On the symbolism of the Feast of Tabernacles

(The Feast of Booths or Tents, Succot)

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This article belongs to a series on the Old Covenant’s Sabbaths or holy days. This present part concentrates on the Feast of Tabernacles and its symbolism and prophetic message.

The apostle Paul noted, regarding the Old Covenant’s high days, that they were a “shadow of things to come”, Colossians 2:17 – that is, they were types and symbols of future things. It is true that literally, many of them pointed to things that happened to the ancient Israelites, but it is clear that they also pictured things and events that were to come. Because of that prophetic symbolism, those days and the rituals that were connected to them, are an interesting object of study.

The Feast of Tabernacles was one of the Old Covenant’s annual high day periods.

That seven-day festival is also called the Feast of Booths or Tents. It is mentioned in such Old Testament passages as Exodus 23:14–17, Leviticus 23:33–36 and 42–43 and Deuteronomy 16:13–15. Today, the Jews often call that feast by the name Succot, from the old Hebrew cukkoth which is plural of cukkah which meant “a booth”.

The word “tabernacle” comes from the old Latin noun tabernaculum which meant “a tent”. There is more on this, later in this article.

Leviticus 23 records instructions that were given to the ancient Israelites, regarding the Feast of Booths (Tents, Tabernacles).

Leviticus 23:33 And the Lord said to Moses, 34 Say to the children of Israel, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month let the feast of tents be kept to the Lord for seven days. (BBE)

(Verse 34, “the fifteenth day of this seventh month” – that was around what we today call September-October. The Israelites’ “religious year” began in the spring, see Exodus 12.)

Verses 40–43 have more:

Leviticus 23:40 On the first day, take the fruit of fair trees, branches of palm-trees, and branches of thick trees and trees from the riverside, and be glad before the Lord for seven days. 41 And let this feast be kept before the Lord for seven days in the year: it is a rule for ever from generation to generation; in the seventh month let it be kept. 42 For seven days you will be living in tents; all those who are Israelites by birth are to make tents their living-places: 43 So that future generations may keep in mind how I gave the children of Israel tents as their living-places when I took them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (BBE)

In other words: During the seven days of that festival, the Israelites were to live in ceremonial tents or booths, as a reminder of the period after the Exodus when they (or their ancestors) lived in tents or booths in the Arabian desert, before they entered the Promised Land.

Jewish tradition has it that the ritual booths were put away at the end of the seventh and last day of that feast, before the following eighth day which was a separate high day with a different symbolism.

The Feast of Booths or Tents is mentioned even in the New Testament, for instance here:

John 7:2 But the feast of the Jews, the feast of tents, was near. (BBE)

In that verse, the Greek text has hê heortê tôn Ioudaiôn hê skênopêgia, “the feast of the Jews, the setting up of tents”.

(Regarding the translation “for ever” in the above-quoted Leviticus 23:41, see the article nca130.htm.)

The meaning of the word ‘tabernacle’.

The word “tabernacle” in the phrase “the Feast of Tabernacles” is copied from the Latin text of the Catholic Vulgate version which uses the word tabernaculum (“tent”) as a translation of such Hebrew words as ohel, cukkah, cikkuth, cok and sok which referred to such things as “thicket”, “booth” and “tent”. The Latin tabernaculum, “tent”, is a diminutive form of taberna which referred to housing of a rude kind, a hut or similar. – In Leviticus 23:34, the Vulgate has feriae tabernaculorum which means “festival of tents”.

(Today, the word “tabernacle” is often used as a name for religious buildings of various kinds. This has nothing to do with the Old Covenant’s “Feast of Tabernacles” which is better called “the Feast of Booths”.)

A side-note: Sometimes, the temple in Jerusalem was symbolically called “Tent”, because originally, during the desert sojourn and a long time after it, the sanctuary was a portable construction, similar to a large tent. But, this has no direct connection with the symbolism of the Feast of Booths.

Did the Feast of Booths symbolise ‘the Kingdom of God’ or ‘the millennium’, as some have claimed?

The earlier quoted Leviticus 23:42–43 shows that the seven days of the Feast of Booths were a reminder of the desert sojourn after the Exodus, the time when the Israelites had not yet reached the Promised Land.

In contrast to that, some have claimed that the Feast of Booths symbolised “the Kingdom of God” or “the millennium”. That is connected to dogmas which claim that when Jesus comes and puts the Reign of Kingdom into effect even here on Earth, that Reign will last only a thousand years, and that after that God will let Satan loose again so that he can deceive and destroy this world one more time. Those dogmas will not be discussed here, but let us note that the Scriptures make it very clear that after Jesus has put the Reign of God (Kingdom of God) into effect even here on Earth, there will not be any interruptions to that Reign. Never. Not after 1000 years either – simply never. Isaiah 9:7, “his government shall be great, and of his peace there is no end”. And also, Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.

Again, Leviticus 23:42–43 makes it clear that the seven-day festival during which the Israelites were to live in ritual booths, was reminiscent of the time when they (or their ancestors) had not yet reached the Promised Land. The desert years after the Exodus. – And again, Jewish tradition has it that at the end of the seventh day of that feast, the ritual booths were removed. (That feast was followed by another one, “the Assembly on the Eighth Day”, but the booths were removed before it.)

So, it is obvious that the end of that feast’s seventh and last day had a symbolic connection to an entry into a Promised Land. Also, we know that the earthly promised land served as a symbol for a heavenly one, that of Hebrews 11:16. But those seven days in themselves, with the ritual living in temporary dwellings, pointed to the time when the Israelites had not yet come to the land of promise. Consequently, it would not be logical to say that that feast symbolised “the Kingdom of God”.

(The article nxa070.htm has some notes on the separate feast on the eighth day, and its symbolism.)

The water-ceremony by the temple, during the Feast of Booths.

Old Jewish writings say that during the seven days of the Feast of Booths, there were special rituals by the temple. One of them was a water ceremony. Water was fetched from the pool of Siloam and brought into the city (Jerusalem) through the Water gate; it was then poured out by the outer altar by the temple.

The water-ceremonies in the sanctuary culminated on the seventh and last day of that feast. (Not on the eighth day which was a separate high day with a different symbolism, but on the seventh and last day of the Feast of Booths.)

During the desert sojourn (which later was pictured by the Feast of Booths), the Lord repeatedly provided the Israelites water in miraculous ways; see Exodus 17:6 and Numbers 20:11, and even Deuteronomy 8:15, Nehemiah 9:15, Psalms 78:16–20 and 114:8 and Isaiah 48:21. But, it is clear that there was also a forward-looking symbolism in those things. Obviously, that water-ritual by the temple, and probably also the miraculous waters in the desert, were “types” of the living water which Jesus told people to come to him for.

John 7:37 On the last day, the great day of the feast, [a] Jesus got up and said in a loud voice, If any man is in need of drink let him come to me and I will give it to him. 38 He who has faith in me, out of his body, as the Writings have said, will come rivers of living water. 39 This he said of the Spirit which would be given to those who had faith in him: the Spirit had not been given then, because the glory of Jesus was still to come. (BBE, note sign added)

Those verses record that Jesus stood up and spoke about living water. This was on the seventh and last day of the Feast of Booths. Perhaps he spoke those words by the temple, at the time of the water ceremony. It is obvious that that symbolic water-ritual must have pointed to Jesus and the Holy Spirit and everlasting life.

a The article nxa060.htm has more on that seventh and last day, the Hosha’na rabbah which was seen as the “great” day of that seven-day feast. The article nxa070.htm has some notes on the separate feast on the eighth day, and its symbolism.

Lights in the temple area during the Feast of Booths period.

During the Feast of Booths, special lighting was set up in Jerusalem; the temple area was illuminated at night.

It might be that that ceremonial lighting pointed to a thing in the past – the pillar of fire which gave the Israelites light at night during the Exodus and then in the desert. (Again, the Feast of Booths pictured that desert sojourn.) But, it is quite obvious that those things had also a prophetic, spiritual symbolism. It is reasonable to assume that both the waters and the light pointed to Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Water – the earlier quoted John 7:37–39 records how Jesus, on the last day of the Feast of Booths, told people to come to him for living water (the Holy spirit). See even John 4:11–14.

Light – on one occasion, Jesus said this:

John 8:12 […] I am the light of the world; he who comes with me will not be walking in the dark but will have the light of life. (BBE)

Again, it could be that literally, the light- and water-ceremonies which during the Feast of Booths were practised in and by the temple, were symbolic of what happened to the ancient Israelites during the Exodus and the desert sojourn. (The pillar of light and the miraculous waters.) But, as the apostle Paul noted, many of the things that happened to them, were “types” (Greek tupoi, 1 Corinthians 10:11). In other words, they were events which involved real people, but at the same time also symbols of what was to come.

A note: Many things in the temple-rituals, such as the water- and light-ceremonies and much more, are not described in the Scriptures. Apparently, those details were transferred from one priest generation to another, in some other way. But, old Jewish writings give us some glimpses of those things.

During the Feast of Booths, there was a ritual encircling of the altar.

Here, it must be noted that the Old Covenant’s spring and autumn high days “overlapped” in their symbolism, so that they to a certain degree pointed to the same things and events, of both past and future. An example of this is that certain temple-rituals during the Feast of Booths in the autumn, pictured things and events which had in the days of Joshua happened in the Passover season in the spring.

Old Jewish writings say that during the seven days of the Feast of Booths, there was a special ceremony where people encircled the altar by the temple. On the first six days, the altar was encircled once a day, but seven times on the seventh and last day. When that was being done, trumpets were sounded. It is obvious that that ritual was reminiscent of the encircling and taking of Jericho in the days of Joshua. (There probably was even a prophetic, forward-looking symbolism in that conquest as well as in that ritual, but that is something for a separate study.)

Joshua 4:19 tells us that the Israelites “came up out of Jordan on the tenth day of the first month” – four days before Passover. It is likely that the seven days when the Israelites marched around the stronghold Jericho, see Joshua 6, were the seven Days of Unleavened Bread. On the first six days, they marched around it one time per day, and seven times on the seventh day. While they were doing that, the priests sounded their trumpets. On the seventh day, when the seventh round for that day was made, the walls of the stronghold Jericho fell. This meant that the Israelites could begin to settle in the Promised Land.

And again, old Jewish writings say that on the seventh and last day of the Feast of Booths, the altar by the temple was encircled seven times. And, that when that was done, trumpets were sounded, and that Psalms 118:25 was sung during each circuit. Here is an English translation of that verse:

Psalms 118:25 Save now, we beseech thee, O Jehovah: O Jehovah, we beseech thee, send now prosperity. (ASV)

In that verse, behind the translation “save now”, is the Hebrew phrase hosanna (hosha’na, hoshi-’ah-nna). This appears to be the reason why the seventh and last day of the Feast of Booths came to be called Hosha’na rabbah, “the Great hosanna”. (That passage was sung even on the other six days, but many more times on the seventh and last day.)

There were also other rituals at the end of that seventh and last day, such as that certain willow-boughs above the altar got their leaves shaken off, and that people beat their palm-leaves in pieces by the side of the altar. Let us assume that those rituals symbolised the end of the ancient Israelites’ forty years in tents and booths in the desert, and the upon that following entry into the Promised Land.

Was the Feast of Booths harvest-related?

Exodus 23:16 mentions a “harvest festival” (Pentecost in the spring), and also a “festival of shelters” (the Feast of Booths in the autumn).

Exodus 23:16 Celebrate the Harvest Festival each spring when you start harvesting your wheat, and celebrate the Festival of Shelters each autumn when you pick your fruit. (CEV)

The words “harvest festival each spring” in the first part of that verse refer to Pentecost. In the Passover-season and on Pentecost, there were special harvest-related sacrifices in the sanctuary. That was regarding the first-fruits harvests of winter-barley respectively winter-wheat (in the Promised Land), sown in the autumn and harvested in the spring. The Feast of Booths did not have sacrifices of that kind.

Now, Exodus 23:16 contains also the words “each autumn when you pick your fruit”, as the above-quoted CEV has it. (The Hebrew text of that verse does not make it clear what kind of “gathering” is being referred to. Some translators have assumed that it refers to fruit, some have made it to a grain-harvest, but many have simply “when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field”, or similar.) And again, there is no mention of any harvest-related sacrifice, in connection with the Feast of Booths.

Pentecost was called “feast of harvest” and had a harvest-related sacrifice, but it was not so with the Feast of Booths. This is also what one would expect, seeing that the Feast of Booths and certain rituals during it pointed to the desert sojourn when the Israelites ate manna and did not sow or harvest.

Summary.

Leviticus 23:42–43 shows that the Feast of Booths pictured the ancient Israelites’ sojourn in the Arabian desert, the time after the Exodus when they had left Egypt but had not yet entered the Promised Land. In the desert, they lived in temporary dwellings (booths, huts, tents), as strangers and sojourners in a land that was not their own. During those years, they did not sow or harvest; God fed them. They ate manna.

Later, when the Israelites had entered the Promised Land, they kept the Feast of Booths, as a reminder of that desert time. When they gathered for the Feast of Booths (in Shiloh, and later in Jerusalem), they were to live in booths for seven days. Jewish tradition has it that at the end of the seventh and last day, those booths were put away.

It was the seventh day of the Feast of Booths that was “the last day, the great one of the feast” which is mentioned in John 7:37. On that day, there were special ceremonies and great rejoicing by the temple. That seventh day was also called Hoshana rabbah, “the Great hosanna”; this was because of certain things in the temple-ritual on that day. The article nxa060.htm has some notes on that seventh day.

The Assembly on the Eighth Day, the Shemini Atzeret, was not a part of the Feast of Booths but was a separate high day with a different symbolism. The article nxa070.htm has some notes on that day.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm

Some notes on bible-translations which make it seem that the Old Covenant was to be “everlasting”. On the word olam in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. → nca130.htm

On the Assembly on the Eighth Day and its symbolism. → nxa070.htm

The “Last Great Day” and its symbolism. Some notes on “the last day, the great one of the feast” which is mentioned in John 7:37. → nxa060.htm

Worshipping God. What does the Bible say about worship, in connection with the New Covenant? → naa040.htm

Should the Old Covenant’s Sabbaths, the annual ones and the weekly one, be kept today? → nxa090.htm

Other articles on the Old Covenant’s high days and their symbolism. → Look under the heading “High days” on the page key27.htm.


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