Thursday, November 19, 2015

Did The Ancient Israelites Have Thanksgiving?

I hope everyone has been getting into the Thanksgiving mood. Or more appropriately, the Thanksgiving mode. It is an attitude, the ability to turn to God and acknowledge His providence for us. As we discussed last week, it has a long and important history in this country. Sadly, it is being lost, and we need to stand up for it if it is not to go to the wayside.

American history is one thing, but does the idea of Thanksgiving go back any further than that? Yes, as a matter of fact, it does. Most ancient cultures had some type of festival that corresponds to our holiday. In general, they were harvest celebrations. They were meant to praise the gods for not withholding the gift of food ahead of another winter.

So when I tell you the Israelites had a similar celebration, it should come as no surprise. However, while the harvest was an important aspect, it was not the only or even the primary purpose of it. This week, we are going to take a look at what it was really about, in the hopes that it will enhance our understanding of our own Thanksgiving observances.

The Fall Festivals

I don’t want to bog us down with a lot of names, dates, and seasons, so suffice it to say that there are quite a few festivals on the Mosaic calendar (I say Mosaic, because I mean those that occur in the books of Moses from the beginning of the Old Testament. There are a few others on the Jewish calendar that do not date back to that period). Some of the most important took place in the month that corresponds to our September-October, or again, harvest time.

The first two were single-day events. The Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23–25) announced that the month had come, while the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32) ten days later was a time for reflection on the need for forgiveness. What I have in view here, though, is the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:33-43).

Purpose and Practices of the Feast of Tabernacles

Tabernacles is to begin on the fifteenth day of this month of Ethanim, and runs for eight days. Where the Day of Atonement was meant for affliction of soul, Tabernacles is meant to be a joyous event. At that time, the Israelites were meant to recall all the Lord had done for them and offer their thanks for it.


Obviously, this includes the harvest. But once again, that was not all. The reason it is called the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths, is because the people were required to spend the week in temporary structures of simple construction. These structures were to remind the Israelites of the moveable houses in which their ancestors lived during the Exodus. It was a reminder to them of the way God delivered them from the slavery of Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness, and guided them to the Promised Land.

An image of one such booth appears at the bottom of this article. As you can tell, it is nothing too elaborate. Nor was it meant to be. The purpose is in its flimsiness and impermanence. It was not just a statement about life during the Exodus. It was about life in general. When the Israelites had to live in them, it reminded them of just how fragile life is.

As we go about the day-to-day, that can be hard to remember. The Feast of Tabernacles drew their minds away from the mundane, in which it can become so easy to believe that we are the source of all we possess. Spend a week in a house made of twigs, and you gain some perspective. Life is not the product of our efforts. Rather, it is the blessing of the Creator, to whom we owe our thanks.


Tabernacles is about still more, however. Thanks was also to be given for the Day of Atonement just passed, with its promise of forgiveness for the last year’s unintentional sins. That God would be so gracious as to make forgiveness available, and give the gift of His presence, was another reason to praise Him.

To that end, the feast included an element of water imagery. It referred to the rain sent by God, which gave physical life (Zechariah 14:16–19). Water represented the tears shed in repentance for sin (Lamentations 2:18, 19). It also spoke of spiritual thirst and a desire for the blessing of the gift of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 12:3; 44:3). And finally, it pointed to the prophetic promise of a river that would someday flow out of the Temple in Jerusalem to provide sustenance to God’s people (Ezekiel 47:1–12).

In view of these things, and particularly the final promise, the Jews developed a tradition over time of pouring out water in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles. Prayers and psalms were said with the outpouring, thanking the Lord for His goodness and asking Him to fulfill His word. The water was poured on the first seven days of the feast, but not on the last day, which was the day of greatest expectation. It was the day that it was hoped God would send His river out of Zion.

The Christian Connection

This is important, not just for Jews, but also for Christians. During one particular Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus went up to Jerusalem to participate as God’s commands required. And on the eighth day, that day of expectation, He spoke out and said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37–39).

It is a shocking moment that can be easily missed without the background. Jesus was declaring that He had come to fulfill the promises of God, and on the day God was expected to so fulfill them. The long-awaited moment had arrived. And Jesus, in saying He could offer this, was claiming in no uncertain terms that He is God. For only God could offer this water.

Sadly, many of Jesus’ contemporaries missed the moment. They even killed Him for it. For the most part, the Jewish people have ignored or resisted the fact that Jesus has provided everything they sought so long. But they do not have to, and neither does anyone else. Jesus has an offer for all mankind. When we come to Him in faith, we receive the Holy Spirit Who strengthens us in the life and knowledge of Christ.

Tabernacles and Thanksgiving

This, above all, is the link between our Thanksgiving and the Feast of Tabernacles. The ancient feast looked forward to God’s promise of a Savior and His presence in us. Now that the promise has been fulfilled, there is nothing for which we should be more thankful.

There are many lessons for us in the Feast of Tabernacles. We may not be required to observe it in exactly the same way, but its principles should guide our approach to the upcoming holiday. It is a reminder of what God has provided, in material and spiritual things. It is a representation of the fact that life is frail and fleeting, and we stand only because of God’s protection. And it calls us to be mindful of the fact that God has granted us forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit through the work of Jesus Christ. For all these things, let us give thanks, not only at this time, but all year round.

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