Q: “What is the meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles?”
A: The feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) was one the three great feasts of the Old Testament, along with Passover and Pentecost (Deuteronomy 16:16; Exodus 23:14; 34:23). Passover is obviously connected with the Pascha (“Pascha” being the Greek form of the Hebrew word for Passover “Pesach” (פֶּסַח)) of the New Testament. And Pentecost, which commemorated the giving of the Old Law, is connected with the giving of the Holy Spirit. However, the connection between the feast of Tabernacles and a New Testament counterpart is not nearly as obvious.
Josephus gives a good summary of how the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated during the time of Christ:
“Upon the fifteenth day of the same month [the seventh month], when the season of the year is changing for winter, the law enjoins us to pitch tabernacles in every one of our houses, so that we preserve ourselves from the cold of that time of the year; as also that when we should arrive at our own country, and come to that city which we should have then for our metropolis, because of the temple therein to be built, and keep a festival for eight days, and offer burnt-offerings, and sacrifice thank-offerings, that we should then carry in our hands a branch of myrtle, and willow, and a bough of the palm-tree, with the addition of the pome citron: That the burnt-offering on the first of those days was to be a sacrifice of thirteen bulls, and fourteen lambs, and fifteen rams, with the addition of a kid of the goats, as an expiation for sins; and on the following days the same number of lambs, and of rams, with the kids of the goats; but abating one of the bulls every day till they amounted to seven only. On the eighth day all work was laid aside, and then, as we said before, they sacrificed to God a bullock, a ram, and seven lambs, with a kid of the goats, for an expiation of sins. And this is the accustomed solemnity of the Hebrews, when they pitch their tabernacles” (Antiquities of the Jews 3:10:4).
The historical significance of the feast was to recall the journey of the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. It also marked the end of the Harvest. Of all the feasts, this feast was celebrated with the greatest joy. Everyone spent the days of the feast outside in tents or booths, and there were celebrations that went late into the night. Every morning at the temple there was a drawing of water at the pool of Siloam by the High Priest, which was then carried in procession to be offered along with the appointed sacrifices and hymns (see The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, by Alfred Edersheim, Book 4, Chapter 7, for more detail), and this was the occasion for the events recorded in John 7. The Mishna, which recalls many of the traditions from the period before the Temple was destroyed, records this statement about this morning service, and the festivities that followed it each day: “He who did not see the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Mishna, Sukkah 51a).
The Venerable Bede, commenting on Nehemiah 8:13-17, explains the spiritual significance of the feast to Christians, which he sees as an image of the Christian journey through this life, on our way to our heavenly homeland:
“These matters are written about more fully in Leviticus [Leviticus 23:34-43], and it is also written that they were ordered to be done in memory of that very long journey, on which the Lord, leading his people out of Egypt, made them dwell in tabernacles in the desert for forty years, daily revealing to them the precepts of his law through Moses. Moreover it was ordered that the setting up of tabernacles (which in Greek is called skenopegia) was to be done every year for seven days, that is, from the fifteenth day of the seventh month to the twenty-second. It is well worth our while to make a thorough examination of the mystery of this observance through spiritual investigation, especially since in the Gospel the Lord deigned to attend the same feast and, as he addressed the people who gathered there, dedicated it with his most holy words [John 7:2-14]. Our ancestors too, therefore, were set free from slavery in Egypt through the blood of a lamb and were led through the desert for forty years that they come to the promised land when through the Lord’s passion the world was set from from slavery to the devil, and through the apostles the primitive church was gathered and was led as it were through the desert for forty years until it came to the homeland promised in heaven, because in imitation of the forty-day fast that Moses and Elijah and the Lord himself fulfilled [Exodus 24:18; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 4:2], the primitive church used to lead a life of great continence, thirsting always for its eternal homeland, and having set itself completely apart from all the distractions of this world, conducted its life as though in secret in daily meditation on the divine law. In remembrance of this time, we, too, ought to dwell in tabernacles leaving our homes, that is, having forsaken the cares and pleasures of the world, we ought to confess that we are pilgrims in this life and have our homeland in heaven and desire that we may arrive there all the more quickly; this, too, in a holy feast in the seventh month (i.e., in the light of celestial joy) when the grace of the Holy Spirit, which was commended by the prophet as sevenfold [Isaiah 11:2-3], fills our heart. We are ordered to remain in these tabernacles for seven days because during the entire time of this life, which we accomplish in as many days, we mus bear in mind that, like our ancestors. we are dwellers and pilgrims on earth in the eyes of the Lord” (On Ezra and Nehemiah 3:27, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. V, Marco Conti, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2008) p. 355f).
The Prophet Zechariah foretold of a time when the gentiles would also celebrate this feast:
“And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles. And it shall be, that whoso will not come up of all the families of the earth unto Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, even upon them shall be no rain” (Zechariah 14:16-17).
St. Cyril of Alexandria explains the meaning of this prophecy in a way very similar to the Venerable Bede:
“After saying that those making war on the churches and directing a lofty and arrogant attitude against holy Jerusalem would be caught up in penalties befitting them, he forecasts adoration by those left in their wake — namely, adoration in Christ through faith. It is he, after all, who is the “expectation of the nations” [Genesis 49:10 LXX], as the patriarch put it; he is also set to be “light of nations, a covenant for the race, to open eyes of the blind, and bring out from their bondage those who are bound, and from prison those seated in darkness” [Isaiah 42:6-7]. Accordingly, he makes clear that, on leaving the gloom of idolatry and having broken the bonds of the devil’s knavery, those from the nations will come to the light of truth and hasten to the yoke of the Savior. He means that the survivors from those who were punished, or those fighting against the churches, who are innumerable, will come up year by year to worship the King, the Lord almighty, and to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles. The Law of Moses, remember, ordered the feast of Tabernacles to be celebrated on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when the harvest had been brought in to the storehouses from the fields; consequently, he calls the feast “finale” since work in the fields was now complete. They were bidden take “fronds of palm trees, fruit of a handsome tree, dense foliage of a tree, willow branches,” drink water from a brook, and rejoice in it.
While the Law cited as the basis of the feast Israel’s dwelling in tents when rescued from the oppression of the Egyptians [Leviticus 23:34-43], the event was in fact a type of the mystery of Christ. We too, in fact, were rescued from oppression by the devil, called to freedom through Christ, as I said, and became subject to him, the King and God of all, spurning the knavery of those formerly in power. We celebrate the real feast of Tabernacles, that is, the day of Christ’s resurrection, when the bodies of all, despite being dissolved in corruption and in thrall to death, become solidified in him, as it were. After all, he is the resurrection; he is the life, the spoils of the dead, so to say, and “first-fruits of those fallen asleep” [John 11:25; 1 Corinthians 15:20], filling us with spiritual harvest and, as it were, causing the produce collected from the fields to be stowed in the storerooms on high. He it is who will rewards us with life and enjoyment in paradise — obviously of a spiritual nature — now that we have conquered sin, exude spiritual fragrance, and bear the handsome and commendable fruit of the evangelical way of life by living in a pure and holy manner. A further sign of this would be having the palm fronds and fruit of a handsome tree combined with the other foliage. He is the brook of delights from which the God and Father has given us to drink; he is the fount of life and the river of peace, who directs to us those called from the nations [Psalm 35:9; Isaiah 66:12].
To these matters, however, there has been partial reference, by us in other places. Those coming up to worship the King, the Lord almighty, and to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles, therefore, are those who are justified through faith in Christ. Those not coming up, by contrast, he threatens with ruin and punishment equal to that sustained by the persecutors and abusers; those opting not to love will suffer the same fate as the enemy. In my view, this is the meaning of what Christ himself said, “He who is not with is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” [Luke 11:23]” (The Fathers of the Church: St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, Vol. 3, trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), p. 273f).
So the feast of Tabernacles is about our spiritual journey to the Kingdom of Heaven, and it may be that its full significance with be revealed when we come to the New Jerusalem:
“And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death” (Revelation 21:3-8).