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Feast of Tabernacles: A Thanksgiving Harvest Festival From the Bible

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Ahh, Thanksgiving Day. A day to spend with family cooking and eating tasty food and telling the story of the first American Thanksgiving, when the Pilgrims feasted with the Wampanoag tribesmen after a bountiful harvest. But actually, the Pilgrims didn’t invent Thanksgiving. Neither did the Native Americans, the English, or other cultures who have celebrated the harvest every fall. The Bible tells us the idea for a Thanksgiving feast began with God. And God’s plan for the holiday is even better than ours!


A Week of Thanksgiving

Imagine not just one day to feast and celebrate, but seven! And not just that, here’s the best part: God told His people to build forts outside and to joyfully eat and sleep there all week long! That’s right: feasting, rejoicing, and camping out in the backyard are requirements! Now, I know it sounds like a kid dreamed up this holiday, not God, right? But it’s all there in your Bible. Check out Leviticus 23:33-44 and Deuteronomy 16:13-15.

What’s the name of this fabulous, kid-friendly holiday given by our wonderful Heavenly Father? It’s named for the fort I told you about. No, not ‘Thanks-for-forts-giving!’ In Hebrew, the word is Sukkot (sounds like “soo-coat”), which means “booths”, sort of like a tent or hut. English Bibles translate this word as “Feast of Booths” or the “Feast of Tabernacles”. Tabernacles, booths, and sukkot, all mean the same thing: temporary shelters.

But why did God want His people to live in temporary shelters for one week every autumn? God gives us the reason in Leviticus 23:42-43. He says to live in booths for seven days “…so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt.” The wilderness wasn’t an easy place to live in tents and huts, but God stayed with the Israelites for those forty years in the desert. He provided them food and water and guided them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

A Booth By Any Other Name…

What do these booths or huts look like? According to tradition, a booth–or sukkah in Hebrew (“soo-kah”) –must have at least three sides and a roof made from plant materials, like branches, reeds, or boughs of trees. These branches offer shade from the sun during the day and allow the starlight to shine through at night.

A simple sukkah of PCV pipe with fabric walls, and bamboo and corn stalks as a roof
A simple sukkah of PCV pipe with fabric walls and bamboo and corn stalks as a roof.


But if starlight can come through the roof, so can wind or rain! When a howling wind rattles your sukkah or raindrops sprinkle down on your supper, it’s easy to imagine how the Israelites felt living in the wilderness for forty years. It also stirs our compassion for people around the world and in our own country who don’t have proper shelter.

Feast of Tabernacles: A Biblical Harvest Feast

Sukkot also reminds us of harvest time. During Bible times, farmers would build booths in their fields as a temporary shelter where they would sleep after long, long, hours of work during the busy harvest season. When the last of the autumn harvest was gathered–the grapes, figs, apples, pomegranates, dates, and olives–it was time to give thanks for God’s blessings on their fields and orchards.

During Jesus’ time, Sukkot was also called the “festival of our rejoicing”. After all, God did say in Deuteronomy 16:15:

“For seven days celebrate the festival to the LORD your God at the place the LORD will choose. For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.”

Jewish people flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival, gathering to pray, rejoice, and study scripture in the Temple. John 7 tells us many things Jesus taught the crowds in the Temple during Sukkot.

Many disciples of Jesus still celebrate Sukkot today, whether or not they are Jewish. They spend time in a sukkah, praying, feasting, and studying the Bible with family, friends, or members of their congregations.

Sukkot is a time to remember God’s protection of the Israelites in the wilderness, to give thanks for His provision at harvest time, and to rejoice in His presence. But most importantly, Sukkot is a time to think of Jesus. John 1 says, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” Jesus came temporarily to earth 2,000 years ago and promised us that He will return and dwell with us forever. When He does, the prophet Zechariah says that all nations will come to Jerusalem to worship the Lord and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.

What a Thanksgiving feast that will be!