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No. 90: The Oddness of the Feast of Booths

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 90
December, 1996
Copyright 1996 Biblical Horizons

The Feast of Ingathering in the seventh month of the Sinaitic calendar is also called the Feast of Sukkoth, of Booths, also called Feast of Tabernacles. I have usually called it by that last phrase, and it is the most common today; but there is a problem: A tabernacle is a tent, and tents are precisely what are not in view here.

The booths are prescribed in Leviticus 23:40-42, "Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the growth of beautiful trees – palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook – and you shall rejoice before Yahweh your God for seven days.  . . . You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall dwell in booths." An example of obedience to this command is found in Nehemiah 8:15, "Go out to the hills and bring olive branches, and oil-tree branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written."

These are not tents. They are shelters or lean-tos, made of leafy branches. After a week, such shelters would be wearing thin as the leaves decayed.

This seems an odd command, and it becomes odder when we read the reason for it: "So that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt" (Lev. 23:43).

What is odd about this rationale is that it seems certain that the Israelites did not live in leafy booths when they came out of Egypt. Rubenstein comments: "First, sukkot are generally not found in the desert. They are built in fields for the protection of watchmen, workers, or animals, and constructed from the products of the field – leaves, branches, reeds, foliage, wood, and hay. Where would the Israelites have found such materials in the desert wasteland? Desert travelers stay in tents, not booths." To which I may add, where would they have found enough foliage for booths for 600,000 men and their families?

Rubenstein continues: "Second, outside of this lone verse in Leviticus, the Bible never claims that the Israelites stayed in booths. There are several descriptions of the camp of the Israelites in the desert, but not one pictures the tribes dwelling in sukkot. Tents are occasionally mentioned, but never booths. Why does Leviticus 23:43 suddenly assume that the Israelites dwelled in sukkot, while the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy know nothing about it?" (See Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, "The Symbol-ism of the Sukkah," Judaism 43 [1994], pp. 371ff.)

The answer of the rabbis to this problem, which Rubenstein accepts, begins with noticing that right after leaving Egypt, the Israelites dwelt at a place called Sukkoth. Sukkoth was, in fact, the first place the people went after leaving Egypt: "Now the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth, about 600,000 men on foot, aside from children" (Ex. 12:37).

It seems, then, that the Feast of Sukkoth (Booths) memorialized the dwelling of the people at Sukkoth – but why? The rabbis suggest further that "Sukkoth" might not be a place name at all, but a description of an environment in which the people dwelled. And what was that environment? It was an environment of clouds.

This seems to me exactly correct, and the burden of this essay is to unfold the correctness of this suggestion, and show its meaning and fulfillment.

First of all, an examination of the word sukkah, its relatives sak, sok, and masak, and its verb form sakak, will reveal that this interpretation is entirely possible. The general meaning is "covering," but specifically associated with clouds or foliage. There are other words for "cover" that do not have these associations. Sukkah or sok can refer to a booth set up to shelter someone from the weather, especially from the sun (Gen. 33:7; 1 Ki. 20:12 & 16; Job 27:18; Jonah 4:5). It can also refer to the thicket in which a lion crouches (Job. 38:40; Ps. 10:9; Jer. 25:38). Most significantly, it can refer to the Glory Cloud of God, His booth (2 Sam. 22:12; Job 36:29; Ps. 18:11; Is. 4:5-6).

Booths set up by an army in the field are sukkoth, and there is probably a double-entendre in 2 Samuel 11:11. There we find Uriah reminding David that the Ark is in the field and the men are living in booths. It is as if Israel is having a kind of Feast of Booths and David is not present with them.

(As a sidelight, Psalm 42:4 refers to the booths of Israel at a festival, which identifies it as the Feast of Booths. The word sak is, however, mistranslated as "throng" or "multitude.")

The other main noun in this group is masak, which is used consistently for the veils that formed the doorway-barriers of the court and two rooms of the tabernacle. It is also used, however, for the idea of protection in Isaiah 22:8, and for God’s Glory Cloud in Psalm 105:39. The tabernacle was a symbol of God’s Cloud, so linking God’s Cloud as a covering and the veils of the tabernacle as coverings is appropriate.

The verb form of this word, sakak, "cover," is used in the same range of associations. The veils of the tabernacle cover the Ark (Ex. 40:3, 21). God’s wings cover His people (Ps. 91:4), and the wings of the cherubim cover the Ark (Ex. 25:20; 37:9, 1 Ki. 8:7; 1 Chron. 28:18). The high priest is such a covering cherub (Ezk. 28:14, 16). God’s Cloud is said to cover and to be a barrier against the wicked (Lam. 3:43, 44). Coverings as protection, especially God’s protection, are another usage (Ps. 5:11; 139:13; 140:7; Nah. 2:6). Since a man is defenseless when defecating, he retires to a protected place to "cover" his "feet" (Jud. 3:24; 1 Sam. 24:3). (If we translate "boothing the feet," and think of an outhouse, we are in line with the meaning of this phrase.) Finally, of great interest to us is that trees are said to cover and shade (Job 40:22).

Putting all this together, we find that a sukkah or booth is a covering or shade. It is analogous to the shade of a tree, and thus is made of arboreal materials. It is also analogous to the covering and shade of God’s Glory Cloud, and to the symbol of that Cloud, the tabernacle.

With this in mind, we can see how the Feast of Booths memorializes the time in the wilderness. During that time, Israel dwelt in The Booth of God’s Cloud, in the sense of being shaded by His Cloud. Psalm 105:39 says, "He spread a Cloud for a covering, and fire to illumine by night." Similarly, Isaiah 4:5-6 speaks quite clearly: "Then Yahweh will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a Cloud by day, even smoke, and the brightness of a flaming fire by night; for over all the Glory will form a canopy. And there will be a booth to shade from the heat by day, and refuge and protection from the storm and the rain."

God’s Cloud over the people forms a Great Booth, within which they live. That Cloud over them is like the glorious canopy of a leafy tree, and thus the reproduction of such an arboreal canopy is a symbol of God’s Cloud.

Now we can return to Israel’s sojourn at Sukkoth, recorded in Exodus 12:37 – 13:20. There is every reason to believe that God’s Cloud was over them during this time, for as they left Sukkoth, the Cloud went before them. It is at this point, and not before, that the Cloud appears: "Then they set out from Sukkoth and camped in Etham on the edge of the wilderness. And Yahweh was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might go by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people" (Ex. 13:20-22). (This was, by the way, one Cloud with fire inside it; the fire visible at night and the cloud by day; see Ezekiel 1 for a full description of the Cloud.)

How long did they dwell at Sukkoth? We are not told, but since the memorial of that occasion lasts a week, they might have been there a week. This would have been a week of unleavened bread, after the Passover-Exodus, in which case the Feast of Booths is a memorial of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Moreover, it may have taken Pharaoh a week to rouse himself and gather the tattered remains of his people to pursue Israel. (This is a change from what I wrote in A Chronological and Calendrical Commentary on the Pentateuch. Biblical Horizons Occasional Paper No. 22. There I assumed a one-day sojourn at Sukkoth. A week-long sojourn now seems more likely to me.)

The rabbis were not sure, and we cannot be either, whether the Sukkoth mentioned in Exodus 12-13 was the name of a place, or whether it refers to God’s covering of the people at the place they stayed for a brief time. It does not matter. Perhaps this place had another name earlier, but the Israelites called it Booths (perhaps a plural of greatness: Great Booth), because they dwelt in God’s Booth while there.

It is interesting to consider that at the memorial Feast of Booths, God did not tell Israel to set up a ring of leafy branches around the whole encampment. Rather, the people were to set up their own private booths. This served to individualize and personalize the relationship of each person to God. Yes, God and His Cloud protected the nation as a whole, but also each individual. Each individual experienced the cool shade from leafy tree branches for a week during the hot days of late summer.

One other connection appears to me, which is that this symbolism relates to the events of Palm Sunday. Matthew 21:8 says that the people put branches in the road for Jesus’ donkey to walk on, and Mark 11:8 adds that they were leafy branches. This is so familiar to us that we don’t notice that it might be odd. We think of it merely as laying down a carpet for the king, and so it is. But it may well be that this is a carpet of clouds, and the idea is that Jesus is being elevated. By putting the "clouds" under Jesus instead of over Him, they were placing Him on high. Without realizing it fully, they were anticipating His ascension into God’s Cloud.

In John 12:13, the people greet Jesus with palm branches, though John says nothing about laying them down as a carpet. All the same, part of the meaning of this event, in the light of what we have seen of Biblical imagery, is that Jesus is placed at the center of a glory cloud. The king surrounded by such branches is like God surrounded by His Cloud.