Old Testament Laws: Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Gospels, chapter 1

The Feast of Tabernacles in and Around the New Testament Period


The Feast of Tabernacles was one of ancient Israel’s annual pilgrimage festivals. It was celebrated for seven days at the completion of the agricultural year with great joy. In addition to its agricultural themes, it was said to recall the occasion of Israel’s wilderness pilgrimage. While all three annual festival times involved pilgrimages, I Sam. 1:3, 21 and Judges 21:19 may indicate that the Feast of Tabernacles was the original such festival (Burrows:3). In postexilic Judaism, the Feast of Tabernacles continued to be extremely popular. Josephus attests to the feast’s popularity in Judea when he states that in C.E. 66, a whole city of the size and importance of Lydda took part in the Feast of Tabernacles, so that only fifty persons were left in the whole place (Bell. 2, 19, 515). Jews living outside of Judea also took part in the feast. Until 70 C.E., Jews from the Diaspora, loaded with offerings for the Temple, journeyed annually to Jerusalem for its observance (Rylaarsdam:455).

How was this popular festival observed during the NT period? What were its rituals and ceremonies? What imagery had come to be connected to the festival? What theological interpretations of the festival’s imagery were extant in NT times? In this chapter we will consider the literary and archaeological evidence of this festival in and around NT times in order to determine what can be said about the Feast of Tabernacles and the interpretations of its imagery during this period.

We will begin our examination with a discussion of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Mishna, for it is the Mishna which gives us the fullest portrait of this festival at a datable time. We will then consider other literary evidence for the Feast as found in the Hebrew Bible, in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, in Philo, Josephus, and Plutarch, in the New Testament, and in rabbinic texts and targums. We will also consider archaeological evidence of the feast from this period. Finally, we will draw some conclusions as to what can be said about the Feast of Tabernacles and its imagery in and around the NT period.

The Feast in the Temple According to Mishnaic Tradition


The celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Temple of Jerusalem prior to 70 C.E. is described in the Mishna tractate Sukka. In its final form this text dates from the close of the second century C.E., but one must consider the period from which its oral tradition springs in order to estimate the tractate’s historical value (Danby: xiii). In Sukka there are anonymous dicta but also the sayings of named rabbis and schools of thought.

The traditional material in Sukka appears to date from before the time of Jesus to about C.E. 200. It has been argued that the tractate reflects possibly four centuries of Jewish religious and cultural activity in Palestine (Safrai:11-13).

The tractate describes eight important elements as characteristic of the feast: the sukka(chapters 1-2), the lulav (3:1-8, 11b-15; 4:1-2, 4), the willow-procession around the altar (4:1, 3, 5-6), the recital of the Hallel psalms (3:9; 4:8), the water libation ceremony (4:9-10), the joy of the feast (4:8; 5:16), the nightly light festivities and flute playing (5:1-4), and the rite of forswearing solar worship (5:4).

1) Sukka, the booth, is the characteristic feature of the feast. It was incumbent upon every adult male to provide a booth in which he would sleep and eat all his meals for the seven days of the feast.

2) The lulav or palm branch was a central element of the festival celebration. Lulav is often used as the designation for a whole set of green plants: the myrtle, the willow, and the palm. A fourth plant, the ethrog or citron fruit, was also used in the Temple worship during the feast. The lulav was waved during the recital of certain passages of Ps. 118.

3) The willow-procession around the altar took place each day except when a weekly Sabbath fell during the first six days of the feast. Willows were brought from outside Jerusalem and carried in procession around the altar. After the procession they were placed against the altar to the accompaniment of trumpet blasts. The procession circled the altar once on each of the first six days. On the seventh day the procession circled the altar seven times while the participants shouted the phrase from Ps. 118:25: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!”

4) The recital of the Hallel psalms (Ps. 113-118) was very much a part of festival worship. Ps. 118 was especially linked to the Tabernacles’ ceremonies of lulavim and willows.

5) The water libation ceremony was the first common rite for each day of the feast and one of the most important parts of the temple liturgy. On the morning of the first day a procession of priests went down to the Pool of Siloam to bring up a golden jug filled with enough water to last the entire festival. The procession carried the water through the Water Gate into the temple area to the accompaniment of trumpet blasts. At the altar the water was poured into one bowl as wine was poured into another. Both bowls emptied into a subterranean conduit.

6) Joy was a prominent characteristic of the feast. Sukka 5:1b says: “He that never has seen the joy of the water-drawing has never in his life seen joy.” Public rejoicing was prominent during the nights. It was at this time that Levites played flutes and other instruments on the fifteen stairsteps between the Court of Israel and the Court of the Women while people danced and performed acrobatics.

7) Nightly illumination was a special feature of the feast. Four huge menorahs fitted with wicks made from the worn-out garments of the priests, illuminated the temple area and reflected light throughout all the courtyards of Jerusalem. Beneath them, the celebrants danced while carrying torches.

8) Prior to dawn on each day of the feast, a procession was made to the Eastern Gate of the temple area to forswear solar worship. At the moment of sunrise, the pilgrims turned west to face the temple and to recite: “Our fathers when they were in this place turned with their faces toward the east, and they worshiped the sun toward the east; but as for us, our eyes are turned toward the Lord” (Suk. 5:4; cf. Ezek. 8:16).

Other Literary Evidence for the Feast

The Hebrew Bible

The Pentateuchal traditions show a shift in emphasis in the traditions about the Feast of Tabernacles. G.W. MacRae believes that by examining successively the festival calendars presented in each of the four traditions of the Pentateuch it is possible to detect an evolution in the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles from earlier to later traditions (252). MacRae believes that the oldest festival calendars are found in Ex. 34:18-23 (which he assigns to J) and in Ex. 23:14-17 (which he assigns to E). The Deuteronomic festival calendar of Deut. 16:1-17 would be a much later and much more detailed account of the three great feasts. The priestly festival calendar in Leviticus 23 would be considered the latest of the four festival calendars and by far the most developed (MacRae:252-256). From this perspective, the agricultural festival of Ex. 23:16 and 34:22, “the feast of ingathering,” becomes the more temple-centered “feast of booths” of Deut. 16:13-15 and 31:10-11. Leviticus 23:34-36, 39-43gives detailed regulations for the festival’s observance and adds that the motivation for dwelling in booths is to be understood as a reflection upon Israel’s Exodus experience. It is of course possible that the shift in emphasis encountered in the Pentateuch is simply that—a shift in emphasis rather than an evolution. The Exodus and Deuteronomy passages emphasize the relationship of the festival to the ingathering of the crops, whereas Leviticus 23 depicts the festival in its broadest terms (Glaser:158). However, while the feast maintained certain agricultural motifs, the historical and prophetic texts of the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as later Jewish writings, definitely show innovations in festival liturgy and interpretation.

The historical texts of the Hebrew Scriptures focus on the temple (e.g. I Kings 8; 2 Chr. 5-7; Ezra 3:4; Neh. 8:13-18). It is the text of Neh. 8:13-18 which gives an explanation of the booths comparable to that in Lev. 23:43 and also supplies the explicit instruction that the four plants mentioned are to be used for the construction of the booths.

The historical texts, as well as some prophetic texts, also show a shift in emphasis from the agricultural festival of Exodus to the salvation-historical emphasis of Leviticus 23. This shift in emphasis can be seen in the linking of the festivals to the history of Israel, especially to the Exodus events beginning from the liberation out of Egypt through the time of the wilderness wanderings. An example of this can be found in 1 Kings 8 where the dedication of Solomon’s temple is said to have been at the Feast of Tabernacles and God’s presence there is described as being in a cloud just as it was during Israel’s wilderness wandering. Some prophetic texts such as Hosea 12:9 and Isa. 4:2-6 unite the wilderness experience with festival observance in a future, possibly eschatological, perspective. The references to Israel’s unique existence during the Exodus events allow for associations between the Feast of Tabernacles and other biblical and post-biblical aspects of this time in Israel’s history. Invoking the memory of the Exodus experience functions to maintain the people’s hope for future events where the power of Yahweh will manifest itself in an explosive manner on their behalf. Thus, the events of the Exodus become the figure of the eschatological realities. According to Jean Daniélou, not only do the Passover and the Exodus serve as figures of the eschatological deliverance, but the Feast of Tabernacles, more than any other feast, takes on this significance (1958:20).

One other explicit reference to the Feast of Tabernacles in the Hebrew Scriptures is found in Zech. 14:16-19. In this eschatological prophecy, universal worship of Yahweh is portrayed in terms of the remnant of the nations celebrating the feast. It appears that by the time of the writing of this portion of Zechariah, the Feast of Tabernacles had already taken on messianic significance. This messianic significance would enter into all future celebrations of the feast (MacRae:268). It is also in this text that the feast is associated with rain and water. This detail plays a significant part in the later theological interpretation of the feast. As we have seen in the Mishnaic legislation regarding the Feast of Tabernacles, a ceremony involving water was an important part of the festival ritual. The idea of perpetual light in Zech. 14:7 as a feature of the messianic age of Jerusalem also recurs in the later Mishnaic account of the candelabra ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles. The emphasis on water and light themes in the rituals of the Feast of Tabernacles appears to indicate the messianic aspects of the feast (MacRae:270).

The Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

The Feast of Tabernacles is also mentioned in the Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. In 1 Macc. 10:21 the feast is the occasion when Jonathan is vested with the sacred garment and made High Priest. The feast also appears as the model for the celebration of the re-dedication of the temple after the profanation by Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Macc. 1:9, 18; 10:5-8; 1 Esdr. 5:51). Instructions given in 2 Maccabees 10:7 for patterning this celebration on the Feast of Tabernacles include the carrying of plants and the singing of hymns.

The Book of Jubilees, which relates the origin of Israel’s feasts to the patriarchal history, tells of Abraham’s establishing the Feast of Tabernacles as a festival of joy upon being told that his descendants would become a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” to God (16:18, 20). It is further stated that Abraham was the first man on earth to celebrate this festival and that he did so by building booths for himself and his servants (16:21). According to Jubilees, the “eternal law” concerning Israel includes the dwelling in booths, the carrying of wreaths on one’s head, and the command to take “branches of leaves, willow, and palm trees, and fruit of good trees” (16:29-30). Abraham is said to have encircled the altar seven times every day during the feast while carrying the branches and praising God (16:31). Jubilees 32 relates that Jacob, at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, consecrated his son, Levi, and dressed him in the priestly garments (vv.3-7). It also mentions that Jacob celebrated an eighth day, calling it “Addition,” while the previous days he called “The Feast” (32:27-28).

Philo, Josephus, and Plutarch

The first century Jewish philosopher, Philo, presents the allegorical/spiritual meaning of the festival under six headings. First, since the feast occurs at the time of the autumn equinox, it symbolizes equality, the first principle and beginning of justice (Spec. Leg. II, 204). The second purpose of the feast according to Philo is to teach us that we should offer thanksgiving to God, “the One who brings to perfection…the One who is the Cause of all good things” (Spec. Leg. II, 204). Philo’s third and fourth explanations of the feast relate the symbolism he sees in the tents or booths. He comments that the dwelling in booths signifies that at the end of harvest one may return from the exposure of the fields to a more stable and sheltered habitation and that it is also a reminder of the wilderness generation’s encampment in tents (Spec. Leg. II, 206-207). According to Goodenough, Philo sees in the booths the symbols of divine shelter and the escape from sin to righteousness (IV, 160). In his fifth explanation, Philo emphasizes the importance of light at the feast. Since the celebration occurs at the full moon at the autumnal equinox there is continuous light from the sun during the day and from the moon at night so that there is at no time complete darkness (Spec. Leg. II, 210). Philo’s sixth explanation applies to the eighth and closing day. He allegorizes the number eight as marking the point of transition, or bridge, between the immaterial and the material world (Spec. Leg. II, 211-213). In this discussion of the Feast of Tabernacles, Philo discusses neither the Temple nor the lulav and ethrog. Since Philo states that the only requirements for festival celebrants are to dwell in tents for seven days, to honor God with songs and speeches, to propitiate him with supplications, and to importune him, Goodenough believes that the feast must have been kept in this way in Alexandria by those who could not journey to Jerusalem. Goodenough also concludes that Philo sees the festival rites as a celebration of delivery from the evils of material life, a transition from the material to the immaterial world, and a reference to glorification in a life after death (IV, 161).

Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century C. E., in Ant. 3,10,4, mentions the festal plants and describes the Feast of Tabernacles in similar terms to those we have already discussed. In Ant. 13,13,5, he emphasizes the role of the palm branch and citron. He also testifies to the great popularity of the feast and comments on its role as a temple-centered festival (Ant. 8,4,1; 15,3,3; Bell. 2,19, 1-2). According to Josephus, the time of the feast was considered so sacred that during his siege of the city under Hyrcanus, Antiochus permitted a seven day truce for its observance (Ant. 13,8,2).

The Greek writer, Plutarch (c. C.E. 46-120), explicitly mentions the feast and notes its similarities to the Dionysiac rites (Quaest. conv. 4, 6, 671D-E). He mentions a “Procession of Branches” or a “Thyrsus Procession” which may refer to lulavim and the willow procession on the last day of the feast. He does not explicitly mention the dwelling in booths, the water libation, or the nightly festivities.

The New Testament

The NT explicitly mentions the Feast of Tabernacles only in John 7. In this chapter, Jesus at first refuses to go up to the feast (vv.2-8). He then goes up secretly (v.10) and appears in the Temple teaching during the middle of the feast (v.14). The chapter focuses on Jesus’ proclamation about “living water” on “the last day of the feast, the great day” (7:37-39). Many commentators feel that the discussion implies reference to the water libation ceremony (MacRae:275; Brown:327). Some also think that the saying in Jn. 8:12, “I am the light of the world,” is a part of the festival discourse and is suggested by the festival illuminations (MacRae:275; Brown:343). Though brief, the Fourth Gospel’s explicit reference to the Feast of Tabernacles and its allusions to two of its rites illustrate first century Jewish Christian theological understanding of the feast and its ceremonies. As G. W. MacRae states:

If either or both of these sayings is referred to the Tabernacles ritual, they thus acquire heightened messianic significance, for as we have seen, an abundance of water (“living water” in Zech. 14:8) and perpetual daylight were features of the messianic Jerusalem which Jesus spiritualizes and shows to be fulfilled in His own person (275).

Rabbinic Texts and Targums


In rabbinic texts and targums, the festival booth becomes a reminder of divine protection during the Exodus experience and is associated with God’s presence in the cloud which accompanied Israel during its wilderness journey. According to Rabbi Kahanna:

Why does Israel make the sukka(h)? Because of the miracles the Holy One performed for them when they went out of Egypt, for clouds surrounded them and sheltered them, as it is said “I had the children of Israel dwell in sukka(h)s (Lev. 23:43),” a verse which the Aramaic Targum translates, “I had the children of Israel dwell in cloud-sukka(h)s” (Pesiq. Rab. Kah. 188b cited in Braude, 1975:471).

Burrows understands the connection between sukka and clouds to be at least as early as the text of Job 36:29 (458). The Hebrew Scriptures often speak of God’s habitation in conjunction with clouds and storm. In 2 Samuel 22:12 and Psalms 18:11 the thick clouds form God’s heavenly “pavilion” (sukka). The theme of God’s protective presence in the covering cloud is also used in the rabbinical writings to express the special care and honor God will give to Israel in the eschatological times (Sabourin:303). An example of this is found in Pesiqta Rabbati 31,6 where Rabbi Levi says in the name of Rabbi Hama:

In the time to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will prepare tents, canopies of glory for the righteous, each befitting the particular glory of each of the righteous. Thus Isaiah said, “And the Lord will create over the whole habitation of Mount Zion, and over her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and a flaming fire by night; but over each (of the righteous) shall be a canopy of glory (Isa. 4:5)” (Braude, 1968:2).

Because of controversy in dating rabbinic traditions, it cannot be said with absolute certainty that there existed a prevailing eschatological understanding of the festival booths before or during the NT period.1 Though some targums, as complete texts, are quite late, it is possible that their traditions are much older and could date back to NT times and even earlier (Kahle:208; McNamara:35; Heinemann:122; Vermes:89-90). According to Daniélou, both he and Risenfeld are persuaded that, from the time of the Jewish prophetic texts, the booth becomes the festival element in which the messianic and eschatological significance is the highest (1958:25). According to this understanding, the rabbinic traditions become evidence of the perpetuation and development of this eschatological interpretation and supplement our knowledge of it.

Zechariah 14 is a highly important example from the prophetic texts of an early eschatological understanding of the Feast of Tabernacles which was further developed by rabbinic tradition. Eschatological as well as agricultural connections between the Feast of Tabernacles and water are found explicitly in Zech. 14:17. While it is not known whether the keeping of the feast in the days of Zechariah was accompanied by water libation ceremonies, it is evident that the aim of the festival already was to assure the fall of rain (Patai:253). Referring to Zech. 14:17Rabbi Akiba says that water must be poured out during the feast so that the coming autumnal rain may be blessed (T. Suk. 3:18). Later rabbis understood the water libation as achieving a “sympathetic” effect as it was poured into the holes at the altar. Rain was believed to be initiated by reuniting the “male upper waters” with the primeval “female lower waters” from which they had been separated at creation (Patai:261). Thus the Temple of Jerusalem became the central watering place of the whole earth since it was the location of this crucial ceremony (Patai:263).

It was also said that at the Feast of Tabernacles the world is judged as to whether it is worthy to receive rain in the coming year (Rosh Hashanah 1:2). This somber element of judgment enters into the feast because God’s decision regarding the coming year’s water supply was a matter of life and death for Palestinian society. In the festival psalm (Ps. 118) amidst the expression of joy and thanksgiving, there suddenly appears the cry: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord we beseech you, give us success!” This cry can be seen as a petition for rain and, in reality, a cry for fertility and so for life (Burrows:382). According to Burrows, the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Temple at Jerusalem became the place to go to petition God for life (396).

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. the time of the feast was universalized by the rabbis through the institution of the synagogue. The festival’s concern for life became universalized by means of the Shemoneh ‘Esreh or “Eighteen Benedictions” (Burrows:396).2In the second benediction there is a recitation of the powers of God, particularly the preservation of the living and the resurrection of the dead. It was easy to see in “rain” a type of the resurrection, as both are renewers of life. The association between the resurrection and rain having been made by the rabbis (cf. B. Ta’anith 2a), the mention of rain after the Feast of Tabernacles was added to this benediction (Patai:278; Burrows:397). Thus, the day when “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (Zech. 14:9), became the day of resurrection and immortality (Burrows:402). The signs of the resurrection were the signs associated with the water libation rites in the Temple, especially as they pertained to rain (Gen. Rab. 13:6).

Another important interpretation of the water libation is its association with the pouring out of the Spirit. Many of the popular temple ceremonies and activities described by the Mishna occurred at the “place of the water drawing.” R. Joshua b. Levi understands that it was in this particular location where one drew from the Spirit. This interpretation was based on Isaiah 12:3 “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (J. Suk. 5:1). The author of the Fourth Gospel is an early witness to the idea that combines the water of the feast with the Spirit. He interprets Jesus’ words about living water, which were uttered on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, as pointing to the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 7:37).

Another prominent element of the Feast of Tabernacles, the lulav and ethrog, is also sometimes connected with water. While the Hebrew Scriptures give no theological interpretation of the plants which comprise the lulav, Talmudic traditions connect the selection of the plants and the waving of the branches with the need for water and with rain-making ceremonies (Patai:276-277). Later traditions, such as the Midrash Rabbah, give a great number of interpretations of the lulav and ethrog. We are told that to take up the lulav means that one has good works, messianic hope, the promise of life after death, the final completion of pardon and blessing, the evidence of victory, and the hope of united Israel (Goodenough:IV 162-163).

Interpretations of the Archaeological Evidence of the Feast

The appearance of objects related to the Feast of Tabernacles (especially the lulav and the ethrog) on archaeological remains which are partly contemporary with the New Testament, provides a view of concepts which may not be reflected in written texts until several centuries later. Some of the earliest of such objects are coins from the two Jewish revolts against Rome in 66-70 and 132-135 C.E.

In 66 C.E., a Jewish uprising expelled the Roman forces from Jerusalem and established a revolutionary state. One of the measures which was quickly taken was the minting of new coins. In the circumstances of the times, this was a religious as well as nationalistic necessity because earlier coin motifs were syncretistic or even pagan (Roth, 1962:33-34). The new coins were minted with what Goodenough calls, “an eruption of Jewish symbols” (276). The coins thus represent some of the first evidence of Palestinian Jewish art dating from the close of the Second Temple period to almost the middle of the second century C.E. Considering the situation from which the coins emerged, their motifs likely were meant to reflect Jewish nationalism. This means that at least some of the motifs can be expected to symbolize Israel’s hope for liberation from pagan oppressors, possibly even in a messianic sense (Roth, 1955:154).

Silver and bronze coins from the first Jewish revolt against Rome carry the dating “year one – five.”3 The coins from the earliest minting were silver. This was probably the result of a desire for a currency, free from pagan motifs, which could be used for the Temple tribute. One side of the coins bore the image of a chalice which is generally believed to represent the cup used for the wine libation in the Temple. On the reverse side appeared a stem with a bunch of three pomegranates which is thought to imply the first fruits offered in the Temple or, possibly, the branch of David (Roth, 1962:41). In the second year of the revolt bronze coins began to appear. These coins carried the slogan, “freedom of Zion.” Roth believes that this new phrase reflects the period of the revolution when the priestly moderates who had been at the head of affairs were ejected and the Zealots took control (1962:42). The design on the coins appears to have followed the prevailing political climate. Gone were the symbols referring to the priesthood and its functions in the Temple. In their place was a narrow-necked amphora denoting possibly the amphora of messianic oil, a symbol of redemption. The silver coins continued to be used in the Temple while the bronze coins were used by the common people in daily commerce.

With the fourth year, another significant change took place with the bronze coins. Just as before, this change almost certainly reflects the prevailing political conditions of the time. On the coins from “year four” appear the lulav and ethrog. Other motifs which appear are a palm branch and a palm tree between two baskets of fruit (Goodenough:I,276). It also seems significant that the inscription on the bronze coins changed from, “the freedom of Zion” to “of/for the redemption/deliverance of Zion” (Roth, 1962:43). Only on these coins of the first revolt are found motifs that can be directly related to the Feast of Tabernacles and an inscription which speaks of redemption/deliverance. These changes in the coins of “year four” appear to be the result of political changes in Jerusalem. Simon bar Giora had entered the city and established his supremacy there. Though the Holy City was imminently threatened, Simon’s followers were convinced that with Divine aid he would overthrow the Romans and deliver the city. The inscription on the coins, “for the deliverance of Zion” and the image of the lulav, as a symbol of victory, may have been intended to instill a confidence in the Jewish people that they would prevail in the war. If so, then this would certainly suggest that these coins were produced in a mint controlled by this newly-arisen savior (Roth, 1962:43). It seems that, at least in the minds of those who minted the coins, there was a conscious combination of the new “deliverance/redemption slogan” and the new motif alluding to the Feast of Tabernacles. It appears that this combination was designed to bring a messianic message about deliverance and redemption (Kadman:94).

The motifs on the coins from the second revolt are similar to those of the first revolt. The familiar motifs, along with some new and significant ones, all seem to relate in some way to the Temple or to worship in the Temple, even though the Temple no longer existed. A large number of coins appear with a small object between the central columns of a four-column facade. This design is often interpreted as the Ark of the Covenant within the Temple of Jerusalem; however, Goodenough interprets it as “the ark of the Law within the sanctuary of Judaism, the Law itself” (I, 277). He further interprets this symbolism as showing the protection of the Torah, the Covenant, and the Jewish life the Torah epitomized (Goodenough:I, 277). The wavy line over the pillars may represent a cloud over the Temple or the Torah shrine and therefore, God’s protective presence in the cloud as in the days of the wilderness journey.

The cloud motif can be connected to the reference to the Feast of Tabernacles in the lulav and ethrog shown on the reverse side of the coins. The lulav carried at the Feast of Tabernacles and usually pictured as a bundle of sticks with palm branches, or just palm branches alone, was the proverbial sign of Jewish triumph or victory (Goodenough:I,277). Combined with the repetition of the slogans from the first revolt speaking about freedom, deliverance, and redemption, elements of the Feast of Tabernacles could picture the expectation of God’s protection and his granting of deliverance from oppression.

Other items which may have an association with the Feast of Tabernacles are found on the coins of the second revolt. Musical instruments appear, which could be connected to the nightly rejoicing and trumpet blowing during the feast (M. Suk. 4:9; 5:4). A wreath, sometimes combined with a palm branch appears. Also, a palm branch and a jug appear which may represent the water-drawing ceremony which was accompanied by the waving of the lulavim (Reifenberg:37; Romanoff:57-58; Riesenfeld:48-51). The frequent depiction of numerous items connected with the Feast of Tabernacles on the silver coins of the Bar Kokhba revolt seems to show the importance of the feast for those who minted these coins (Abramovitz:38-43).

In order to understand the continuing importance of the feast, it is valuable to consider the artistic use of its elements. An examination of the artistic use of festival objects complements our understanding of the literary documents we have discussed inasmuch as the art and the documents often belong to the same period. After the time of the second revolt, artistic depictions of the lulav, the palm branch, and the ethrog are often found in graves and synagogues.

The lulav and ethrog are especially common on Jewish tombstones. They are also found in catacomb decorations, in graffiti and carvings in Sheikh Ibreiq, on lamps, and on both blown and gold glasses. It is Goodenough’s opinion that all of these occurrences should be considered as belonging to funerary usage (X, 146). In the designs found on tombs, the lulavoften becomes the palm branch exactly like the one which appears on heathen and Christian graves as a symbol of the hope of immortality. It is likely that the palm branch, from its association with the Feast of Tabernacles, represented a present hope of freedom to the Jews. In addition to this, it also appears that it came to represent a future hope of immortality to them, just as it did to the pagans and Christians (Goodenough:IV, 165).

Elements of the Feast of Tabernacles also appear in paintings, reliefs, and mosaics in the synagogues of Palestine and at Dura, and on seals.4 Goodenough describes a painting from the Dura-Europos synagogue (from the middle of the third century C.E.) as depicting the following Feast of Tabernacles’ objects: a palm branch carried in the right hand, a willow branch in the left hand, flower wreaths on the heads of the celebrants, and the loin cloths of the priests from which the wicks of the lamps used in the festival illumination were made (IV, 145). Goodenough concludes that the painting spells out the significance of the feast including a strong association with messianic hope. As to why the celebration in the painting takes place before the Ark, he strongly suspects that the painting tells us that, at the feast, congregations danced about their own arks as the priests and rabbis had done at the Ark in the Temple (IV, 147).

It is difficult to know how to interpret all of these artistic remains exactly. Did the artists intend the pictures as mere decorations, or did they have a significance meant for the observer to understand? We have seen that the imagery and inscriptions on the Jewish coins from the two revolts displayed the ideals of certain Jewish groups and functioned to rally the people and to give them hope during the fight against Rome. It seems likely that later use of festival imagery would also serve a similar function. As the festival imagery on the coins emphasized the hope for the victory and salvation of God’s people, the same imagery in funerary art from a later date may indicate a stressing of the hope and salvation of the individual, i.e. the hope and achievement of immortality. Both a nationalistic and an individual interpretation of the Feast of Tabernacles could have existed already in the NT period, with writers using whichever interpretation best fit their goals and political situation. The danger of using symbols which would have offended both the Romans and Jews who were disgruntled by the disasters of C.E. 70 and 135, may explain why it was many years after the second revolt before the festival objects were depicted in the synagogues. It may also explain why the festival symbols came to function more within the framework of individual eschatology and non-political liturgy. The prominent depiction of the lulav and ethrog in the Roman catacomb decorations from the first centuries C.E. along with inscriptions which are simple statements of fact or wishes directed toward the deceased, indicates what could be an individual eschatological meaning (Goodenough:II, 3-44; IV, 147, 165-166; XXII, 86-88). It appears that some of the elements of the Feast of Tabernacles, possibly as early as the first half of the second century C.E., have been transformed from association with nationalistic deliverance to the expectation of God’s continued protective presence over the individual, including the granting of immortality (Daniélou, 1958:28-29, 33-34).

Conclusions on the Feast of Tabernacles In and Around the NT Period

We have seen that the Feast of Tabernacles was a popular and widely celebrated Jewish feast. It was especially venerated in Jerusalem before 70 C.E. The Mishna tractate, Sukka, describes the festival’s ceremonies and gives instructions regarding how the feast was to be kept in the time of the Temple of Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple, the lulav and willow ceremonies as well as the recital of psalms were transferred to the synagogue. The lulav and the ethrog became the cardinal symbols of the feast. The dwelling in booths continued to be practiced by some, but ceremonies firmly attached to the Temple, such as the water libation, were no longer observed.

Possibly as early as the writing of Zech. 14:16-19 a messianic and eschatological interpretation of the feast appears. In sources later than the Hebrew Scriptures, a variety of theological interpretations of the feast are to be found. It is Philo who further develops an allegorical/spiritual understanding of the feast that continues to appear in later Jewish writings. The Fourth Gospel explicitly mentions the Feast of Tabernacles and appears to give its rites a messianic significance.

A major theological concept which remains a constant throughout a long period of the festival’s interpretation, is that the dwelling in booths commemorates God’s special protection and sustenance of Israel during the wilderness period. Soon after NT times the booths are interpreted as “clouds” or “clouds of glory” and associated with God’s presence in the cloud which accompanied Israel during its wilderness wanderings. Using the Exodus motif as a “type” for future salvation, the theological meaning of the feast comes to be projected into the future in biblical and post-biblical concepts of final deliverance. The feast thus takes on a pronounced eschatological character, especially in later Jewish writings.

An examination of archaeological remains from the same period as our later literary sources allows us to get a fuller picture of how the feast was interpreted. Festival elements such as the lulav and ethrog, along with inscriptions about freedom, on the coins from the two Jewish revolts (66-70 and 132-135 C.E.) functioned to bring a “messianic message” about national deliverance. References to objects related to the Feast of Tabernacles found on archaeological remains suggest its importance for Jewish symbolism. We have seen that festival imagery was interpreted as symbolic of God’s protective presence in the past during the Exodus and God’s eschatological presence in the future when he will eliminate all of Israel’s enemies. Therefore, it appears that the imagery of Tabernacles was used to stir up nationalistic and messianic emotion and also to give hope to the Jewish people.

The archaeological remains from Diaspora graves and Palestinian synagogues reveal evidence of a shift in the interpretation of the imagery of Tabernacles. It appears, that by this period, festival imagery had begun to function within the framework of individual eschatology and non-political liturgy. It is possible that the failure of the two revolts in which the imagery of Tabernacles played such an important role, may be an important explanation of why certain aspects of the feast were suppressed or modified for a period of time after each revolt.

In this brief investigation of the Feast of Tabernacles I have attempted to show the great significance attached to the feast in the Jewish world, and some central and characteristic features of its interpretation in and around the NT period. We now can turn our efforts toward seeing if these considerations can be linked to imagery in the NT which may be characteristic of the Feast of Tabernacles.


1 The task of dating rabbinic material is complex. Though the final redaction of such works as the Tosefta probably took place after the first century C.E., the traditions it records could date back to pre-Christian Judaism. Like the Tosefta, other texts such as the two Talmud editions, the midrashic literature, and the targums contain many details of the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles and many comments about the festival’s meaning. Whether these materials contain the popular understanding of the feast is difficult to know. A comparison with archaeological remains of the NT period can complement the information from the rabbinic material by demonstrating a similar world of ideas. This material is valuable for our study. It helps us see the pluralistic character of Judaism in and around the NT period. It also gives us examples of the evolution of festival imagery through different ages and examples of the imagery in various cultural and theological contexts. We will keep in mind the risk of using the rabbinic material anachronistically. Its primary use will be to complement what we can see from the Hebrew Scriptures and the NT writings themselves.

2 Without entering into a lengthy examination of the sources, age, dating, and other problems of the Shemoneh ‘ Esreh or Amidah, its antiquity is attested to in the rabbinic literature in B. Megillah 17b/18a; Sifre on Deuteronomy, Piska 343; and B. Berachoth 33a. Burrows refers to Joseph Heinemann (“Amidah,” EJ, 1971, II, 838-845) as indicating the customary use of the Eighteen Benedictions of the weekday Amidah by the close of the period of the Second Temple, though doubting their wording and present order had been fixed by that time (Burrows:396).

3 “Year one:” Spring 66- Spring 67 C.E.
“Year two:” Spring 67- Spring 68
“Year three: Spring 68- Spring 69
“Year four:” Spring 69- Spring 70
“Year five:” Spring 70- to the fall of Jerusalem in late summer/early autumn (Roth, 1962:36-39).

4 Relevant illustrations may be seen by checking the index in Goodenough’s, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, under the headings: “lulab” and “ethrog.”


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