Pictures can unlock the Scriptures. Truths are revealed when we can step back and see the common threads that tie it all together.
The lulav. The etrog. The sukkah. The living water. The Tabernacle in the midst of the people. A week of celebration. These aren’t just details. They are the images that God has chosen to use to reveal what His ultimate plan for humanity is.
On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the Lord seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 23:39-32 ESV
The lulav is actually a general term for a grouping of the different plants that God instructed Israel to decorate their dwellings with during the feast. It specifically refers to the palm branches used, but also includes the etrog – a citrus fruit, the myrtle branch, and the willow branch. In addition to each booth being constructed of these items, all four are combined into a single item that is left at the entrance of the booth, or sukkah.
The sukkah is the special booth that Israel was commanded to construct and dwell in during the feast. It is important to understand that it became the tradition that continues today that the family should eat the evening meal inside the sukkah each night of the feast. In the Eastern culture, eating a meal with someone was a picture of relationship. Covenants were agreed upon this way. That’s when Jesus renewed the covenant with His disciples.
Now, by the time of Jesus, further traditions had arisen around the Feast of Sukkot, none more important than the Water Libation Ceremony. The Mishna (Jewish commentary on Scripture) describes it this way:
Whoever has not seen the celebration of the water libation has never experienced the feeling of true joy – great lamps of gold were hoisted, with four golden bowls at the top of each lamp. Four young priests-in-training would climb to the top, carrying immense oil jugs with which they would fill the bowls. Once lighted, there was not a courtyard in all of Jerusalem that did not glow with the light that emanated from the celebration in the Temple courtyard.
As the people sang, the righteous and pious men would dance before them while juggling flaming torches. The levites, standing on the fifteen steps that descend from the Court of Israel to the Women’s Court, played on lyres, harps, trumpets and many other instruments. Two priests who blew silver trumpets stood at the top of the stairs on either side of the entrance to the great gate of the Court.
All this was done to honor the commandment of the water libation.
(based on Mishna, Tractate Sukkah, Chapter 5)
Every morning during the feast, a priest would proceed from the Temple down to the Pool of Siloam where he would draw water from the pool with a special golden decanter. He would be accompanied by thousands who were waiting for this moment each day. After returning to the Temple, he would poor the water into a silver cup at the corner of the altar.
This was a ceremony that tied directly to the need for rainfall. The fall of each year is the rainy season in Israel. If the rains came, along with it came abundance and prosperity. If it did not, then famine and death.
This ceremony was even more important on the final day of the feast, called the “Last Great Day.” When the priest poured the water onto the altar, it was referred to as “living water.”
So as we turn to look at what these feast specifically symbolizes, these are the pictures that we must keep in the front of our minds: greenery; fruit; the presence of God; living water; relationship.