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The Feast: Learning from Ancient Israel

by Edward L. Winkfield and David J. Litavsky

While many eagerly anticipate this fall festival, preparing for it can be challenging. The ancient Israelites’ example provides perspective to help Christians better keep the Feast.

Under the glow of the harvest moon, Jamiel picks the last of the crops in his field. Day after day for weeks, like most Israelites, he has worked hard with his family to round up grains, grapes, olives and other produce.

Figs have been dried and grapes made into raisins, syrups and wines. Everything else has been gathered into storehouses to last throughout the winter until the next harvest. He has also left some crops in the field for poorer Israelites to glean (Lev. 19:10; Deut. 24:21).

His work stops on the 10th day of the seventh month, the Day of Atonement. The obligatory day of rest and fasting offers a brief respite, allowing he and his family to focus on and thank their Creator for His provisions.

The moment the sun sets and the fast is broken, Jamiel begins toiling once again to prepare for the next commanded festival: the Feast of Tabernacles. During this time, he and his family will “dwell in booths [huts or tabernacles] seven days” (Lev. 23:42).

Throughout the year, he has labored to set aside his second tithe, which is a tenth of all his produce, livestock and wealth (Deut. 14:22-27). Now it is time to use it.

Once everything is prepared and packed into convoys, he and his family travel two days on foot beside livestock hauling carts of equipment and food to a specified area.

Arriving at the site, the family begins scavenging for raw materials: “the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook” (Lev. 23:40). These are used to build their booth.

The booth is to be their dwelling for the next seven or more days—where they will eat, sleep and entertain guests. Its interior is ornately decorated with colorful linens, hanging fruits, flowers and tapestries, but it has to be sturdy enough to withstand wind, and roofed to shield from sunlight and possible rain.

After preparing it, Jamiel joins the other Israelites, commoners and elders alike, and proceeds to “rejoice before the lord your God seven days” (vs. 40).

All in attendance come together daily for public readings of God’s Law. They prepare and sacrifice offerings every day before God. The entire time is filled with expressions of joy, evidenced by others’ dancing and singing hymns of praise to their Creator.

In the evening, Jamiel’s wife and children prepare a delicacy only served during Holy Days or for important guests—fresh-cut, flame-roasted beef with onions and garlic! He complements this sumptuous meal with his favorite strong drink prepared over the previous months.

The Israelite man looks contently at those around him. He is glad to have obeyed God in setting aside his second tithe, which allows he and his family to fully enjoy themselves.

Although Jamiel is hypothetical, his experience is typical of what ancient Israelites experienced leading up to and during the Feast of Tabernacles.

To modern minds, it may be difficult to comprehend how the Israelites found time to rejoice at the Feast given all the physical labor involved: harvesting, gathering, traveling by foot, building and living in what were essentially makeshift tents, and preparing their best foods on a meal-to-meal basis.

Yet God knew exactly what He was doing by commanding the Israelites to observe the Feast in such detail. He understood everything that was required of them to keep it as He expected.

Labor was clearly a theme for this annual occasion. In all labor there is profit (Prov. 14:23) and working to prepare for and during the Feast reinforced this lesson to the children of Israel.

Although preparing for and keeping the Feast can seem like considerable work in the modern age, it is much more convenient compared to times past.

With the click of a computer mouse or a quick trip to an ATM, we can transfer cash from our savings to make second tithe available—no need to spend hours each day for weeks hauling produce and livestock. Cars and planes zip us to Feast sites in a matter of hours—minimal walking is necessary.

Once we arrive at a Feast site, our “booths” are already built in the form of hotels and motels, which have electricity, air-conditioning, heating, a continuous water supply, housekeeping staff, and management and maintenance workers available 24/7.

During the festival, we have access to a variety of restaurants and convenience stores for food and strong drink—aging our own wines, butchering animals, and starting cooking fires is unnecessary.

God clearly requires labor to keep the Feast, as evidenced by the instructions He gave ancient Israel. Given modern conveniences, where should we focus our effort today?

Importance of Work

Though thousands of years have passed since the Israelites’ days of intense, sometimes back-breaking labor, there are still legitimate obstacles to us keeping the Feast today. This is especially true for those dealing with health problems, tight budgets, or difficulty getting time off from work.

Yet God intended for us to exert the necessary effort to obey Him.

Notice His instructions concerning the Feast of Tabernacles and Last Great Day: “In the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast unto the lord seven days: on the first day shall be a Sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a Sabbath…And you shall keep it a feast unto the lord seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations…” (Lev. 23:39, 41). This final phrase leaves no room for dispute.

Now read the entire command in Leviticus 23, verses 33 to 43. Then note the charge to keep and use second tithe in Deuteronomy 12:17-18 and 14:22-27. God laid out every detail, including how to afford travel to the Feast, where to keep it, how to build booths, what kinds of offerings to provide, how each day was to be kept, and even how to rejoice.

To fully learn lessons from the Feast, we must keep it as God instructed. We cannot ignore or pick and choose elements we want to obey.

Jeroboam’s Example

The experience of Jeroboam in I Kings 12-13 is instructive in this regard. As the first king of the 10 tribes that split from Judah, he was determined to make his mark and solidify his rule. He understood that properly keeping the Feast would cause people under him to turn once again and obey God, which could possibly lead to a reunion with the other tribes (12:27) and him losing power.

Knowing that the people believed the command to keep the Feast, he decided to ordain a feast of his own on the 15th day of the eighth month—one month to the day past the true Feast of Tabernacles. This extra month allowed the Israelites more time to prepare, which made it more convenient.

In addition, the king wanted the Feast to be kept in Samaria, the northern capital, instead of Jerusalem, where God placed His name. It also involved the worship of idols and was officiated by false priests (vs. 31-32).

All of this was much more convenient for the Israelites because they (1) had an extra month to harvest, (2) did not have to travel as far, and (3) did not have to bring animal or grain offerings according to God’s standards.

The result of Jeroboam’s actions, and Israel losing sight of the true God and the real meaning behind His Feast, was telling. God eventually destroyed Jeroboam’s lineage and sent Israel into captivity.

Jeroboam’s actions may seem extreme, however, he essentially watered down the Feast, making it so that the Israelites could “feel like” they were obeying God when they were really missing the mark altogether.

Just as God required significant effort from ancient Israel to properly keep the Feast of Tabernacles, He requires similar effort from spiritual Israel today.

God’s Holy Days serve a crucial purpose. Unlike the world’s holidays, they are bursting with lessons for God’s people to absorb. The Feast of Tabernacles pictures when the Kingdom of God will rule on Earth. Along with the Last Great Day, the Feast is the culmination of God’s Master Plan for mankind. This is why He commanded it to be kept at the end of the growing season, translated the “year’s end” in the King James Version (Ex. 34:22).

Unlike Pentecost or Atonement, which are one-day observances, the Feast is seven days, demonstrating that it represents a period of time. In addition, booths, or temporary dwellings, demonstrate how life in our physical bodies is temporary.

God builds on these and other important lessons for the Feast with two overarching purposes—learning to fear Him (Deut. 14:23) and learning to rejoice (Lev. 23:40).

The type of fear God wants us to learn is not based on fright or terror. It is demonstrated by the utmost reverence and respect.

His command to rejoice at the Feast is just as plain. The festival should be a time of happiness as we enjoy all the blessings that God Almighty has provided.

Getting There

While we no longer deal with livestock, crops and booths, we still must labor to get the most out of this occasion.

Simply getting to where God has placed His name can be challenging.

For starters, to make sure you have sufficient second tithe to spend during the Feast, you must be a good steward. Jamiel was a self-employed farmer as are some of God’s people today. Most of us, however, earn wages through some form of employment.

Securing and keeping a job is not always easy. It requires dedication, responsibility, good communication skills, the ability to follow instructions, and much more. In other words, it takes work!

Once we earn income, we must be diligent to save our second tithe. We cannot “borrow” from these funds throughout the year—this is a form of stealing. Second tithe is intended for travel to and from the Feast and for use while we are there.

Many choose to place these funds in a second bank account so that they are not commingled with other funds and available when needed. The total second tithe you have saved becomes the basis of your Feast budget.

We are commanded to give an offering on the first day of the Feast and the Last Great Day. Jamiel, and others like him, saved all year to make this possible. Similarly, we should plan for this offering by putting aside additional funds throughout the year. Though we may not know exactly how much we will give during the offertory, it helps to have a general idea.

Several months before leaving for the Feast, we must arrange time off from work and time off from school for our children. Forgetting to do this and requesting time off at the last minute can be problematic. Our employers could refuse to give us the time, putting our Feast attendance or our continued employment in jeopardy. Approaching our job or our children’s school for time off at the last minute also reflects poorly on the Church.

When we start to make travel and hotel arrangements, each of us must consider, “Is my destination close enough to drive to or is an airplane flight the better option? What type of hotel room can I afford?” These are important questions to ponder as you work within your established budget.

If we are driving, we must be sure our vehicles are reliable and that we have directions to our destination. We must take steps to secure our homes and make certain everything will be taken care of in our yards until we return.

Packing sufficiently for eight days or more is also important. In addition, we must make sure we have all the necessary paperwork for traveling and that our funds are secure.

This is just a partial list of what must be done to prepare. And all of this has to happen before even arriving at a designated Feast site!

(Unlike the ancient Israelites, we have access to a very useful checklist in the Feast Brochure annually produced by the Church—be sure to use it!)

Once preparations start, some may come to the realization that getting everything ready is just too hard. “I just can’t leave my animals behind,” they will say, or “I will lose my job if I tell my boss I’m leaving for a week,” or even, “I can’t go; it’s too far.”

Realize that the ancient Israelites had to leave behind far more than we do today. This included the rest of their livestock and all of the food they had stored for the winter. In many cases, entire villages vacated as everyone traveled to a particular Feast site.

This would have been an opportune time for bandits to sabotage their supplies. No doubt, residents had to do their part to guarantee their animals were provided for while they were away. Yet God would have had to ensure peace in the land and good weather. We trust Him in this way as well.

Think. If the physical children of Israel employed faith that God would take care of their belongings during the Feast, certainly those of spiritual Israel should at least allow God to prove that He will take care of their possessions too.

At the Feast

After successfully preparing and arriving at the Feast site, it is time to kick back and let the good times roll, right?

On the contrary, our true work begins at the Feast site. Again, looking at the historical example of the Israelites, the Feast of Tabernacles was a unique time for individuals to serve, share and work—not just for themselves and their families, but also for others!

Let’s examine Jamiel and his family. They finished setting up and decorating their booth. The sun had set and risen on the first day of the Feast, during which they had a Sabbath-rest and gathered for a holy convocation (Lev. 23:35).

This was a great gathering, similar to modern-day Church services, except the crowds assembled included tens of thousands of fellow countrymen. An authority figure in Jerusalem, such as the king of Israel or high priest (this would be the only time most Israelites would actually see their king or high priest), would commence by reading aloud important selections of God’s Law.

At the Temple in Jerusalem, the Levites performed animal and grain sacrifices. This in itself was quite a task. A reading of Leviticus chapters one through seven reveals the painstaking level of detail that went into the work of sacrificing. Today, we merely have to sit down and look at our budget to decide what dollar figure we should give.

Yet the same level of care Israelites put into their offering should be applied.

According to Jewish tradition, during the offerings, musicians would sing and perform the psalms of David. As the choir sang, accompanied by harps, lyres, cymbals, trumpets and a host of other instruments, designated individuals would joyfully dance before the assembly.

As a whole, these gatherings required a dedicated team for set up, food preparation, and decorations, especially if the king and high priest were present. Jewish records reveal that the priests would blow a trumpet at sunrise each day of the Feast to signal when to begin such duties.

Think of members of the Levitical choir. Not only did they have to practice throughout the year, there would have been daily practices and performances throughout the Feast. It would require additional time, but it would mean the court was filled with powerful, awe-inspiring music that moved the Israelites to rejoice and fear God on a greater level.

The same principle applied to any role. A duty left undone would not only dampen the quality of the setting, it would reflect poorly on God and blur His purpose for the festival.

Fast-forward to today. Find ways to maintain and enhance the quality of your Feast site. There are some duties nearly anyone can volunteer for if there is a willingness to learn: hall set-up, assisting the elderly, ushering, security, helping with the information desk, and so forth.

While it is natural to assume that someone else will take care of these things, those with the mindset of “I need to apply myself or it will be left undone” are those who help make the Feast happen.

If you have special skills that you have been working on throughout the year—music, sound technology, video recording, photography, flowers and decor, first-aid, notetaking, etc.—ask if you can use them at the Feast or be sure to note that you would like to help with them on your festival registration form. Ensuring that these are noted well in advance will provide organizers time to consider your abilities.

All of the extra effort goes a long way in producing a setting for brethren to better rejoice and learn to fear God.

Serving Outside of Services

Given all of the busyness during the day, Jamiel would surely go back to his booth at night to sip wine and recline, right? Wrong again.

Now that he had “free time,” he could serve on a more personal level.

During the convocation, Jamiel would have noticed who among the Israelites were poor, elderly, fatherless or widowed. He, as a wealthier head of household, owned and brought several cattle with him to the Feast. He had planned well in advance to prepare special meals for those with less substance.

In the late afternoon of the first day of the Feast, he invited several elderly individuals over to partake of this special meal!

The example set by God’s servants reveals that ancient Israelites were particularly given to hospitality. God ingrained this characteristic in them (Ex. 23:9; Deut. 10:18-19), reminding the Israelites that they were once strangers and were mercifully brought out of Egypt.

In fact, this is a direct theme of the Feast of Tabernacles: “You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the lord your God” (Lev. 23:42-43). After all, God Himself extended hospitality to them after He brought them out of Egypt—and they were to repeat that mentality of service.

This was exemplified by the account of Abraham’s hospitality toward Christ and two angels traveling through his land in Genesis 18. It reads: “and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door…Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort you your hearts…” (vs. 2, 4-5).

Abraham was used to treating visitors this way. He quickly prepared food by killing and dressing a calf for them—something generally reserved for Holy Days or for guests. After providing the men the best of his food, Abraham “set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat” (vs. 8).

Based on Hebrew tradition, hosts were required to offer their best foods to guests. If they served meat, they would give the best cut to their guest. Hosts also sat adjacent to their visitors to ensure that their every need was supplied.

We too can devote our increased resources at the Feast to give to others. Make it a goal to treat someone who does not have a lot of resources.

If you do not have enough extra second tithe to take someone out to eat—be creative. The Feast is not all about food and drink. The ancient Israelites made it a point to make the Feast environment special by decorating their booths. Similarly, the little things—flower arrangements, works of art, handmade gifts—count today. Something as simple as a thoughtful note of appreciation or a small gift could show someone you care.

In addition, spend time with others, not just fellowshipping at services. Go for a walk at night under the stars in an earnest effort to get to know them or offer to take them on a trip or activity of their choice—perhaps something they have always wanted to see or do.

We rarely get an opportunity to do this throughout the year, especially since we live far apart from each other. Do not let the chance to do so at the Feast of Tabernacles pass you by.

Write down goals you want to accomplish for others at the Feast (e.g., take two people with tighter budgets out for a nice steak dinner; invite new people to your room for a game night; write heartfelt, personal cards for those unable to attend the Feast due to illness). This will ensure you do not passively experience the Feast.

Greater Meaning for Us

In addition to modern conveniences, there is another element of the Feast we have today that is different from the way Israelites kept it thousands of years ago.

The ancient Israelites put effort into the Feast merely because they were commanded to do so. It served them to look back and remember the God who preserved them as a nation.

Yet at no time were they taught the ultimate meaning of keeping the Feast: training to become God and enter His Kingdom.

The saints—those obeying God now—are on track to become “kings and priests: and…reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10).

With this in mind, we should not only obey God’s command to attend and keep the Feast, but we should also focus on reflecting His character while we are there.

God is reproducing Himself in people and therefore provides multiple ways for us to practice being like Him. He does all the things we are to do at the Feast year-round. He is kind and generous to us. He gives abundantly and fellowships with His people. Because joy is a fruit of His Spirit, rejoicing is natural for Him.

The fall festival is a brief, yearly opportunity to conduct ourselves as future sons of God. We have the environment and resources to better give to others as God gave to Israel when He brought them out of Egypt. This is just one of the many benefits of rehearsing this festival every year.

By neglecting the Feast, either by avoiding it altogether, failing to prepare, or cruising through it with a lackadaisical attitude, we are not readying ourselves to fulfill the responsibilities of a God-being.

Remember, God is first and foremost love (I John 4:8). He expects us to share that same love with others (vs. 11). Take the opportunity to do this at the Feast.

Ask yourself: Will I let this monumental occasion slip by—or will I get the most out of it by serving others?