Time to Party – 2


“…how we feast and celebrate is a reflection of our beliefs concerning the salvation of the world.”

Sermon Notes on Deuteronomy 14:22-29 – Part 2
Guest post by Michael Shover

The Garden City

According to Leviticus 23 the Feast of Booths, or The Feast as it was later called, was an eight day celebration.

It says in Lev. 23, “Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the growth of beautiful trees – palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook – and you shall rejoice before Yahweh your God for seven days.  . . . You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall dwell in booths.”

This command was later demonstrated in Nehemiah 8:15, which says, “Go out to the hills and bring olive branches, and oil-tree branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.” So, essentially what they were supposed to do was to build tree houses. Not like tree houses we have today. Instead of going up into the tree and building the house, they brought the tree down to the ground and built little shelters out of the branches. This seems like a strange thing to do, but God commanded them to do it. The reason why God commands them to do this was “So that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:43).

What is odd about this rationale is the Israelites did not live in leafy booths when they came out of Egypt. In fact, as one person commented: “First, sukkot (or leafy booths) are generally not found in the desert. Leaves, branches, reeds, foliage, wood, and hay are not such materials one would find in the desert wasteland? So, where would they have found enough foliage to make booths for 600,000 men and their families in the middle of the desert?”

Secondly, outside of this lone verse in Leviticus, the Bible never claims that the Israelites stayed in booths. There are several descriptions of the camp of the Israelites in the desert, but not one pictures the tribes dwelling in sukkot. Tents are occasionally mentioned, but never booths. Why does Leviticus 23:43 suddenly assume that the Israelites dwelled in sukkot, while the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy know nothing about it.

One answer to this problem begins with noticing that right after leaving Egypt, the Israelites dwelt at a place called Sukkoth. Sukkoth was, in fact, the first place the people went after leaving Egypt, which is where the Feast of Booths finds its origins. But they did not dwell in booths while they were in Sukkoth. So why does God say they did?

One theologian suggests that “Sukkoth” might not be the name of the place Sukkoth, but rather Sukkoth was a description of the environment in which the people dwelt. And that environment was an environment of clouds.

Now bear with me. There is a whole lot of imagery involved here that help us understand this. I am not going to go into all of this in great detail, but there is going to be some detail. I want you to think with me. I am just going to give you the quick version of it.

The most important meaning of the word sukkah, from which we get Sukkot, means “covering.” There are passages in the Bible that use the root of this word to describe coverings. For example, the veils of the tabernacle cover the Ark (Ex. 40:3, 21). God’s wings cover His people (Ps. 91:4), and the wings of the cherubim cover the Ark (Ex. 25:20; 37:9, 1 Kings 8:7; 1 Chron. 28:18). And what is important for us is that trees are said to cover and shade from the heat (Job 40:22). Jonah is even said to have built himself a booth after he left Ninevah to see if God was going to destroy it or not.
Putting all this together, we find that a sukkah or booth is a covering or a shade. It is analogous to the shade of a tree, and thus is made of leafy materials. It is also analogous to the covering and shade of God’s Glory Cloud, and to the symbol of that Cloud, the tabernacle, which is also why it is called the Feast of Tabernacles.

With this understanding, we can see how the Feast of Booths memorializes the time in the wilderness. During that time, Israel dwelt in the covering of God’s Cloud. They were shaded by His Cloud. We get this understanding from Psalm 105:39 which says, “He spread a Cloud for a covering, and fire to illumine by night.” The imagery presented to us here shows God’s Cloud over the people forms a Great Booth, within which they lived. That Cloud over them is like the canopy of a leafy tree, and thus the reproduction of such a leafy canopy during the Feast of Booths is a symbol of God’s Cloud.

Now in Exodus 12:37 – 13:20 after the Israelites came out of Egypt and after they left Sukkoth, not before, we see that the Pillar of Cloud appears. Exo. 13:20 says, “Then they set out from Sukkoth and camped in Etham on the edge of the wilderness. And Yahweh was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might go by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.”

So on the one hand there is this imagery of God’s people being redeemed out of Egypt to dwell in the cloudy booth of God’s presence and protective covering. The people were to build for themselves booths to remember God’s salvation and protective covering presence that was with them when they came out of Egypt.

But living in leafy booths for eight days, booths which were made up of boughs of fruit trees, and olive oil trees, and palm tree leaves was also meant to recall life in the Garden of Eden. It was a return to Paradise. Just as the Tabernacle and the Temple was designed with engravings of pomegranates, and palm trees, and gourds, and flowers, so too, these little tabernacles, in which God’s people were to feast in the presence of the Lord, were designed to be little reflections of life in the Garden.

Think about it. In the Garden, Adam didn’t have to work for his food, it was all right there for him to pluck off the trees. So too, in the Feast of Booths, the Israelites had at their disposal all the food they could eat and all the drink they wanted to drink. They didn’t have to work for it during that week. The feast symbolized paradise for a week, feasting in the Edenic Clouds of God’s protective covering and salvation.

Now the Bible is full of imagery and allusions about returning to the Garden of Eden. But one of the most interesting things about the Garden is that the Bible begins in the Garden and it ends in a Garden. But the garden in Revelation is in a city, New Jerusalem. So New Jerusalem is a Garden City.

Now tell me, if you have everyone in all of Israel going to the city of Jerusalem all setting up leafy booths throughout the whole city, what does it look like? A Garden City perhaps?  This Feast was an acted out prophecy of the future glory of God’s people and the salvation of the world in the new Creation.

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One Response to “Time to Party – 2”

  • Robert Murphy Says:

    Well described imagery! It’s a shame there are no words that could fit in English except those with negative connotations: “shade” and “shadow” all sound ominous. I would have to make myself remember “under the shadow of the Almighty”. However, I may translate “Sukkoth” in my head as “shade” anyway, just as I translate “Qorban” as “Near-Bringing”.