Jesus at the Feast of Booths: John 7-8 - Part 2

02.10.2012 by Kevin Hale


This post is part of the jesus at the feast of booths series (click to view the other posts in this series).

John’s record of Jesus’ ministry at the Feast of Booths brings to a definite point who Jesus is and what he came to do; however, John’s point is severely blunted if we do not understand this part of the story against the background of the broader story of Scripture. In order that we may better know our Savior and therefore more rightly believe in him, rest in him, and worship him, this series of articles seeks to understand John 7-8 against the background of the Old Testament. In the first article, in this series we dealt with the nuts and bolts of defining the passage with which we would work. In this article, we will work through the Old Testament background necessary to properly understanding John’s record of Jesus at the Feast of Booths.

John 7-8 records Jesus’ actions and claims at the Feast of Booths. If we are to properly understand the significance of his claims, then we must have some understanding of the Feast of Booths and its development throughout Israel’s history. Further, in as much as the Feast of Booths is concerned with Israel’s time in the wilderness, we must also have some knowledge of this period in Israel’s history. In this article, I aim to show 1) that the Feast of Booths was a feast designed and maintained as a remembrance of Israel’s time in the wilderness and 2) that Israel’s time in the wilderness was a time of expectation and longing.

The Feast of Booths is discussed at length in the Old Testament in Leviticus 23.33-43, Numbers 29.12-38, Deuteronomy 16.13-17, and Nehemiah 8.13-18. From the given passages we find that that Feast of Booths was to be a perpetual feast for Israel. It was the final feast on the Jewish calendar, being celebrated in the seventh month of the Jewish Calendar. There were numerous daily sacrifices that were to be made during the Feast of Booths. The name of the feast derives from the fact that during the celebration all of Israel was to dwell in booths, or tents. The purpose of dwelling in booths was, “that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23.43, ESV). The booths served as a constant reminder that God had delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery and been with them as they wandered about the wilderness. Nehemiah 8.13-18 teaches us that while the Feast of Booths had not been entirely forgotten (see 1 Kings 8.65) in Israel’s history, the Israelites had apparently not properly celebrated the feast since the time of Joshua. It was upon the return from exile that the Israelites began to celebrate the feast again.

The Mishnah is a record of the Jewish oral tradition that developed as Israel worked to live faithfully in light of God’s Law. It is divided into six orders (chapters) which are further divided into tractates (sections). Mishnah Moed (festival) Sukkah (booth) helps us to understand how the Feast of Booths developed over the years. The Mishnah did not reach its final form until much later, but it gives us insight into what was happening with Judaism around the time of Christ. Most of Mishnah Sukkah is given to minute details such as the construction of the booth, how much light the roof of the booth must let in, how much time one was required to spend in the booth throughout the feast, and the particulars of the condition of the various foods used in the offerings. These details were not developments in the celebration of the Feast of Booths as much as they were clarifications on the requirements of the Old Testament laws pertaining to the celebration of the feast. However, in addition to these details, we find that at some point a water ceremony had been developed. During the feast water was taken from the pool of Siloam and carried to the altar where it was poured out. While little is said regarding the meaning of the water ceremony, Mishnah Sukkah 4.9 associates this practice with Isaiah 12.3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (ESV).

When all things are considered, we cannot escape the conclusion that the focus of the Feast of Booths in the early stages of Israel’s history and in the time of Christ was a remembrance of Israel’s deliverance for Egypt and their time in the wilderness. The scope of this article does not allow us to consider every detail of Israel’s wilderness journey; therefore, we will consider four aspects of the Israel’s deliverance and time in the wilderness, which are important to our interpretation of John 7-8, in order to show that Israel’s wilderness period was a time of expectation and longing.

The origins of the wilderness period can be thought of in terms of the distant and immediate origins. The distant origins are found in the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant recorded in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. God first told Abraham, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12.7, ESV), and he later promised, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess” (Genesis 15.7, ESV). Following the preparations for a covenant ratification ceremony, God again spoke saying, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15.13-16, ESV). While covenant theologians rightly emphasize the ultimate fulfillment of these promises in Jesus Christ (see Galatians 3.15-29), we cannot overlook the reality of the physical fulfillment of these promises. For our purposes, four points must be noted from the promises made to Abraham: 1) God promised to give the land of Canaan to Abraham and his offspring, 2) along the way, Abraham’s offspring would be afflicted servants outside of the land, 3) God would bring Abraham’s offspring out of servitude, and 4) Abraham’s offspring would be brought back to the land. From these four points we can see that Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, while a necessary part of God’s program, was not their ultimate destination. Based on these distant origins of Israel’s wilderness journey, we can conclude that this period in Israel’s history was in fact a time of expectation of and longing for the rest of God’s promises to Abraham to be fulfilled.

The immediate origins of Israel’s wilderness journey also show this time in Israel’s history to be a period of expectation and longing. After fleeing Egypt following an unrecognized act of redemption (see Acts 7.23-25 for this understanding of Moses killing the Egyptian slave master), Moses came upon a burning bush from which God spoke to him saying, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob... I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites...” (Exodus 3.6-8, ESV). In response to God’s directives, Moses asks God who he should say sent him, to which God responds, “I am who I am... Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3.14, ESV). In these immediate origins we see that there is reason for the Israelites to live in the wilderness with expectation of and longing for something more. God has revealed himself and his covenant name, I am (Yahweh or Lord), reasserting his promise to fulfill what he had promised to Abraham long ago.

There are a number of realities we could talk about that would characterize various aspects of the Isrealites’ wilderness wanderings; the Israelites general attitude could be characterized by such words as discontent and grumbling. Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 record two episodes of the Israelites quarrelling with Moses, and ultimately God, because they were thirsty. Similar complaints were made over hunger. While it was faithlessness in God’s provision that led the Israelites to grumble, the Israelites’ thirst was a reality; they were wandering around in a desert. However, they were wandering around in a desert with the promise that God would bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where thirst would not be an issue. It is true that God provided the Israelites with all they needed while in the desert, but it is also true that the wilderness provision was not the abundant, edenic provision promised to Abraham. The constant need for miraculous provision set up the wilderness as a land of expectation and longing.

Deuteronomy 18.15 says, “The Lord you God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers - it is to him you shall listen...” (ESV). These words, spoken to Israel by Moses, clue us in to the fact that there is more to come. Indeed, a new prophet, a new mediator, a new Moses was going to come. Moses was not simply a prophet for Israel; he was the mediator between Israel and God. Moses went up on the mountain to intercede between the Lord and Israel, and another like him was to come. The promise of a new, and we can say greater, mediator points us again to the conclusion that Israel’s wilderness journey was one of expectation and longing.

The Feast of Booths was the final feast of the year, and it called the people of Israel to look back and to remember both God’s faithfulness to bring them out of Egypt and their time in the wilderness. When we consider Israel’s time in the wilderness, we can only conclude that the situation in the wilderness, regardless of the angle from which we consider it, was a situation of expectation and longing. Jesus’ ministry at the Feast of Booths and the weight of his claims  as recorded in John 7-8 cannot be fully understood apart from letting the Old Testament background shed a great deal of light on this passage. We will give our attention to several of Jesus’ statements at this Feast of Booths in the third article.

This post is part of the jesus at the feast of booths series (click to view the other posts in this series).