They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Of Sodom and Salt

“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
–Ezekiel 16:49

A naturally occurring "pillar of salt" formation found near the Dead Sea

A naturally occurring “pillar of salt” formation found near the Dead Sea

Interestingly, the sin of Sodom that got them nuked was not just sexual sin and perversion like we would think from reading the story in Genesis 19. According to the verses above in Ezekiel, what really angered God was their lack of concern for the poor! God heard the cry of the oppressed people in Sodom, but no one else was paying attention. The townspeople were wicked, not only in their sexual misdeeds, but in the fact that they were oppressing the poor and less fortunate. God saw and heard this and took action on their behalf. What God did to Sodom and Gomorrah shows how much he dislikes seeing the poor and the marginalized taken advantage of and mistreated.

In the ancient world, the salt from the Dead Sea was a very valuable commodity. Salt was a means of currency because it was so precious and not readily available in most areas of the world. The saying, “He was worth his salt” is an example of how they looked at salt as a commodity. In fact, Roman soldiers were often paid in salt and that is where we get the word, ”salary”. Salary comes from the Latin word “salarium”, which means a payment made in salt. Rabbis have long said that Lot went to Sodom because he was in it for the ”salt” (i.e. the money) and didn’t really care what happened to the people around him. Lot paid dearly for that attitude, as his wife was turned into a pillar of salt. If you understand the worth and importance of salt, this story makes a very powerful object lesson!

Joseph’s Bones

"And the bones of Joseph ... buried they in Schechem."

“And the bones of Joseph … buried they in Schechem.”

In the ancient Middle Eastern culture that the Bible takes place in, family was everything. The style of living was a tribal society with a patriarch as the head of each tribe. Your status in life was determined by who your father was and what family, tribe, or clan you were from. The family was a deciding factor in every decision of life. Heritage was very important and everything possible was done to keep your connection to the family members and the family plot of land. A great example of this is the story of Joseph’s bones found first in the Book of Genesis 50:24-25. Joseph, like his father Jacob (Genesis 49:29-32 and Genesis 50:12-14), requested that when he died he did not want his bones left in Egypt, but taken back to his father’s land (Genesis 50:24-25). The Text says that when Joseph died, his body was embalmed (in the Egyptian custom) and was placed in a coffin in Egypt. More than two hundred years would pass after Joseph’s death until the time of the Exodus. At the climax of the ten plagues, the Israelites are released to leave Egypt and head out into the desert for the Promised Land. When the Israelites left Egypt, Moses evidently picked up Joseph’s bones to take with them on the journey (Exodus 13:19). While the rest of the Israelites were plundering the Egyptians, Moses had the foresight to disinter Joseph’s bones out of the coffin and tomb (pyramid) they were in to keep the promise that had been made to Joseph by the family.

Joseph’s bones were not actually buried in the Promised Land until the time of Joshua, 150-200 years later (Joshua 24:32). His bones were finally buried at Shechem on the land that his father Jacob had purchased hundreds of years earlier (Genesis 33:18-20). Shechem then became the center of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joesph. This would be the place where they would settle and live in the Promised Land.

This interesting story, played out over a 350-400 year period, shows how strong the concept of heritage was in their society. Everything centered around the patriarch of the family and the family land and a tremendous amount of effort went into being able to keep the faith with their forefathers. Because of this diligence, Joseph’s children also settled on the inherited property and the family was held intact for many more generations.

Feast of Sukkot: Part 2

"Examining the Lulav"

“Examining the Lulav”

In our first lesson on the Biblical Feast of Sukkot, we looked at how God instructed the Israelites to observe this holiday that He ordained.  Also, we looked at when and how it is celebrated today by Jews all over the world. In today’s post we will look at how the Feast of Sukkot played into Jewish history.  Over the years, three historical events added a lot of emphasis and meaning to the Jewish perception of the Feast of Sukkot.  These three events gave a strong national identity to Sukkot and gave the Israelites a special sense of pride and fervor each time it was celebrated.

The first event occurred during the reign of Solomon when he chose the Feast of Sukkot as the time that he would dedicate the first temple to God. This event occurs in 1 Kings 8:2 and 2 Chronicles 5:2-3. The temple had actually been completed eleven months earlier (1 Kings 6:38) but Solomon waited to dedicate the temple on Sukkot to emphasize the fact that He had preserved them in the wilderness and brought them to their new, permanent home. During the dedication, God showed up in a big way:

When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying,

“He is good;
his love endures forever.”
2 Chronicles 7: 1-3

God had come to permanently tabernacle (dwell) with His people.

The second event occurred during a much more dismal time period for the Israelites. Approximately four hundred years after Solomon dedicated the original temple, it was destroyed by Babylon in 586 B.C. For over one hundred years the temple lay in ruins until the time when Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubabel began to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its temple. They began living permanently in Israel during the seventh month (Nehemiah 7:73b). Then in Nehemiah 8:13-17, these men re-birthed the Feast of Sukkot:

On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the teacher to give attention to the words of the Law. They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make temporary shelters”—as it is written.

So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves temporary shelters on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.

From the Text we know that their joy was very great and from this point on the Feast took on an even more important place in Jewish hearts. God had let them reestablish their identity that was so powerful during the time of Solomon.

The third historical event occurred between the time of the two testaments, during the Macabbean revolt. Under the thumb of the Greeks and not allowed to use their temple, circumcise their boys, or even own a copy of Torah, the Jews finally revolted to overthrow the Greeks. This revolt lasted seven years and when they were finally victorious, their leader, Judah Macabee, ordered an eight day celebration to commemorate the fact that they had missed the Feast of Sukkot during the revolt. This holiday is known today as Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, and celebrates God giving His people their temple back and once again establishing them as a free nation.

These three events, taking place over one thousand years, added a lot of tradition and importance to the Sukkot Festival and it became much like the American Independence Day celebration held annually on the 4th of July.

A fourth event that developed over the years – not as a direct order from God, but as a tradition – was the waving of the “lulav”. God told the returning Israelites in Nehemiah 8:13-18, to put the branches of three types of trees (palm, myrtle, olive) on the roofs of their booths.  The tradition developed over the years of wrapping the olive and myrtle branches around a large palm frond to make a long standard or flagpole of sorts.  During the Feast of Sukkot, every worshiper at the temple waved these “flags” around much like Americans do on July 4th.  On the last day of the Feast, the worshipers were supposed to beat the ground with the branches until all the leaves came off – with lots of noise and intensity, like American fireworks.  Can you imagine the noise and commotion that half a million or more people would make following this procedure?

While waving and beating the “lulavs”, the assembled worshipers would chant Psalm 113-118, called the “Hallel”. A look at these Psalms shows you that they say everything that is great and awesome about God. The word, “Hallel”, translated in English as “praise”, is a middle eastern word. It’s root is a sound that middle eastern women make in extreme emotion – a shrieking, rolling of the tongue. When you hear them do it on television, it is a sound you don’t forget.  Hallel to God is Hallel Yhwh, or as we say, Hallelujah. However, they don’t say it like we do; it comes out with great emotion: Hallel to Yhwh! If your look at Psalm 113 it begins with Hallel-u-Yah – or “Praise the Lord”. The crowd would continue chanting through each psalm with emotion and voices rising and coming to a climax when they got to Psalm 118:25. This verse was the key verse and heart of the Hallel. “O Lord, save us, deliver us, save us! O lord grant us success, or make us fruitful, make us worthwhile, make us significant!” By the way, “save us” did not mean “salvation”, but had to do with a call for rain; as in “send us rain”. It’s interesting to note that rain and salvation are always connected because rain is so life-giving and necessary for survival. Picture hundreds of thousands of Jews, waving the lulavs, and shouting the Hallel in a shrieking, emotional voice.

All of this historical background sets the stage for an awesome New Testament Story that happened during Sukkot. That will be the topic of our next post on this fascinating subject.

Feast of Sukkot: Part 1

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord’s Festival of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. For seven days present food offerings to the Lord, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present a food offering to the Lord. It is the closing special assembly; do no regular work.

(“‘These are the Lord’s appointed festivals, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies for bringing food offerings to the Lord—the burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings required for each day. These offerings are in addition to those for the Lord’s Sabbaths and in addition to your gifts and whatever you have vowed and all the freewill offerings you give to the Lord.)

“‘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 sabbath rest, and the eighth day also is a day of sabbath rest. On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. 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 temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’”
– Leviticus 23:33-44

SukkahSukkot (also called the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths) is a holiday set up by God in Leviticus 23:33-44. It is one of the three holidays that God told the Israelites they must attend in Jerusalem each year (the other two are Passover and Pentecost). This holiday is celebrated for seven days (or eight in some areas) starting on the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. This year on the Christian calendar, it began on September 19 and was over on the 25th. Sukkot follows five days after the holiday of Yom Kippur that we looked at in our last post.

In contrast to Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a very joyous occasion. For the Jew, it is quite a drastic transition from the most solemn day of the the year to the most joyous. The seven days of Sukkot are an exciting, fun-filled festival often called the “Season of Rejoicing”.

The name, “Sukkot” (suka – singular) means “booths” and refers to the temporary structures that God told the Israelites to build and live in for seven days to remind them of His provision for them while they were in the wilderness for forty years. The Hebrew word for tabernacle (mishkan) means a temporary dwelling, hence the alternate name Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. The Israelites were instructed to build their temporary booths with an open roof so that you could see the moon and stars at night. This outdoor experience would remind you of God’s bigness and His provision for the Israelites while they lived in the wilderness.

For the modern participant in Sukkot, it is a fun-filled seven days. Even though many Israelites today live in high rise apartments, they still build small makeshift booths on their patios or where any small space is available. Some companies even offer Sukkot kits that you can put together for your home. These booths are decorated with lights and fruits and vegetables and children’s artwork. Families camp out in the backyard and eat their meals in them and often take turns sleeping in the booths at night. The festival has a similar look and feel to our Christmas. On the first day of the Festival, work is forbidden and is a Sabbath like holiday. On each day of the seven day holiday, special blessings are recited over four species of plants that God required them to have in their possession. The etrog (similar to a lemon), a palm branch called lulav, two willow branches, and three myrtle branches are all required in the booth. These four species are held and waved before the Lord as the blessings are recited.

The precepts found in the Feast of Sukkot are very similar to our American Thanksgiving. Many historians think that the American pilgrims borrowed this idea from the Bible when they set up the first Thanksgiving Feast. They were trying to find a way to express their thanks to God for letting them survive the winter and giving them their first harvest. They looked to the Bible to show how to best express that gratitude and copied the instructions of the Feast of Sukkot .

The Bible contains several stories that involved the Feast of Sukkot and the historical significance of these events had a big effect on how Sukkot was celebrated later in Jewish history. In our next post, we will look at several of these,”Sukkot” events.

Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe

In our previous post, we discussed Rosh Hoshanah, the first great day in the season of the Jewish High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first day of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar which corresponds to September 5th, 2013 on our calendar (last week). It is called the Feast of Trumpets because trumpets are sounded on that day to herald or announce the events of the next feast to come. That next feast to come is Yom Kippur and it occurs on the tenth day of the same month, which is our Sept 14. This holiday was instituted by God in the book of Leviticus:

The Lord said to Moses, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord. Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God. Those who do not deny themselves on that day must be cut off from their people. I will destroy from among their people anyone who does any work on that day. You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a day of Sabbath rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your Sabbath.”
– Leviticus 23:26-32

Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat…because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of Sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community.

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”
– Leviticus 16:7-10, 30-34

Yom Kippur, azazel goatsYom Kippur, also called the Day of Atonement, is the most important of all the holidays in the Jewish year. Many secular Jews who do not normally observe other Jewish customs will refrain from work, fast, and attend synagogue services on this day. It is a day set aside for the modern Jew to try to amend past behaviors and ask for forgiveness for wrongs that have been done against God and against other human beings. The entire twenty four hour period is spent fasting and much time is spent in the synagogue petitioning God and confessing sins. At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that the soul has been humbled and that they have been forgiven by God. The purpose of this special day is for the Jewish believer to prepare for judgment, pray for forgiveness, reconcile themselves with their family, neighbors, and with God, and to purify themselves from sin and error. For the modern Jewish person, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur are the time for a new beginning.

In contrast, the observance of Yom Kippur in Bible times was not as much of an individual focus as it was a priestly institution. As seen in the Leviticus passages, Yom Kippur rites were performed only in the sanctuary by the High Priest on this one day of the year. Individuals only observed the priestly ordinances and did not participate in any way in the process of the Feast liturgy. The evening of the Day of Atonement begins with the blast of the (shofar) trumpet. This will be the last time the shofar is heard until next year. When the actual day of the feast begins, the high priest will put on special linen garments and enter the holy sanctuary. The priest will begin by making offerings to cleanse the temple and the altar. Then he will make atonement for himself and the rest of the priests. Lastly, the priest will make atonement for the rest of the people.

Before the destruction of the Temple, the atonement that was made for the people involved two goats. By casting lots, the priest chose between the two goats. One was chosen for the Lord and the other, called “azazel”, was the scapegoat. The first animal was sacrificed to God and the blood sprinkled on the altar to pay the penalty for the people’s sins. Then the priest, in the second part of the ceremony, transferred the sins of the people onto the second goat and then it was driven outside the camp and into the wilderness to take the sins away from the camp. To the Jews, these two animals were each considered half of a single sacrifice. For this reason they selected two goats that looked as much alike as possible. The picture was for Israel’s sins to first be forgiven and then taken away and cast into the abyss to await the final judgment.

To the Christian who believes in the sacrificial death of God’s son Jesus, the symbolism is huge. Jesus was the lamb of God that paid once for all our sins (Hebrew 10 – especially Hebrews 10:14 and Hebrews 10:19). Jesus is also the scapegoat because the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6-7) and He was led outside of the camp to die in disgrace for us (Hebrews 13:12-13). Christ is the way that God chose to atone (let us be at-one-with God) for our transgressions. Also, Jesus was our High Priest, the one that made the atonement of our sin once and for all (Hebrew 7:24, Hebrew 7:27).

Even though we are not Jewish, we can certainly proclaim that Yom Kippur is a great day to celebrate – that day when God atoned for our sins by sending His only son Jesus to be sacrificed in our place. Because of this great sacrifice our sins will be remembered no more!

Rosh Hashannah

Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon,
    and when the moon is full, on the day of our festival;
this is a decree for Israel,
    an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
–Psalm 81:3-4

This week, for Jewish people all over the world, marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year and the Fall Holy Days festivals that were commanded by God in the book of Leviticus. God set up seven High Holy Days and grouped them together as follows:

  1. Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits all occur together in the spring and are celebrated concurrently in the March/April time period on our calendar
  2. Pentecost is the fourth festival and occurs by itself in June
  3. Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot all occur in the fall and are also celebrated consecutively during the September/October time period

The fall festivals begin with Rosh Hashannah, or the Feast of Trumpets, and occurs on the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, which corresponds on our calendar to today, September 5th, 2013.

Leviticus 23:23-25 says:

“The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord.’”

Rabbi blowing shofarThis verse begins with, “The Lord said to Moses” and therefore indicates a start of a new section in the Feasts which in this case is the Fall Feasts. The phrase, “commemorated with trumpet blasts” translates the Hebrew word, “tĕruw`ah”. This word is similar to the English word “fanfare” and refers to the things for which a trumpet would be sounded, such as the arrival of a King, or a call to battle. The Day of Rosh Hashannah therefore announces the coming of the Holidays to follow and says by the blowing of the trumpet that these days to follow are incredibly important. You need to be prepared; you better get ready because the day has arrived.

The Jewish people actually begin blowing the ram’s horn (shofar) in the synagogue in the previous month to remind the people that the Fall Holy Days are approaching and to get everyone ready to observe them. Then, on the first day of the seventh month, there is a special service that features an elaborate ceremony of trumpet blowing. The trumpets remind the Jewish people to prepare for the coming Day of Atonement by examining their lives for the past year. This is much different than our American tradition of celebrating our New Year. We make it a happy and raucous celebration and give no thought to the year just finished, but focus on the new beginnings to come. In contrast, Rosh Hashannah and the succeeding Yom Kippur have a much different atmosphere. They are known as the ”Days of Awe” and are serious days as they call you to reflect on your life from the past year and the moral responsibilities that you carry. These two holidays are not greeted with noise and joy, but with a serious and contrite heart.

Besides being reminded to prepare and examine your heart, Rosh Hashannah also reminds the Jewish people of some other important events. It reminds them to celebrate God’s creation because they believe God began His creation of the universe on the first day of the seventh month, which is the same day Rosh Hashannah is celebrated. Also, it reminded them that the Lord descended on Mt. Sinai with the blast of a shofar (Exodus 19:16-19) and that the coming of the Messiah’s Kingdom will be announced by the blast of the shofar.

To Christians, the spring holidays speak of the first coming of the Messiah (Passover, Pentecost) and the fall holidays speak of his imminent return. Look at the following verses:

And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
– Matthew 24:31

in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
– 1 Corinthians 15:52

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
– 1 Thessalonians 4:16

Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.
– Revelation 8:6

As the trumpets sound before the Day of Atonement to call all Jews to repentance, they also sound for all mankind to repent before that day when the Lord will return and pour out his wrath on the earth because it has not repented. For Christians, the trumpets announce the return of the King. These trumpets call us to repent and prepare our hearts for His coming. For the lost, the trumpets are a call to repentance, because they announce the coming judgment of God. Yom Kippur, the holiday that follows Rosh Hashannah, will be for each person either a Day of Atonement or a Day of Judgment.

Additional information on the feasts can be found here: