In the section of the book of Exodus that sets out the Ten Commandments and the associated laws and rules, there are instructions (in Chapter 23) about the observation of feasts and festivals.
In particular, there are three great festivals which, in later centuries, required people, if they could make it, to go up to Jerusalem in pilgrimage.
The first of these three annual festivals was associated originally with the gathering in of the first barley crop and the beginning of the main planting season for other crops. And because it marked only the beginning of the season, it was a time of hope rather than of celebration. From its ancient, primitive origins, this festival would develop into the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of Passover – marking the Exodus and, so, the hopeful beginnings of the Jewish people.
The second feast – which would later become the feast of Pentecost, marked the main wheat harvest. There would now be bread: but what of the other crops, such as grapes, olives, and fruits? The future was still not assured.
And the third festival, which many Christians will be less familiar with, was Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles – akin to our own Harvest Festival, when the main harvest of oil, fruits and other crops would be finally gathered in, and the celebrations could be greater.
During the festival, Jews then – as they still do now – created little temporary, makeshift huts – or tents – from branches, just
as grape-pickers would have done when camping out in the vineyards to gather in the grapes. And they would live, eat and sleep in these huts for the week of the festival.
But, like Passover and Pentecost, the festival of Sukkoth had a set of deeper, spiritual meanings for Jews: it recalled the time when the Jewish people had wandered for forty years, homeless in the wilderness, and being also known also as the ‘Feast of Ingathering’ it brought home to the Jewish people not just gratitude for the harvest, but also their arrival in the homeland that God had ordained for them.
Unlike Passover and Pentecost, Sukkoth has not found its way into the Christian calendar – except in a roundabout way – because, although it is not spelt out for us in so many words, the Transfiguration almost certainly took place during a night-long vigil of prayer on Mount Tabor by Jesus to mark the feast of Sukkoth. That is the only credible reason why Peter made his strange proposal to build ‘tents’ for Jesus, Moses and Elijah: and it must have seemed to him that Moses and Elijah might be persuaded to stay and join them for the festival.
So, on the Feast of Sukkoth, marking the gathering in of the harvest, Jesus is revealed as the one who will fulfil the destiny of the Jewish people as he talks with Moses, the religious Father of the people, and with Elijah, the Father of the prophets. Jesus is the one who will do the true ‘Ingathering’ for which we long, by winning for us eternal life with him in heaven.