The American holiday of the last Thursday in November and the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles have at least one thing in common: thanksgiving to God. At Trinity Baptist Church, Barstow, CA where I’m the Assistant Pastor, part of our worship service is a responsive reading in the Gospel of John. The timing is so perfect! This Sunday we read from John 7:1-13 where it talks about the feast of tabernacles (v.2). This feast of tabernacles [a.k.a. “Feast of Booths,” a.k.a. “Feast of Ingathering”] began on the 15th of Tishri (September/October) and lasted seven days.
How did the Jews celebrate it? On the first day, they were to cease from daily work and proclaim a memorial by means of a holy convocation of trumpets. Then for seven days they were to present burnt offerings. For seven days they lived in booths made from branches of palm trees woven together. On the eighth day they were to enjoy another day of rest and to participate in religious activities while making their final offering. All males (including slaves) were required to participate. [See Lev. 23.]
After the exile of the Jews, this feast became popular, particularly among the scattered Jews who took long pilgrimages to the temple at Jerusalem. The pilgrims carried a lulab in their right hand and a
citron in their left as they made their way to Jerusalem—it is sort of a replacement for booths. On the evening of the first day the court of women was lit by a golden candlestick—a symbol of the pillar of fire which accompanied the Israelites on their wilderness wanderings.
There would be a daily procession to the Pool of Siloam to fetch water and carry back this water in a golden pitcher.
What did they do with this water? The priests presented libations (ritualistic pouring out of water) after the morning offering, while the choir pronounced the words of Isa 12:3, “Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.” No doubt this ceremony commemorated the rock that provided water during Israel’s journey in the desert (Num 20). By the way, referring to Himself as the water of life who can quench thirsty believers, Jesus alludes to this ritual! (see John 7:37-38).
Why celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles? It celebrated God’s provision for His people during their wilderness journey from Egypt to the promised land. For decades, their clothes and sandals did not wore out! Water gushed out of rocks! They got bread and meat rained down on them! Jesus sharply pointed this out to them—that He was the bread from heaven. “I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever:” (Jn 6:48-51).
Did they celebrate this faithfully? No, only once does the OT record that an Israelite king fulfilled this obligation. “During the reform ministry of Nehemiah, the governor of Judah, the Levites (re)discovered the divine institution of this feast (Neh. 8:13–14), and the Israelites accordingly celebrated it again, following carefully the whole ordinance (vv. 16–18; cf. Ezra 3:4). According to the author of Nehemiah, this was the first time that they had done so since the days of Joshua (8:17)” (Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary).
Our first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. This feast lasted three days, and it was attended by ninety Native Americans and fifty-three Pilgrims. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings” thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought, etc. But here, the Pilgrims celebrated this to thank God for His protection on their treacherous journey (though their number has thinned to just fifty-three from a hundred and two) and provision through the first harvest!
It became celebrated nationally in 1789, after a proclamation by George Washington. Since 1863, it has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year when, during the Civil Way, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.
How do we celebrate it? It depends on what your worldview is. Many will celebrate it by playing or watching football, hanging out with family and friends, taking a day off work, etc., but Americans will most likely celebrate it by eating! From a Judeo-Christian worldview, my family and I will celebrate Thanksgiving by recalling how God provided salvation to our souls. Salvation from His holy wrath. Salvation from sin and sin’s penalty. Salvation through the grace of Christ who died on the cross, who was buried and three days later, rose from the dead. Just as the Jews celebrated the feast of tabernacles in remembrance of God’s provision in their journey from Egypt to the promised land, we will celebrate Thanksgiving by remembering how God brought me from Mindanao to where we are now and how God provided the many things we now enjoy. The God of our Thanksgiving is the same God of the Feast of Tabernacles! May He indeed hear our thanks!