INCARNATION AND THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES
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
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.''
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.
Promise of His Presence
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 he 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
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):
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.''
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.''
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.
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.
The final biblical statement of the promise
of ``God with us'' is found in Rev. 21:3:
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.
Notes from the Fourth Century
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. (See p. 45 of this issue in reference to fourth-century
festival observance by Christians.)
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.''
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
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
Certainly the Incarnation can be celebrated in December (or
at any other time of year), but there are several reasons
why a Feast of Tabernacles celebration of the Incarnation
would be very fitting for us in the WCG. First, our traditional
love for the Feast would make such a celebration especially
meaningful for us. Second, a fall celebration of the Incarnation
would be much less divisive in our church than the observance
Finally, 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.
- Samuele Bacchiocchi, God's Festivals in Scripture
and History, Part 2: the Fall Festivals. Biblical Perspectives,
Berrien Springs, MI, 1995. (For sample chapters, see http://www2.andrews.edu/~
samuele. This book can be purchased for $15 from Biblical
Perspectives, 4990 Appian Way, Berrien Springs, MI 49103.)
- Eddie Chumney, The Seven Festivals of the Messiah.
Destiny Image Publishers, Shippensburg, PA, 1994. (This
book is available on the internet in its entirety at http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/2175,
and copies may be purchased for $12 from Hebraic Heritage
Ministries International, P.O. Box 81, Strasburg, Ohio 44680.)
- Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy. University
of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1956.
- Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology.
Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1978.