Knowing ancient Jewish culture will help us know the Bible better, and know God better. The investment will pay off many fold.
Modern Jews and Christians are far removed from the ancient Israelite culture. Our food supply in the developed world is relatively secure, while their food supply, and their survival, depended on each year’s harvest. “Feast” in rich modern nations usually means low food prices and “famine” means high food prices, whereas feast in ancient Israel meant life and famine meant death. Refrigeration and cheap transportation give us variety and reliability at the dinner table, while the lack of both made it frequently hard for the Hebrews to know where their next meal was coming from. In modern times we emphasize the role of technology in our prosperity and downplay the grace of God, while in ancient Israel they used existing technology wisely while recognizing that the hand of the Lord was the source of all things.
Is it any wonder that modern first-world Christians don’t understand how important the feasts were to the Hebrews in the Old Testament? Many Americans’ main worry surrounding the main cultural feasts, Thanksgiving and Christmas, is not putting on too much weight. Political and social leaders encourage people to enjoy family and friends, and maybe even thank others who grew the food, but say nothing about God.
To better understand the Bible we must have some understanding of the feasts that meant so much to the Israelites at the time.
Significance of Feasts
Most ancient Israelites lived in farming villages and spent their days within a few miles of where they were born. Unlike today, when transportation is quick and communication instantaneous, transportation and communication in their world were at the same speed; that of the foot, the horse, and the ship. Travel was expensive and dangerous and people traveled little, except when going to Jerusalem twice per year for one of the feasts. There were two harvest times in ancient Israel, the spring (“Feast of Weeks”), when the winter grain was harvested, and the fall (“Feast of Tabernacles”), when the grapes and olives were brought in.
The Israelites loved their festivals. They got a break from their hard work and traveled with friends and loved ones over many miles of interesting landscapes. They met with people from the other tribes, sharing news, technological and cultural advances, and trade. When they arrived in Jerusalem they gazed at the beautiful city with its pools and palaces, and most of all saw the Temple. Most celebrants would never experience such gold, silver, silks and other finery as they saw in the City of Zion. The spread of food at the tables was spectacular, drawing the produce from every region and representing a variety of cuisine almost unimaginable to a remote villager. The religious ceremonies accompanying the feasts were impressive yet inspiring. Even more, singing with thousands of other Israelite voices, praying with their coreligionists, and sharing stories about the goodness of Jehovah was an experience they could never have anywhere else.
Bringing all of the people together twice per year served many important functions for the government. The twelve tribes had spent more of their history divided than united (under David and Solomon only). By bringing the Hebrews together physically they were more united politically and religiously. The monarch in Jerusalem would gain legitimacy from the city, the Temple, the history, and the rituals. Thus he would find it easier to rule. It was this fear that led Jeroboam I to set up a separate religious system when he was king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12:26-33).
The Feast of Tabernacles
God commanded His people to obey as well as to celebrate. In Exodus 23:16 and Deuteronomy 16:13 He commanded Moses and the Hebrews to celebrate His provision for them at the end of the summer harvest. The Feast of Tabernacles was the first feast celebrated after the Babylonian Exile (Ezra 3:2-4). Celebrants lived in open topped tent-like structures as a reminder of the tents they lived in while wandering in the Sinai desert. Each day of the feast, helpers would fill a golden flagon with water from the pool at Siloam. The high priest would carry the flagon, leading a procession to the temple. Three horn blasts were sounded and a choir would sing the “Hallel” (Psalms 113-118). On the last verse, each male would wave a branch, hold a citrus fruit and cry “Give thanks to the Lord”. The daily drink offering of wine and the water would then be poured out to the Lord (pp 321-322). Josephus wrote that Tabernacles was the most popular and one of the most significant of the major Jewish feasts (Kostenberger 108).
Jesus fulfilled the symbolism
Despite the fact that the Jewish leaders in Judea wanted Him dead, Jesus had the Father’s work to do and He traveled secretly to Jerusalem. The symbolic parallels between Jesus and the Feast of Tabernacles were great. As Tabernacles was a celebration of the provision of God for His people, so Jesus is the ultimate provision of God for His people. As the outpouring of water was one of the key rituals in the festival, so Jesus is the source of Living Water. On the final day, the greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and shouted that He was the source of the Spirit and that whoever believed in Him would outflow with rivers of Living Water (Kostenberger 109).
Notice that Jesus’ imagery was not of a cup overflowing with good things as David’s was (Psalm 23:5). As beautiful a picture as this is, it is far too small. Instead Jesus’ word picture was of rivers of living water flowing out of Him. Even more amazing, Jesus promised that rivers of life would flow even out of those who believed in Him (John 7:38). The devoted Christian is not one who is needy and sucking in, barely surviving and always wanting more in a hostile world. Rather he is one who is overflowing with rivers of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
Role of water in the feast
Water played a great role in the feast, both in the ceremony of the outpouring noted above and also in the Old Testament background to the feast. In the parched land of Israel, especially at the end of a hot summer, the beginning of the rainy season in October was a welcome relief. Thus water itself was evidence of God’s gracious provision for the people and the promise of a good harvest the next year. Just as the first fruits of the harvest were given to the Lord in thanks for His care, so water was given to Him in gratitude for His goodness.
Old Testament background to Jesus’ interaction with the Jews at the Feast.
Jesus presented Himself to the Jews as the source of the Living Water, the Spirit that God promised His people. The miracle noted in Exodus 17 in which God provided water from a rock provided the basis for the Feast of Booths and for the imagery of God providing His Spirit. Isaiah cited God’s free offer of mercy to him who thirsts (Isaiah 55:1), Ezekiel described the water of the Lord, referring to His Spirit, flowing out of the temple (Ezekiel 47:1-9), and Zechariah painted a similar picture (Zechariah 13:1). All of these form the background of Jesus’ interaction with the Jews at this feast.
The Bible is difficult to understand because it was written long ago to people far removed from our day to day experience. Nonetheless it is the Word of God and therefore Christians must study it; bringing our knowledge as closely to theirs as possible. When we do we discover that feasts were vital to public and religious lives of ancient Hebrews, and held tremendous imagery reflecting what God would do for His people. Jesus came, fulfilled the prophecy and clarified the imagery. He then offered rivers of Living Water to all those who believed in Him.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990.
Kostenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.