Light from the Sidra

Sukkot ('Tabernacles'/'Booths')

Torah: Leviticus 22:26-23:44; Numbers 29:12-14. Haftarah: Zechariah 14:1-21

God’s harvest among the nations

For more than thirty years at this time of the year, Jerusalem has been inundated with non-Jews who want to keep Sukkot, the ‘Feast of Tabernacles.’ Tens of thousands of Christians from around the world converge on Israel’s capital to, as they see it, fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah 14:16: ‘And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations that came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.’

Sukkot is the third and final of the great pilgrim festivals of Israel when all the males of Israel had to appear before the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem. The ancient rabbis saw significance in the festival not only for Israel but also for the nations, and the prophet Zechariah foresaw a day when Jews and Gentiles would together celebrate the festival.

The Israelites were commanded to live in tabernacles for seven days, so that future generations would remember that God made them live in tents after redeeming them from Egypt. Sukkot therefore is a joyful celebration when the Jewish people still remember God’s care and provision for them when they travelled from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Sukkot is also ‘the Feast of Ingathering’ because it celebrates the gathering of the final harvest of the year. It is also the ‘Season of our Rejoicing’ because it is the only festival at which the Jewish people are commanded to rejoice for seven days. Tabernacles is such a great festival that some Jews refer to it simply as ‘the Festival’.

In Deuteronomy 16:16, all the men of Israel were commanded to go to the temple in Jerusalem three times every year: at Passover; at Pentecost and at the Feast of Tabernacles. All three festivals occurred at harvest times, and harvest in the Bible is full of symbolism about God’s purposes for Israel and the nations.

Jeremiah 2:3 says that when God chose Israel, she was ‘holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest’. Where there are firstfruits, a harvest will follow. When God described Israel as ‘the firstfruits of his harvest’, it was an indication that a full harvest from the nations would follow.

When God was about to redeem Israel from Egypt, he declared that Israel was his ‘firstborn’ son. Just as the ‘firstfruits’ carry the promise of a full harvest, so the ‘firstborn’ in a family anticipates even more children. If Passover looks back to when God redeemed Israel, his ‘firstborn’, from Egypt, Tabernacles looks forward to a time when Israel’s God will have a family from all the nations.

According to the instructions in Numbers 29, seventy bulls were offered over the seven days of the festival, starting with 13 on the first day and finishing with seven on the last day. The sages of Israel taught that the seventy bulls were offered on behalf of the seventy nations in the world.

It is against that background that Zechariah 14:16-19 foresees a time when the nations will keep the Festival of Tabernacles. Although many of my Christian brothers and sisters go up to Jerusalem every year to keep the festival in the belief that they are fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy, the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy is far greater than they imagine.

To prove the point I need to make reference to the last book in the B’rit Hadashah, the New Testament. In chapter 7 of the book of Revelation, the author Johanan sees a vision of 144,000 Jews from all the tribes of Israel. Revelation 14:1-7 says that those 144,000 were ‘redeemed from among mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb.’ The Lamb is a Messianic title for Jesus, who was the fulfilment of Abraham’s prophecy in Genesis 22 when the father of the Jewish nation was about to offer his son as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah: ‘God will provide a lamb.’ In Revelation 7, the vision of the 144,000 ‘firstfruits’ is followed by the image of a vast crowd of people from all the nations, a number so great no one can count them. In the last book of the B’rit Hadashah we see the fulfilment of God’s plan for Israel and the nations being completed as we witness not only the ‘firstfruits’ of God’s harvest and the full harvest from all nations.

The letter of Ya’akov (James) is probably the earliest document in the B’rit Hadashah and was written at a time when just about every follower of Jesus was Jewish. Ya’akov addresses ‘the twelve tribes in the Diaspora’ in 1:18 as ‘a kind of firstfruits of God’s creatures’. Ya’akov was writing to the 144,000 (or at least some of them) as the ‘firstfruits’ of the harvest.

In Revelation 7:15-17 followers of Jesus from the nations are keeping the Festival of Tabernacles on Mount Zion! On the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles, thousands of Jewish men in white robes with lulavim sing the ‘Great Hosanna’ on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. But in John’s vision, the multitude singing the ‘Great Hosanna’ with white robes and lulavim are Gentiles! This is the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy that the nations will keep the Festival of Tabernacles in Jerusalem.

In the three great festivals of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, we see God’s Messianic Harvest programme for the world.

According to Leviticus 23:10-11, on the day after the Passover Sabbath, the people were to bring the sheaf from the firstfruits of their harvest to the priest. The priest waved it before the LORD and the one who offered the sheaf was accepted before God.

On the Passover Sabbath after Jesus the Messiah was crucified – on the very day that the first sheaf of the harvest was waved before God – Jesus rose from the grave as ‘the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,’ according to 1 Corinthians 15:20. The first sheaf of the barley harvest was a picture of the resurrection of Jesus, and just as the sheaf of the firstfruits was offered as the guarantee of a full harvest, the resurrection of Jesus guarantees the resurrection of those who follow him.

After the Passover Sabbath, the people had to count fifty days to the day of Pentecost. On that day they presented two loaves of bread at the temple as firstfruits of the wheat harvest.

At the following Shavuot, the day on which two ‘firstfruit’ loaves were lifted before God in the temple, the Holy Spirit was poured out on 120 Jewish disciples of Jesus as they worshipped in the temple courts. In the very temple where the two loaves were offered to God, 3,000 Jewish and Gentile proselyte worshippers heard Jesus’ disciple Peter declare that God had made Jesus both Lord and Messiah and were presented to God and the Lamb as the ‘firstfruits’ of a coming world-wide harvest of souls.

The firstfruits at Passover related to Israel, as did the two loaves presented at Pentecost (Jews and Gentile proselytes to Judaism were converted on the Day of Pentecost) but the final harvest at Tabernacles looked forward to the gathering of the nations into the kingdom of God.

But the harvest of the nations will also affect Israel because Romans 9-11 in the New Testament says that something has gone wrong as far as Israel’s salvation is concerned. From the Old Testament, we might imagine that after ‘all Israel’ was saved, the nations would be saved. But that has not been the case. Nevertheless, God still loves Israel and will continue to be true to his purpose to save the nation he calls his ‘firstfruits’ and his ‘firstborn’. And he will use Gentiles who follow Israel’s Messiah to do that.

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