The Feast of Tabernacles, the 8th Day and the Rituals of Water and Light
By R. Herbert
The festivals that God gave to ancient Israel not only foreshadowed His program for humanity, but also richly symbolized many aspects of His plan by means of the rituals performed on those days. Biblically commanded rituals – such as the waving of the first fruits sheaf in the Days of Unleavened Bread and the blowing of the ram’s horn shofar on the Day of Trumpets – helped clarify and picture the deeper meanings of the festival days on which they occurred.
As time progressed, certain other rituals also became attached to the festivals. These were traditions which were part of Israel’s understanding of the purpose and meaning of the holy days and provided ways in which the priests and people could participate in the festivals. Many of these additional rituals were in place in Jesus’ time, and historical documents such as the Jewish Mishna (Tractate Sukkah, Chapter 5) describe them. Although these traditional rituals were not part of the original commandments relating to the holy days, in some cases Jesus himself used them as background for His message and even compared himself to them in His teaching. If the One to whom many of the holy days point could teach lessons by means of these rituals, we can perhaps learn by looking at them today.
The Feast of Tabernacles involved two examples of rituals that had become associated with the Fall holy days – both of which Jesus commented upon. Until the second temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, each day throughout the Feast of Sukkot or Tabernacles, a special water libation ceremony or water pouring ritual was performed. The temple priests descended the hill on which the temple stood, dropping down to the pool of Siloam in the City of David. There, the priests would fill a golden pitcher with pure sparkling water from the spring and carry it back up to the Temple where the water was ritually offered by pouring it into a silver cup at the corner of the altar. The people of Jerusalem lined the paths along which the water was brought, and thronged the court in the temple to witness the ritual which was performed with celebration and great joy. The ritual is, in fact, believed to be the physical type which lies behind the prophetic verse in Isaiah: “And you shall draw waters with joy from the wells of salvation” (Isa. 12:3).
The waters poured out in the ceremony held a number of meanings for Feast goers of the first century. The ritual was connected to the rainfall of the coming year, and was accompanied by prayers for rain and for blessings on the earth and its produce. On a spiritual level, the water offering was also associated with the waters prophesied to flow out of Jerusalem in the Messianic kingdom: ``And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem....” (Zechariah 14:8, and also Ezekiel 47:1-12). But perhaps most importantly, the ceremony was also connected to the giving of God’s Spirit. The waters were tied to the promise found in Isaiah 44:3: “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon your seed, and my blessing upon your offspring.”
Read more to see how the meanings of these rituals were used by Jesus in teaching the crowds in the Temple.
Understanding the context and meanings of this deeply symbolic water ritual helps us to understand a little more about concepts associated in Jesus’ day with the Feast of Tabernacles, and particularly the final“ greatest day” of the Feast.
It was on this SEVENTH day of the Feast (called “Hoshana Rabbah” in Hebrew – the “Great Hosanna” or “Great Salvation”) that Jesus stood up in the midst of the crowds thronging the temple courtyard and called out: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37 – 38). When Jesus’ words are seen in the context of the water ceremony they come alive. And the way they were perceived by his ancient Jewish audience become much clearer. Jesus statement was doubtless received with awe and perhaps in some cases with disbelief or doubt, for rather than making a simple analogy using water in an abstract sense, Jesus clearly was tying the water ceremony and its deep meanings to himself – as the One from whom blessings flowed, as the One who would be at the center of the Messianically established Jerusalem, and as the One who would give the Holy Spirit.
But Jesus did not stop there. Each night of the Feast of Tabernacles, in the outer Temple courtyard, thousands of worshippers would gather to watch another ritual unfold. Once darkness fell, pious citizens carrying lit torches would dance in the court to the musical accompaniment of instruments played by the Levites. Even more impressively, great lamps of gold were raised, with four golden bowls at the top of each lamp. It is said that all of Jerusalem glowed with the light from this ritual celebration in the Temple courtyard.
Knowing about this impressive ritual helps us to understand why, on the morning of the day after the last day of the festival, on “the 8th day festival”, Jesus used the ceremony to explain His own role to the crowds of worshippers remaining in the temple courtyard. This is recorded in the Gospel of John who tells us “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12, 20). For those who had not heard Jesus’ statement of the day before – and for those who had – this new statement was momentous. In claiming to be so much greater than the brightness of Jerusalem with its awe inspiring ritual of light, and to be the Light of the whole world, Jesus was making a clearly Messianic claim. These were truly profound statements.
We may not always think of the themes of the outpouring of God’s Spirit, or of Jesus as the Light of the World as being important ones associated with the Feast of Tabernacles and its climactic last day and the 8th day festival, but Jesus nevertheless made them the themes of his “sermons” on the last day of the Feast itself and on the day immediately following it.
For us today, the rituals associated with the Feast of Tabernacles and its last day, and the events on the 8th Day, can remind us of a number of aspects of the nature of the Son of God, and of the Messianic Kingdom pictured by the Feast. They can also remind us of our part in the meaning of those days for the present time: that we are called to participate in spiritual events that go beyond these physical rituals – to let God’s spirit flow through us, and to reflect the Light of the World in our own lives.
Philip Shields’ comment: For more detail on the 7th/Last Day of the Feast and the 8th day festival, check out the relevant sermons given by Philip Shields on this website. This is especially important if you wish more proof that “the Last Day of the Feast” was day 7 of the Feast, followed by another festival simply referred to in Scripture as “the 8th day”. ---Philip Shields