Last week we celebrated Sukkot with our small community in Brenham, Texas. If you aren’t familiar with Sukkot, you might know it better by the name Feast of Tabernacles. (See Lev 23:34-43.) “Sukkot” is Hebrew for “tabernacles”. “Sukkah” is the singular form.
The themes of Sukkot appear over and over in the writings of the prophets. I suspect there might be more end-times prophecy surrounding Sukkot than any other single, biblical holy day.
- The repentance, restoration, and reunification of the tribes of Israel (Isa 27, Jer 23:7-8, Zec 12:10-13:2, etc.)
- The calling out of those from among the nations who have been grafted into Israel (Isa 27, Isa 54:1-3, etc.)
- The destruction of the nations who attacked God’s people (Isa 27, Isa 54:4-17, Zec 12:1-9, etc.)
- The establishment of the Messianic Era with God Himself tabernacling among His people (Isa 4:2-6, Zec 14:5-9, Eze 37:27, etc.)
- The celebration of the feast by all nations (Zec 14:16-19)
All holidays come with their traditions. You’re probably familiar with the Thanksgiving turkey, but have you heard about the Sukkot gumbo? It’s actually a pretty recent innovation, but it’s one of my favorites. My wife is an outstanding cook and every year she puts together a giant pot of this amazing stuff–made with chicken and all beef sausage, of course. No shellfish or pork in our gumbo!
Another tradition–one more widespread and well established–is the building of a sukkah from tree branches, palm fronds, and other natural materials. A sukkah is a temporary dwelling place with three walls and a roof that is good enough to provide shade, but loose enough to be able to see the sky through it. This tradition goes back to at least the time of Nehemiah (Neh 8:13-18) and possibly all the way back to the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness.
Here’s the original command from Torah:
“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths [sukkot] for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths [sukkot], that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths [sukkot] when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
Technically, Torah only says to celebrate with the fruit and branches and also to live in sukkot for seven days, but Nehemiah interpreted this to mean they were to build their sukkot from the branches, and this is still how it’s done today.
By the first century AD, a completely different idea had taken root, that the fruit must be an etrog (also known as a citron) and the branches of three specific kinds of trees must be bound together in a “lulav” and waved a certain way. While it’s not strictly biblical, there’s nothing wrong with this practice, and the rabbis draw an interesting and valuable lesson from it. Each of the four species (etrog, palm, myrtle, and willow) represent a different kind of person, and all of them are bound together at Sukkot because it takes all kinds of individuals to make a whole nation.
It’s a little like our gumbo in that way. You put all of these different ingredients together in a pot, turn up the heat, and they make a single, magical dish that draws the whole community together. (And I do mean magical. You should try it sometime!)
You’ve probably read this passage before, but read it again now with the image of a divine Tabernacle made from the natural and wild branches of God’s people:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant–these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Maybe you’re a palm tree or maybe you’re a willow of the brook. Whatever your race or personality type or skill set, God has called you out to be a part of His people, to be one of the branches used to build the Tabernacle of Messiah.