Sukkot, the Festival of Future Redemption for Jews and Gentiles
Sukkot can be awkward when you are the only Jewish family on the block. I recall the curiosity we encountered when erecting a sukkah for the first time at our home in Pasadena, California. The clangs and bangs in the backyard brought out the neighbors on all sides, who peered suspiciously at the bizarre sight: a makeshift hut with a lightly thatched roof, festooned with construction paper rings and suspended gourds.
Onlookers brave enough to inquire learned about the Jewish customs of their new neighbors. Both they and the more bashful were invited to join us for dinner the following night. Eight years later and the sukkah has become a familiar late-summer/early-fall visitor to the neighborhood, but I am quite certain that the non-Jewish denizens still find it rather weird.
Zechariah 14, therefore, gives me solace. In this passage, which is the haftarah for the first day of Sukkot, the prophet foresees a day when many gentiles will celebrate Sukkot alongside Jews, not by building booths on their diaspora residences, but by converging annually upon Jerusalem to worship God—a time when “Adonai will be one, and his name one” (Zech 14:9), as Jews pray for thrice daily in aleinu.
Gentiles Celebrating Sukkot in Zechariah 14
The oracles recorded in Zechariah 9-14, so-called Deutero-Zechariah, represent a notorious interpretive mare’s nest. The last oracle is no exception. Martin Luther famously surrendered to the passage by lamenting, “Here, in this chapter, I give up. For I am not sure what the prophet is talking about.” Modern scholars have not followed Luther in his restraint, but their commentaries have yielded little to no consensus regarding who composed the chapter, when, where, or why.
Zechariah 14 envisions a complex eschatological scenario:
1) Armies attack Jerusalem—An ominous “Day of YHWH” arises, during which foreign armies attack Jerusalem, plunder it, and send many Jews into exile (14:1–2);
2) YHWH Appears—YHWH, appearing on the Mount of Olives and splitting the earth asunder, joins the battle (14:3–5);
3) Miraculous Light—YHWH inaugurates a period of supernatural phenomena in which sunlight and moonlight give way to a new kind of luminosity, while living waters flow forth from a secure Jerusalem (14:6–11);
4) Enemies Defeated—The armies that invaded Jerusalem are stricken with plague, then plundered by the remaining Jewish armies (14:12–15);
5) Nations Observe Sukkot—The war having finished, survivors from the nations flock to Jerusalem annually to observe Sukkot; those who do not are punished with drought; (14:16-19)
זכריה יד:טז וְהָיָה כָּל הַנּוֹתָר מִכָּל הַגּוֹיִם הַבָּאִים עַל יְרוּשָׁלִָם וְעָלוּ מִדֵּי שָׁנָה בְשָׁנָה לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֹת לְמֶלֶךְ יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת וְלָחֹג אֶת חַג הַסֻּכּוֹת.
Zech 14:16 All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King YHWH of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths.
6) Elevated Holiness—Jerusalem reaches unknown heights of holiness, as household cooking pots become as sacred as utensils before the altar. (14:20–21);
While most of these eschatological events find parallels within the repertoire of prophetic and apocalyptic Jewish literature from the Second Temple period, stage (5) is peculiar. Why is Sukkot singled out as the aspect of Jewish observance that Gentiles ultimately will adopt? Is Sukkot here a metonym standing for all three pilgrimage festivals or perhaps even for Jewish life in general, or does the author mean Sukkot and only Sukkot?
Most interpreters have opted for the latter view, taking as their guide the preeminent status Sukkot appears to have acquired in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. Even before the exile, the Deuteronomic historian refers to Sukkot simply as החג, "the festival" (1 Kgs. 8:1-2), a practice that continues in the exilic (Ezek. 45:23) and postexilic periods (Neh. 8:14; 2 Chron. 5:3), continuing into rabbinic literature.
The modeling of Chanukah on Sukkot in 2 Maccabees offers further proof that, as Jeffrey L. Rubinstein has put it, by the third century B.C.E. Sukkot “became the main pilgrimage and primary temple festival, and retained this status until the destruction in 70 C.E.” It is no wonder, therefore, that the seer in Zechariah 14, probably writing at some time between the fifth and second centuries B.C.E., portrayed the ultimate obedience of the gentiles to God by their participation in the ultimate Temple festival, Sukkot.
An Eschatological Pilgrimage of Gentiles
The representation of a gentile pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the idealized future in Zechariah 14 taps into a widespread trope in ancient Jewish eschatology. Such a hope had already been expressed in Isaiah’s famous prediction that,
ישעיה ב:ב וְהָיָה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים נָכוֹן יִהְיֶה הַר בֵּית יְ־הוָה בְּרֹאשׁ הֶהָרִים וְנִשָּׂא מִגְּבָעוֹת וְנָהֲרוּ אֵלָיו כָּל הַגּוֹיִם. ב:ג וְהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל הַר יְ־הוָה אֶל בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו.
Isa 2:2 In the days to come, the Mount of YHWH's House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills; and all the nations shall gaze on it with joy. 2:3 And the many peoples shall go and say: "Come, Let us go up to the Mount of YHWH, to the House of the God of Jacob; that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths."
Third Isaiah (Is. 56:7; 60:5-6) said much the same:
זכריה ח:כב וּבָאוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים וְגוֹיִם עֲצוּמִים לְבַקֵּשׁ אֶת יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת בִּירוּשָׁלִָם וּלְחַלּוֹת אֶת פְּנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Zech 8:22 The many peoples and the multitude of nations shall come to seek YHWH of Hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of YHWH.
Jewish Apocalyptic Literature
Although the other preserved Jewish apocalypticists of the Second Temple period do not mention Sukkot, they express universalistic ideas similar to those found in Zechariah 14 and its parallels. For example, 1 Enoch 90 (ca. 150 B.C.E.) describes an eschatological vision in which the Jews (represented by the sheep) will be revered by the gentiles (represented by all other animals) and will go with them to the Temple:
90:30 And I saw the sheep which were left, and all the animals on the earth and all the birds of heaven falling down and worshipping those sheep, and entreating them and obeying them in every command…. 90:33 And all those which had been destroyed and scattered and all the wild animals and all the birds of heaven gathered in that house, and the Lord of the she sheep rejoiced very much because they were all good and returned to his house.
The Psalms of Solomon (ca. 2nd cent. B.C.E.), in perhaps the earliest description of a messianic redeemer descended from David, foresees the king purifying Jerusalem (Ps. Sol. 17:31):
So that nations may come from the end of the earth to see his glory... and to see the glory of the Lord.
So significant was an eschatological pilgrimage of gentiles to Jerusalem in (apocalyptic) Jewish thought that many historians have argued that Paul’s eagerness to spread the message of redemption through Christ to gentiles the world over is best explained as an effort to manifest this aspect of history’s consummation. In other words, if the future time will bring about the conversion of gentiles, then the conversion of gentiles signals (and may bring about) the end times, when the Messiah will return.
Can we assume that these authors, like the author of Zechariah 14, believed that the pilgrimage they describe constitutes an observance of Sukkot? Is it possible that this assumption is in the background? For example, 2 Baruch 68:5 (1st-2nd cent. C.E.) says:
68:5 Zion will again be rebuilt, and its offerings will again be restored, and the priests will return to their ministry, and also the Gentiles will come to glorify it.”
Can we interpret this to mean, “Gentiles will come to glorify it [on Sukkot]”? The same suggestion can be offered about the other sources as well. Alternatively, perhaps Zechariah 14 was unique in identifying the eschatological pilgrimage specifically with Sukkot.
It is impossible to say, of course, but two further pieces of evidence hint at a messianic valence to Sukkot well into the first and second centuries C.E.
Symbols of Sukkot on the Coins of the Revolts
During the Jewish insurrection against Rome from 66 to 73 CE, the rebels minted coins as a demonstration of their independence. The bronze coins bear the dating scheme, “year one” (i.e., 66–67 C.E.), “year two” (67–68 C.E.), and so on, and read לחרות ציון, “the freedom of Zion.” The coins of “year four” differ from those of previous years—they used the phrase, לגאולת ציון, “the redemption of Zion,” and clearly depict a lulav and etrog. Why the change?
Some historians have taken it to mean that the insurgents, in the months leading up to the sack of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., shifted the aspiration of their campaign from a this-worldly “freedom” from Rome to a messianic “redemption of Zion” brought about by intervention from God, and this shift was indicated not only by the change in phrasing, but also by adopting iconography associated with eschatological redemption—namely, the lulav and etrog of Sukkot.
If this explanation is correct, then it is intriguing how the Bar Kochba rebellion, which broke out sixty years later, developed differently. The Bar Kochba imagery, including the star which appears in his name and on some coins, is overtly messianic. Coins from this revolt also feature the lulav and etrog, but in this case the phraseology begins by using the term גאולה “redemption” in the first year, and moves to חרות ירושלם, “freedom of Jerusalem” in the second; some coins even feature both terms on opposite sides.
A Vision of Jews and Christians Celebrating Sukkot Together
A more explicit connection between messianic redemption and Sukkot, as well as an eschatological pilgrimage of Gentiles, occurs in the Book of Revelation, the final book in the New Testament Canon. These oracles, attributed to John of Patmos and probably penned sometime between the two Jewish revolts, describe a series of well-ordered trials and tribulations that will occur in advance of the end-times victory of Christ (depicted as the Lamb) over Rome, (depicted as the whore of Babylon), followed by a great judgment, a new heaven and earth, and a new Jerusalem.
In one of the earlier visions in the book, believers will be worshiping God in the heavenly throne room. One part of that group comprises 144,000 Jews—12,000 from each tribe—marked for protection with a seal on their forehead, and deemed “the servants of our God.” The second group is a throng of gentiles (Rev 7:9–15, NRSV):
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.”
This passage depicts a heavenly pilgrimage specifically on Sukkot. This is implied by the palm branches in the hands of the worshippers. Furthermore, their cry for “Salvation” parallels the אנא ה׳ הושיעה נא, “Please, Lord, please deliver us!” (Psalm 118:25) that accompanies the shaking of the lulav according to Mishnah Sukkah 3:9. The description of God is suggestive as well: God “will shelter” the pilgrims: the Greek verb for “shelter,” skēnoō, is a version of the noun skēnē, the Septuagint’s translation for the Hebrew סכה, sukkah.
The Christian Jewish author of Revelation, then, fashions a specifically Christian and heavenly version of the venerable Jewish notion of an eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles. As in Zechariah, the culmination is in a celebration of Sukkot. In his view, Jews, presumably Christian Jews, are marked off for salvation first. Thereafter, innumerable (Christian) Gentiles “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” appear before their sheltering God with fronds in hand.
Is John of Patmos thereby giving expression to a commonly held, if rarely expressed, ancient Jewish expectation about an eschatological Sukkot, or is Revelation 7 simply a refashioning of the prophecy in Zechariah 14? We cannot know. At the very the least, we can say that two ancient seers, one canonized by Jews and both canonized by Christians, foresaw the day when all the world’s faithful would appear before God to celebrate Sukkot.
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October 13, 2019
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Dr. Rabbi Joshua Garroway is the Sol and Arlene Bronstein Professor of Judaeo-Christian Studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D. from the Religious Studies Department at Yale and ordination from HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. He is the author of, The Beginning of the Gospel: Paul, Philippi, and the Origins of Christianity.
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