“Remember that this seven-day festival to the Lord – the Festival of Shelters – begins on the fifteenth day of the month, after you have harvested all the produce of the land…On the first day gather branches from magnificent trees – palm fronds, boughs from leafy trees, and willows that grow by the streams…For seven days you must live outside in little shelters. All native-born Israelites must live in shelters. This will remind each new generation of Israelites that I made their ancestors live in shelters when I rescued them from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’” (Leviticus 23:39-43, New Living Translation –here and throughout this article, unless otherwise noted)
Scripture indicates that the Israelites were told to live in temporary shelters each year for eight days so that they would not forget that they had lived in tents after leaving Egypt and before reaching the Promised Land. In the book of Hebrews, we read: “It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to LEAVE HOME (emphasis mine here and throughout) and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, HE LIVED THERE BY FAITH – for he was like a foreigner living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.” (Hebrews 11:8-10) In short, Abraham and his descendants were looking forward to a better and more permanent home.
A little further, we read: “All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. THEY AGREED THAT THEY WERE FOREIGNERS AND NOMADS HERE ON EARTH. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16) Do we begin to see the connection to our own circumstances as Christians?
Like the Israelites of old, God has called us out of Egypt (this sinful society), and has led us out into the wilderness. (John 6:44) We are different and peculiar compared to the people around us. (I Peter 2:9) Like the Israelites, we are heirs of the promises made to Abraham. (Galatians 3:29) Finally, we are also like the Israelites in the sense that we too are looking for a Promised Land (the Kingdom of God). Like the patriarchs of old, we are truly strangers and pilgrims on the earth as it now exists – the one deceived and influenced by Satan the devil.
There is, however, another meaning to this symbolism that is less general and more personal. Although it is unpleasant to contemplate, each one of us has an appointment with death. (Hebrews 9:27) Somewhere in the back of our minds, all of us understand that this life that we are currently enjoying is temporary – it will not last forever (we are subject to time and chance). Paul once told the saints at Corinth, “that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.” (I Corinthians 15:50) He went on to tell them that “our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.” (I Corinthians 15:53)
Sometime later, Paul wrote another letter to the Corinthians. He told them that the light of Christ was shining in their hearts, but he described that treasure as residing in fragile clay jars. (II Corinthians 4:7) He talked about how Christians must face many trials and perils because of their association with Jesus Christ, but that this had resulted in them having the hope of eternal life. (II Corinthians 4:8-15) He continued: “That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small AND WON’T LAST VERY LONG. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” (II Corinthians 4:16-18)
In other words, Paul understood that Christians are currently living in temporary shelters (human bodies), and that they are looking forward to the time when they will be living in a permanent home (spiritual bodies). In his second letter to the saints at Corinth, we read: “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.” (II Corinthians 5:1-4, KJV)
Peter also understood this concept. In addressing the saints toward the close of his ministry, he wanted to remind them about the truths which he had previously conveyed to them. He wrote: “Yea, I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance; knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me.” (II Peter 1:13-14, KJV) Peter understood that this life is not permanent, and that he was going to die. He also knew that his present body could not inherit the Kingdom of God, and that he would have to shed that body and receive a new one in the resurrection.
As strangers and pilgrims in this world, Christians are looking to exchange a temporary home for a more permanent one (one that God has provided for us). Hence, for us, this is an important component of the symbolism of this Old Testament Festival.