Some years back, I was both shepherding a small church and preparing a new college course on Leviticus. As I studied, I became interested in the Jewish festivals. My first instinct as a pastor and professor was to ask the church and require the students to celebrate the feasts.
One of the first feasts we celebrated was the Feast of Tabernacles. We worshiped in modern, rainproof tents and grew in our understanding of God’s love and provision for his people. I’ve continued requiring my Leviticus students to set up tents by the pond on our college campus, and we invite the church to camp with us and learn about how God provides for his people, desires to dwell among them, and gives the waters of life to all who believe.
What Is the Feast of Tabernacles?
The Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), called Sukkoth by the Jewish people today, is first found in the Pentateuch (Lev. 23:33–44; Num. 29:12–40; Deut. 16:13–17). It’s the last of the seven great feasts prescribed there, and it’s one of three (along with Passover and Pentecost) that all Jewish men were required to attend (Deut. 16:16–17).
We worshiped in modern, rainproof tents and grew in our understanding of God’s love and provision for his people.
The feast begins on the 15th day of the seventh month, on a Sunday. This day was to be considered a holy convocation, a day on which no common work could be done. The feast continued for seven days, during which the people made regular offerings (Num. 29:13–16) and dwelled in tabernacles, or tents. On the eighth day, called the “Great Day,” another holy convocation was called for the people to make one last offering and practice solemn rest (Num. 29:35–38).
By New Testament times, the Jews had developed additional rituals that can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Sukkah). These additions include the increased use of lights and the singing of “The Egyptian Hallel” (Pss. 113–118) and “The Psalms of Ascents” (Pss. 120–135). The feast concludes with an elaborate water pouring ceremony based on several prophetic passages about life-giving water (see Isa. 12:2–3; Ezek. 47:1–2; Zech. 14:16–19).
Why Is the Feast Significant?
For the Jewish people, the feast’s significance can be seen in its three major components: the timing, the tabernacles, and the sacrifices.
The feast coincided with the completion of the year’s agricultural harvest. The people were to celebrate God’s blessing on Israel’s seven major crops: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, honey, wheat, and barley (Deut. 8:8). The main ceremony, from Sunday to Saturday, recalls the creation week and is filled with celebration and rest. The week-long giving of thanks also preceded the rainy season in hopes that God would renew the land and once again give a plentiful harvest in the coming year.
The tabernacles (or tents) were man-made, temporary dwellings that reminded the people of their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness—a time when God provided food, water, and protection from both enemies and the natural elements. Dwelling in the temporary structures incited thanksgiving for what God had done in bringing them into their permanent homes in the promised land.
God required the people to bring costly sacrifices from their agricultural harvests. These were part of the genuine celebration of thanks to God over eight days. The fact that the Jewish people eventually incorporated elements of light, water, and the singing of key salvation psalms into the feast indicates they connected God’s past provision in the wilderness to his promise of future provision in the land. That theme of provision is renewed after Israel’s return from Babylonian exile when the people celebrated Tabernacles under new leadership in very uncertain times (Ezra 3:1–7; Neh. 8:13–18). Zechariah even extended the promise of God’s provision of rain and blessing to the Gentiles who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast (Zech. 14:16–19).
Jesus Dwells with and Provides for Us
In his Gospel, John repeatedly appeals to Tabernacles imagery to show us that Jesus came to dwell with us and provide for us.
John 1:14 says it explicitly. Jesus came to dwell or “tabernacle” among us (John 1:14). Then, in John’s first seven chapters, the word “water” appears 22 times along with many allusions to water in the narratives about John the Baptist and Jesus walking on the sea. The most frequent usage of the word “water” is in John 4 where Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman about “living water” he’ll provide for true worshipers (John 4:10).
John repeatedly appeals to Tabernacles imagery throughout his Gospel to show us that Jesus came to dwell with us and provide for us.
In John 7, Jesus secretly attends the Feast of Tabernacles, and he discovers a debate over his identity (7:10–13). By the middle of the feast, Jesus openly teaches in the temple. The people believe in him, but the religious leaders reject and seek to arrest him (7:31–32). On the last day of the feast, Jesus stands, cries out, and declares that he’s the fulfillment of Tabernacles: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (7:37–38)
John explains that this cry points to the provision of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’s ascension (7:39). After he calls the people to drink, Jesus claims to be the fulfillment of another Johannine and Tabernacle theme. He is the light of the world (John 8:12–58) who gives sight to the blind (John 9).
Jesus fulfills the Feast of Tabernacles, and this has great significance for us because we still need his presence and provision! Though we dwell in the tents of our corruptible earthly bodies, we have a permanent home ahead of us in heaven (2 Cor. 5:1). We’ve received the promise of the Holy Spirit, not sparingly or temporarily—he has been “poured out” as eternal, life-giving water (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:17–18). Just as Jesus declared on the “Great Day” of the Feast of Tabernacles, he still gives light to the nations (Rev. 21:21–26) and calls for all who thirst to come and “take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17). Through Christ, we can enter solemn rest (Heb. 4:9–10) as God begins his new creation in us (2 Cor. 5:17).
This article is part of a developing series on the Jewish festivals that will also include the Day of Atonement, Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Dedication, Feast of Purim, Passover, Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Pentecost.