The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Sukkot (Part 1)


This is the second installment of a period series examining the ancient Israelite (and Jewish) festivals—their origins, ancient practice, development within Jewish tradition, and their relation to early Christianity. The first set of articles (earlier this year) dealt with the festival of Passover (Part 1, 2, 3, 4). This current set will explore the festival of Sukkot, which is celebrated at this time of the year.

Name and Origin

The name Sukkot is a transliteration of the Hebrew toKs% (s¥kkô¾), a plural form of the noun hK*s%, from the root iks which has the fundamental meaning “block off, cover”. The noun refers simply to a covering, usually in the sense of a protective dwelling or shelter; the related noun Es) has essentially the same meaning, and may be viewed as a byform of the same word. The word hK*s%, in spite of being a common noun, is relatively rare in the Old Testament, at least when it is used in the general sense of a shelter—cf. Gen 33:17; 2 Sam 11:11; 22:12; 1 Ki 20:12, 16; Job 27:18; Isa 1:8; Jonah 4:5, etc. At least as often, it is used in the specific context of the festival under discussion here (Lev 23:34ff; 2 Chron 8:13, etc).

The name derives from the practice of families and individuals setting up temporary (and ceremonial) shelters (toKs%) to dwell in during the festival. In English, the Hebrew term is often translated loosely as “booths” (i.e., festival of Booths), though the more traditional rendering is the archaic (and rather inappropriate) “Tabernacles”.

Even though the name Sukkot (toKs%) came to be traditional designation for the festival among Israelites, the earliest (historical) tradition clearly indicates the festival’s origins. In the instructions (Torah) given in the book of Exodus, it is called the festival of “the gathering” ([ys!a*h*), Exod 23:16; 34:22. All of the three major pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Weeks, and Sukkot/Booths—were originally agricultural festivals, tied to specific points of the harvest season. This is quite clear from the instruction in Exod 23:13-16; 34:22-24.

The festival of Sukkot/Booths celebrates the “gathering”, in reference to the end of the harvest generally, but also specifically to the gathering of the grapes and olives which marks the end of the season (in the late summer/early fall). This occurred during the seventh month, Nissan, which corresponds to a period in September-October of our calendar. The festival was held over an eight-day period, 15-22 Nissan, following the harvest (Lev 23:33, 39; Deut 16:13; Num 29:12ff).

Ancient Practice and the Torah

The instruction for the festivals in the book of Leviticus (chapter 23) provides some basic information on how Sukkot/Booths is to be celebrated (vv. 33-43). The first and last days of the festival are marked by a “call to holy (observance)” (vd#q) ar*q=m!), which means that the time (and space) is to be kept pure and set apart, so that no ordinary labor is to be done (v. 35-36). This sets the boundaries and establishes the sacred character of the festival: its time belongs to YHWH (vv. 39, 41), and should be devoted to worship. In particular, a sacrificial offering (“[by] fire”) is to be presented to God on each day (v. 36).

The second component of the festival is described in verse 40. The people are to take leafy branches from various trees (lit. “tree[s] of splendor”), and use them in joyful acts (vb jm^c*) of celebration and worship “before YHWH”. The palm-tree and brook-willow are specifically mentioned as sources of these branches; they presumably they were to be waved about as part of the rejoicing.

The final component involved the construction of temporary shelters (toKs%), the significance of which is explained:

“In s¥kkô¾ [i.e., shelters] you shall sit [i.e. dwell] (for the) seven days; (all) th(ose) grown up in Yisrael [i.e. native Israelites] shall sit in the s¥kkô¾. (This is so that) as a result, (the) circles of your (descendants) may know that I made (the) sons of Yisrael to sit in s¥kkô¾ in my bringing them forth from (the) land of Egypt. I (am) YHWH your Mighty (One).” (vv. 42-43)

The shelters thus represent and symbolize God’s providential care for the people during their Exodus-journeying out of Egypt. The shelter-coverings, by the very meaning of the word hK*s% (cf. above), allude to protection, to the “blocking out” of the elements, etc. There may also be a bit of wordplay involved, since the homonym Sukkoth is also the name of first stopping-point on the Exodus journey (according to Exod 12:37).

An interesting final detail is that the eighth (final) day of the festival is specifically referred to by the term hr*x*u&, indicating that, as with the first day, the time was sacred (like the Sabbath) and that no ordinary work/labor was to be performed (v. 36). The precise meaning of hr*x*u& here, however, is uncertain. The basic meaning of the root rxu is something like “hold back, restrain, detain”. Probably the significance of the term in relation to the eighth day of the festival is that the people should refrain from doing work; however, it has also been suggested that the idea of the people being ‘detained’ for an additional (eighth) day was intended.

In Numbers 29:12-38, there is additional instruction given for the observance of Sukkot, devoted to descriptions of the prescribed sacrificial offerings for each day. The brief instruction in Deuteronomy 16:16-17 includes the detail that all adult males shall appear before YHWH (in Jerusalem) for the festival, along with the principle that each person shall give an offering as he is able, according to the extent to which God has blessed him and his family. In Deut 31:10-13, the festival of Sukkot is marked as the occasion when “this Instruction [Torah],” referring to the book of Deuteronomy itself, is to be read out before the people.

There is no specific indication of the festival of Sukkot being celebrated prior to the Kingdom-period (cf. the notice in Neh 8:17). According to 1 Kings 8:2ff, it was celebrated, in a grandiose manner, by Solomon, when it was utilized as the setting for the inauguration of the newly-built Temple in Jerusalem. As would be fitting for the importance of the occasion, an additional seven days were added to the prescribed seven for the festival, doubling its length to fourteen, after which the eighth/final day was celebrated (v. 65). In the separatist Northern kingdom, under Jeroboam, the Sukkot festival was celebrated in Bethel, rather than in Jerusalem, for obvious reasons (12:32).

Apart from brief notices or allusions to Sukkot in Hosea 12:9 and Lamentations 2:6-7, the only other Old Testament references come from the early post-Exilic period. Celebration of the festival is mentioned in Ezra 3:4, as part of a program of restoration and reform, which entailed both the rebuilding of the Temple (with its ritual/sacrificial apparatus) and a renewed adherence to observing the Torah. Once the Temple and its altar were rebuilt, the prescribed sacrifices for the festival (cf. above) could be offered (cp. 2 Chron 8:13). A more detailed description of the celebration of Sukkot is mentioned in Nehemiah 8:13-18, more or less following precisely the Levitical instruction regarding the festival (cf. above). Branches of olive, myrtle, and palm trees are specifically mentioned (cp. Lev 23:40). It is also noted that the shelters (toKs%) were constructed variously on the rooftops and in the courtyards of individual homes, but also in the courts of the Temple and in the public squares at two of the city gates, presumably to allow for additional access to the ceremonial shelters by the population (v. 16). Also, in accordance with the Deuteronomic directive (Deut 31:11-13), the author mentions that the “Book of the Instruction [Torah] of God” (i.e., Deuteronomy) was read out loud before the people during the festival.

In Part 2, I will examine the influence of Sukkot, both within the Old Testament, and in the subsequent early Jewish tradition. Particular attention will be focused on the important reference in Zechariah 14, and on the possible setting of the festival for a number of the Psalms (esp. Psalm 118).




The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Passover (Part 2)

Passover—Part 2:
Old Testament and Jewish Tradition

The Earliest Festivals

The ancient historical tradition, associating the Passover festival with the Exodus (Exod 12-13), was discussed in Part 1. The same tradition clearly connects the Passover (js^P#) feast (on the 14th/15th of Abib-Nisan) with the festival of ‘Unleavened (Bread)’ (toXm^) on the 15th-21st of the same month. The two festivals are thus joined together from the earliest times, with the js^P# feast effectively marking the beginning of the seven days of toXm^.

Interestingly, in the Torah regulations found elsewhere in the book of Exodus, greater attention is given to the festival of toXm^. The main reason for this is that the annual cycle of Israelite festivals was, from the very beginning, closely tied to the agricultural cycle. The three great festivals, outlined in the early calendar-notices in the Torah (Exod 23:14-17; 34:18-23), were all harvest festivals. The festival of toXm^, in particular, was related to the barley harvest. It is the first of the three gj^-festivals mentioned in these passages. The etymology of the word gj^ remains uncertain, but it is used almost exclusively in reference to pilgrimage festivals—that is, occasions when the people would travel to a (central) sanctuary location, and there celebrate the festival. The related verb gg~j* (Exod 23:14, etc) denotes the celebration of the festival.

More expansive and comprehensive instructions on the festivals are given in Leviticus 23, Numbers 28, and Deuteronomy 16. In these sections, the Passover is included as a primary festival (Lev 23:4-8; Num 28:16-25; Deut 16:1-8), though always in connection with the seven-day toXm^ period. The notice in Lev 23:4-8 is relatively brief, but declares that the first day of the toXm^, the day of the Passover proper (Abib-Nisan 15), is a call (ar*q=m!) for the people to gather for a holy assembly, a day on which no regular work is to be done (v. 7). Sacrificial offerings are to be made to YHWH at the sanctuary on each of the seven days (v. 8); the seventh day is a day of holy assembly, just like the first. The requirements for the daily offerings are given in Num 28:19-24.

The instruction in Deut 16:1-7 shows signs of development, indicating that we are dealing with a well-established tradition. The reference to the historical tradition of the Exodus in v. 3 sounds very much like a fixed liturgical formula, by which the elements of the Passover feast are meant to remind the celebrants of the Exodus event in Egypt. The main Deuteronomic feature of the Passover instruction involves the centralization of cultic ritual and worship at the (Temple) sanctuary in Jerusalem:

“You are not able [i.e. allowed] to slaughter [i.e. sacrifice] the Pesaµ in any of your gates [i.e. of the towns/cities] which YHWH your Mighty (One) is giving to you, for (it is only) to (be done) at the place which YHWH your Mighty (One) shall choose for (the) dwelling of His name…” (vv. 5-6)

The implication is clear enough: the people must travel to the Jerusalem Temple-precincts, bringing the Passover lamb, to have it slaughtered there. This also means that ritual meal has to be eaten in Jerusalem as well (v. 7).

Old Testament References to Passover

The second celebration of Passover is recorded in Numbers 9:1-14, said to have taken place one year after the first Passover (v. 1), and held at the appointed time (v. 2) and according to the established instructions (vv. 3-5, 11-12, cf. above). This festival was held, at Sinai, following the construction and consecration of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle), including a consecration/purification ceremonies for the Levites (8:5-22) in preparation of the performance of their duties in the Tent. This emphasis on (ritual) purity is also prominent in the instructions regarding Passover (9:6-13).

In Joshua 5:10-11, it is stated that the people of Israel celebrated the Passover while they camped at Gilgal, on the 14th day of the month (Abib-Nisan 14/15), according to the tradition. There is no indication that the festival was celebrated during the years of ‘wandering’, prior to the people’s entry into the Promised Land. This essentially confirms the connection between Passover (and the festival of Unleavened bread) and the agricultural cycle (cf. above)—which requires a presence on the land. From this point on, the Israelites will cultivate and farm the land, a change that is symbolized by the manna ceasing on the very day following the Passover (v. 12). This date corresponds with the beginning of the toXm^ festival, and, correspondingly, the people partook, in a very rudimentary way, of the produce of the land.

The notice in 1 Kings 9:25 (par 2 Chron 8:12-13), indicates that king Solomon presided over the festal sacrificial offerings at the altar of the newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem. This parallels the setting of the Sinai Passover, following the construction of the Tabernacle (cf. above).

According to the Chronicles, the first proper celebration of Passover, held (as intended by the Deuteronomic instruction) in Jerusalem, was arranged by king Hezekiah. According to the Chronicler’s narrative (2nd book, chap. 30), it was truly a grand affair. The call to assemble was sent, even into the northern territories, where it was clearly intended as a (symbolic) way of uniting the remnants of the northern Kingdom with the southern Judean Kingdom (centered at Jerusalem). The exhortation for the people to repent and to “return” to YHWH is expressed in traditional prophetic language. The celebration of Passover is described as part of a wider project of Hezekiah to ‘cleanse’ the Temple from the idolatrous influence and corruption that took place during the reign of his father Ahaz. Because of the work required to restore the proper functioning of the Temple, the celebration of Passover had to be delayed until the second month (vv. 2-3). The narrative also alludes to the fact that, up to that point, the Passover had not been observed as often as it should have been. Indeed, in the history of Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures, the Passover organized by Hezekiah was the first since the initial celebration at Gilgal in the time of Joshua (cf. above).

The books of Kings do not mention the Passover during Hezekiah’s reign, indicating that the first proper Passover, held according to the Torah instructions (especially those in Deuteronomy 16:1-17 [cf. above]), took place during the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 23:21-23). It was part of the Josianic program of religious reform, tied explicitly to the regulations and instructions given in the “book of the covenant” (i.e., the book of Deuteronomy). This entailed, above all else, the centralization of worship at the Temple-sanctuary in Jerusalem, just as Deut 16 prescribes. A parallel account of Josiah’s Passover is given in 2 Chron 35:1-19, in much expanded form; the grandiose details mirror the earlier Passover held by Hezekiah.

There are only two other direct references to the Passover in the Old Testament. First, there is the notice in Ezekiel 45:21ff, part of the instruction regarding the ritual activities to be held in the new Temple of the (eschatological) New Age. The book of Ezekiel is a product of the exilic period, a period of generations when it was no longer possible to celebrate the Passover at Jerusalem. The first post-exilic celebration (in Jerusalem) by the returning exiles is described in Ezra 6:19-22; this apparently took place sometime prior to the beginning of Ezra’s mission in Jerusalem (c. 458 B.C.).

Jewish Tradition in the First Centuries B.C./A.D.

It is somewhat surprising how rarely Passover and the festival of Unleavened bread are mentioned in Jewish writings of the Second Temple period. For this study, I will focus on writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D., from c. 250 B.C. to the mid-second century A.D. These texts would pre-date the Mishnah tractate Pesaµim (c. 200 A.D.) which gives extensive information on the festival, along with instruction on how it is to be observed.

Prior to the first century A.D., the main surviving passage dealing with Passover is chapter 49 of the book of Jubilees, a work usually dated to the middle of the 2nd century B.C. The bulk of Jubilees is a reworking of the narratives in Genesis and Exodus (up to Exod 24:18), presented as an Angelic revelation to Moses. The thrust of this historical presentation is to affirm, for Israelites and Jews of the 2nd century (in face of the influence of Hellenism), the importance of adhering to the Torah regulations. The section on Passover (chap. 49) comes at the conclusion of the work. In light of the overall emphasis on maintaining ritual purity (vv. 9-11, cf. Num 9:13), the instructions regarding observance of Passover are reiterated (vv. 12-15, 19-21). There is an idealistic sectarian orientation to this instruction, with the focus on the participants being males twenty years and older (cf. Exod 30:14), who are instructed to eat the meal in the Temple sanctuary (vv. 16-17).

There would seem to be a number of points of contact between the book of Jubilees and the Community of the Qumran texts (cf. below). Indeed, Jubilees appears to have been quite popular with the Community, having the status of something like authoritative Scripture. There are at least 15 copies of the work among the surviving Qumran texts, more than for many books of the canonical Old Testament.

We find a similar interpretive reworking of the Old Testament Passover tradition in several other Jewish writings of the period. The author of the book of Wisdom makes extensive use of the Exodus traditions in the closing chapters 16-19, part of a longer treatment (chaps. 10-19) of the role of God’s Wisdom throughout Israelite history. Chapter 18 (vv. 5-19) gives a powerful and moving account of the Passover night, when the Israelites were saved from death (and delivered from their bondage), while the firstborn children of their Egyptian enemies were destroyed. The Passover sacrifice(s), alluded to in verse 9, reflect the faith and unity of all righteous Israelites, being in agreement to live according to God’s law. Wisdom is identified with “the imperishable light of the law” that is given to the world (v. 4).

The Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo (1st century A.D.) present a similarly imaginative retelling of Israelite history. The command to observe the festivals is introduced at 13:4-7 (paraphrasing Leviticus 23, cf. above). This work also evinces an interesting tendency to identify certain unspecified festal occasions mentioned in Scripture (Judg 21:17-19; 1 Sam 1:3-4ff) with Passover (48:3; 50:2). For another example of a creative retelling of the Exodus/Passover narrative, cf. the Exagoge of Ezekiel (the Tragedian), spec. lines 149-192.

The Qumran Texts

References and allusions to Passover in the surviving Qumran texts are rather slight. Based on the various liturgical and calendric texts, we can be fairly certain that the major festivals played an important role in the life of the Community (and/or those who copied and used the texts). Documents 4Q320-30 give evidence for the use of a (six-year) 364 day solar calendar, tied to performance of ritual priestly duties and used for establishing regular dates for the various festivals. Texts 4Q320-321 and 329a specifically mention Passover. The book of Jubilees (cf. above) followed a similar solar calendar (cf. also 2 Enoch 1:1). Aristobulus also discusses the issue of determining the date for Passover (section preserved in Eusebius’ Church History 7.32.16-18), an indication that such calendrical questions were pertinent among Jews in the 2nd century B.C.

Several surviving documents—1Q34 (and 1Q34bis), and 4Q505/507-509—contain prayers to be recited during the festivals. The specific context cannot always be determined from the fragmentary remains, but several of these prayers may be intended for Passover (e.g., 4Q505 125, 127, 131 [+ 132i]). For a convenient treatment of these texts, with translation and notes, cf. James R. Davila, Liturgical Works (2000) in the Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls series, pp. 15-40.

The Temple Scroll (11Q19) also refers to the sacrificial offerings to be performed in connection with Passover and the seven day toXm^ festival (col. 17), as part of the overall Temple ritual (cp. Ezekiel’s vision of the New Temple in chaps. 40-48).

Philo and Josephus

Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria are first-century Jewish contemporaries of the early Christians, writing in Greek, and their treatments of Scriptural tradition (and related matters of religion) are most relevant for a study of the New Testament. In his Antiquities, Josephus retells the Old Testament narratives, often adding imaginative details and other bits of Jewish tradition. The relevant portions of the Exodus narrative, where the Passover (pa/sxa) festival is mentioned, are given in 2.313 and 3.248-9 (cf. also 3.294). References corresponding to other Old Testament passages are: 5.20-21f [Josh 5:10-12]; 9.260-72 [2 Chron 30]; 10.70-71ff [2 Kings 23:21-23 par]. Notices of later celebrations of the Passover are given in 11.110; 14.21, 25ff; 17.213f; 18.29, 90; 20.106-108ff; and in Wars 2.10.

The most notable mention of the Passover by Josephus is in Wars 6.420-8, where he explains how a vast multitude of people, having come to Jerusalem for the festival, found themselves trapped in the city by the Roman siege.

It is typical of Philo that he gives an allegorical interpretation to the Passover tradition. He interprets the Pesaµ (Greek Fasek = Pa/sxa) in the ascetic-philosophical sense of “passing over” from the passions, using a bit of wordplay between pa/sxa and the verb pa/sxw (“suffer,” participle paqw/n), just we might between “passover” and “passion”. The main reference is in On the Special Laws 2.145-9:

“…the passover figuratively represents the purification of the soul; for they say that the lover of wisdom is never practising anything else except a passing over from the body and the passions. And each house is at that time invested with the character and dignity of a temple, the victim being sacrificed so as to make a suitable feast for the man who has provided it and of those who are collected to share in the feast, being all duly purified with holy ablutions. And those who are to share in the feast come together not as they do to other entertainments, to gratify their bellies with wine and meat, but to fulfil their hereditary custom with prayer and songs of praise. And this universal sacrifice of the whole people is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month, which consists of two periods of seven, in order that nothing which is accounted worthy of honour may be separated from the number seven. But this number is the beginning of brilliancy and dignity to everything.” (Yonge translation)

Philo specifically explains the girding of the loins (Exod 12:11) in terms of restraining one’s appetites. By moving away from the passions, and offering the Passover sacrifice (12:4), one makes the ‘advance toward perfection’, with the unblemished lamb symbolizing a moderate spirit. The passage away from the passions should be done promptly and willingly, i.e., “in haste”. Cf. On Allegorical Interpretation 3.94, 154, 165; On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain §63; On the Migration of Abraham §25; Who Is the Heir…? §192f, 255. On the Preliminary Studies §106. The Passover is also mentioned in On the Decalogue §159; and cf. his discussion in On the Life of Moses 2.221-7.

Perhaps the most direct and full exposition of the Passover by Philo is found in Questions and Answers on Exodus (1.4), which I quote here in full (from the LOEB translation by Ralph Marcus):

“They make the Passover sacrifice while changing their dwelling-place in accordance with the commands of the Logos, in return for three beneficent acts (of God), which are the beginning and the middle of the freedom to which they now attain. And the beginning was that they were able to conquer the harsh and insupportable masters of whom they had had experience and who had brought all kinds of evil upon them, and this (came about) in two ways, by having their force and their numbers increase. And the middle was that they saw the divinely sent punishments and disasters which overtook their enemies, (for) it was not the nations which fought against them but the regions of the world and the four elements which came against them with the harmfulness and violence of beasts. That is the literal meaning. But the deeper meaning is this. Not only do men make the Passover sacrifice when they change their places but so also and more properly do souls when they begin to give up the pursuits of youth and their terrible disorder and they change to a better and older state. And so our mind should change from ignorance and stupidity to education and wisdom, and from intemperance and dissoluteness to patience and moderation, and from fear and cowardice to courage and confidence, and from avarice and injustice to justice and equality. And there is still another Passover of the soul beside this, which is its making the sacrifice of passing over from the body; and there is one of the mind, (namely, its passing over) from the senses; and as for thoughts, (their passing over consists) in one’s not being taken with oneself but in willingly thinking further of desiring and emulating prophetic souls.”

Important in relation to the early Christian application of the Passover festival is Philo’s exposition (in On the Special Laws 2.150-61) of the seasonal symbolism, emphasizing the rebirth of new life in the springtime, and the dominance of light over darkness:

“The vernal equinox is an imitation and representation of that beginning in accordance with which this world was created. Accordingly, every year, God reminds men of the creation of the world, and with this view puts forward the spring, in which season all plants flourish and bloom…. For it is necessary that the most beautiful and desirable phenomena belong to those things which are first and have received the position of leadership, those phenomena through which the reproduction and growth of animals and fruit and crops take place, but not the ominous destructive forces. And this feast is begun on the fifteenth day of the month, in the middle of the month, on the day on which the moon is full of light, in consequence of the providence of God taking care that there shall be no darkness on that day.” (vv. 151-5, Yonge translation)

In Part 3, we will begin examining how the Israelite/Jewish Passover tradition influenced early Christian thought. Our initial focus will be on the Gospel of John.

The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Passover (Part 1)

This is the beginning of a regular, periodic series, focusing on the major Festivals of ancient Israel, as attested in the Old Testament Scriptures, and subsequently in Jewish practice. I will be relying primarily on the Scriptural sources, with an emphasis on how the Festival traditions and customs influenced early Christian thought and practice. These studies will correspond, generally if not strictly, with the traditional dating and chronology for each festival during the year. We begin with the festival known as Passover—Hebrew js^P# (Pesaµ), Greek Pa/sxa (Páscha).

Passover—Part 1:
Ancient Origins and Old Testament Background


The traditional term “pasch(al)” comes from the Greek transliteration (pa/sxa, páscha) of the Hebrew noun js^P# (pesaµ), while our English “passover” stems from the customary assumed meaning of the root jsp I in Hebrew (“to pass over”). Unfortunately verb forms of jsp I are extremely rare in the Old Testament, with only four occurrences, three of which are in Exodus 12 (cf. below), and those may represent an attempt to explain the meaning of js^P# in terms of the historical tradition of the Exodus. The other occurrence is in Isaiah 31:5. There is a separate root (jsp II) which apparently means something like “limp, hobble” (cf. 2 Sam 4:4; 5:6; 1 Kings 18:16, 21, and the derived adjective j^s@P! “lame”).

Some commentators believe that jsp I more properly denotes protection (i.e. “guard, protect”) which certainly would fit the context in Exodus 12, as well as the reference in Isa 31:5. The core Exodus tradition indicates that js^P# signifies a specific kind of sacrificial/ritual offering, and could relate to the Akkadian pašâ—u, meaning something like “soothe, appease”, such as of the deity in a ritual context; and, indeed, there are scholars who would explain Hebrew js^P# on this basis. The Hebrew noun itself is used exclusively for the “Passover” festival—or, specifically, to the sacrificial offering of the festival.

The Exodus Narrative and Tradition

Our understanding of the origins and background of the js^P# festival stem almost entirely from the ancient historical-religious tradition(s) in the book of Exodus (chapters 12-13). This, of course, refers to the traditions regarding the “Exodus” of the people of Israel from Egypt, made possible through the miraculous “plagues” that struck the land of Egypt (chaps. 7-12). The last of these plagues took place on the evening of the “first Passover”, the night-vigil of the Exodus.

The narrative in Exodus 12 is typical of the way that traditional narrative and religious law/custom are blended together throughout the Pentateuch, but especially in the book of Exodus. While this is part of the sheer beauty and power of the book, it also creates difficulties for commentators who approach the narrative from an historical-critical perspective—exploring both the historical background and historicity of the narrative. In terms of the Passover/js^P#-tradition itself, there are three aspects which have to be considered:

    • The ancient background of the festival, which may pre-date the Exodus tradition
    • The context of the historical tradition of the Exodus, and
    • The parameters of the festival as it would be understood and practiced subsequently by Israelites
The Initial Reference in Exodus 12:11

The festival is established and outlined in vv. 1-11, at the conclusion of which is the following declaration:

“It is a js^P# to/for YHWH”
(v. 11b, cf. also vv. 27, 48, Lev 23:5, etc)

By all accounts this is an extremely ancient formula, however one evaluates the narrative otherwise from an historical-critical standpoint. This wording suggests that js^P# represents a kind of sacrificial/ritual offering. Apparently it is a familiar term, requiring no explanation; however, it is not immediately clear whether this familiarity should be understood (a) from the standpoint of (later) readers, or (b) in terms of the underlying historical tradition. If the latter (b), then it would mean that Israelites at the time of the Exodus would be familiar with the word and its usage. Let us consider this possibility.

A Pre-Exodus Festival?

A number of critical commentators have posited the theory that the Passover/js^P# reflected a pastoral religious tradition already in existence among Israelites (and/or other Semitic peoples) by the mid/late-2nd millennium (i.e. by the 13th century B.C.). This would conform with other aspects of ancient Israelite religion, whereby current/existing forms and customs were adapted—and re-interpreted—to be given a new and deeper meaning, specific to the religious experience of Israel. For example, the basic design of the Temple/Tabernacle was hardly unique or original, but tended to follow a pattern already in existence in Canaanite Temples, and nomadic Tent-shrines, etc. The same can be said with regard to many aspects of the sacrificial ritual, and other areas of Israelite religion. The uniqueness was not in the specific form, as much as it was of special (revelatory) meaning it had for Israel as the covenant people of YHWH.

The same may have been true of the js^P# offering. It may have originated as a pastoral/nomadic custom—an offering from the flock/herd, possibly intended to ensure God’s protection for the tribe. The communal-meal aspect of the offering could well have been part of the basic rite. According to this theory, Exodus 12:1-11 takes an existing rite, and applies it specifically to the context of the Exodus setting. This is a js^P# offering to God, but one with very special meaning and significance, since it marks YHWH’s protection over Israel and His deliverance of them from bondage in Egypt.

The Traditions in Exodus 12-13

By all accounts, Exodus 12-13 represents a complex blending of historical and religious traditions. The historical Exodus-setting of the Passover rite is, of course, foremost in view; and yet this narrative also serves as the framework for what we would call Torah—that is, instruction on important matters related to the religious and cultural life of the Community. As noted above, the guidelines for performing the Passover festival are given primarily in 12:1-11. The basic details are well-known, and may be summarized as follows:

    • The Passover is to take place in the month of Abib (Nisan, March-April), which becomes the first month of the Israelite calendar (v. 1; cf. 13:4; 23:15; 34:18; Deut 16:8)
    • Each household (ty]B^) selects a lamb (from the sheep or goats) for the Passover meal (vv. 3-5); the lamb is to be a male in its first year, and must be “complete” (<ym!T*)—an adjective with ritual significance, as it refers to the physical wholeness/perfection that is required for sacrificial offerings (Lev 1:3; 3:1; 22:19ff; Deut 15:21, etc).
    • The lamb is selected on the 10th of the month, and kept (vb rm^v*) until the 14th, when it is to be slaughtered “between the two settings (of the sun)” (<y]B*r=u^h* /yB@), a phrase taken to denote the time between noon and sunset—i.e., in the afternoon/evening (vv. 36). According to the Mishnah (Pesaµim 5:5), the slaughtering was done in groups of thirty or more, a number that might cover more than one household.
    • In each house where the meal is eaten, blood from the slaughtered animal is put upon the doorposts and crosspiece (lintel), v. 7. This implies the removal of the animal’s blood before it is eaten, an essential religious and societal requirement for Israel (Gen 9:4; Exod 29:12, etc).
    • The meat (“flesh,” rc*B*) is to be eaten that same night, roasted in fire, and served with toXm^ and “bitter herbs” (<yr!r)m=), i.e., herbs with a sharp/pungent flavor used for seasoning (v. 8). The word hX*m^ is introduced and used here without any explanation, and we may assume that, like js^P# itself (cf. above), hX*m^ was a familiar term even at the time of the Exodus. The context indicates that it refers to flat bread-cakes made without leavening (cf. below), though the relation of the word to the presumed root Jx^m* (“drain [out]”) is not entirely clear.
    • The whole animal is to be roasted, and whatever of it that is not eaten must be burnt up in the fire that night, with nothing remaining of it into morning (vv. 9-10).
    • The instructions regarding how one is to be dressed when eating (v. 11) clearly is meant to symbolize and commemorate the historical circumstances of the Exodus. The historical tradition is particularly emphasized in vv. 12-13; on the central declaration in v. 11b, cf. the discussion above.

More detailed instructions follow in vv. 14-27, beginning with the statement in v. 14, which clearly has future generations of Israelites in mind:

“And this day shall be to you for a memorial (/ork=z]), and you shall celebrate it (as) a festival (gj^) to YHWH…”

Verses 15-20 establish the connection between the Passover festival and the seven-day festival of toXm^ (‘Unleavened Bread’); cf. also in 13:3-16. It is likely that this originally involved two separate celebrations, and the festivals remained distinct throughout Israelite history, even though they were inseparably joined from the earliest time, due to the historical Exodus-tradition. During the seven days (15th-21th of the month), there should be no leavened dough (lit. sourdough, Jm@j*) present in Israelite houses; the leavening agent itself is called roac= (13:7; Deut 16:4, etc), the etymology of which remains uncertain.

Specific ritual instructions for the js^P# (Passover) festival then follow in vv. 21-27, describing: (1) how the blood is to be applied to the doorframe, and the ritual symbolism involved (vv. 22-24); and (2) application of the symbolism within the Passover meal-service in the house (vv. 25-27). The latter includes the famous instruction which forms the basis of the liturgy (Passover Haggadah) that would develop:

“And, it shall be that, (when) your sons should say to you, ‘What (does) this service (mean) for you?’ even (so) you shall say: ‘It (is the) slaughtering [jb^z#, i.e. sacrifice] of (the) passover [js^P#] to YHWH, who passed over [lu^ js^P*] (the) houses of (the) sons of Yisrael in Egypt, in His striking (the) Egyptians; and (indeed) our houses He snatched (out of danger).'” (v. 26f)

Further instructions on the Passover are found in vv. 43-49, following the statement in v. 42, declaring the Passover evening as a night-vigil commemorating the historical tradition of the Exodus.

In Part 2 of this article, we will survey other Old Testament references to the Passover (and toXm^ festival), with some consideration given to how it developed in Israelite/Jewish thought and practice. This will be important for an understanding of how the festival—and its ritual symbolism—influenced early Christianity. The importance of the Passover in the Gospel tradition, with its specific connection to the Passion (and death) of Jesus Christ, is currently being featured in a set of studies in the series “The Passion Narrative” (Episode 2). See also the note on the chronological issues involved with the Passover association in the Gospel narrative(s).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 1)

Psalms 42-43

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc & 4QPsu (42:5 [4]); 11QPsd (43:1-3)

Most commentators recognize that Psalms 42 and 43 comprise a single Psalm, containing three stanzas (42:2-6 [1-5], 7-12 [6-11], and 43:1-5), each of which ends with a common refrain. This is one of the clearest examples of a Psalm that, in its current form, would have been especially well-suited to being sung by a congregation in public worship. Metrically, it tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon (couplet) format (the so-called Qinah meter).

The superscription is distinctive, since it attributes the composition, not to David (as in most of Pss 1-41), but to the “sons of Qorah [Korah]”. The Korahites were priestly officials who served in the Temple, as attested in the books of Chronicles (1 Chron 9:19; 26:1, 19), and also as a company of singers (2 Chron 20:19). Elsewhere in the Old Testament, they are simply designated as Levite clan (Exod 6:21; 1 Chron 6:7, 23 [22, 38]), with no additional information provided. Clearly it is the group of Temple singers that is most relevant to the superscription here (as also in Pss. 44-49, 84-85, 87-88). It is possible that they were responsible for the editing of the ‘Elohist Psalter’ (cf. below).

The musical direction of the superscription also indicates that this composition is a lyK!c=m^, a term of uncertain meaning, but presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely. The term appears in the superscriptions of a number of Psalms in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ (44-45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88-89); cf. also the earlier study on Psalm 32.

Stanza 1: Verses 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“As a deer cries (out) upon channels of water,
so my soul cries (out) to you, Mightiest (One)!”

The meter of this initial couplet is 4+4, an expanded metrical form that creates a grand and solemn opening. The feminine form of the verb (gr)u&T^) in the first line does not match the noun-subject (lY`a^, “[male] deer”); we would rather expect hl*Ya^ (“[female] deer”), in agreement with the verb. Dahood (p. 255) suggests dividing the text grut lyak differently, as gr)u* tl#Y#a^K= (“like a [female] deer crying [out]”).

The verb gr^u* refers to a cry of longing; a crying out loud is indicated by the parallel between gr^u* and ar^q* in Joel 1:19-20 (the only other occurrence of gru in the OT). The idea may be of the deer’s longing to quench his (or her) thirst, but the parallel between the “channels of water” and God (“[the] Mightiest”) suggests rather a scene where the longing for thirst is fulfilled (upon finding water). The basic imagery is well-established in Semitic poetry, going back to the Canaanite poetic texts from Ugarit; most notably, the image of a deer/stag going to a spring to quench its thirst is compared to the ravenous appetite (hunger/thirst) of Death personified (Baal Epic, tablet V, column 1, lines 16-19, etc).

“Mightiest (One)” is my regular translation of the plural noun <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm), understood as an intensive plural when applied to El-Yahweh (in the context of ancient Israelite monotheism). It can be transliterated as a name/title (Elohim), though more often it is simply translated generically as “God”. Curiously, in Psalms 4283 Elohim is used far more often than YHWH (more than 200 times, compared with only 45 for YHWH), in contrast to the rest of the Psalms, where YHWH dominates (more than 580 times, compared with little over 90 for Elohim). This has led to Pss 42-83 being referred to as the “Elohist Psalter”. The reasons for the difference are not entirely clear. It has been thought that the regular use of <yh!ýa$ reflects an intentional editing of compositions which originally used the divine name hwhy (YHWH) throughout.

Verse 3 [2]

“My soul thirsts for (the) Mightiest,
for (the) Living Mighty (One)—
when will I come and be seen (by)
(the) face of (the) Mightiest?”

Here we have a pair of 3+2 couplets that builds upon the idea expressed in the opening verse. The motif of “drinking” has led Dahood (p. 256) to explain hara as a form of the root ary II (cognate with hwr), involving the idea of pouring out and watering (saturating) the ground, along with the related concept of a person (or animal) being filled (sated/satisfied) by drink. If his analysis turns out to be correct, then the second couplet above would be translated something like:

“when will I come and drink my fill
(of the) face of (the) Mightiest?” (cp. Ps 34:9)

In any case, the thing that will quench the Psalmist’s thirst is to experience the very presence of YHWH Himself (His “face”).

Verse 4 [3]

“My tears have been food for me
(by) day and (by) night,
in (their) saying to me, all the day (long):
‘Where (is) your Mighty (One)?'”

The motif of thirst/drinking continues in this verse (again another pair of 3+2 couplets). While the Psalmist longs to drink from the very presence of YHWH, here on earth he has been been drinking only from his tears (toum*D=)—by which is meant his experience of sorrow and suffering. The idea of eating/drinking tears (as “food” [or bread, <j#l#]) reflects another ancient Canaanite poetic idiom. Again, an example is at hand in the Baal Epic from Ugarit (Tablet VI, column 1, lines 9-10), in which, following the death of Baal Haddu, the goddess Anat, in her mourning “she weeps her fill, drinks her tears like wine”.

The Psalmist’s sorrow/suffering is accompanied by mocking taunts from a group of wicked onlookers. This is a familiar motif in the Psalms (cf. the recent studies on Pss 40 and 41). The suffering of the Psalmist (often depicted as the result of an illness) brings into question his loyalty and trust in YHWH. The voice of the wicked and faithless ones, which can also serve to express his own doubts, asks “Where is your Mighty (One)?”. Here “Mighty One” = “Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$), the two titles El and Elohim being so close in meaning (and significance) as to be virtually identical. The theme of the suffering of the righteous—and with it, the apparent absence of God’s presence—was popular in ancient Near Eastern Wisdom literature, and is reflected in many of the Psalms as well.

Verse 5 [4]

“These will I remember, and will pour out
my soul upon me (as I do)—
that I went over in(to the) cover of (the) <Majestic> (One),
unto (the) house of (the) Mightiest,
with a voice of shouting and casting (praise),
(amid the) noise of (those) circling.”

While these lines are difficult to interpret (and translate) in detail, the overall sense of them is clear enough. The protagonist of the Psalm, in his suffering, recalls his recent pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple, almost certainly on the occasion of a holy festival. This is indicated by the verb gg~j*, which, it seems, has the fundamental meaning of making a (circular) procession, but which early on took on the technical meaning of making a procession (to Jerusalem) for one of the three great pilgrimage feasts; a cognate root in Arabic was used later on for the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj).

Here, the festival in question may be that of Booths/Tabernacles (Sukkot), for which an allusion seems to be present in the obscure phrase “I went over in(to the) cover [Es)] of Majesty [?]”. I follow Kraus (p. 437) in tentatively emending MT <D@D^a# as reflecting the root rda—possibly a plural substantive <yr!yD!a^, or the adjective ryD!a^ with an enclitic <-. According to this line of interpretation, ryD!a^ (“great, majestic”) is a title for YHWH, creating a clear parallel: “cover of (the) Majestic (One)” / “house of the Mightiest (One)”. The Es) (sœk, “covering”) is the Temple and its sanctuary, the “booth” (= house) of God.

At such a pilgrimage festival, the Psalmist would have come before “the face” of YHWH, to “be seen” by Him (cf. on verse 3 [2] above), in a symbolic and ritual sense. Now, in the midst of his sorrow, the Psalmist longs for a real experience of God’s presence, one that he can “drink” to give him nourishment and to satisfy him in his time of need.

Refrain: Verse 6 [5]

“(For) what are you bent down, my soul,
and make (such) a clamor upon me?
Wait for (the) Mightiest (One)—
for again will I throw Him (praise),
(the) Salvation of my face and my Mighty (One).”

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm. The parallel occurrences in v. 12 [11] and 43:5 make clear that the first word of v. 7 [6] is misplaced and belongs at the end of the final line of v. 6 [5].

The Psalmist’s suffering and sorrow has led to his “soul” being “poured out”, and the same idea here is expressed by the verb jj^v* (“bend down [low]”) in the passive-reflexive (Hitpolel) stem. The sense of suffering/sorrow is reinforced by the image of the soul making a loud noise (‘clamor’), vb hm*h*. The Psalmist’s response to his own troubled soul is to wait (vb lj^y`) for God—that is, for Him to act, delivering the Psalmist from the source of his suffering. Indeed, the protagonist believes that he will once again, very soon, praise YHWH and worship Him just as he did at the pilgrimage festival (cf. above). The Psalmist remains firm in his belief that YHWH is his Savior (“the Salvation of my face”) and the true God (“Mighty/Mightiest [One]”) who will act on his behalf.

This reflects the theme of covenant loyalty that runs throughout many (indeed most) of the Psalms we have studied. Because the Psalmist has remained faithful and loyal, he is confident that he will receive help and protection from YHWH. Indeed, the promise of such protection is implicit in the very terms of the covenant (between YHWH and Israel). This extends to healing and deliverance from illness, as well as relief from the attacks (and taunts) by the wicked. Only a complete deliverance will confirm the trustworthiness of YHWH (as Sovereign), and vindicate the righteousness and loyalty of the Psalmist (His vassal).

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Jesus and the Law, Part 8: The Gospel of John

The Gospel of John holds a unique and unusual position in New Testament studies, with critical scholars having mixed views as to the relationship between this Gospel and (authentic) traditions and sayings of Jesus. On the one hand, the lengthy and theologically-developed Discourses in John are really like nothing we find in the Synoptics; moreover, the language, style and thematic treatment of the Discourses is often extremely close to that of 1 John, making it seem rather unlikely that we are dealing simply with the unvarnished words of (the historical) Jesus. On the other hand, critical scholars have increasingly recognized numerous strands suggesting early (authentic) tradition, even within the most ‘developed’ sections of the Gospel, and many commentators are willing to admit a significant historical kernel (or core) to the Discourses.

In light of all this, and with regard to this overall series on “The Law and the New Testament”, one could either: (a) discuss the Gospel of John under “Jesus and the Law”, or (b) discuss it along with the Epistles of John under the wider heading. I have decided to treat the Gospel of John primarily as part of the sub-series “Jesus and the Law”, under the basic premise (for the purposes of these articles), that the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (including the Discourses in John) reflect the authentic words and teachings of Jesus, at least in substance (the ipsissima vox if not the ipsissima verba). However, I recognize that many scholars would dispute this; it should be stated that I neither reject nor dismiss the more critical examination and scrutiny regarding authenticity, and realize fully that the question is even more difficult and complicated with regard to the Discourses of Jesus in John. Yet I believe that my approach is justified, all the more as I am quite convinced of the extreme difficulty (and precarious nature) of attempting to separate the “authentic” words of Jesus from subsequent early Christian interpretation and elaboration. Ultimately, we must work from the integral text of the Gospels as they have come down to us.

This article will proceed according to the following outline:

    1. The Festal Setting of the Discourses and related Narratives
    2. The Word(s) of Jesus and Jesus as the Word
    3. The Farewell Discourses and the “Love Command”

1. The Festal Setting of the Discourses and related Narratives

The Gospel of John is also unique (among the four canonical Gospels) in its presentation of Jesus appearing in Jerusalem on multiple occasions, in observance of the holy days—i.e. the Israelite/Jewish festivals (or “feasts”). This in contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, which record just one main journey to Jerusalem, for the Passover, shortly before Jesus’ death. The Johannine festal settings should be considered according to three principal aspects: (a) historical, (b) narrative, and (c) theological.

(a) Historical—The “feasts” are more properly referred to as appointed days or times, generally related to the harvest and seasons of the year, which the people of Israel were to observe with religious ritual, sacrifice and communal celebration. There were five main appointed times (cf. Lev 23:4), including three pilgrimage festivals—Pesach/”Passover” (Unleavened Bread), Shavuot/Weeks (‘Pentecost’), and Sukkot/Booths (‘Tabernacles’)—which (according to Deut 16:16) adult males were commanded to attend, bringing offerings for the Lord. An observant Israelite or Jew in Jesus’ time would journey to Jerusalem at least three times a year for the pilgrimage festivals. In this regard, the Johannine framework of Jesus appearing in Jerusalem on multiple occasions, more accurately reflects the historical situation than the single Passover journey of the Synoptics, as virtually all commentators recognize. Jesus’ appearance in Jerusalem (and in the Temple) suggests a (religious) concern to observe the Torah commands, though this is nowhere so stated in the Gospels. Clearly it was not an important point to emphasize for the Gospel writers (or was simply taken for granted), otherwise there surely would have been some mention of Jesus’ religious devotion, such as we find in the Lukan Infancy narratives for Joseph/Mary and Zechariah/Elizabeth (Lk 1:6; 2:21-24, 39). The closest we come, perhaps, is Jesus’ statement in Lk 22:15, where he speaks of his fervent desire to share the Passover with his disciples; though the context rather emphasizes his impending suffering and death as the reason.

(b) Narrative—Chapters 2-12, sometimes referred to as the “book of Signs”, are primarily divided according to the occasions of the feasts, each of which are associated with a discourse by Jesus:

The Discourse-format in John is the primary method used to incorporate traditional material—sayings of Jesus, miracle stories, etc—into the narrative framework; it is likely that, to some extent, shorter discourses (or simple exchanges) have been combined into a larger discourse-structure. A basic outline of the discourse-format would be:

    • A question (from “the Jews”) posed to Jesus
    • A saying by Jesus, often enigmatic or provocative, in response
    • A further question or reaction indicating misunderstanding of the true meaning of Jesus’ words
    • An exposition by Jesus, in reply

In Jn 2:13-25, the shortest of the episodes listed above, we do not have a full-fledged discourse, but it still more or less follows the basic format:

    • Question from “the Jews” (v. 18), in response to the Temple “cleansing” action of Jesus (vv. 14-17)
    • Enigmatic/provocative saying by Jesus (v. 19)
    • Question/reaction misunderstanding the true meaning of Jesus’ words (v. 20)
    • Instead of an exposition by Jesus, there is an explanation provided by the author (vv. 21-22)

The narrative structure of the Discourses, with their festal settings, can be demonstrated further:

  • Passover (2:13-25)—including the Temple-saying (v. 19) which foreshadows and prefigures the death and resurrection of Jesus
    • Two discourses with a feast setting, each of which is preceded by a miracle similar to those in the Synoptic tradition, but neither takes place (entirely) in the Jerusalem Temple:
      Sabbath (& unspecified feast, 5:1-47)—miracle (healing of crippled man), vv. 1-15; discourse, vv. 16-18, 19-47
      Passover (6:1-65, [66-71])—miracle (feeding the multitude), vv. 1-15; discourse, vv. 25-65ff
    • Two discourses with a feast setting, each taking place in Jerusalem (and the Temple); these discourses are specifically centered on the theme of the identity of Jesus, and his relation to God the Father:
      Booths (7:1-52; 8:12-59)—a highly complex structure with a narrative introduction (7:1-13), followed by a sequence of five (or six) discourse-scenes, the last two of which (8:21-30, 31-59) identify Jesus with the Father
      Dedication (10:22-39)—a shorter combination of two discourse-sections (vv. 22-30, 31-38), each of which concludes by Jesus identifying himself with the Father
  • Passover (12:1-13:30)—a complex narrative and discourse structure in preparation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, leading into the “Farewell Discourse(s)” (13:31-16:33 and chap. 17) and the Passion narrative (chaps. 18-19)—all set during Passover

(c) Theological—It is not possible here to study each discourse (or discourse sequence) in detail, as they are dense and often complex, with an unbelievably rich thematic and symbolic texture. I will simply provide some basic observations which indicate the way in which Jesus is depicted as fulfilling (in his own person) certain Old Testament themes and symbols related to the feasts and holy days. I begin with the two “outer” sections in the chiastic outline above, both of which show Jesus in Jerusalem for the Passover:

John 2:13-25—This is John’s version of the symbolic Temple action (“cleansing”) by Jesus (vv. 13-17) and the Temple-saying (v. 19ff), each of which is attested in Synoptic tradition (Mark 11:15-19; 14:58 par); however, in John, the two are connected, with the clear implication (explained by the author in vv. 21-22) that Jesus fulfills (or replaces) the Temple itself, including the entire sacrificial/ritual apparatus associated with it. I have discussed this section in more detail in prior notes and earlier in this series.

John 12:1-13:30ff—Jesus’ death, presenting himself as a sacrificial offering, is suggested throughout this section (see esp. 12:23-24, 32f; 13:4-11ff) beyond what is found in the common Gospel tradition shared by the Synoptics (cf. 12:3-8, 27; 13:1-3, 21-30). John’s account of the Passion is unique in having the crucifixion occur on the very eve of Passover (19:14) when the lambs are slaughtered, and clearly identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb (19:31-33, 36; cf. also 1:29, 36).

The first pair of discourses of the “inner” sections (in the outline above) are:

John 5:1-47
Festal setting: The feast is unspecified, though commentators have frequently suggested the feast of Weeks (Shavuot, or ‘Pentecost’), which is traditionally associated with the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai (cf. Exod 19:1). This is likely, since it would relate to the Sabbath—the Sabbath command (Exod 20:8-11) being part of the Decalogue given to Moses on Sinai. More important to the author is the fact that the festal day coincides with the Sabbath.
Narrative setting: The section begins with a Sabbath healing miracle story (vv. 1-16ff) which has similarities to those in the Synoptics (Mark 3:1-6 par; Luke 13:10-17); the objection to Jesus healing on the Sabbath (vv. 10-16, 18) is central to the discourse which follows (vv. 17, 19-47) and serves to introduce it. The miracle took place at the pool of Bethesda (or Betzatha), a location close (just N/NE) to the Temple; the action then shifts to the Temple precincts (v. 14), with the discourse presumably understood as occurring in the Temple as well.
Structure of the Discourse: The principal saying of Jesus is in verse 17 (“my Father is even working until [now], and I [also] am working”). The bulk of the discourse (vv. 19-47) consists entirely of a lengthy exposition which can be divided into three sections:
—Jesus’ work: the Son does what the Father shows him (life-giving power), vv. 19-30
—Witness to Jesus’ work: four-fold witness (John the Baptist, the miracles themselves, the Word of God in the heart of believers, and Scripture), vv. 31-40
—Refusal of people to believe the witness (disbelief), vv. 41-47
Theological significance: The Sabbath theme is central, with Jesus identifying himself with God the Father in terms of his work as Creator (an important aspect of the Sabbath command itself, Exod 20:11). According to Jewish tradition (cf. b. Taanith 2a), God is understood to be continually at work, especially in the life-giving areas of: (a) rain, (b) birth, and (c) resurrection. It is the last of these (the power of resurrection) that Jesus particularly emphasizes (and claims for himself) in the discourse (vv. 21, 25, 28-29). According to the narrative (v. 18), some of “the Jews” who heard him recognized that Jesus was identifying himself with God the Father. It is not clear that Jesus here specifically fulfills (or replaces) the Sabbath, but the Synoptic saying in Mark 2:28 par would certainly take on added dimension in this context.

John 6:1-65ff
Festal setting: It is close to the time of the festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread (v. 4).
Narrative setting: Verses 1-15 record the miracle of feeding the 5000, similar to the Synoptic accounts (Mk 6:30-44; 8:1-10 par); verses 16-21 have the episode of Jesus walking on the water, already joined to the feeding of the 5000 in early tradition (cf. Mk 6:45-51 par). Verses 22-24f serve as a narrative bridge leading into the discourse.
Structure of the Discourse: I have discussed the structure of chapter 6 in more detail elsewhere; the “Bread of Life” discourse proper I limit to verses 31-59.
Theological significance: Jesus himself fulfills two main symbols and motifs related to Passover and the Exodus:
—He identifies himself with God the Father who fed the hungry Israelites in the wilderness (cf. the miracle in vv. 1-15 and the discussion in vv. 25-30); note especially in this regard Scripture references such as Psalm 107:4-9.
—In the discourse (vv. 31-59) and the discussion which follows (vv. 60-71) he identifies himself with the manna (“bread from heaven”, cf. Exod 16:4, 15; Psalm 78:24; Wisd 16:20), specifying that he is the true bread which has come down from heaven.
The episode of Jesus walking on the water (vv. 16-21) may also be connected with God’s role in Israel’s crossing the sea (see esp. Psalm 77:19).

The second pair of discourses are as follows:

John 7:1-52; 8:12-59
Festal setting: The feast of Booths (Tabernacles), as indicated in the narrative introduction (v. 2).
Narrative setting: This is provided by the narrative introduction in verses 1-13, which records a partial dialogue with Jesus and his brothers, and narrates Jesus’ (secret) journey to Jerusalem for the feast. Verse 14 shows him in the Temple, teaching.
Structure of the Discourse: The structure is lengthy and complex, spanning two whole chapters, and is further complicated by the presence of the pericope of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 7:53-8:11, generally recognized as an interpolation and not part of the original Gospel). I understand 7:14-8:59 (not including 7:53-8:11) as representing a cluster or sequence of five (possibly six) discourses combined into a single arc, which emphasizes different aspects of Jesus’ identity (and his relationship to the Father):
—Jesus as Teacher (7:14-24): his relation to the Law, with a reprise of the Sabbath question from chapter 5
—Jesus as Messiah (7:25-36): where he comes from and goes to (returns)
—Jesus as (living) Water and Light (7:37-39ff; 8:12 + vv. 13-20): motifs associated with the feast of Booths
—Jesus as I AM (8:21-30): he comes from the Father and goes (returns) to Him
—Jesus as Word of God (I AM) (8:31-59): juxtaposition of Abraham and God as Father
Theological significance: Here I will limit discussion to the discourse in 7:37-39ff; 8:12-20, and the two principal motifs, associated with the feast of Booths, with which Jesus identifies himself. Traditional themes and images are largely dependent on Zechariah 9-14 (on Jewish ritual and ceremony, from a slightly later period, see the Mishnah tractate Sukkah):
Water (7:37-39): Cf. Zech 12:10; 13:1; 14:8; also Isa 44:3; Jer 2:13. A festal ceremony developed, involving filling a golden pitcher with water from the Gihon spring, followed by a procession to the Temple, where the water was poured out and made to flow into the ground around the altar; during the ceremony Isa 12:3 and Psalm 118:25 were recited. The ritual itself reflects an agricultural background and involving a prayer for rain (cf. Zech 10:1; 14:17).
Light (8:12ff): Cf. Zech 14:8. For the traditional ceremony of lighting the four golden candlesticks, see m. Sukkah 5:2-4. The theme of Jesus as light continues in the next chapter (Jn 9), and see also the thematic reprise in 12:35-36.

John 10:22-39
Festal setting: The feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), v. 22.
Narrative setting: It is likely that 10:1-21 is meant to be connected with this section (as chap. 9 is with the prior discourse); note the reprise of the “good shepherd” theme in vv. 25-28. The possibility has also been raised that Ezekiel 34 may have been a synagogue reading (haphtorah) from the Prophets around the time/season of Dedication, which means that the “good shepherd” discourse of 10:1-21 may have been delivered at that time. In verse 23, Jesus is shown in the Temple, the setting for the discourse which follows.
Structure of the Discourse: It can be divided simply into two sections: verses 22-30 and 31-38, with a short narrative summary in verse 39. The structure becomes more complex if one wishes to include the “good shepherd” discourse of vv. 1-21 are part of unified sequence.
Theological significance: Like the Tabernacles discourse(s) of chapters 7-8 (above), these two discourse sections specifically emphasize the identity of Jesus and his relationship to the Father, and each concludes with a specific identification:
—Jesus as Messiah (vv. 22-30): identification with the Father in verse 30 (“I and the Father are one”)
—Jesus as Son of God (vv. 31-38): identification with the Father in verse 38 (“the Father [is] in me and I [am] in the Father”)
The feast of Dedication commemorates the rebuilding of the altar and new dedication of the Temple (1 Maccabees 4:41-61); this theme of consecration is implicit in this section, emphasized only in verse 36. The implication is that Jesus is to be identified (in his person) with the sacrificial altar (and the Temple itself), much as we see in the Temple saying of Jn 2:19ff.

The remainder of this article will continue in the next part of this series.

For a number of points and references above, I am indebted to R. E. Brown’s excellent critical commentary (part of the Anchor Bible series, vol. 29), cf. especially pp. 212-230, 245, 255-6, 261-6, 277-80, 326-9, 343-4, 404-12.