Summer is hot in Jerusalem. In the early summer, winds sweep westward across the deserts of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula desiccating the southern Levant and the land of Israel for the next four to five months. Summer rain is very rare. Without the advent of modern desalination plants water can thus only be obtained by collecting the morning dew, or by traveling to springs. If you were wealthy enough you had access to a well or you drank from the cistern you built to collect the winter rains a season before. By the end of the summer, springs were starting to slow, wells were getting low and the surface of the water in your cistern sat just a finger’s width above the filth and mire that had washed into it from the dirty streets.
It is in the midst of this dehydrated, parched, and desiccated world that my favorite Jewish festival is celebrated, the festival of Sukkot. Some two thousand years ago Jesus spoke during this festival and proved once again that how you say something, when you say something and where you say something, is just as important as what you are saying.
Seven important facts about the seven days of sukkot:
- Sometimes called the feast of booths, tabernacles, or ingathering
- Sukkot became one of the three major festivals in the Jewish calendar which required travel to the temple in Jerusalem by the time of the first century.
- The festival is first instituted by Moses in the book of exodus, explained further in Leviticus 23 and reinstituted by Ezra following the Babylonian exile in the book of Nehemiah
- It is celebrated in the middle of the seventh month, which normally occurs in late September or early October.
- It is primarily celebrated through the construction of a sukkah or booth where participants would both sleep and eat. The sukkah had the main requirement of being open to the sky. It should be covered with living branches but not so tight that the stars of the night could not be seen, and the rain could not be felt dripping through.
- The festival was, in part, to remember God’s provision during the time of wilderness wandering when all of Israel dwelt in quickly constructed booths. But, because it came at the time of the “produce harvest,” (the summer fruits of trees like olives, pomegranates or citrons) it also came to resemble a harvest festival both in thanksgiving for the just reaped produce and in anticipation of the grain harvest which was being sown concurrently.
- This close connections with sowing of the grain meant that the festival also centered around the joyful anticipation of God’s holy blessing in the form of living water (rains) which would break the summer dry season, refresh springs, fill cisterns and ritual baths, feed fields, and drip through the boughs of the sukkah.
Jesus and Sukkot
On the last day of the festival the joyful celebration comes to a fever pitch. If it still hasn’t rained the thirst of the participants would be particularly heavy. Remember, Jerusalem would have just played host to tens of thousands of additional people for the last seven days. Cisterns would be dangerously low. Lines at the slowly replenishing pool of Siloam (Jerusalem’s primary water source) would have been atrociously long and the water requirement for ritual bathing and feasting would have been high.
From amongst the parched crowd that mirrored the dry land, Jesus climbed to the top of the temple steps, stood up and cried,
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.’ (John 7:37-38)
Jesus offered to those listening that which they wanted and had been praying for most – rivers of living water. The living water that could quench their thirst, the living water that could flood their fields and ensure a good grain harvest and the living water that produced the good fruit they had just reaped.
But, this fruit and this harvest, would ripen from the living water that ushered forth from each and every person that listened. In other words, Jesus was proclaiming that the festival of Sukkot was not just about the fruit of the land but from henceforth could be celebrated in joyful anticipation of the fruit of the spirit. By couching his words around the festival of Sukkot, Jesus not only transformed the festival itself but also produced powerful transformative action in those to whom he ministered.
Join the Discussion below: The Jewish festival of Sukkot began this year on Wed., September 18 and runs through Wed., September 25th. Should the church celebrate Sukkot? What good harvest will you celebrate and what harvest do you joyfully anticipate below the Sukkah?