The Feast of Epiphany—The Feast of Tabernacles

Today is the Feast of Epiphany, which, among other things, is a celebration of the coming of the Magi, probably from ancient Persia, to worship the newborn king and to present him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

A few weeks ago, I was reading in the massively magisterial commentary of the great Jewish scholar, Jacob Milgrom, on Leviticus 23 and the various feasts that are mentioned in that chapter, including the Feast (or Festival) of Tabernacles. Milgrom calls attention to a monograph in which the author argued that the early church, in its development of the Feast of Epiphany, did so in part by connecting this feast with the Feast of Tabernacles.

I must admit that I was unaware of this connection, and that upon initially reading about this it was not immediately obvious to me how these two feasts could be seen as connected. After all, the Feast of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, twelve days after Christmas, and remembers the visit of the Magi to worship the child Jesus. The Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated sometime in September/October, and remembers the journey of the Israelites as they made their way through the wilderness, living in tents (huts, booths) all along the trek. They seem to be very different events. I have not had the time to research this in any detail, nor have I had access to the monograph to which Milgrom refers. But after an initial bit of puzzlement, there was one passage in particular which came to mind as perhaps being an important element in establishing this connection for the early church.

In Zechariah 14, there is a remarkable passage which talks about Gentiles celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles.

14 The wealth of all the surrounding nations will be collected—great quantities of gold and silver and clothing. . . .

16 Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.

Notice in particular what this passage says about the Gentiles. They will go up to Jerusalem, they will go there to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, they will go there to worship the divine King, and they will not go there empty-handed: they will bring gifts with them, including gold.

The Magi go to Jerusalem, they go there to worship the king, they bring gifts with them, including gold. I am sure this passage in Zechariah had something to do with the connections which the early church drew between the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Epiphany.

But there is something else important to note, which is especially significant for those of us in the church of Jesus Christ, who are Gentiles, which is, of course, most of us.

Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Anna, Simeon. This constitutes the cast of characters in Luke’s version of the nativity story. We are often told that Matthew is the Gospel of the Jews, while Luke is the Gospel of the Gentiles. Perhaps there is some justification for this generalization, but not in the nativity stories of the two evangelists. Luke gives us a Jewish cast of characters; only Matthew includes Gentiles, in particular, the Magi, in his cast. Furthermore, it is Matthew’s Gospel, not Luke’s, which goes out of its way to point out the Gentile women who are in the genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba.

Zechariah’s prophecy finds one installment of its fulfillment in the visit of the Magi. But the installments continue as the Gentiles enter the church of God on account of the great missionary journeys of the apostle Paul, and they continue even in our day as Gentiles continue to come to Christ and are engrafted into the Israel of God. Indeed, Zechariah’s prophecy is not entirely unique, but was in some ways already envisioned in the original intent of the Feast of Tabernacles:

13 Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. 15 For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.

We (the Gentiles) have been engrafted into the people of God. And though we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, we also have a right, as former foreigners, but now a part of the very people of Israel, to own Israel’s history as our history. Therefore, it was not some remote people, with whom we have nothing to do, but it was our very own ancestors who were redeemed from the land of Egypt. It was our ancestors who crossed the Red Sea. It was our ancestors who journeyed through the wilderness to the promised land, living in tents as they made their way. It was our ancestors who celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. And we, who were formerly “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world,” have now “been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13). We are the descendants of those ancient Israelites. So as we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany, we also celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, and we come to the heavenly Jerusalem and worship the divine King. And our joy is made complete, because of the Christ who dwells within us, and because we have our dwelling in the place and the people who are known as the Israel of God. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.

Jerry Shepherd
The Feast of Epiphany
January 6, 2018