THE INCARNATION  

AND THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES

 

By Doug Ward

  One of the central tenets of Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation--the wonderful truth that in Jesus Christ, God became man for our sakes.  As we read in Philippians 2:7-8, Jesus

``made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant,  and was made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man,  he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.''      

  Centuries before it happened, this great miracle was predicted in familiar passages like Isaiah 9:6 and Isaiah 7:14.  (The latter verse gives the coming Messiah the title Immanu El, which means ``the God who is with us.'')   In fact, the theme of the Incarnation runs through the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.  When we follow this theme through the Bible, we can come to appreciate more profoundly the magnitude of God's love for us.  We will also find that this theme is closely linked with the symbolism of one of the most beloved celebrations of our traditional liturgical year-the Feast of Tabernacles.  In this article, I will examine the promise and fulfillment of the Incarnation and show how the Incarnation is typified by the Feast of Tabernacles.           

The Promise of His Presence

  After Adam and Eve sinned, they were cut off from the close fellowship with God that had been available to them in the Garden of Eden.  However, God made it clear right from the start that He did not intend for this estrangement to last forever.  He had a great plan to restore a close relationship with mankind.       As we saw in the previous article, God gave a hint of this plan when He announced through Noah that He would ``dwell in the tents of Shem''(Gen. 9:27, KJV).

Kaiser notes [4, p. 82] that the Hebrew word for ``dwell'' in Gen. 9:27 is related to the word Shekinah, the presence of God that later accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night, and that also appeared over the Mercy Seat above the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle and the Temple.  Indeed, the appearance of God's guiding presence among Shem's Israelite descendants can be viewed as an initial stage of the fulfillment of Noah's blessing.  By ``camping out'' with the Israelites in the wilderness, God showed His desire to be in close contact with His people and gave a hint of greater things to come. 

In Israel's wilderness experience, we see the first connection between the Incarnation theme and the Feast of Tabernacles.  The Feast commemorates God's presence with and protection of the Israelites during the time when they lived in ``booths'' in the wilderness (Lev. 23:42-43).

The symbolism of the Feast and God's plan to be with His people continue to run together in closely parallel threads as we proceed through the Old Testament.  One important place where these threads intertwine is at the dedication of Solomon's temple (I Kings 8; 2 Chron 5-7).  When the building of the temple had been completed, Israel gathered there to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (I Kings 8:2; 2 Chron. 5:3).  The ark of the covenant was brought to its place in the temple, and Solomon offered a remarkable prayer.  On this occasion, God's Shekinah glory filled the temple (I Kings 8:10-11;  2 Chron.  5:13-14; 7:1-2), making it impossible for the priests to enter.  Again, God had miraculously stated His intention to be with His people, and again the miracle was linked with the Feast of Tabernacles.  To this day, I Kings 8:2-21 is traditionally read as part of Jewish worship during the Feast of Tabernacles.  

    Later, the prophets pictured a future Messianic age of peace and safety, when God would be with His people forever.   In describing this time, they used the imagery of God's protection during the Exodus, the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles (see [3, p. 334]).  For example, we see both the promise of God's presence and the picture of a safe dwelling place in Isaiah 33:20-21 (NIV):

``Look upon Zion, the city of our festivals; your eyes will see Jerusalem, a peaceful abode, a tent that will not be moved; its stakes will never be pulled up, nor any of its ropes broken.  There the Lord will be our Mighty One. ...''          

Another striking example is Isa. 4:2-6, whose words are familiar from the classic hymn, ``Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.'' Note especially verses 5-6 (NIV):

  ``Then the Lord will create over all of Mount Zion and over those who assemble there a cloud of smoke by day and a glow of flaming fire by night; over all the glory will be a canopy.  It will be a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain.''              

Fulfillment in Christ

  God's presence with Israel in the wilderness and the temple foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah.  When the apostle John described this pivotal event in his Gospel, he used symbols of the Feast of Tabernacles to convey its full significance.  A key verse in this regard is John 1:14:  ``And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us ....'' In this verse, the Greek word for ``dwelt'' is skenoo, which means ``to pitch tent, camp, encamp, tabernacle, dwell in a tent'' [1, p. 241].  Again, as in the wilderness, God was ``camping out'' with His people, this time in the ``booth'' of a human body!  With his choice of words, John was showing that Jesus was the ultimate ``booth.''      

Later, in his description of the final Feast of Tabernacles of Jesus' earthly ministry, John emphasized that Jesus also personified other aspects of the symbolism of the Feast.  As the source of the ``living waters'' of  the holy Spirit (John 7:37-38), Jesus was the fulfillment of the water libation ceremony of the festival.  Moreover, as the ``light of the world'' (John 8:12), He was the One pictured by another tradition of the festival celebration in Jerusalem-the nightly illumination of the Temple by the lighting of enormous  golden candelabra in the Court of Women.  The pillar of fire guiding the Israelites in the wilderness and the candelabra brightening the sky all over Jerusalem pointed forward to Christ, who brings light to the entire world. 

One further example from John's Gospel of the fulfillment of fall festival symbolism in Christ is found in the account of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem in John 12:12-13.  Although this event occurred in the spring, just days before the Crucifixion, Jesus was greeted with the trappings of the Feast of Tabernacles.  We read in verse 13 that the people

``... took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.''

Here they were proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah by acting out part of a familiar Feast of Tabernacles ritual. On the seventh day of the Feast in Jerusalem, a procession would walk around the altar at the Temple, singing Psalm 118 and waving the lulab, a combination of willow, palm and myrtle branches [3, p. 336]. (Ps. 118:27 refers to such a procession.) The words with which they hailed Jesus are from Ps. 118:26, a verse that has long been viewed as a reference to the Messiah. Considering all of these things, we are compelled to conclude that those Jews connected the Feast of Tabernacles with the coming of the Messiah, so they used some of the traditions of the Feast to salute Jesus, even though it was a different time of year.

The Nativity and the Feast

  The Gospel of John clearly indicates a connection between the Incarnation and the Feast of Tabernacles.  Some have also seen indirect references to festival themes in Luke's account of Christ's birth.

In Luke 2:10, the angel announces, ``... behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.''  Chumney [3, Chap. 9] notes that the Feast has since most ancient times been known as ``the season of our joy.''  It is also known as ``the feast of the nations'' since it looks forward to the time when all nations will worship the true God (e.g., Zech. 14:16).  Chumney observes in addition that ``swaddling clothes''(v. 12) were commonly used to light the great candelabra in the Court of Women at the Feast, and that a manger (v. 12) is referred to as a ``booth'' elsewhere in the Bible (Gen. 33:17).  These indications are more indirect than those in John's Gospel, but they do provide further illustration of the link between the Incarnation and the Feast of Tabernacles. 

Future Fulfillment

  The final biblical statement of the promise of ``God with us'' is found in Rev. 21:3:

``And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.''                     

  Notice that once again, Feast of Tabernacles imagery is used in this promise of future fellowship with God.  It is also significant that this verse includes  a three-part refrain  that is repeated throughout the Bible to express God's  desire to be with us:  ``I will be  your God, you shall be my people, and I  will dwell in the midst of you. ''This promise is stated in full in Lev. 26:12, Ezek.37:27, 2 Cor 6:16, and Rev. 21:3, and parts of it appear in many other verses (see [4, p. 34]). Thus, Revelation 21:3 gives a fitting summary and conclusion of God's plan to be with His people forever.                       

Sermon Notes from the Fourth Century

  We have seen from John 1:14 that the apostle John saw the Incarnation prefigured in the Feast of Tabernacles.  There is also evidence that John's understanding persisted in church history, even after it became customary to commemorate the Incarnation on December 25.  For example, prominent church historian Jean  Danielou [3, p.344-347]  describes a fourth century ``Sermon on the Nativity''  given by Gregory of Nyssa, who lived from about 330 to 395 A.D.  At that time, the rift between church and synagogue was not yet as great as it later would become, and Gregory's audience was apparently familiar with festival symbolism. 

  In his sermon, Gregory pictures our human bodies as tabernacles or booths that have been struck down by sin.  On the other hand, he describes Jesus as the ``true builder of tabernacles'' who came to restore human nature and reestablish the harmony that originally existed in creation.  According to Danielou [3, p.346], Gregory sees the festival procession of Psalm 118:27 as ``the figure of the restored choir of all creation, men henceforth uniting once more their voices with those of the angels.''  Here is an excerpt from this ancient Christmas sermon, in which Gregory quotes Psalm 118:26-27:

``The subject of today's feast is the true Feast of Tabernacles.   Indeed, in this feast, the human tabernacle was built up by Him who put on human nature because of us.  Our tabernacles, which were struck down by death, are raised up again by Him Who built our dwelling from the beginning. Therefore, harmonizing our voices with that of David, let us also sing the Psalm:  `Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord.'  How does He come? Not in a boat or in a chariot.  But he comes into human existence by the immaculate Virgin.  It is He,  Our Lord, who has appeared to make the solemn feast day in thick  branches of foliage up to the horns of the altar.''                                                   

   Danielou goes on to comment [3, p. 347] that although Gregory's ideas were not followed up in later centuries, there is still a slight trace of the link between the Incarnation and the Feast of Tabernacles in Roman Catholic Christmas liturgy.  Specifically, three verses from the festival procession passage in Psalm 118 are contained in the Gradual of the Second Mass of Christmas-the very same three verses discussed by Gregory in his nativity sermon.                                                   

Conclusion

  The Incarnation is an integral part of the major biblical theme of God's desire and promise to be in close fellowship with us.  Throughout the Bible, this theme is closely connected with the Feast of Tabernacles, and there is evidence that the connection was understood in the early centuries of the Christian church. 

Certainly the Incarnation can be celebrated in December (or at any other time of year), but the Feast of Tabernacles is a particularly appropriate vehicle for teaching the full story of the promise of ``God with us,'' Indeed, as we have seen in this article, the symbolism of the Feast and its realization in Jesus Christ constitute an important part of that wonderful story.            

References:

1. Samuele Bacchiocchi, God's Festivals in Scripture and   History, Part 2:  the Fall Festivals.  Biblical Perspectives, Berrien Springs, MI, 1996. 

2. Eddie Chumney, The Seven Festivals of the Messiah.   Destiny Image Publishers, Shippensburg, PA, 1994. 

3. Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1956.

4. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament   Theology.  Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1978.


Some Points to Ponder

   from the book Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit , Howard Clark  Kee and Irwin J. Borowsky, editors; Continuum, New York, 1996.

“Expressed strictly from the Christian perspective, to be anti-Jewish is to be anti-Christian.''

“Historical context demonstrates how thoroughly Jewish-one might even say how essentially Jewish-were Jesus and the first Christians.''

Robert J. Daly, Professor at the Catholic Theological Union of Social Ethics, Chicago, Illinois.

Issue 2

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