11 May 2016

Jesus, Jonah, and the Feast of Tabernacles

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Christian hope, Hebrew Bible, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Jonah, Worship

BoothsJesus’s Jewishness and Jewish Worship

Sunday, May 15, will be Pentecost or the Festival of weeks.  I have attempted on my blog to help us gentile readers more fully appreciate the Jewish/Hebraic worldview of Christianity.  I think one of the most helpful things that could ever be done for contemporary Christians is to mentally replace Warner Sallman’s 1941 head of Jesus with one of him in a prayer shawl, phylacteries and tzitzit.  Jesus was not a Jew, he IS a Jew, and will always be so. We western believers have routinely obliterated the Jewishness of Jesus and the early Way. It concerns me greatly how little this shapes our reading of the Bible.

In the last couple of months I have had several conversations regarding Jesus’s place within his Jewish world and in two different conversations the idea that Jesus offered sacrifice gave considerable offense. So in the next few days, I want to offer a series of short pictures of Jesus’s and his worship to God the Father.  I will focus mainly on the Festivals but not exclusively.  We often hear much about Jesus and prayer and there is no doubt Jesus was (and is) a man of prayer. But so were all pious Jews.  But we usually completely miss how the Gospels routinely paint Jesus as a faithful pious Jew in all of his worship to the God of Israel.  So that is sort of my map leading up to Weeks.

Back in 2007, John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton and I, wrote a book called A Gathered People. In that book we called Jesus “the True Worshipper” (pp. 30-33). In the years since then my conviction has only deepened that all the Church’s worship is grounded in, and flows from, Jesus’s own worship.  I hope our journey will be helpful not only in appreciating Jesus and perhaps seeing Scripture more clearly but also call us to faithful missional living just as Jesus’s own life was filled with the mission of God.

Israel and Tabernacles/Booths

First century followers of the Way were attuned to the biblical rhythm of grace inculcated in the life of every Israelite/Jew. Their lives, even in the “New Testament,” were dictated by the “church” calendar that God gave to Moses in the Torah.  Luke routinely offers calendar references in the book of Acts that are the nothing but the liturgical calendar.  This indicates that it had meaning to them. We miss so much when we are willfully ignorant of Hebrew Bible.

The Bible “plays” on the themes of all the liturgical calendar in many ways. An example or two for Booths: one in the “OT and one in the “NT.” Booths is a week after Yom Kippur and the drama involving a scapegoat and entering the Holy of Holies. Intense is a good word for it the Day of Atonement.

Booths is a harvest festival and celebrates Yahweh’s provision of grace for his people during the wandering in Sinai. This sacred assembly is a time of great rejoicing. Indeed Moses says it should be a “happy time of rejoicing with your family, with your servants, and with the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows” (Deut 16:14, NLT). Israel’s sacred assemblies were never designed to separate individuals from the community. Rather they functioned as a powerful reminder that regardless of gender or social status the joy of the Lord is best experienced together. Thus the festival pulled the scattered individuals back into the community of grace.  In a sort of prophetic picture of the renewed world there is no “Jew or Greek, nor male nor female” in the festival.  All get to share in the worship of the God of the Exodus and his redemption.

The prophet Zechariah in fact prophecies, by the Spirit, that in the great Messianic age the implicit invitation already in the Law of Moses for all gentiles to come worship the Lord during Weeks will become a living reality.

All who survive of the nations that have come up against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths. If any of the families of he earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain upon them. And if the family of Egypt do not go up and present themselves … [to] keep the festival of booths [the plague will fall on them] ...” (Zechariah 14.16-19)

At least Zechariah thought Gentiles would be worshiping in “spirit and truth” in the festival of tabernacles.

The redemption of Israel is a blessing for all the nations of the world (for more I recommend chapter 2 of A Gathered People, “Assemblies in Israel: We Shall Assemble on the Mountain,” pp. 35-60).

Jonah and Tabernacles

The New Testament writers are not the only biblical writers to weave tapestry from the liturgical calendar into their narrative and simply assume the hearer/reader will be “in the know.”

First example is Jonah’s response to Yahweh’s mercy on Nineveh in Jonah 4. The Book of Jonah relishes “irony.” The Dove’s (“Jonah” means “Dove”) response to Yahweh’s impassioned question, “do you have a right to be angry?“, is to fly away!

Rather than engage the Lord, Jonah flies to the “East” of the city. Here, we are told, he constructs a “sukkah” (a word deliberately chosen by the narrator). This is one of those words the Singer loves to pull out of his hat because it can carry double meanings. While the word quite literally means a shack or lean to, it is also the word that Israel’s worship tradition uses for the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles (Lev 23.42-43; Neh 8.14-18; Deut 16.13, 16; Zech 14.16,18,19).

There is delicious irony here! Yes, Jonah literally built a tent. But the writer does not call it a mere tent. Rather in the eyes of the narrator he built a tabernacle! The Feast of Tabernacles/booths is one of the great festivals of the Lord. Israel celebrated their time of wandering when God delivered them by his hesed. They gather before the face of the Lord to celebrate – redemption, to revel in grace.

During Tabernacles the Torah is read again to the people (Deut 31.12-13). Sukkoth, then in Israel was a time of consecration to God and renewing the covenant of love (see Neh 8.13ff and Ezra 3.1-7). Interestingly enough another part of the cluster of ideas around Booths, already mentioned above, is Israel’s welcoming inclusion of Gentiles in the festival!! Strangers, pagans, aliens were all to be welcomed (Deut 16.14).

Tabernacles/Booths extends the hospitality (hospitality is grace) of Yahweh himself to those outside the covenant. The delicious irony is that the Dove is stewing in wrath against God’s self-proclaimed hesed in his sukkah — outside the Gentile city that is “great to the LORD!

Jonah is celebrating an “anti” Booths! The narrator reveals a reversal of the festival of booths! We have a subversion of the calling of the people of God to be a blessing to all nations. And Jonah had the impudence to declare that it was they that “forfeit the grace that could be theirs!!!” (Jonah 1.8).

Part of the “doctrine” of Tabernacles and the Book of Jonah is that God can extend grace to whomever he pleases regardless of the protests of the guardians of sound doctrine (that would be the character Jonah).  Paul agrees, Romans 9.13-14 citing Exodus 33.19.


Jesus-and-the-FeastJesus of Nazareth and Tabernacles

Jesus loved going to his Father’s house to sing, dance, pray – to worship his God. The Synoptics emphasize Jesus’s faithful synagogue attendance but it is John who shows Jesus embedded in the liturgical life of Israel. He, John, uses the calendar that most Evangelical Protestants and Restorationists know virtually nothing about to structure his Gospel and to tell us who Jesus is.

The texture of John 7 and 8 is a tapestry laced with imagery from the Festival of Booths/Tabernacles. Jesus arrived at his Father’s house halfway through the feast (7:14). On the last day of the feast, Jesus seized a great teaching opportunity.

Each day, at dawn, a priest filled a golden pitcher from the pool of Siloam and brought it to the temple while the people sang the words of Isaiah 12, “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3). The temple choir sang the Hallel Psalms (Pss 113-118) as the priest poured the water and wine into a bowl at the altar. The dramatic ceremony recalled God’s blessing of water in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-6, Booths recalls the Wilderness as noted above) and the promise of living water flowing from Ezekiel’s new temple (47:1-12).

In this dramatic liturgy, Jesus identifies with, and claims to be, the source of this ever flowing water (John 7:37-39). What happens in John 8:12ff, apparently, takes place during the evening of the last day of the Festival. Near the end of the feast, lamps and torches were placed in the Court of Women of the Temple. Pious Jews brought lamps and would dance and sing as the Levites played zithers, harps and other musical instruments. The entire area was ablaze with light and rejoicing. Or as Deuteronomy puts it, “you shall SURELY celebrate!” (16.15, NRSV).

Jesus seized this moment of congregational worship to proclaim “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). What a powerful claim by Jesus made in Israel’s worshiping assembly.

Its all about Grace

There are many other allusions to Booths in both Testaments. For those who say “We are not Jews, we are not under the Old Testament” completely miss the point. Whether you do or do not literally go out and build a booth to camp in for a week, the biblical writers (including the NT) simply ASSUME you are intimately acquainted with these themes and play on them to communicate substantial sound doctrine. They assume, as in Acts, the reference is meaningful.  Almost every word that appears in the New Testament is shaped by the Hebrew Bible and we often miss the import because we do know what the writers “assume” we know.

Booths is about Grace, God’s grace. Booths is about feasting on God’s word. Tabernacles is about responding to grace by sharing that grace whether it is the bounty of the earth or the knowledge that Creator God to those who know nothing (like Nineveh).

Tabernacles reminds us that the God of Israel is the God of all.  Worship in the Festival of Booths removes the fault lines of the fallen world by having homeless Israelites play host to Moabites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Barbarians, Scythians, Slaves and even women.  These themes find expression in Jesus’ own personal worship in John 7-8 and flow into his Messianic identity and they become part of the identity of the Messiah’s people on the Way.

It is not a stretch claim that, Jesus says in effect … I am what Booths is all about!

7 Responses to “Jesus, Jonah, and the Feast of Tabernacles”

  1. Jerry Starling Says:

    Thanks for an eye opening post. I never connected Jonah with the Feast of Tabernacles. I knew tabernacles was a feast of rejoicing, but the ritual of drawing the water from the wells of salvation was new to me. This really adds depth to Jesus’ shouting out about streams of living water in John 7.

  2. Bobby Valentine Says:

    I appreciate you reading Jerry. I am glad you have been blessed by it.

  3. Dwight Says:

    Very good Bobby. Our rejection of the Jewish understanding often robs us of a Jesus and apostolic understanding. It is easy to say well, we are gentiles, and they didn’t need to know about all of this, but I have sneaking suspicion that the early gentiles knew more than we give them credit for or at least were clued in, after all the base was Jewish which was placed there by God, so they were drawn to the base. Great context provides texture.

  4. Bobby Valentine Says:

    thanks for the comment Dwight. One cannot read the NT with understanding and miss the Hebraic flavor of it. There is no doubt that the gentile believers were (to use a figure) baptized into the Hebrew Bible’s worldview. The only Bible they had was the 76% that many hardly ever engage.

  5. Patti Patterson Says:

    Thanks for this blog Bobby. I spent much of my life with the theology of “we are not under the Old Law and therefore should ignore the Hebrew Bible.”. I have a lot of catching up to do — and love every minute of learning about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

  6. Bobby Valentine Says:

    So delighted to have you here Patti Patterson. I think we all have a lot of “catching up to do” on this. We were to busy caring around a pocket NT rather than a whole bible back in the day. Amazing what we miss and how we do not hear correctly what we do hear. Thank you for commenting. I invite you back and read some more. Be blessed.

  7. Gary Stedge Says:

    I know I was looking for hard facts of Yashua’s irony here , but this is exactly what I was pondering. I see that you wrote this article in May, 2016. I am glad you left it in your archives for me to find. I,m that type of student, I got to know. At 73 I have studied to show my self approved, but I love Fathers twists and turns also. Father I don’t know this arther but bless him where ever He is. Thanks again Holy Spirit for directing me here. Gary

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