Old Testament Laws: Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Gospels, chapter 4

Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7-9


The only explicit reference to the Feast of Tabernacles in the NT is found in the Fourth Gospel (Jn. 7:2). John tells of the appearance of Jesus at the festival in Jerusalem and gives an account of the teachings of Jesus on that occasion (Jn. 7:14ff.). In his account of the discourses of Jesus at the season of Tabernacles, John tells us that Jesus spoke about “living water” and “light” (Jn. 7:37; 8:12). According to Raymond Brown, “To understand what Jesus says in Jn. 7:37-38 and later in chapter 8, one must have an intimate knowledge of the celebration of Tabernacles” (326). While this may be a bit hyperbolic, it certainly can be said that certain imagery and themes associated with the Feast of Tabernacles do appear in this material and can be seen as a possible backdrop for John’s presentation of Jesus and his teachings.

In this chapter we will focus on the motifs of water and light since, as we saw in our previous examination of the Mishna, these two elements are intimately associated with the rites of the Feast of Tabernacles (M. Suk. 4:9-10; 5:1-4). The primary concern of our investigation will be to determine whether the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles can be said to serve as a backdrop for John’s presentation of Jesus and his teachings.

We will begin our examination of imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles with the account of the teaching about “living water” on the last day of the feast. We will then examine the account of the teaching of Jesus regarding “light.” As a part of the discussion about the theme of “light,” we will look at the story of the man who was born blind (Jn. 9:1-41) in connection to this theme. Finally, we will see what can be said about how imagery and themes associated with the Feast of Tabernacles function in this section of the Fourth Gospel.

An Examination of the Background of the Teaching About “Living Water”

The Historical Problem

John 7:37 sets the teaching of Jesus about “living water” on the “last day, the great day of the feast.” There is disagreement among scholars as to whether the reference to the “last, the great day” is to the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles (which came to be called Hoshana rabba) or to the celebration of the eighth day mentioned in Lev. 23:36 (which came to be called Shimini aseret).1 The allusion to water would seem to favor a setting on the seventh day. It was on this day that the festival ceremonies included a seven-fold circumambulation of the altar, a culmination of the libations and rituals held each day of the festival (Patai:146). The eighth day appears to be a separate feast from Tabernacles (Lev. 23:36, 34, 42).2 Since the eighth day seems not to have been considered a part of the Feast of Tabernacles, it appears that the water ceremony was not performed on this festival.3 Even if the setting of the teaching of Jesus was the eighth day, the teaching could be seen as reflecting back to the water ceremonies of the seventh day. The question as to whether it is the seventh or eighth day which provides the setting in Jn. 7:37-38 is not critical for our purposes since we are treating the passage for its testimony to themes associated with the Feast of Tabernacles rather than as strict historic data.

The Water Libation Ceremony

The Mishna describes the water drawing and libation ceremony as the first common rite for each day of the Feast of Tabernacles and as one of the most important parts of the Temple liturgy (M. Suk. 4:9-10). The water ceremony began with a priest descending to the pool of Siloam. He was accompanied by a group of faithful worshippers and a band of flutists. When the priest arrived at the pool, he filled a golden pitcher with water. The entire procession then returned to the Temple through the “Water Gate” (which, according to T. Suk. 3:3, obtained its name from the ceremony). The priest entered the Temple area, accompanied by the blowing of trumpets, and went to the southern side of the altar. He placed two silver basins on each side of the altar and poured wine into the bowl on the east side and the water from the pool of Siloam into the bowl on the west side. Tubes running from the bowls of the water and the wine carried the liquids to the base of the altar (T. Suk. 3:14). The water pouring was accompanied by the playing of flutes and by the voices of worshippers chanting the words, “O Lord, save us (now), we beseech you; O Lord, we beseech you, send us prosperity” (Ps. 118:25). On the seventh day of the feast they circled the altar seven times. That is why the seventh day came to be called Hoshana Rabbah, as the cry Hoshanah (“save now”) was repeated seven times on this occasion (Glaser:177).

The water ceremony appears to have been rooted in the agricultural character of the feast. The rabbis regarded the water libation performed at the Feast of Tabernacles as a ceremony with the aim of producing rain (M. Suk. 4:1; bT. Suk. 3:16-18; M. R.H. 1:2). Rain is essential to the growing of crops and thus to prosperity and even to life itself. Judea was a land subject to long, dry summers. Its inhabitants, who were dependent upon rainfall for their crops, prized rain greatly and anxiously awaited the end of summer and the beginning of the rainy season. The coming of rain would make possible a new agricultural season. Rain was seen as a blessing from God and drought was seen as a punishment for sin (cf. Zech. 14:17). Since the Jews believed that they were dependent upon God for rain, they developed a ceremony in which they called upon their God to provide water from heaven for their crops. The water libation ceremony that developed was to be performed at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles because the feast occurred at the end of the agricultural year and marked the beginning of the season for rain. At least as early as the time of the writing of Zech. 14:16-17 a connection appears between rain and the worship of God at the Feast of Tabernacles. While there is no explicit evidence of a water libation ceremony at the time of the writing of Zech. 14, it does appear that already a purpose of the celebration of Tabernacles was to assure the fall of rain. According to Rosh Hashanah 1:2 it was at the Feast of Tabernacles that the world is judged as to whether it was to receive rain and thus was also judged with regard to life and death.

In order to understand the symbolism involved in the water libation, it is helpful to understand the treatment of rain and water in some of the Jewish cosmology of the time. Prior to, and during the NT period, some traditions held that God had separated the male waters from the female waters in the days of Creation (Gen. Rab. 5:4 cited by Patai:261). The “upper waters” were viewed as male and the earth, as well as the “lower waters” which are in it, were viewed as female (jT. Taan. 64b; jT. Ber. 14b; Gen. Rab. 13:13). Some rabbis compared the falling of rain to sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. Both acts could be understood to engender life (cf. Isa. 55:10; Tosef. Oh. 16:5; Tosef. Sheb. 3:15; Nid.8b). The act of procreation was also seen by some in the ritual of the water libation that was performed at the Feast of Tabernacles. The water from Siloam that was poured out at the altar during the Tabernacles’ water ceremony was pictured by tradition as flowing down through tubes or “shafts” into the tehom (the “deep” which contained the cosmic waters of chaos) and thus the act of the water libation was seen by some as representing the copulation of the upper and lower waters (Patai:262).

The lower waters of tehom were thought to gather under the foundation stone (h y t s w b À ) that rests at the center of the cosmos (the navel of the earth), pictured variously as the center of the mountain beneath the Temple or at the place of the altar (bT. Yom 53b; 54b; Jub. 8:19; Rubenstein:210-211). According to a tradition found in Pirkei d’ Rabbi ‘Eliezer §5, when the rain clouds are to be seeded and the earth is to be watered, the waters of the Deep must be raised (cf. Job 38:8-9; Gen. Rab. 32:7). Some rabbis taught that the water libation ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles set this process in motion (bT. Ta. 25b).

According to Talmudic legend, David, by means of his fifteen Songs of Assent, raised the level of the underground tehom so that it should better water the earth. This legendary event was supposed to have happened when David dug the mystical “shafts” which connected the Temple with the waters of tehom. According to this same tradition, it was David who threw a stone into tehom. This stone landed at the center point of the earth and controlled the flow of the waters from beneath the Temple (bT. Suk. 53 cited by Feuchtwang:547; Patai:263). Though there seems to be more than one Jewish worldview in the rabbinic tradition, the centrality of the Temple remains constant.4 Since the Temple was the locus from which came the water so necessary for life, the Temple could be viewed as the central watering place of the whole earth and therefore the ultimate source of blessing, fertility, and life.

The Scriptural Background

John quotes Jesus as saying, “…as the Scripture says, out of his belly (κoιλ\ας) shall flow rivers of living water” (Jn. 7:38). Numerous suggestions have been made as to an underlying verse, but there does not appear to be any biblical verse that corresponds precisely to these words.5 Daniélou suggests that, even though the reference to Scripture is in the singular, perhaps the best approach is to view the citation as a composite of two or more verses and themes (1958c:160). We have previously noted Brown’s observation that it is not unusual for John to use citations from two or more passages in combination, nor is it unusual for John to combine two or more themes (323). But, the question remains, what scripture or scriptures?

Any verse in the Hebrew Scriptures or in the targums which mentions water could be investigated as a possible background for the saying of Jesus in Jn. 7:38. However, the saying has been set in the text of the Fourth Gospel in a certain context. It is set in the context of the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles. It would seem likely that the author of the Fourth Gospel wants his readers to understand the saying (at least primarily) in association with this place and this festival. Thus, the allusion to water should likely be understood in relation to water in the Temple and in association with the Feast of Tabernacles.

One text that fits the criteria as a possible background for the saying is Zech. 14:8. This text speaks of the outflow of “living waters” and it is one of the few passages outside of the Levitical purity laws that does.6 As we have seen several times in this work, Zech. 14 has a history of association with the Feast of Tabernacles. Zech. 14:16 explicitly mentions the feast and the entire chapter is thought to have become a haphtarah (a customary public reading) for Tabernacles (Guilding:94, 105). Raymond Brown believes that Zech. 14:8 provides a background for the “living water” of Jn. 7:38. He places the “living water” of Zech. 14:8 in a context of Zech. 9 – 14, a part of Zechariah which describes the coming of the Messiah. Brown gives this convenient summary of Zech. 9 – 14:

In the setting of Tabernacles, Zech. 9-14 describes the triumph of Yahweh: the messianic king comes to Jerusalem, triumphant and riding on an ass (9:9); Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (12:10); He opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (13:1); living waters flow out from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea (14:8); and finally, when all enemies are destroyed, people come up year after year to Jerusalem to keep Tabernacles properly (14:16). In this ideal feast of Tabernacles everything in Jerusalem is holy, and there are no more merchants in the temple (14:20-21) (326).

Thus, Brown sees John as having placed Jesus and his teaching about “living water” in Jn. 7:38 in the context of the coming of the Messiah. When the Messiah comes, there is the promise of a pouring out of a spirit from God, a celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, and the promise of “living water.” If Zech 9 – 14 could be seen as the context of Jn. 7:38 by the readers of the Fourth Gospel, there should be no doubt as to the identity of Jesus in chapter 7 (cf. Jn. 7:4, 12, 15-35); Jesus is the Messiah.

Feuillet concludes that Zech. 14:8 provides a background for Jn. 7:38. He sees a connection between the Johannine gospel text of Jn. 7:37-38 and the text of Zech. 14:8 by way of the Johannine apocalypse (Rev. 22:1, 17).7 He points out that Rev. 22:17 offers the same type of parallelism that can be seen in Jn. 7:38 and that when Rev. 22:1 is added, he sees a very close parallel for the words and ideas of Jn. 7:38:

“Let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (Rev. 22:17)

“Let anyone who is thirsty come…,
let the one who believes in me drink.” (Jn. 7:38)

“…the river of the water of life…flowing from
the throne of God and of the Lamb.” (Rev. 22:1)

“From within him shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn. 7:38)8

Feuillet takes Zech. 14 and Ezek. 47 to be the background of Rev. 22 (Rev. 22:1,2 = Ezek. 47:12; Rev. 22:1 = Zech. 14:8; Rev. 22:3 = Zech. 14:11). He considers the river, described in Rev. 22:1 as flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, to be a use of the symbol of the river in Ezek. 47:12. He sees the description of the “water of life” in Rev. 22:1 as a use of the symbol of the “living water” in Zech. 14:8. Thus, having seen Zech. 14 and Ezek. 47:1-12as the background of Rev. 22:1-3, 17 and noting the parallel words and ideas in Rev. 22:1, 17and Jn. 7:38, Feuillet argues that the river of Ezek. 47 and especially the “living water” of Zech. 14 also provide the background for Jn. 7:38 (Feuillet:107-120).

Some have suggested that Zech. 14:8 is not perfectly suited as a background to Jn. 7:38because the source of “living water” in that text is Jerusalem and not the Messiah or a believer (Hodges:243). However, Abrahams has suggested the possibility that the words in Jn. 7:38 are based on a paraphrase of Zech. 14:8 that substitutes the pseudonym, r b j (navel), for the name of the Holy City (I, 11). While this is somewhat speculative, it is true that in the Hebrew Scriptures and in rabbinic tradition the expression “the navel of the earth” does seem to represent Jerusalem (e.g. Ezek. 38:12; Jub. 8:19; T. Suk. 3:3, 8).9 Barrett believes that it is possible that John used the Greek term, κoιλ\α (belly), as a means to transfer the prophecy from the city to a person (navel>belly?) and that other passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Isa. 58:11) may have made the transference easier (271). This seems to be pushing the allusion too hard. The point might be made in a simpler and perhaps more reasonable way by saying that the eschatological Jerusalem is the city of the Messiah and thus water from the eschatological Jerusalem can be understood as water from the Messiah. It could also be argued that the wording of Zech. 14:8 does not have to match perfectly that of Jn. 7:38 in order to provide a background for the author of that text.

In addition to Zech. 14:8, there is another text that speaks of water flowing from the Temple and has some connection to the imagery and traditions of the water drawing and libation ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles. In the context of Ezekiel’s vision of “the new Temple,” Ezek. 47:1-12 describes a river that flows out from below the threshold of the Temple and that brings life wherever it goes. Daniélou argues that Jn. 7:37-38 depends even more strongly on Ezek. 47:1-12 than it does on Zech. 14. Daniélou understands John to be presenting Jesus as the “new Temple” of Ezek. 47 (cf. Jn. 2:21; 7:37-38). He believes that John may have understood the imagery of Ezek. 47:1-12 as a background for the water ceremony at Tabernacles, and therefore, John has that text in mind as the background for Jn. 7:37-38. In Daniélou’s view, John is presenting Jesus as the source of the water, in the sense that Jesus would be the Temple (cf. Jn.2:21) from which (using Ezekiel’s imagery) the river flows that is the source of life (Daniélou, 1958c:158-163).

Rabbinic tradition also connects the water libation ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles with the imagery of Ezek. 47:1-12. The third chapter of tractate Sukkah (“Tabernacles”) in the Tosefta explains the tradition of the naming of the Water Gate in relation to its function in the water drawing/libation ceremony at the Feast of Tabernacles and in terms of its prophetic role of the “south” gate in Ezek. 47:1-9. According to the tractate, the Water Gate was so named because it was through this south gate that the flask of water to be used for the water libation ceremony was taken from the Pool of Siloam to the altar in the Temple (bT. Suk. 3:3). In the water libation ceremony, water was poured into a container at the side of the altar. The water then flowed from the container through a tube to a place below the altar where, according to some of the Jewish cosmology of the day, it was thought to pool under the Temple rock. R. Eliezer b. Jacob is said to cite Ezek. 42:2 when he states, “The waters are dripping,” thus intimating that water oozing out and rising, as if from the ceremonial flask, will in future days come forth from the Temple rock and flow out from under the threshold of the Temple (b.T. Suk. 3:3). Ezek. 47:1-2 can be understood to mean that the outpouring of water from the new Temple will flow through the south gate, therefore the “Water Gate.” The water that flows from beneath the Temple, according to Ezek. 47:1, becomes a river (Ezek. 47:5, 9, 12). The river brings life (Ezek. 47:7-10, 12). It is not difficult to see how rabbinic thought could have connected this “river of water that makes alive” with the “living water” of Zech. 14:8 (e.g. bT. Suk. 3:8). It is possible that John’s readers were aware of this tradition. Even if they were not, they themselves could have made the connection between the “river of life” of Ezekiel 47, the “living water” of Zech. 14, and the “rivers of living water” of Jn. 7:38. If John is presenting Jesus and his teachings against this background of thought, astute readers could readily see Jesus as the source of the water and therefore, as the new Temple – the ultimate source of blessing, fertility, and life (cf. Jn. 2:21; 4:21-23).

Another possible background of John’s Scripture citation may be seen in the various descriptions of the rock from which water flowed during the days of ancient Israel’s wilderness wanderings.10 The Feast of Tabernacles was considered to be a time of reflection upon the events of the wilderness experience (Lev. 23:43) and texts in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the Psalms, that depict the water-from-the-rock in the wilderness theme can be seen to parallel the wording of Jn. 7:37-38 (e.g. Ps. 105:40-41; 128:15-16; 78:15-16). Ps. 114, in which verse 8 tells how God turned the rock into a spring of water, was one of the Hallel psalms sung by the festival participants during the daily processions of the Feast of Tabernacles. Other texts which describe the water-from-the-rock, such as Isa. 43:20; 44:34and Deut. 8:15, were used in synagogue readings in the month when the feast was celebrated (Guilding:105).11 In Tosefta Sukkah 3:11-12 the wilderness water miracle is interpreted typologically as a forerunner of the water ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles. In order to accomplish this thematic connection, the Scriptural descriptions of the incident (Ex. 17:1-7; Num. 20:8-13; Ps. 78:16-20) are reconstructed. The rock at Horeb is described as being the size of a large round vessel with water oozing out and rising upward from the mouth of the flask. Grigsby identifies the mouth of the flask as the open drain in the basin at the top of the altar into which the ceremonial waters are poured (107). The water source is described in the tractate as travelling with the wilderness pilgrims. Its gushing waters are described as becoming a great river (bT. Suk. 3:12-13). Grigsby feels that this tradition could provide a background for both Jn. 7:37-38 and 19:34. He suggests that John is presenting Jesus as the rock who, like the rock at Horeb, will soon be struck or pierced and from his belly (as from the opened drain basin at Tabernacles) rivers of living water will gush forth (Grigsby:107). While this is an interesting suggestion, it does not seem necessary to use the imagery of the rock-in-the-wilderness in order to make a connection between “water from the belly” in Jn. 7:38and “water from his side” in Jn. 19:34 (e.g. Lindars:300). However, an association of the wilderness water miracle with the water drawing and libation ceremony does expand the network of imagery that can be associated with the Feast of Tabernacles and can be seen as providing a background for Jn. 7:37-38.

Daniélou also identifies Jesus as “the rock” and makes a connection between “water from the belly” (Jn. 7:38) and “water from his side” (Jn. 19:34), but he does so via the Jewish cosmology he sees reflected in the water ceremony of the feast and in the water imagery of Ezek. 47:1-12. Daniélou identifies Jesus as the Temple rock (foundation stone) and cites patristic tradition that agrees with this identification. Reasoning from this identification, Daniélou sees the background of the expression “from his belly (κoιλ\α)” to be the idea of a cavity in the Temple rock out of which water flows (in response to the Tabernacles water ceremony). He then compares this to the cavity in the side of Jesus opened by the centurion’s lance (Jn. 19:34), a cavity from which water flows (1958c:161). Daniélou’s identification of Jesus with the Temple rock is insightful, but perhaps he pushes the comparison too far in trying to see the idea of a cavity in the Temple rock as the background for John’s expression, “from his belly.” Daniélou’s understanding of the imagery of “the blood and water which flowed from Jesus’ side” on the cross (Jn. 19:34-37) in the light of the proclamation of Jesus in Jn. 7:37-38, appears to have some merit. It could be that John is (again) combining themes of Passover and Tabernacles. It may be that John combines the festival themes in the crucifixion in order to present the death of Jesus as a Passover sacrifice (Jn. 19:36 cf. Ex. 12:46) and a Tabernacle’s libation (Jn. 19:36 cf. Zech. 12:10) (Jenney:229). If this can be accepted, it favors the position that Zech. 9 – 14 and the water libation ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles provide a background for Jn. 7:37-38.

Though the Jewish legends about the rock from which ancient Israel drank are convoluted (bT. Suk. 3:11-12 cf. Midr. Sifre to Num. 11:21), it appears that when some rabbis spoke of the rock in the wilderness, they were often thinking of the rock in the Temple of Jerusalem. The rock is described as peripatetic and we are told that wherever Israel encamped, the rock was always to be found before the door of the Tabernacle (T. Suk. 3:11). McKelvey understands from his reading of rabbinic material that there was a traditional connection of the wilderness rock to the Temple rock. He claims to see evidence of this connection in the Fourth Gospel in its section based on the wilderness epic (Jn. 6:31-51; 7:40) which is followed by the reference to water springing forth in the Temple (Jn. 7:37-38). His conclusion is that John intends for Jesus to be identified with both the Temple rock and the rock in the wilderness since both images are a part of the background supplied by the water ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles. Thus, Jesus is “the Rock” through which the living waters come (McKelvey:80-81; 136-137).

It does not seem necessary to choose one of the backgrounds we have discussed and to exclude the rest. All seem possible as a background for the citation in Jn. 7:38. The imagery of Zechariah and Ezekiel and the imagery of “the rock” are found in the rabbinic traditions of the Tosephta in the texts associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. It is possible that this combination of imagery goes back to a period before the destruction of the Temple, and thus John may be utilizing the entire combination, all of which can be associated with the water ceremonies and themes of the Feast of Tabernacles (Brown:323). Again we note Brown’s observation that citations of two or more passages in combination (e.g. 19:36) and two or more motifs in combination (e.g. apocalyptic lamb; suffering servant; paschal lamb) are not unheard of in John (323).

Living Water and the Spirit

Jn. 7:39 identifies the “living water” in the teaching of Jesus as representing the Spirit. The symbolism of water in connection with the Spirit is frequent in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Isa. 32:15; 44:3; Ezek. 36:25-27; Joel 2:28-29; Zech. 12:10), in the Qumran texts (e.g. 1 QS 4:19-22), and in the NT (e.g. Mt. 3:11; 1 Cor. 12:13; Titus 3:5-6; Jn. 3:5; 7:39).12 A passage of the Jerusalem Talmud also connects water to the gift of the Spirit. The water to which it refers is that of the water drawing/libation ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles. The passage states, “Why is the name of it called, The Drawing Out of Water? Because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit according to what is said: ‘With joy shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation'” (jT. Suk. 5:1 cited from Guilding:2; cf. Isa. 12:3; Gen. Rabba 70:8). Some understand that Isa. 12:3, as quoted above, was chanted while the water was being drawn from the Pool of Siloam for the libation ceremony (Lindars:298; Morris:420). Lindars states that the application of Isa. 12:3 to the water ceremony suggests an eschatological interpretation, with the ceremony being symbolic of a greater blessing to come. He understands that when the invitation of Jesus, “Come and drink (cf. Isa. 55:1),” is applied to this, it implies that the promise is already fulfilled. Lindars then concludes that this exactly suits the presentation of the teaching of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (298). Allison agrees that the Fourth Gospel makes the “living water” a present reality by identifying it with the Spirit (153). Because water was so often represented in Jewish thought, the prophetic promises of “living water” could be interpreted as more than a literal spring or river. It could be interpreted as a promise of the eschatological Spirit, of the Spirit’s presence and fullness in the Messianic Age. Thus, things people once believed would happen only at the world’s end had already come to pass (Allison:153). Though this argument has force, it does not exhaust all the possible facets of the imagery used by John (cf. Schnackenburg:I, 427).

An Examination of the Background of the Teaching About Light

The Setting of the Teaching About Light

The general setting of Jn. 8 (verse 12ff.) seems to be the Feast of Tabernacles since there is a literary unity between chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 7 begins with the theme of Jesus’ going up to the feast in secret (|v κρυπτè 7:10) and chapter 8 ends with the theme of Jesus’ hiding himself (|κρbßη 8:59). The unity of the themes in chapters 7 and 8 can be seen more clearly if the story of the woman taken in adultery can be removed (Jn. 7:53 – 8:11). This story is believed to have formed no part of the Fourth Gospel as it was originally written. It is not attested in any of the oldest manuscripts except D. Its only attestation is Western or late and it is omitted even by some of the Western witnesses.13 The removal of Jn. 7:53 – 8:11 from the text of the Fourth Gospel brings the discourse in chapter 8 into close connection with chapter 7. The scene is the same. Jesus is teaching in the Temple (7:14, 37; 8:20,59). His position in or near the Treasury in the Court of the Women is carefully noted (8:20). According to Hoskyns, the impression that is left on the reader is that the Feast of Tabernacles is still in progress and that festival themes continue to provide the background for the teachings of Jesus in chapter 8 (II, 374).14 Whether the events of chapter 8 actually took place at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles is not critical to our discussion. The unity of setting and themes between Jn. 7 and 8 give evidence that the background of chapter 8 remains the Feast of Tabernacles. As we demonstrated in the first chapter of this work, in the first century Jewish celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles the imagery of water and light were both very important. As John’s account of the teaching of Jesus about water drew our attention to that theme (7:37-39), so now the theme of light occupies our attention in this section of the Fourth Gospel (8:12).

As with the very broad and multi-faceted theme of water, many backgrounds for the theme of light can be found. Pagan religions, Hellenism, Judaism, and the traditions in the Synoptic Gospels can all be cited for background to the theme of light.15 However, the teaching of Jesus about light in Jn. 8:12 has been set by the author of the Fourth Gospel in what appears to be the context of the ceremonies of the Feast of Tabernacles at the Temple in Jerusalem. How does this setting inform us as to what the author might intend for his readers to understand about the symbolism of light in relation to Jesus? What kind of background for the understanding of John’s account of the teaching of Jesus about light does the Feast of Tabernacles supply for readers of this section of the Fourth Gospel?

The Ceremonies of the Feast of Tabernacles Involving Light

In Jn. 8:12 Jesus proclaims himself to be the “light of the world.” Just as his teaching about “living water” in Jn. 7:37-38 seems to have been set in the context of the ceremonies of the Feast of Tabernacles, so does the teaching of Jesus about light. According to Jewish tradition, the theme of light was very important in the celebration of the feast.

The Mishna tractate Sukkah describes the ceremonies of the Feast of Tabernacles which involve light. On the evening of the first day of the festival the celebrants descended from the Court of the Israelites to the Court of the Women where they would erect giant menorahs (M. Suk. 5:2). The wicks for these were made of worn priestly garments and fed with oil from four bowls situated on top of each menorah (vv. 3-4). The Mishna says, “there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that did not reflect the light” (v.3) and “he that never has seen the joy of the Beth ha-She’ubah (which is thought to mean “the house where the water is drawn,” a part of the Court of the Women through which the water procession passed) has never in his life seen joy” (v.1). Each of the five or six nights, celebrants, described as pious men and saints, danced before the people. The dancers carried lighted torches in their hands and sang hymns and praises (v.4). The Levites, with an assortment of musical instruments, stood on the fifteen steps which led from the Court of the Israelites to the Court of the Women and accompanied the singing (v.4). Each night’s celebration concluded with a dawn procession by two priests. The priests began their procession at the upper gate which leads down to the Court of the Women. At sunrise they began to blow trumpets and continued their procession until they reached the gate that led out to the east. When they reached the east gate, they turned their faces to the west and said, “Our fathers when they were in this place turned their backs toward the Temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, and they worshipped the sun toward the east, but as for us, our eyes are turned toward the Lord.” According to R. Judah they repeated the words, “We are the Lord’s, and our eyes are turned to the Lord” (v.4).

The Imagery of Primordial Light in the Ceremonies of Tabernacles

We have seen that some Jewish traditions had connected aspects of the water ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles to the supposed functioning of the mythic waters thought to reside under the Temple. Just as the imagery of primeval water was associated with the feast and the Temple, so was the imagery of primeval light. The Pesikta Rabbati tells of the rabbinic tradition that God struggled with the Ruler of the Dark in much the same way as he struggled with the forces of tehom in connection with the foundation stone (Braude:885-886). The metaphorical use of “light” appears to be rooted in the creation story. In this story, light was created prior to the heavenly luminaries (Gen. 1:3-5) and thus, light comes immediately from God. In a midrash of Jer. 17:12 (“throne of glory, on high from the beginning, place of our sanctuary”), the tradition is explained that primordial light first came from the place of the Temple, and in the Temple is the Shekinah (the presence of God’s glory) (Lev. Rabbah 31:7). Another tradition connecting primordial light and the Temple explains that the windows in the Holy of Holies were constructed, “broad without and narrow within,” since the light shone from inside the Temple to the outside (Num. Rabbah 15:2). It is possible that the light from the great menorahs located in the Temple Court of the Women (a site from which they lit up all of Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles) could be (at least in part) an allusion to the primordial light of creation that shone forth from the Temple (cf. M. Suk. 5:2-4).

While it is difficult to date the traditions recorded in the Jewish targums, there may be evidence of the idea of the primordial light of the Temple in the NT period. In the book of Revelation, God is the Temple in the New Jerusalem and the glory of God provides light to the whole earth (Rev. 21:22-26; 22:5). This description of the New Jerusalem associates the primordial light of the Temple with a universalism reminiscent of the description of the Feast of Tabernacles in Zech. 14 (Burrows:283). In Jn. 8:12 we can see also the theme of universalism. In this text, the light from the Temple (Jesus), at the season of Tabernacles, is a light not just for Jerusalem but for the whole world.

The Imagery of the Pillar of Fire and the Shekinah

The story of the wilderness wanderings of ancient Israel that supplied the imagery of the water from the rock also provides the imagery of a flaming pillar that guided the Israelites through the darkness of the night (Ex. 13:21). In Jn. 6 there is reference to manna (vv. 25-59), in Jn. 7:37-38 there is reference to water going forth (which, as we have seen, can be linked to the water from the rock in the wilderness), and now in Jn. 8:12 we have a reference to light (which may be linked to the pillar of fire). It seems that we may have wilderness imagery in three successive chapters of the Fourth Gospel. This imagery seems to be used consistently to identify and to illustrate aspects of the Person and the work of Jesus (Morris:437). Fittingly, it was in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles that one was to reflect upon the wilderness experience (Lev. 23:43) and, as we have seen previously, it is not unusual for themes of Tabernacles and Passover to be combined in the Fourth Gospel (e.g. Jn. 12:1-19).

In Ex. 13:21 the presence of Yahweh is pictured as being in a cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night (to give them light). Therefore, this presence of light was also evidence of the presence of God. The cloud and the pillar of fire dropped into the background as the place of Yahweh’s presence after Israel settled in the land.16 Jerusalem became the central sanctuary and the special dwelling place of Yahweh. 1 Kings 8 tells us that it was at the feast of the seventh month (Tabernacles) in the days of Solomon, that a cloud representing the Shekinah (the glory of the Lord) filled the Temple. Thus, the Temple became the place where “God dwells” (1 Kings 8:2, 10-13). The Targums first used “Shekinah” along with yekara (“glory”) and memra (“word”), as a designation for God himself in his earthly dwelling.17 According to some rabbinic traditions, the light of the Shekinah shone forth from the Temple to illuminate the world (Num. Rabbah 15:2). Num. Rabbah 15:5 contains words of praise for God including the expression, “You are the light of the world.” In Jn. 8:12 Jesus is quoted as saying, “I am the light of the world.” If readers of the Fourth Gospel were familiar with the rabbinic ideas that came to be recorded in the Targums, the connection of the Shekinah to Jesus would be clear.18 The background of ideas about the Shekinah could be seen to provide evidence of the identity of Jesus, of his origin, and of his destiny. He is the Shekinah of God from which the light of the world comes forth. He is the h n y k v (Shekinah), “that which dwells” with his people. He is the Word who dwells or tabernacles (σκηv`ω) with humans (Jn. 1:14). Again, we can see the theme of fulfillment of imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jesus.

The Imagery of Perpetual Light in the Ceremonies of Tabernacles

As with the water ceremony, there was biblical background for the theme of light at Tabernacles and in some of the same passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Zech. 14:7; Ex. 13:21). In the haphtorah of Tabernacles (Zech. 14), verse 8 describes the “living water” flowing out from Jerusalem and verse 7 states that (on the day of the Messiah), “there will be continuous day…for at evening time there will be light.” The Feast of Tabernacles celebration not only pictured this theme of perpetual light with its illuminations by menorahs and torches, but also by the heavenly luminaries. In this regard, Philo saw a significance in the time at which the Feast of Tabernacles was observed. Since the feast began at the time of the full moon, Philo noted that on the first day of the feast, the moon succeeded the sun without interval so that there was no dark interlude (De Spec. Leg. II, 210). So, it truly could be said that with the lighting of the giant menorahs on the first evening, “there was continuous day, for at evening time there was light” (cf. Zech. 14:7). This phenomenon of light was very reminiscent of the scene painted by Zech. 14 of the coming of the Messiah and the beginning of the Messianic Age. If indeed John meant for his readers to understand that the proclamation of Jesus that he was the light of the world took place in the context of the light ceremonies of the feast, then Jesus could be seen as saying that he was the fulfillment and replacement for those ceremonies. This interpretation would mean that Jesus was being identified as the Messiah and that the Messianic Age, a time of revelation and judgment (cf. Zech. 14:3, 4, 12-19; Mal. 3:1) had begun. The imagery of perpetual light appears to provide a background against which, the bold proclamation of Jesus, “I am the light of the world,” identifies him as the Messiah.

The Possibility of the Tabernacles’ “Light Theme” in Jn. 9:1-41

In John’s account of the healing of the man born blind (Jn. 9:1-41), Jesus again makes reference to his being the light of the world (v. 5). The statement, “I am the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12; 9:5), is illustrated dramatically by the scene in which Jesus gives sight to the man who has been blind from birth. Dodd sees the whole passage as a comment on Jn. 8:12-16. He believes that John is dramatizing the claim of Jesus to be the light of the world and the rejection of his claim by some of the Jewish leaders, in a scene where the cure of blindness is a manifest fact that the opponents of Jesus refuse to acknowledge (though it is a fact that shines by its own light, cf. 9:26). The result of the scene is that the Jewish leaders pictured in the story pronounce judgment on themselves (208).

The procedure for the healing of the man born blind seems medically improbable.19 Perhaps we are meant to see symbolism and imagery in the particulars of the account. It is possible to see in the actions of Jesus an act reminiscent of the creation of the first human (Gen. 2:7). Perhaps this miracle is to be seen as an act symbolic of creation. The gift of sight to this man, who was blind from birth, could be understood as the primordial light of revelation coming into the world from the presence of God (Gen. 1:3). In Gen. 2:7 the act of creating human life (and sight) is accomplished by adding the breath from God to the dust of the earth. In Jn. 4:14 Jesus teaches that by adding “living water” (the Spirit that he can provide), to the human made from dust, the human may have spiritual life (and sight). In Jn. 3:5 Jesus teaches that one must be born (come into a new existence) of water and spirit in order to be in the Kingdom of God. In Jn. 7:37-39 John tells us that the water which can be obtained from Jesus is the Spirit. When the Spirit comes he will testify on behalf of Jesus (Jn. 15:26 cf. 8:13-18), he will speak about judgment (Jn. 16:9-11 cf. 9:39), he will reveal truth (Jn. 16:13cf. 9:36-38). As a result of the healing of the man born blind (accomplished in part by means of “water” that has “flowed forth” from within Jesus), the man was able to see the “light.” He could see not only physical light but he could see and perceive the light from God, the light of the world (Jn. 9:37-38). This is indeed the story of a triumph of light over darkness. While this reading might be too strong, it does give an indication of the possible pervasiveness of the themes of water and light throughout the Fourth Gospel (e.g. Jn. 1:26-33; 2:7-9; 3:5, 23; 4:7-15, 46; 5:3-7; 13:5; 19:34; 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 5:35; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46) and particularly in the Tabernacles’ setting of chapters 7 – 9. It appears that the themes of chapters 7 and 8 have been drawn together, possibly to form a background for the dramatization in chapter 9. It is possible to see the theme of light that is associated with the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Jn. 8:12), and perhaps the theme of water that is associated with the feast (Jn. 7:37-38), as a part of the background for the story of the healing of the man who was born blind.

Conclusions Regarding the Imagery of the

Feast of Tabernacles in Jn. 7 – 9

Throughout the Fourth Gospel, John has structured major events around the Jewish festivals such as the Sabbath (5:1-47), Passover (6:1-71), Dedication (10:22-39), and Passover (12:1-21:25). The Fourth Gospel places Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles when he makes his proclamation about “living water” (Jn. 7:37-38). This proclamation is soon followed by another as Jesus emphatically claims, “I am the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12). It would seem that John understood these themes to be especially appropriate to that place and that time. It would seem also that John would want his readers to make the same associations by viewing the topics from the background which the feast supplied. In saying this, we are not stating that there are no other possible backgrounds from which to see the themes of water and light. As we have noted, John’s themes and symbols usually offer many layers of understanding. We are suggesting that, in the context of John 7 – 9, the primary layer of understanding should come from the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles.

We have seen that the water drawing/libation ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles provides a depth of background from which to understand the saying about water. Some understood the libation as a ceremony designed to beseech God for rain. We noted that water was necessary to Judea for fertility, prosperity, and for life itself. In the likely context of the water libation ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jn. 7:37-39, John presents Jesus as making available the true water (the Spirit) that would bring salvation and eternal life. We saw that Zech. 14and Ezek. 47 provide us with an eschatological and messianic setting and a background derived from mythological conceptions of the Temple. Along with the mythological traditions about the Temple, we saw that the rock (both in the wilderness and of the Temple) provided us with a background from which to see Jesus as “the Rock,” the ultimate source of salvation and blessings for all the earth. We noted that the identification of the “living water” as the Spirit implied the fulfillment of an eschatological promise and the beginning of the Messianic Age.

The background of the ceremonies of light at the Feast of Tabernacles led us to see a connection between the primordial light from the Temple and Jesus. The tradition of the Shekinah (the glory of God’s presence) “tabernacling” with humans was seen as being fulfilled by Jesus. The festival imagery of perpetual light, perhaps based on Zech. 14:6, could be connected to Jesus and the beginning of the Messianic Age. The story of the man born blind (Jn. 9:1-41) appears to be a dramatization of the water and light themes of chapters 7 and 8. The themes of identity, witness, and judgment from chapters 7 and 8 seem to be treated as well. In the story of the man born blind, witness is given to the identity of Jesus as creator, revealer, savior, and Messiah, and the opponents of Jesus are seen to be bringing judgment upon themselves. John seems to be telling his readers that the themes associated with the Feast of Tabernacles, discussed in chapters 7 – 9 of his Gospel, are fulfilled in Jesus.

Brown calls attention to a “replacement” motif prevalent in Johannine theology whereby Jesus replaces Jewish institutions. Jesus is the real Temple; not the Temple altar but Jesus himself is consecrated by God; the Spirit which he gives will replace the necessity of worshipping at Jerusalem; his doctrine and his flesh and blood will give life in a way that the manna associated with the exodus from Egypt did not; and at Tabernacles, not the rain-making ceremony but Jesus himself supplies the living water; not the illumination in the Temple court but Jesus himself is the real light (Brown:104). All rituals and modes of worship, even those of the Feast of Tabernacles (the Temple feast par excellence) are fulfilled in Jesus. John appears to be indicating that all of the eschatological and messianic hopes of the people of God, as pictured in the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles, are now fully realized in Jesus.


1 Scholars who favor the seventh day include: Brown:320; Schnackenburg:II, 151-152; Glasser:177-178; Edersheim:IV, 156. Scholars who favor the eighth day include: Morris:421; Lange:256; Bernard:280-281. All see the water libation ceremony as providing a background for the account of the teaching of Jesus (though Bernard sees an even greater allusion to the water from the rock in the wilderness). See the survey of opinion in Lindars:297-298.

2 For detailed discussion of the eighth day as a separate festival, see MacRae’s comments on the four festival calendars of the Pentateuch (258). See Strack-Billerbeck for a discussion of the rabbinical traditions that the eighth day was independent of Tabernacles (808-809).

3 Only Rabbi Yehuda asserts the water ceremony was performed on the eighth day (M. Suk. 4:9).

4 For evidence of the prominence and longevity in rabbinic thought of the idea of the centrality of the Temple and for an overview of the more prominent Jewish worldviews see Rubenstein:207-210.

5 Verses that have been proposed would include: Ps. 46:4; 105:40-41; 78:15-16; Prov. 5:15; 9:4; 18:4; QH 8:16; Sira. 24:19-21, 30-33; 51:23-24; Joel 3:18; Isa. 4:14; 6:35; 18:11; 54:3; 55:1; 58:11; Ezek. 47:1-12; Zech. 14:1-20. Hypothetical targums also have been proposed. For a survey of this material, see Brown:320-323 and Grigsby:101-108.

6 The phrase also appears in Gen. 26:19; Lev. 14:5, 50,51,52; 15:13; Jer. 2:13; 17:13; Sg. 4:15. However, only in Zech. 14:8 is the “living water” pictured as “going out” (flowing from) a source as it is also in Jn. 7:38.

7 Other scholars also have observed parallels in words and ideas when comparing the Fourth Gospel, Revelation, and Zech. 9 – 14. For citations and comparisons, see Jenney:229-230; Guthrie:939; Matson:489, 496; Allison:148-149.

8 Feuillet’s translation favors the theory that Jesus is the source of the living water. This is sometimes called the “christological” interpretation of Jn. 7:38. This interpretation agrees with the Johannine focus on Jesus as the center and mediator of salvation. However, debate on how the Greek text should be punctuated has been intense and no final consensus has yet been reached. A translation of the Greek that interprets the “rivers of living water” as flowing from the believer would present somewhat of a problem for his proposed parallel between Jn. 7:38 and Rev. 22:1. The problem is not an insurmountable one for it can be argued that in Jn. 7:37-38 Jesus is still the “Source” as the believer must come to him to drink. It could be argued also that the “Johannine parallel” in Rev. 22:1 could be used to inform the interpretation of Jn. 7:38.

9 The expression, “navel of the earth,” is also used to refer specifically to the mythical “Temple rock” or “foundation stone” that was believed to be located at the altar in the center of the Temple, which was in the center of Jerusalem, which was in the center of the earth (Feuchtwang:718-729; 44-58; bT. Sanhedrin 37a; Lindars:300; McKelvey:187-192).

10 In Paul’s writings and evidently in at least some early Christian communities, this rock was seen as a type of Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). If this understanding can be seen as a background for the citation in Jn. 7:38, it would favor the christological interpretation of the source of the water.

11 The reference given on page 105 of the edition of Guilding’s book that was copyrighted in 1960, is to Deut. 8:11. The citation is actually from Deut. 8:15.

12 Since the context in which the connection between water and the Spirit (sometimes by use of verbs associated with water such as “pour”) is often one of spiritual cleansing and renewal, some have seen a possible reference to baptism in these texts (e.g. Lindars:152, 301; Brown:329).

13 For a fuller account of the criticism of this text, see Guilding:110; Brown:335-336; Morris:882-884 and the very helpful survey in Hoskyns:II, 673-685.

14 Assuming a historical account, Morris believes that the feast was over by the end of chapter 7 because the crowds, mentioned eight times in that chapter, are not mentioned at all in chapter 8. He reasons that the feast must have been over and the crowds had gone home (435). Morris appears to be making an argument from silence and one that does not affect the possibility of the continuation of themes from chapter 7 to chapter 8.

15 For a survey of the ideas about light in these systems, see Barrett:277-278; Dodd:201-212.

16 However, in theophanies from the time of Moses forward, Yahweh manifests himself in fire (e.g. Ex. 3:2-3; 19:18; 24:17; Deut. 4:12, 24; 5:22-27; 9:3; Ps. 18:8-14 = 2 Sam. 22:9-15; Ezek. 1:4-28; Hab. 3:3-4).

17 The Targum of Onkelos, the Aramaic version of the Pentateuch arranged at Jabne ca. C.E. 100-130, replaces “name” in Deut. 12:5 with “Shekinah.” The Jerusalem Targum, a Palestinian version of the Pentateuch called Pseudo-Jonathan, relates “Shekinah,” yekara, and memra to the “name” (dwelling) in Lev. 26:11 (Moody:IV, 317).

18 Evidence for a relation to the Targums can be seen in Jn. 12:40-41. After the quotation of Isa. 6:10 the comment is made: “Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” The Targums on Isa. 6:1, 5, say: “I saw the yekara (glory) of the Lord resting on his yekara(glory) of the Shekinah of the king of the ages” (Moody:IV, 319).

19 It seems improbable even though spittle was commonly thought to have medicinal and magical properties in the ancient world. For references, see Barrett:296. In this account, spittle is not placed on the eyes, but is instead mixed with dirt and the combination is placed on the eyes. Rather than being an eye-salve or emollient, it would presumably dry into a hard crust over the eyes.

Author: Dan Rogers


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