The Feast of Booths: A dramatic retelling of the story in Nehemiah
We planned this service as part of an evening series on the book of Nehemiah. It focuses on the feast of booths or tabernacles (sukkot). With a little bit of tweaking, it could be an interesting service either for the time of sukkot or else possibly a service for the first Sunday of Advent.
Before the drama, we started off the service in our usual evening service fashion. After a prelude, I welcomed the congregation and introduced the idea of the evening. This introduction was followed by a call to worship and a hymn. The script that we used follows. As the pastor, my role was that of the twentieth-century commentator (I did not dress in costume). All the songs were chosen from the Psalter Hymnal.
Group of Israelites (no speaking involved; include both children and adults, who will be building the booths)
Three Readers from within congregation
Pastor: [Reads Nehemiah 8] Can you imagine that scene? Cast yourself in the role of the people of Israel for a few minutes. Notice that the original service lasted from dawn to noon, and the entire assembly stood up for the whole thing. You’ll have some lines to sing—they can be found in the order of worship.
[Ezra enters and mounts platform.]
Now imagine Ezra standing here ready to read to you from God’s Word.
[Pastor sits in pew.]
Ezra: So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days; the first day is a day of rest, and the eighth day also is a day of rest. On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days (Lev. 23:39-40).
[Piano begins introduction to PsH 197, “The Trees of the Field.”]
Voice from back: Rejoice! Yes! Let us all rejoice! Let’s praise God with our songs!
[As congregation sings “The Trees of the Field, group of Israelites come up all three aisles from the back. Children are dancing and waving flowers and palm fronds. Congregation sings hymn twice, moderate speed the first time; faster the second. A very helpful instrument on this and the following song is a recorder.]
Ezra: Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Lev. 23:41-43).
[Characters begin building a booth—about 8x10x5'—from long sticks and tree branches lashed with twine. With a couple of preassembled pieces such as the ends, it can go up in a few minutes. Children begin tying clumps of flowers and fruit together to decorate the booth.]
Mara: But mother, we’ve never lived in booths! Why haven’t we obeyed this command?
Mother: Oh, Mara, the feast of booths celebrated our freedom from captivity when the Lord brought us out of Egypt. But we haven’t been free for generations! How could we celebrate freedom when we were captives to Persia?
Mara: But . . . we’re not in Persia now.
Mother: No we’re not! The Lord has brought us home again! We, and all the people, have worked and worked these many months. Jerusalem, the city of God, has her walls again. She stands protected again on God’s Holy mountain. Now we can celebrate coming home with the feast of booths!
Mara: [looking at booth as it is assembled] Our booth doesn’t look like much. Is that supposed to be our new home?
Mother: Oh, no! The booth isn’t a permanent building like our home. It’s supposed to look a little flimsy. The booth reminds us of when we traveled in the wilderness, and God took care of us all the way. In the wilderness we couldn’t have sturdy structures; we had to be able to pack up and move on. This booth reminds us that we don’t need to trust in bricks and stone—not even in this strong wall around Jerusalem. We trust in God to care for us.
Mara: Mama, why do you keep saying “we” were in the wilderness? You weren’t there, were you?
Mother: Well of course not, Mara! I hadn’t been born—and neither had your grandmother or her grandmother. But still, that story is my story—and it’s your story too. Because really it’s God’s story, and the God who brought the people out of slavery in Egypt is the same God who brought us back home from our captivity. That’s why we sing this psalm about it.
[Congregation sings PsH 114, “When Israel Fled from Egypt Land” (or anthem setting by Emily Brink and John Overduin for TTBB, children’s choir, keyboard, and optional flute; order from Selah Publishing 1-800-852-6172).]
Mara: I love that psalm! I especially like the part about the springs and the cooling waters.
Mother: Booths are an important part of the feast of booths, but so is water. Did you know that God’s people used to come from all over right here to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of booths? My grandparents came—I still remember the stories. There was a big celebration at the temple—that was before it was destroyed, of course.
[Sets pitcher and bowl on flower stand toward front of platform.]
But I was telling you about the water. For the temple celebration, the priests drew a pitcher of water from the pool of Siloam. The high point of the celebration in the temple came when a priest poured that water into a bowl at the altar [pour water]. This was a reminder of how, while we were in the desert, God gave people water from out of a rock.
Pastor: [to congregation] Like so many other traditions, it also carried a deeper spiritual meaning. The pouring of the water was a demonstration of Israel’s hope for the coming of the Messiah and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, whom God had promised.
It was almost certainly at the point of this solemn, celebrative pouring of the water—many years later—that Jesus stood up in the temple courtyard and said, in a loud voice,
If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him (John 7:37-38).
Jesus was saying, “Remember the old days when you were thirsty and water came out of a rock and saved you? A new day has come. I am the living water. Are you thirsty? Come to me. Believe in me. I will be to you what the water from the rock in the desert was: a life source, a never-ending life source, the thing that keeps you from dying.”
Perhaps the people listening remembered how, when that pitcher was drawn from the pool of Siloam, a priest would recite this verse from Isaiah 12:3:
Ezra: With joy you will draw water from the wells of Yeshua—of salvation.
[Option: The anthem “Come to the Water” by John Foley (OCP: 1-800-548-8749) could be sung here by choir and/or congregation.]
Pastor: The Hebrew word for salvation is Yeshua—the Hebrew name for Jesus. Listen to some of the other promises that the spiritually thirsty people would have known.
Ezra: Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost (Isa. 55:1).
For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants (Isa. 44:3).
Mara: What else happened at the temple, Mama?
Mother: Well, another important symbol in the feast is light. On the first day of the feast, four huge candlesticks were lit, each with seven lamps. Like the booths and the water, the lights were to remind us of the early days of that long path through the desert. For forty years we were led by the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud. These were lights from heaven to guide us, to show us the way out of dangerous darkness toward the light; out of a land where we were slaves toward a land where we would be at home.
Pastor: [to congregation] On the last day of the feast, when all the lights were being put out, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. [Point to Christ candle; if during Advent; point to white candle on Advent wreath, or take it off and hold it.] Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The old light accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness. It let them know that, even though the weather was terrible, the road was treacherous, there was danger around every corner, God was with them. How did they know? There was the light.
At the feast of booths, which is also called the feast of tabernacles, Jesus declared that he is what the old light used to be. He is God with us, the Word who became flesh and tabernacled among us (John 1:14).
Mother: You know, Mara, the prophet Isaiah predicted that we would one day come home to celebrate this feast. He told about the great joy we would have after so many years of darkness. He even suggested that other nations come to celebrate at God’s holy hill. And he talked about daughters too. Listen.
Ezra: Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm (from Isa. 60).
[The congregation sings PsH 198, “Arise, Shine for Your Light Has Come.” (Option: anthem setting for SATB and congregation with flute and keyboard; Selah Publishing, 1-800-852-6172 or firstname.lastname@example.org.) During the singing Israelite characters quietly move to the pews.]
Pastor: [delivers meditation; see box p. 19.] Now, through Scripture and song, see how even more wonderfully things fit together. Here is the rest of the story.
Reader 1: [from the congregation] Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come (2 Cor. 5:1-5).
Pastor: What is to come? The same thing Abraham was looking for while he was tenting:
Reader 2: [from the congregation] By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:8-10).
NOTES FOR A MEDITATION ON NEHEMIAH 8
A meditation on the role of the temple and the importance of the “walls” or barriers—like the layers of an onion—from the most holy place, to the holy place, to the courtyard of the temple, and finally to the walls around Jerusalem.
- Upon completion of the final layer (walls around the city), there was a great celebration of this important step in the direction of the coming of the kingdom. The kingdom of God had never been this close before. Thus, a celebration.
- Verses 9-10 are important. Joy, not sorrow, at the reading of the law. Celebrate! “The joy of the Lord is our strength.”
- In verses 14 and 15 we see that the people rediscover the feast of booths. There is a seven-day feast to celebrate God’s deliverance. The kingdom had had not seemed so bright and so real in a long, long time. A little foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth that Isaiah wrote about. This was the kingdom come, but written small, maybe in lower-case letters. But it was one sure, strong step in the right direction. And not since Joshua had the feast been so joyous and glad.
- New Testament Christians can learn from this. It is good and right that we feast when we set some sizeable goal—an evangelistic campaign, a relief project, or an addition to the church—and then, like Nehemiah and the children of Israel, throw ourselves into it and meet our goal.
Right now our buildings, our efforts for the glory of God might seem small and frail—but take heart. Develop the long view.
How wonderfully things fit together before the face of God!