Jonah and the Feast of Tabernacles

The Feast of Tabernacles is a time to celebrate God’s choice to dwell among His people and our complete dependence on Him. We are commanded to rejoice and feast with others: family and friends, the fortunate and the less-fortunate, believers and non-believers.

With that in mind, there is a small detail in the story of Jonah that many of us have probably missed. After Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, after the Ninevites repent, and after God forgives their sin and turns away their deserved destruction, Jonah leaves the city, sits on a hillside, and builds himself a small tabernacle to shelter himself from the sun.

But although he is dwelling in a tabernacle, he is embodying the opposite attitude of the Feast of Tabernacles. Rather than welcoming non-Jews into God’s family, he is angry that they have been forgiven. Rather than rejoicing, he is “displeased exceedingly,” “angry,” and “distressed” (literally, evil). Rather than depending on God, he is yet again trying to escape from God. Essentially, Jonah has a little pity-party on that hillside, a voluntary Anti-Tabernacles, during a time when he should have been rejoicing.

This week is a time for rejoicing. It is a time for celebrating God’s faithfulness and God’s blessings. It is a time for compassionately welcoming those who don’t yet know the truth. It is a time for trusting in God rather than the world around us.

Don’t be Jonah. Don’t choose to be angry and bitter. Don’t look for reasons to be upset. Don’t decide to hate those with different (even wrong) views. Choose to rejoice, to welcome, to celebrate, to feast.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

Why We Read Ecclesiastes During the Feast of Tabernacles

God commanded His people to keep the Feast of Tabernacles “because the Lord your God will bless you in all your increase and in all the work of your hands, so that you surely will rejoice.” It’s a weeklong festival celebrating the ever-abiding presence of God with us, and the health, prosperity, and joy that comes from the Lord.

So why do we read Ecclesiastes on this celebration? Ecclesiastes is a sermon from a man (“the Preacher”) who got everything he ever wanted. He grew as wise and intelligent as anyone could’ve hoped to become. He acquired more wealth than anyone who had ever lived before. He found great success in all his ventures, and his fame spread far and wide.

He had everything he could’ve wanted, everything any of us could want. He got all the things that the Feast of Tabernacles says we can have. But he got it the wrong way. Rather than sticking with God and being blessed by Him, the Preacher turned from God and tried to get it all apart from Him.

And he succeeded. He got it all. Fame, wealth, women, success. But without God, it all meant nothing. There was no purpose, no pleasure, no joy. It was, as the Preacher put it, “vanity of vanities.” He finishes his sermon by saying, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all.”

As we enter this week of celebration, let’s not focus on the stuff. Let’s not focus on our own pleasure and desires. Instead let’s focus on the God who gives us richly all things to enjoy, the God who provides our every need and heals our mortal bodies, the God who is more than enough.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.”

How to Ring in the New Year on Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew for “Head of the Year”) is the Jewish New Year, which, as you would expect, takes place on the first day of the… seventh month… of the year (don’t ask). Rosh Hashanah (referred to in the Bible as Yom Teruah, or “Day of Blasting”) is traditionally the date of the creation of Adam and Eve, and is a day of celebration but also of reflecting on the sins and shortcomings of the last year as we usher in the new year of blessings and prosperity.

How To Do It

There are a number of traditions on Rosh Hashanah. Feel free to review them and then practice a few or all of them. Our family typically throws a Rosh Hashanah party with dozens of families, but you might feel more comfortable starting off with your family and a few close friends.

Holiday Greeting

On Rosh Hashanah, we greet teach other by saying, “Shanah tovah!” which means, “Have a good year!” Make sure to greet your family and friends with this greeting on Rosh Hashanah.

Reflection and Repentance

An important aspect of Rosh Hashanah is reflecting on the past year. For all of us, there are things that didn’t go how we had hoped, or maybe we made mistakes or didn’t live the way we had hoped. Micah says,

“Who is like You, O God, who pardons our sins and forgives our transgressions… You will again have compassion on us and will trample out sins under your feet and hurl our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18, 19)

As such, take time to look back and repent of any sins or shortcomings from the last year. Then take a piece of bread—representing our sins—and cast them into a body of water. A lake, river, or ocean is a great place if available; if you don’t live close to a water source, we’ve been known to fill up a kid pool in the backyard and use that.

Be sure to explain to your kids/guests why you’re throwing a piece of bread into a lake. Give them a minute or two to consider the previous year and make a commitment to overcome in the coming year.

The Meal

Begin the meal by having the women and girls light the candles while reciting the traditional blessing,

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by His Word, and commanded us to light the holiday candles.”

As your family is ushering a sweet new year, you should prepare a sweet meal. Apples dipped in honey, round challah bread, sweet potatoes, beats, dates, raisins, and pomegranates should be served as sides/appetizers. Since this is the “head of the year,” it is customary to serve a fish head, reminding guests that this next year they will be the head and not the tail (Deuteronomy 28:13). Of course, you don’t have to consume the head. For a main dish, you can prepare something fish-based or a chicken. Dessert can follow in the fruit theme with a berry pie. 

Blow the Shofar in Memorial of Kingships

One of the biblical mandates for Rosh Hashanah reads,

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation.” (Leviticus 23:24)

As such, it is customary to blow the shofar during Rosh Hashanah. When asked why we blow the shofar, one answer the Talmud gives is that we do it “in remembrance of kingships.” Part of celebrating the new year is every one of us acknowledging that God is our King and the King of the Universe, and just as we cast off the sins of last year, we also make a commitment to live for God our King this coming year.

But notice that “kings” is plural. We aren’t simply celebrating that God is God. We are celebrating that God has created each and every one of us to rule and reign as kings on earth (Genesis 1:28, Exodus 19:6, Romans 5:17, 1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6). So as we blow the shofar, we make a commitment to serve Jesus Christ our King and rejoice that we get to reign in life with Him.

Once you explain why we sound the trumpet, pull out your shofar are give it one long blast, three medium blasts, nine short blasts, and finally one really, really long blast.

Readings

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, read Genesis 21:1-34—the birth of Isaac—with your family. The next night, it is customary to read Genesis 22:1-24—the binding of Isaac. You can also read Genesis 1 with your family, as Rosh Hashanah is traditionally when God created Adam and Eve—the original royal priesthood of the earth.

How Hebrew Poetry Accents Scripture: A Reflection on Lamentations during Tisha B’av

Tomorrow night is the start of Tisha B’av—the observance of when the first and second temple were destroyed (586 BC by Babylon and 70 AD by Rome). Traditionally on Tisha B’av, the book of Lamentations is read, which consists of a five-chapter dirge over the destruction of Jerusalem. If you haven’t read it recently, I encourage you to check it out this weekend.

The first chapter of Lamentations consists of 22 triplets that follow a qinah meter. As the Hebrew alphabet has 22 verses, each triplet begins with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, making the first chapter an acrostic poem. The second chapter follows these patterns as well.

Well, almost.

If you look closely, there are a few cracks beneath the surface of these poetic flourishes. The acrostic is not quite right. The letter pe (17th letter) comes before the ayin (16th letter). Additionally, the qinah meter, while almost universal, is missing from a few verses. The poetry looks great to the untrained eye, but it’s slowly falling apart underneath.

The third chapter continues the (almost) pattern of acrostic and qinah meter, even leveling it up a bit. Not only does each triplet begin with the next Hebrew letter—each line of each triplet begins with the next Hebrew letter as well. It’s no surprise that, as the poetry seems to improve, the subject changes from merely lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem to calls for repentance and a renewed hope that God will deliver them from their troubles. But while they seem to be getting things in order, the flaws in the poetry remain.

The improved poetry is short-lived. In chapter 4, rather than acrostic triplets, there is a noticeable downgrade to couplets. The mismatched acrostic and missing qinah meters remain present. Just like Jerusalem, the poetry is falling apart fast.

We finally arrive at chapter 5. As you would expect, this chapter has 22 verses. But there isn’t even an attempt to form an acrostic. There are no couplets or triplets. There’s no qinah meter. All attempts at poetic flare are abandoned, just as Jerusalem had been abandoned. As Jeremiah laments, “The young men [have ceased] from their song” (Lamentations 5:14).

As we look back on the destruction of the City of God this weekend, let’s reflect on the state of our own “city upon a hill.” Are we living out God’s commission towards peace and justice? Or have we moved our souls far from peace and forgotten God’s goodness (Lamentations 3:17)?

It’s not too late to turn things around.

“Let us search out and examine our ways,

And turn back to the LORD.

Let us lift our hearts and hands

To God in heaven.” (Lamentations 3:40, 41)