The following is an excerpt from my 2008 book, Feast, available at lifeway.com:
A Pilgrim Feast
In the really old days, before there was a temple, there was only a tent called the tabernacle. It moved from place to place, eventually resting for a long time in central Israel in a settlement called Shiloh. Later, David brought it to Jerusalem, and then Solomon replaced the tent with a magnificent building of Jerusalem stone, cedars of Lebanon, gold, bronze, and colorful cloth.
The temple is significant to Shavuot because it was one of the three pilgrim feasts, along with Passover and Sukkot. In other words, people made a pilgrimage to the temple for this feast. It didn’t matter if you were nearby in Jerusalem or if you were far away, in Samaria or Dan. You made a journey.
Sidebar: The distance from Dan in the far north to Jerusalem is about 100 miles (the furthest city from Jerusalem in ancient Israel). Traveling with animals, this might be a journey of ten days, each way.
Every home for miles around Jerusalem was full. People even slept in the animal stables, if they were lucky enough to have relatives in the city. The rest brought tents. Rain wasn’t a worry since it wasn’t rainy season.
But the experience began long before the actual feast. The journey itself was a worship experience. The roads were packed around the time of the feast as families, clans, and entire towns traveled together to the temple. Or more appropriately, they went up to the temple, since Jerusalem rests on a small mountain. That’s why certain Psalms are called Psalms of Ascent. Psalm 121, for example, incorporates the journey into its worship: “I raise my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
So while walking up to Jerusalem, people would sing these psalms. Fellow Israelites were camped and congregating all around. It was a huge crowd. The atmosphere was charged with worship and awe.
Describe what you think it would be like to worship in a setting like Shavuot around the temple. How would it be like and unlike worship services you’ve been part of?
After all the build-up and anticipation, they finally arrived at the temple. But when they got there, they didn’t go inside to worship. The temple was not a building people went inside to worship. It was where sacrifices were offered and the place from which the priests and Levites led psalms, prayers, and musical worship; the people stood in open air all around the front of the temple. In fact, due to the crowds some people might not have been able to get closer than half a mile. But if you were close enough to see the smoke rising from the altar, you were fine.
And the service for the feast wasn’t an hour. There was music, chanting, and worship going on all day.
How does this picture of temple worship at a Biblical feast differ from your preconceptions?
People didn’t have worship like this every week. There were no synagogues—the local centers of worship—until much later in Jewish history when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. During the temple days, this all-out worship with crowds in the hundreds of thousands and even millions, only happened three times a year.
Does this sound more like worship or a party? What’s the difference? What’s the similarity?
If it sounds like a huge party in Jerusalem, that’s not far from the truth.