If you are unfamiliar with Sukkot (Tabernacles), I have at the bottom of this post a quick primer on the holiday. If you don’t know the basics of Sukkot, I recommend reading the Quick Start Primer first.
Seventy Nations, White Robes, Palm Branches, and the Age to Come
Andre Neher was a Hebrew language and literature professor at the University of Strasbourg. The following is excerpted from Moses and the Vocation of the Jewish People (Harper Torchbooks, 1959) and is included in Philip Goodman’s The Sukkot/Simchat Torah Anthology (JPS, 1973). I will quote Neher with a few interspersed comments of my own.
It is interesting to note that the prophets not only interpreted the idea of the desert in the sense Moses attached to it, but also the rite expressing this idea in the Pentateuch.
In other words, the prophets referred not only to the story of Israel in the wilderness, but also to the festival of Sukkot, which is a commemoration of the wilderness experience of Israel.
If the Passover actually restores the moment of the Exodus from Egypt in a ritual manner, the march across the desert is repeated in the Feast of Sukkot (Leviticus 23:33-44). Each year for seven days the Jews symbolically leave their solid, man-made houses and shelter under leaves and branches in the open air, thus restoring the fulness of nomad life.
Nomad, or rather human. For though it is not to be denied that from ancient times the feast of Sukkot was celebrated in the definite desire not to renounce the value of nomad life for good, it is no less characteristic that the historical significance of the desert was very early associated with it.
Neher is saying that festivals like Sukkot may have had a non-religious as well as a religious purpose. When nomads settled into farm and urban life, the idea of a festival to remember the nomad past is a reason to celebrate and feast at the end of harvest. There are examples in many other cultures from ancient times of autumn harvest festivals. Yet Sukkot for Israel, says Neher, was from very early associated with the story of Israel in the wilderness as well, so that it was religious as well as agricultural in nature.
If there is a prophet for whom the central position of Israel and Jerusalem is one of the fundamental realities of history, it is certainly Zechariah. “Yea, many people and mighty nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem . . . in those days it will come to pass, that ten men will take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew saying, We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:22-23). In the fourteenth chapter of his prophecy Zechariah expands his gravitation round the Jew to the measure of cosmic eschatology, and he localizes its internal principles in the rites of the feast of Sukkot.
Zechariah 14:16-17 makes specific the general principle of the world grabbing onto the hem of Jews and asking to be taught about God. In the Age to Come (cosmic eschatology in Neher’s terminology), the world will celebrate Sukkot with the Jewish people.
Neher goes on to say a bit more, but he concludes with a startling idea:
If the consciousness Israel possesses of her special election may be described as Paschal, it may be said that the universal nature of election is Sukkothic
In other words, Passover commemorates the events in which God chose Israel as his treasured people. Sukkot celebrates the greater notion that God chooses the whole world working through Israel to reach them. The idea of Sukkot being about the whole world is reflected in the sacrifices of Sukkot (which include 70 bulls throughout the seven days, standing for the seventy nations, Num 29:12-35) and the prophecy of the whole world celebrating Sukkot together.
Passover is Israel’s election. Sukkot is the widening of God’s family to include the whole world, all who come to him.
This is realized, by the way, in the New Testament book of Revelation 7:9 and following as the multitude from the nations worships in white, festal robes with lulavs in their hands.
Sukkot: A Quick Start Primer
–A sacred occasion, offerings, a Sabbath.
Leviticus 23:33-36, The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the Lord, to last seven days. The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.
A sacred occasion (a.k.a. holy convocation, sacred assembly) is variously translated. It is not really about an assembly, but an announcement from the Temple to Israel that a day is set apart as a Yom Tov (a good day, a special Sabbath in which food preparation is allowed).
The offerings are detailed in Numbers 29, see below. The number of offerings for Sukkot is very significant.
–Branches and fruit: the four species, seven days in booths, a memorial of the exodus and wilderness.
Leviticus 23:39-44, Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Lord to last seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the product of hadar [majestic] trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. So Moses declared to the Israelites the set times of the Lord.
The branches and the fruit are known as the four species. They are: a palm branch (lulav), willow wands, wax myrtle branches, and a citrus fruit known as an etrog (like a large lemon with a distinctive shape and beauty).
The booth, or Sukkah, is a temporary dwelling, usually a wooden structure with cut branches for a roof.
–Sukkot is a seven-day holiday of feasting and rejoicing. A separate eighth day is attached, called Shemini Atzeret, which is also a Yom Tov just like the first day of Sukkot. A post-biblical custom adds a ninth day called Simkhat Torah, the Rejoicing of the Torah, in which we parade our Torah scrolls and read from the beginning and the end of the Torah.
The most noticeable customs of Sukkot are the booths built at every Jewish home, the lulavs and etrogs (wands of branches and a beautiful fruit waved ceremonially), and feasting and eating outdoors in the Booths.
–Numbers 29:12-35, The number of bulls offered during Sukkot famously equals 70, the number of nations of the world (see Gen 10 for the Table of Nations which equals 70).
–Zechariah 14:16-17, The prophet sees Sukkot in the Messianic Age as a universal celebration for the whole world, bringing Jew and Gentile together as one.
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