to Israel around which the Jewish calendar pivots. Yet it is unique from the other two annual pilgrimage festivals in that God-fearing Gentiles were also invited to come up along with the Jewish people on this particular holiday to worship God in Jerusalem.

Though not expressly commanded in the Bible, the tradition of the nations taking part in the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, has clear scriptural footing as well as an intriguing prophetic angle. How this tradition developed and where it may one day lead the entire world are fascinating topics to consider.

Passover, or the Feast of Unleavened Bread, lasts for one week and recalls the deliverance of the Hebrew nation from Egyptian slavery. Pentecost, or the Festival of Weeks, marks the last phase of the grain harvest and came to be associated with the giving of the Law at Sinai.

The Feast of Tabernacles, on the other hand, occurs in autumn when the summer crops have been harvested, so it is also known as the Feast of Ingathering. In addition, the Israelites were instructed to build temporary shelters, or booths, in which to live for this one week in order to remember the forty years of wandering in the desert prior to entering the Promised Land.

The origins of Tabernacles can be found in the Five Books of Moses, where we are told that the Lord commanded all Israelite males to appear before him three times a year at the place he would designate (first Shiloh, and then Jerusalem). They could not come before their God with empty hands. So one common aspect of all three Feasts centers on acknowledging the ultimate provider, the Lord, by visiting the location of His presence and providing timely sacrifices to Him from their most recent harvests.

The Feast of Tabernacles was actually considered the most significant feast for Israel. One way we see this is in its name. In several verses in the Hebrew Bible, it was referred to as the “festival of the Lord” (Leviticus 23:39; Hosea 9:5; Judges 21:19). But it became common to refer to it simply as “the festival” (1 Kings. 8:2, 65; 12:32; 2 Chronicles 5:3; 7:8; Nehemiah 8:14; Ezekiel 45:25).

In these passages, there are other textual clues that make it clear that “the festival” refers to the Feast of Tabernacles. For instance, Ezekiel tells us “the feast” is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month, which parallels Leviticus 23:34.

The sheer numbers of sacrifices offered at Sukkot also attest to the centrality of this feast. According to Numbers 29:12-34, over the course of the seven-day feastival some 70 bulls, 14 rams, 98 lambs and seven male goats are to be sacrificed, in addition to grain and drink offerings for each one. The significance of 70 bulls has been debated by scholars, but many rabbinic authorities came to view it as part of Israel fulfilling its role as a priestly nation offering sacrifices on behalf of the Gentiles, who were then thought to consist of 70 nations.

Dr. Yaacov Vainstein, in The Cycle of the Jewish Year, states that the 70 bulls were “offered for the welfare and well-being of the seventy nations of the world.” Vainstein goes on, “It was a call to the human race to take note that without the Law of G-d, without G-d’s kingship and partnership in man’s destinies, the world cannot survive.”

This unique connection between the Feast of Tabernacles and the Gentile nations becomes unmistakably clear in the later Hebrew “Writings.” For instance, after Solomon completed the construction of the First Temple, he chose the Feast of Tabernacles to move the ark of the covenant from the City of David into the Temple on Mount Moriah, as recorded in 1 Kings 8.

Before all the elders of Israel – the Levites, priests and leaders of every tribe and family – Solomon offered a dedicatory prayer in which he mentions the foreigner who comes from distant lands to pray in Jerusalem toward the Temple (1 Kings 8:41-43). He asks God to hear and answer the prayers of the foreigners so that all peoples would know His name and fear Him.

Implicit in Solomon’s prayer is that God-fearing Gentiles had celebrated this feast in Israel prior to the completion of the First Temple. Furthermore, Solomon envisioned this as continuing during his reign and into the future. Might there have been just such Gentiles in Jerusalem on this very occasion to celebrate “the feast” and witness this marvelous event?
 

The Feast of Tabernacles continues to have significance in later time periods. After the Babylonian exile and before the Second Temple was completed in 516 B.C., the Jews living in the land assembled in Jerusalem at the beginning of the seventh month. After Ezra read the book of the Law to the people, the Israelites built an altar and celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles (Ezra 3; Nehemiah 8).

Interestingly, a glorious future is forecast for this particular feast by the prophet Zechariah, a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah who ministered to the Jewish remnant in the land between 520 and 480 B.C. In chapter 14 of his book, the prophet Zechariah looks into the distant future when both a tragic and beautiful day emerges. It is both a day of judgment and deliverance – judgment on the nations and deliverance for Israel – which culminates in the Lord’s enthronement as King in a Jerusalem that is finally safe and secure.

He also foresees an amazing time when Gentiles who manage to live through the Lord’s vengance on the nations will flock annually to Jerusalem to worship the King and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.

“Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.” (Zechariah 14:6)

Gentiles from nations who sought to subject Jerusalem and its inhabitants to themselves will be destroyed and those who will survive will be subjected to the Lord. They will worship Him in the city of Jerusalem every year during the Feast of Tabernacles. Just as it was an “appointed time” for the Jewish people, so Zechariah envisions this festival as a yearly memorial for the entire world.

Today, some rabbinic authorities view this verse from Zechariah, along with other prophetic passages, as a promise of future mass Gentile conversions to Judaism during the Feast of Tabernacles. Thus many are intrigued by the increasing number of Gentile Christians showing up in Jerusalem each year for Sukkot.

Meanwhile, there is a growing school of thought among Christian scholars that the Feast of Tabernacles indeed is linked to the coming enthronement of the Son of David in Jerusalem. This view maintains that just as Jesus fulfilled the prophetic purposes hidden in the spring festivals of Passover and Pentecost at his first coming, his second advent will somehow fulfill the prophetic purposes hidden in the fall High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Tabernacles.

This will culminate in the Messiah taking up the throne of David during an appointed future Sukkot, and this majestic moment will then be celebrated by all nations on its anniversary each year throughout the Millennial age.

This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition; www.jpost.com/ce

 

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