Fall Feasts: Celebrating Sukkot
Did you know that God commanded His people to have two eight-day holidays or vacations every year? One is in the spring around March-April, and one is in the fall sometime in September-October. They both begin on the full moon right after the spring and fall vernal equinoxes when the sun is right over the equator, making daytime and nighttime exactly equal. The one in the spring is in the first month of the Jewish calendar and the one in the fall is in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. Both eight-day celebrations are to start and end with special Sabbath days in which there was to be rest and no work. The spring festival begins with Passover, and the week following is called the Feast of Unleavened Bread during which only unleavened bread is to be eaten. The fall feast begins five days after the Day of Atonement, which is ten days after the Feast of Trumpets, or Rosh HaShanah.
This week is the week of Sukkot, the eight-day harvest celebration God commanded His people to keep as one of the Feasts of the Lord. It began on Sunday night (for all days in God's calendar begin in the evening the day before), and will end this coming Monday. In the Bible it is called the Feast of Ingathering or the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles. It was one of three national holidays during which all the people came together to rejoice and celebrate before the Lord. You can read about it in Leviticus 23:33-43.
The primary distinctive of the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, is that God commanded His people to live in a make-shift booth or "sukkah" made of tree branches. It was like a mandated national camping trip! They say that camping out draws families together and builds the best memories. The reason for this is stated in Leviticus 23:43: "That you generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God." It was a time of remembrance, a yearly time-out to reconnect with their history, which necessarily reconnected them to God.
When we lived in the Philippines, the girl who helped me with homeschooling and with teaching women's Bible studies and children's Bible classes asked me one time if she could take a break from daily time with God in the Bible when she went on vacation. I told her that vacations were opportunities to spend more time with God; we vacation to Him, not away from Him. All of the seven feasts God instructed His people to keep were to be extra, set-aside times to strengthen their ties with Him and to remember all His had done for them.
Living in a "booth" or tent was to remind them of what they were before God rescued them out of Egypt. They had been slaves under cruel bondage and oppression. It was God who gave them freedom. They had nothing, but God had brought them into a land of plenty and given them houses to dwell in and fields to grow their own crops, to live prosperously and to come and go as they pleased. Life hadn't always been this way for them. Their freedoms and their prosperity came from Him. Every year they were to remember this and to rejoice before the Lord with thanksgiving. Our own national day of Thanksgiving was derived from this yearly, God-ordained feast. It was, and is, a time to come back to this truth: all we have is from God. He gives the strength to work and create wealth; He causes the rain to fall, the seeds to sprout, and the crops to grow. Every blessing comes from the loving, caring, providing hand of God.
For the last fifteen years or so, our family started to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, based on the belief that all the Feasts of the Lord were commanded as foreshadows of a greater Truth. They all find their fulfillment in Christ; they all point to Christ, revealing metaphoric truth about Him and what He has done for us. If all the spring feasts correspond exactly, on the day, with the major events and purposes of Christ's first coming, wouldn't it logically stand to reason that the fall feasts would correspond exactly, to the day, with the major events and purposes of Christ in His second coming?
So we celebrate, not as going back to the Law to live under its demands, but as yearly reminders of Christ and His promises. We build a make-shift "tent" in our living room. (It's generally a mite too cold and too wet to do it outside here in the Northwest!) When we first started doing this, we lived at a camp with a river running along the back property line. A large stand of river bamboo grew along the banks of the river. Each year we traipsed out to "the back forty" with machetes and whacked down a bunch of bamboo. We trimmed off the leaves and hauled it into the house. My husband would then use it to make a lattice-like ceiling propped up with bamboo stakes at the corners of the living room. We draped the walls with sheets and blankets and put hemlock boughs on top of the lattice-work ceiling. Then we stuck plastic glow-in-the-dark stars on the real ceiling of the living room in real constellation patterns to peep through the branches after we turned out the lights. To finish it off, we decorated it with fall leaves and fruits and vegetables. We ate and slept, played and prayed in our "Sukkah.
When we moved away from that house, we had no bamboo to cut; so we began to build a frame in the corners with 2x4s and then just drape fabric over it all to create a tent of sorts. This year, with another move and most of our stuff in storage, we've made the most pathetic of all sukkahs, simply hanging what few blankets and sheets we didn't need for nighttime warmth from the ceilings and walls. But it's still a reminder: a time of remembrance, a special time of being together, celebrating, playing games, lighting candles, giving thanks, reaffirming our connection with a good God who has "brought us to this time of year" and has blessed us on our journey. He is the One who has sustained us and provided for us. For this we stop and lift up our hearts in deep gratitude.
Living in tents is also a reminder that this world is not our home; "we're just a-passin' through." This life is only temporary. Our real home is eternal, in the heavens. Though this life has many joys, they are a mere shadow of what's awaiting us in eternal glory with God the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. We see as through a glass dimly, but then we shall see face to face.
Two other traditions besides living in a sukkah were commanded for this feast. One is found in Leviticus 23:40: "You are to take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook." Four distinct plants: Jewish tradition says they each represent something. The palm branch symbolizes strength; the willow branch with it lip-shaped leaves remind us to use our lips to praise the Lord; the myrtle tree with eye-shaped leaves was used to exhort us to look on only those things that are good and right; and the fruit of a citrus tree, which is shaped like a heart, reminds us that our hearts belong to God. These three plant boughs with the citrus fruit are bound together and waved in a parade to the north, south, east, and west, signifying God's sovereign rule over all the points of the compass. Again, it is a reminder to our all-too-forgetful minds and hearts that God is transcendent over all and all belongs to Him. It also serves as a reminder to pray for the day when the whole earth will come under the kingly and blessed rule of God, the Creator, Sustainer, and Lover of this world and all the people in it.
Lastly, God commanded special sacrifices during this feast. This is found in Numbers 29:12-39. Beginning with the first day, thirteen bulls were to be sacrificed. The second day, twelve bulls were sacrificed; the third day, eleven bulls; and so forth till the seventh day when seven bulls were sacrificed. On the eighth day, only one as was customary for the high priest's sacrifice. Why this decreasing number of bulls? Bulls were always sacrificed for the leaders; that is, for the high priest and the king. It signified their greater responsibility and accountability before God. Thirteen down to seven factorial (for you math whizzes) is 70 bulls altogether. Tradition states that there were seventy nations in the world at the time of the giving of these feast commands. The nation of Israel was called to be a light to the rest of the nations, to show the world the beauty and blessing of living under the rule of God. Sukkot was not only a feast of Thanksgiving, but it was also to be a feast of intercession for the nations of the earth.
For this reason, we have tried (with varying degrees of success) to use Sukkot as a week to pray for the nations. We have a game called "Where in the World" that teaches, through playing it, all the nations of the world, their capitals, and even their primary national products, etc. It's a great game to play during Sukkot, using one continent each night and after the game to take some time to pray as a family for that continent, each person choosing a nation to pray for the blessing of God's rule to come to that nation.
So celebrate this time of year as the leaves turn golden and burnt red. Rejoice in the Lord and His goodness. Give thanks for all He has given and for seeing you through another year. Pray for His Kingdom rule to manifest itself in your home, over all you do. Pray for His blessing to settle upon you. Pray for the nations of the world, that they might know the God who loved them enough to send His own Son to die to erase the penalty of their wrongdoing, who desires to bless them and have relationship with them. Pray for eyes to see that this world is only temporary, for a heart that is disentangled from the things of this world, and for affections set fully on the eternal things that will never fade or decay or change or wear out.