by Jews for Jesus | September 01 2021
The Feast of Booths, also known as Tabernacles, had ended. The crowds had dispersed and those who had traveled to Jerusalem from the outlying regions were making their way home. The sukkot (booths) were being cleared away, along with well-shaken lulavs, bent and broken from the joyous celebration. Jerusalem was returning to its usual bustling pace. People were still talking about the spectacular light that had shone from the Temple and cast a glow upon the whole city. However, it was difficult for the man who sat by the entrance to the Temple courtyard to understand these conversations. He had never beheld the giant candelabra shining into the night. And although he had felt its warmth and heard it crackle, he had never even seen fire. For this man had been born blind. “I was blind when the festival began and now it’s over, and I am blind still,” he thought. “And so it shall probably be until the end of my days; I shall sit here, begging for a few measly coins always.” He nodded in the direction of the sound of someone walking into the Temple. “The Lord bless you,” he said to the wind.
Later that day, he heard a group of people approaching. The group paused before him and the blind man heard one of them ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind?” The beggar steeled himself for the answer to come. He did not think he could bear it if the rabbi were to say something about his parents, whom he loved and who had always shown him compassion, even though they must have been disappointed that their child was … well, broken.
As these thoughts went through his mind, he heard the rabbi reply, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents, but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The beggar was astonished and then he had another thought, but he was too afraid to speak it: “This must be the man called Jesus.” He had heard rumors and rumblings about Jesus for weeks. People spoke freely about him in front of the beggar, for they must have assumed that just because he could not see, there must be something wrong with his hearing. So the blind man had heard plenty. Some had called Jesus a lunatic or a liar, but many were saying that he was the Prophet who was to come, that he was the Messiah, the Anointed One.
The teacher continued as if to answer the blind man’s unspoken question, “Who are you?” Softly he said, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.”
After he said this, the blind man heard the sound of someone spitting on the ground, and then there were hands firmly but gently rubbing what smelled and felt like clay on his eyes. Under ordinary circumstances, the beggar was sure he would have pulled away, but he sat there, unmoving, until the man spoke again and said, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” The beggar silently got to his feet and began to stumble in the direction of the pool. When he reached it, he knelt down, drew in a breath, and began dousing his eyes with water. And as he washed away the mud, it was as if he were wiping away darkness. The first thing he saw was light, blurred by tears…
John, a first-century Jewish man who believed in Jesus, recorded this Sukkot miracle.1 Jesus’ healing of the blind man shocked the people of that day, not only because the act itself was amazing, but also because the timing was especially significant. It is no coincidence that Jesus performed this miracle immediately after Sukkot, for he used both the healing and the holiday to make some almost unbelievable claims about himself. Thousands of years later, people are still grappling with the meaning behind this miracle.
So what did Jesus mean when he said he was the “light of the world.” And for that matter, what did he mean by another statement he made at Sukkot: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink”?
The seminal event in Israel’s history was the Exodus from Egypt, which led directly some forty years later to the establishment of God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai. But it was a bumpy ride along the way. The trek from Egypt to Sinai, which should have taken maybe a few weeks, lasted an entire generation—forty years. The reasons Scripture gives are that we rebelled against God and against Moses, we complained about the food God gave us, and we proved ourselves ungrateful for what God had done in redeeming us from slavery. Granted, it was hard to move from a relationship of fear of the Egyptian taskmaster to a relationship of trust and love. For God, though, that was no excuse. And so he had us wander in the desert until the generation that had left Egypt had all died. We do not usually think of it, but it was only their children, the second generation, that actually entered the Promised Land.
What does all that have to do with Sukkot? The remarkable thing is that although God punished the first generation with an endless desert trek, He still provided for all their needs. Food? The manna miraculously fell from the sky each day. According to Exodus 16:31, “It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” Numbers 11:8 offers another take on the flavor: “The taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil.” Quail also ended up on the menu (Exodus 16:13). How about clothing? In Deuteronomy 29:5 God tells Israel, “I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet.” And what about shelter? “I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,” says Leviticus 23:43. We are given more detail about the manna, barely anything about the clothing or booths. Yet it was the latter that formed the basis of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths.
Beyond providing the basic necessities of life, God gave us other constant reminders of His care: the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night signified His presence among His people. God also made a holy place for Himself in the midst of the people. The tabernacle was a place where God dwelled in a special way and where the Israelites could be reconciled to Him through their sacrifices. We may have wandered for forty years—but we did not wander alone.
Sukkot enables us to remember God’s presence with us during that time and to enable us to rejoice in His provision:
Speak to the people of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the Lord. On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the Lord seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:34; 39–43)
In the first century, Sukkot was a more central holiday than it is today, when it tends to be eclipsed by Passover or Hanukkah. But then, it was sometimes known simply as “The Feast,” there being no question which feast was meant. And of course, prior to AD 70, the Temple stood and was the focal point of the Sukkot celebrations. The entire holiday was “a week-long complex of rituals including processions, water libations, sacrifices, and all-night merrymaking.”2
Centuries earlier, King Solomon had chosen the Feast of Tabernacles as the time to dedicate the First Temple. As the people celebrated, God’s shekinah—His visible presence and glory—filled the Temple. Just as He had done in the desert, God showed His goodness and mercy by coming once again to dwell in the midst of His people. Now, in the first century, though the Ark of the Covenant had been captured and though the glory of the Lord had departed from the Temple (Ezekiel 10:15–19), yet the Temple remained the focus of the feast.
Two ceremonies in particular, no longer performed today in the absence of the Temple, were part of the first-century Sukkot.
One of these was the illumination of the Temple. According to the Mishnah, compiled in AD 200 but often preserving earlier traditions, four 75-foot candelabra stood within the Court of the Women. Each candelabrum had four branches, and at the top of every branch was a huge bowl. Four young men bearing ten-gallon pitchers of oil would climb ladders to fill the golden bowls and set them alight.
Picture sixteen beautiful blazes leaping toward the sky from those enormous golden lamps. Since the Temple was on a hill, the glorious glow was a sight for the entire city to see. (Compare Jesus’s remark in Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”) The light was to remind the people of how God’s shekinah glory had once filled his Temple and offered hope that a time would come when that glory would return.
It was into this scene that Jesus entered. Prior to his encounter with the blind man, Jesus was teaching in the Court of the Women soon after the Temple illumination ceremony. Perhaps he was even standing right next to those magnificent candelabra when he declared to all who were gathered there, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
Light has always been a sign of God’s revelation and His presence. From the Burning Bush that Moses encountered, to the pillar of fire that the Israelites followed in the desert, to the visible shekinah glory that once rested in the Temple, the presence of light has long been equated with the presence of God. Not surprisingly, light was also associated with the Messiah:
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. (Isaiah 9:1–3)
Notice the twin themes of light and joy in that passage. They symbolized the presence of God and the joy that came from that presence. That day in the Temple, Jesus claimed that he was the presence of God, right there in their midst; the glory of God had returned to the Temple. He was, many would have said, the light that the people had been waiting for.
A few days after Jesus spoke these stunning words in the Court of the Women, he gave sight to a blind man. Perhaps those who had listened to his words and who were familiar with the Scriptures were not surprised at this miracle. After all, earlier in his ministry Jesus had applied the words of Isaiah 61 to himself:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind … (Luke 4:18)
Another ceremony marked each day of the week-long celebration. This was the water ceremony during which priests would gather water from the Pool of Siloam into a golden pitcher and process to the Temple while the crowds recited Isaiah 12:3: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”3 Notice again: water is side by side with joy. God’s presence and provision, here symbolized by water, is once again a cause for rejoicing.
Then the priests would pour out the water, together with wine, at the altar. This was an acted prayer for God to continue to provide rain, a critical necessity in an agricultural economy. According to one description, “Afterwards, every night in the outer Temple courtyard, tens of thousands of spectators would gather to watch the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah (Rejoicing at the Place of the Water Drawing), as the most pious members of the community danced and sang songs of praise to God. The dancers would carry lit torches, and were accompanied by the harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets of the Levites.”4
Maybe we could better paraphrase the name of this ceremony as, “Party at the Water Show”—it was definitely an occasion for joy and merrymaking. The Talmud remarks that, “One who had never witnessed the Rejoicing at the Place of the Water Drawing had never seen true joy in his life.” Even juggling was part of the ritual! “Rabbi Simon ben Gamaliel juggled eight lighted torches and raised himself into a handstand on two fingers, a gymnastic feat no one else could master. Others juggled eight knives, eight glasses of wine, or eight eggs before leaders and dignitaries.”5
In John 7:37–39, we read that:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive….
The last day of the festival was the “greatest.” The week-long ceremonies had reached their climax, and the crowd had already spent a week watching the water ceremony, reciting Isaiah 12:3, and praying for rain. Water was certainly on everyone’s minds when Jesus made that proclamation.
What ensued was—an argument! Who is this who says to “believe in him” and who offers “living water”? And so the passage in John continues:
When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some said, “Is the Messiah to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Messiah comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there was a division among the people over him.(John 7:40–43)
The Prophet was a figure spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:15 who some expected as a Messiah-like figure to come at the end of time. Others clearly heard messianic implications in Jesus’ words and argued whether or not he was indeed the Messiah. Apparently, no one was neutral—they were either pro or con. And as we notice from this passage, people argued on the basis of what Scripture had said about the Messiah.
There are different types of thirst, and there are different kinds of blindness. There is a physical thirst that longs for physical water and a blindness that longs for physical light. But there is another kind of thirst—another kind of blindness that can only be healed spiritually.
In John 4:13–14, Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman. Samaritans and Jews frequently found themselves at odds, not least over whether Mt. Gerizim or Mt. Zion was the proper place of worship. This woman had come out to draw water, and in the ensuing conversation, Jesus said to her:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
What Jesus proclaimed to the Jewish crowds at Sukkot, he also said in quiet conversation with a woman in Samaria.
And what about light? Jesus healed the man born blind at the time when people would have experienced the light from the Temple flooding the city. The religious establishment in Judea, however, refused to believe in the Sukkot miracle:
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God [an expression meaning, “Tell the truth!”] We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out. (John 9:24–34)
What the religious leadership had missed, a blind beggar found. For him, the joy of the Feast of Tabernacles was a personal reality, for he had been in the presence of the light of the world. As for the establishment, Jesus spoke to them about spiritual blindness:
Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” (John 9:40–41)
Sukkot reminds us of God’s provision in the past; it speaks to us about God’s present provision of living water and of light through Jesus; and it also offers us a glimpse of the future, when God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3) will be fulfilled and all nations of the earth will be blessed through Israel, the nation whom he first chose. A passage in the book of the prophet Zechariah talks about this time to come:
Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. (Zechariah 14:16)
There is an unusual incident in the New Testament that may well have this passage as its background:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. (Matthew 17:1–8)
The word for the three “tents” that Peter wants to make also translates as “booth” or “tabernacle.” While some think that Peter was simply babbling from fear, when Peter beheld this glorious scene, full of God’s shekinah light, he may well have been thinking: “This is it! This is the coming of God’s kingdom! Now it’s time to celebrate Sukkot!” with Zechariah 14 on his mind. Of course we can’t know for sure exactly what was going through Peter’s mind, and three separate booths for each person would not normally be how Sukkot was observed. But the scene is full of eschatological feeling, and Peter may have indeed “connected the dots” and felt that it was the right time to celebrate that final Sukkot. But the visible shekinah disappeared, as did Moses and Elijah, and the disciples learned that this was in fact not the final coming of God’s kingdom but only a glimpse of what lay ahead.
What is the message of Sukkot for the future, then? The same divine presence and provision that accompanied Israel in the past and that came to fulfillment in Jesus, is still a future hope in all its fullness. For the spiritual water that quenches our thirst and the divine light that guides our way is at present not to be compared with its final fulfillment. Even Paul writes that, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). There is more to come—and in the meanwhile, God’s water and His light are freely available to those who choose to follow Jesus.
1. John 9:1–11.
2. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, “Sukkot,” in Michael Terry, ed., Reader’s Guide to Judaism (Detroit: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999), pp. 579–80.
3. See Jewish Encyclopedia, “Tabernacles, Feast of.”
4. Wikipedia, “Simchat Beit HaShoeivah.”
5. For this paragraph, see Lesli Koppelman Ross, “Simchat Beit Hashoavah: The Water-Drawing Festival.”