Connections 02.28.2016: The Feast of Booths

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Leviticus 23:33-43

I am not a camper. I like the idea of communing with nature, gazing at the stars, sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows, and falling asleep to the sounds of the night. In reality, though, I enjoy a nice hike and a bit of outdoor exploration—even an evening by the fire making s’mores—but when the sun sets I want to snuggle into a bed surrounded by walls, ceiling, and floor, comforted by the white noise of a fan. I want a hot shower in a clean, private place. I want a meal I can make in my kitchen or that someone can serve me at a restaurant. I am not a camper.

Some of the ancient Israelites may not have been campers, either, but life didn’t give them a choice. They asked for freedom from Egyptian oppression, and they got it, along with all the ups and downs that came with wandering their way toward the land God promised them. They didn’t have the option of a nice, cozy inn with fresh bread and wine. Instead, they rested in hastily constructed sukkahs—tents or booths.

If you Google “sukkah” (pronounced soo-kah), you’ll see loads of images featuring the kind of backyard paradise I’ve often envisioned—three-sided tents, many of them beautifully decorated with lights, fabric, and flowers, some of them housing tables covered with lovely place settings. Google “ancient Israelite sukkah,” and the number of applicable images greatly decreases. I’m guessing archaeologists and historians aren’t certain what the original booths looked like, but it’s likely that they weren’t luxury tents. They were small, highly portable shelters meant to protect people from the elements when they stopped to rest during a long, weary journey.

In our text from Leviticus, God wants the people to remember. They will spend seven days sleeping in booths so they will remember their desperate need for God during some of the hardest times they ever faced. Yes, God set them free from Pharaoh. But the journey continued from there, and it required long days of travel with no safe and comfortable place to lay their heads. No familiar landmarks. No place to call home. They had to rely on God because God was literally all they had—their only source of stability.

Thus, now that they are settled in a land they can call “home,” God instructs them to have an annual Feast of Booths so they will remember. If we can depend on God in the hardest times, we must also praise God during the best times. As we live in the present, may we look to God’s provisions in the past and head into the future with a renewed sense of trust in our Lord.

Discussion

1. If you’ve ever been camping, what was the experience like? What were the best and worst parts of it?
2. In the truest form of camping, people forgo digital entertainment, bathrooms, running water, and all other modern conveniences. What might be the benefits of having only the basic elements of survival? How could this kind of experience help a person focus more on God?
3. What do you think it was like to be one of the Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt? How would you have felt when you realized you still had such a long way to go before you could settle in a home with your family?
4. Why is it important for us to remember to rely on God, even when we are comfortable and content?
5. What annual observances or regular rituals help us to remember how God has sustained us in the past, provides for us in the present, and will walk alongside us in the future?

Reference Shelf

The Feast of Booths (Heb.: sukkot), beginning on the 15th day of the seventh month (vv. 33-35; see Num 29:12-38 for details of the sacrificial celebration). It is known as The Feast of Tabernacles in some English Bibles. It is also referred to as The Festival of Ingathering/Harvest (Exod 23:16; 34:22), “The Feast of the LORD” (Lev 23:39; Judg 21:19), or simply as “the feast” (1 Kgs 8:2, 65, at the celebration of which Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem).

Initially, it appears to have been only a celebration of the grape harvest when workers may have erected temporary shelters (“booths”) in the field. Since it involved sacrificial offerings at a sanctuary, it is designated in the text (v. 34) as a “pilgrimage” festival. Later, it was designated as the occasion (on every seventh year) for the public reading of the book of Deuteronomy (so that book at 31:10-11). The prophet Zechariah anticipated that, in the golden age, all nations would come to Jerusalem to celebrate this festival (14:16).

The celebration came to be tied to a great event in Israel’s history. Since celebrants slept in booths during the festival at Jerusalem (Neh 8:14-17), the custom was said to remind them of the temporary dwellings that they had used during the time of wandering in the Sinai wilderness on their way to the “promised land” (Lev 23:41-43).

The celebration involved prayers for rain and for an abundant harvest for the next year. In the post-exilic age, it also was connected with the hope for national independence that would be instigated by the Davidic Messiah.

Lloyd R. Bailey, Leviticus-Numbers, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005) 282-83.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters, and watching television shows on Netflix.

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