There is a saying that all Jewish holidays can be summed up with “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” But this is not true about Sukkot.
Actually, it’s not true about any of the autumn feasts. God just gave us the dates of the 1st, 10th and 15th of the seventh month and said that these are your holidays. No explanations, no reasons, except the agricultural season. What exactly are we celebrating? To memory of what? Only God knows.
Pesach and Shavuot (Passover and Pentecost) were really given as holidays to commemorate Yeshua’s death and resurrection and the outporing of the Holy Spirit. We just didn’t know it yet. In the same way the fall feasts are really holidays to commemorate future events. We just don’t know what they are yet.
But we can guess. I mentioned this in my post about Rosh haShana. The feast of trumpets – Yeshua returns with the clouds. Yom Kippur – The day of judgement. Sukkot – eternal joy with God in heaven.
Sukkot is the holiday of joy. We see it emphasized over and over again. We are to rejoice. It’s a time of happiness. In seven days we are to live in Sukkot, booths, and rejoice before the Lord. Sukkot was the holiday on which both the first and the second temple were initiated.
The agricultural reason, the ingathering of the fruit harvest, was of course in itself a reason for joy. The harvest is like getting your salary only once a year. But it’s a lot more than that. Davka at this time, when many would feel financial security after the harvest, God tells us to rejoice in temporary huts, not in houses built by stone. This is when we need to remember that during the exodus from Egypt we lived in booths. We need to remind ourselves that financial security is an illusion. That we are totally depending on God. In essence, we are celebrating “God with us” – Immanuel.
Once Yom Kippur is behind us, and we have atonement and forgiveness of sins – that’s when we can walk into God’s presence. The Sukka is the only mitsva, commandment that God has given us that we can walk into. Inside the Sukka we are surrounded by a mitsva – it’s like a hug from God. A closeness to God resembling our eternity with him in heaven that can only be achieved when our sins have been washed away. Jesus told his disciples to rejoice “that your name is written in the book of life.” (Luke 10:20)
The two main points is therefore to rejoice after having our sins washed away, and also to totally rely on God. This is a clear message that we can’t rely on ourselves to atone for our sins. Not blood by lambs and cows, not prayers and fasting. Nothing we do in our own strength can gain us this access to God. We need to rely on God. Only he can save us. Only through the blood of the Lamb of God.
In Leviticus 23, it says that we are to bring fruits and leaves and rejoice with them. In the Jewish tradition we are actually waving them, which was a sign of joy in biblical times, even outside of Sukkot. When Yeshua rode in to Jerusalem on the donkey foal, people waved with palm leaves and shouted Hosanna, even though it was close to Passover and not Sukkot. Rabbinical tradition has developed a system that says which exact branches and fruits you need (Lulav, Hadas, Arava, Etrog), based on Leviticus 23. I am holding them in the picture. This was probably not the original meaning of the text. In Nehemiah 8, we can even see how they are adding olive branches. But we know that this rabbinic tradition was in place already at the time of Jesus, and he is not on record condemning or protesting it. It’s a custom that has been in place for thousands of years. If the gentile Christians can celebrate pagan holidays and justify it by tradition, how much more should we be able to hold on to a few rabbinical traditions even if they are not in the Bible.
The last day of the holiday, the seventh day, is called Hoshana Rabba. It’s the day before the additional holiday Shmini Atzeret. The Bible doesn’t say anything about Hoshana Rabba being special, but the rabbis declared it so. They decreed that on this day God decides how much rain the land will receive during the coming year (remember that there is never any rain in summer in Israel) and there was a water ceremony in the temple called Simchat Beit haShoeva. The talmud even states that whoever hasn’t been present at that celebration doesn’t know what true joy is.
The gospel of John (yes, the gospel often accused of being antisemitic) confirms this rabbinic tradition in John 7:37 by stating that this was “the most important day of the feast.” In the middle of that water ceremony Jesus stood up and shouted “If anyone is thirsty come to Me and drink.” (John 7:38). Again we see how Jesus uses rabbinical tradition to point to himself. God can take both rabbinic and pagan customs and turn them to be about him.
The Torah says “Rejoice, O nations, with his people,” in Deutronomy 32:43. Not instead of his people, as some Christians seem to prefer, but with his people. The prophet Zechariah confirms in Zechariah 14:16-19 that indeed gentile nations will rejoice with his people by celebrating Sukkot, the holiday of rejoicing. How curious then that the gentile Christian tradition seems to have developed their own versions of Pesach and Shavuot, but not of Sukkot. I don’t want to be judgmental, but from the face value I find in the biblical text, it doesn’t seem that this is what God had in mind. If there is any holiday that gentiles who believe in the God of Israel should observe, it is Sukkot.
Finally, Sukkot is also a symbol of the incarnation. I said before that we celebrate God with us, “Immanuel.” Some math of the New Testament indicates that Jesus could have been born on Sukkot. Maybe even born in a Sukka. He took his temporary dwelling among us. In that way, Sukkot can both symbolize his first and his second coming. Both his incarnation and his return. Both our salvation and our eternity with him in heaven. No wonder this holiday is so focused on rejoicing!
Sin tried to kill us, but Jesus saved us. We can go into his presence both symbolically in the Sukka and in reality in heaven. We have free access through the blood of the lamb. In that way, maybe Sukkot after all does say “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”