Today in Israel and around the globe the Jewish people celebrate a feast called Tabernacles or Succoth in Hebrew. Many of our neighbors and friends prepare ahead of time for this holiday by building a Succa, which is a shack made of branches and decorated with fruits and plants. This biblical feast commemorates the wilderness experience of the Hebrew people and how they lived in tents for 40 years before the conquest of the land of Canaan.
“Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths for seven days to the LORD” (Leviticus 23:33-34).
Here in the Holy Land, each of the three major religious groups celebrate their respective feasts in different times and sometimes the feasts collide with each other, like the Passover feast for Jews and Easter for us Christians. During this time Jerusalem is bustling with people from all over the world as Christians come to celebrate Palm Sunday, Holy Week and the amazing event of the Resurrection, of which Christianity hinges upon. The same thing happens at Bethlehem during Christmas where we see many Christians coming to celebrate the birth of Christ. During these times, the local Christian population rejoices to celebrate with brothers and sisters from around the world.
As native Palestinian Christians however, it is baffling for us to see so many Christians coming to Jerusalem during Jewish high holidays, especially during the Feast of Tabernacles. At this time, many groups hold conferences, prayer meetings, huge rallies and marches in Jerusalem, under the auspices of the Jerusalem municipality.
Why do they come, I wonder? What is it with these Christians and Succoth?
As an Evangelical leader in the church of the Holy Land; as one who believes that the Bible (with its Old and New Testaments together) is the inspired infallible Word of God, I would like to comment on four things:
1. First, there is no biblical mandate for Christians to celebrate any of the Jewish feasts. Of course we wish our Jewish friends and neighbors a happy new year and holidays. I am aware that there is a lot of teaching about these holidays in the Old Testament and we--as Christians--can learn a lot from the symbolism.
But why do these Christians come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Holidays? Perhaps some of them are trying to literally fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 14 which declares that all nations will come to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem and those who do not will be cursed. But even these verses speak about the end time and they are symbolic and not literal.
Sadly, many of these believers have been taken advantage of by various Christian Zionist organizations which in turn are supported heavily by the Israeli government. They are offered low-cost trips to Israel with lodging and tours and worship conferences that are full of political speeches and preaching that justifies the occupation of the Land. Thus, these Christians who come to celebrate this Feast are sold a very one-sided narrative.
Forgetting that there are other people who have been living here for centuries and even millennia; who also have a right to live in peace, freedom and justice in their land, these zealous converts to Christian Zionism go home and become strong defenders of the right of one single religious and ethnic group to have ownership in the Holy Land.
They forget that the land is not owned by people, but belongs to God.
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23).
2. My second observation is that virtually none of these groups get to meet Palestinian leaders who love Jesus and also love their nation. They don’t get exposed to the hardship of the Palestinian people nor the injustices that have been committed against them. They don’t go through a check point or learn about the suffering that the wall has caused to the Palestinian people. Essentially, these tours offer an experience of only one side of the land. At best, these participants are unaware that a lot of facts are deliberately concealed from them. At worst, they are aware but consider any other narrative or experience irrelevant and “wrong.”
In some of these events, the visitors might meet a few Arab Christian leaders who are being used as “token Arabs.” Many such leaders feel that they have to go to these type of Christian Zionist events to solicit funds for their ministry. Others are already being financially supported by such groups. Some of them even deny their Palestinian heritage, and in my opinion, might be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.
3. As thousands of people come to Jerusalem, a fortune is spent on renting huge arenas, buses, tour guides, and food. All of this money is spent so that the participants can go home with a hyped up spiritual experience in Jerusalem.
I challenge these Christian believers to imagine what it would look like if these thousands swamped the streets of Jerusalem to express their love for all the people, regardless of their religion, and witness to everyone they meet with the genuine love and humility of Christ and His salvation. I wonder what would happen? I assure you, many people--if not hundreds--would come to the Lord. But sadly, these poor Christians are being manipulated away from the true gospel by all the political speeches they hear from mayors and heads of settlements and sometimes even from the prime minister himself. After all of this, they are herded into the “Jerusalem march.” It’s basically a political show with Israeli flags and chants.
Just imagine a Palestinian walking by this march and hearing the things that are chanted. Of course, thousands of Palestinians do see this. It is all over the news and social media. Sadly, these well-meaning foreign Christians become a stumbling block to the local Arab population, both Christian and Muslim. Let us remember what Jesus said about those who do that:
"If anyone causes one of these little ones--those who believe in me--to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt 18:6).
4. Finally, I encourage these thousands of Christians to tune their hearts to the vision of our Lord for the salvation of all nations. I beg them to be concerned about the welfare of everyone who resides in our country. I entreat them to be concerned that the Gospel is preached to the Jews and to the Palestinians as well.
The Gospel of John 1:14 teaches us that Jesus Himself is the One who Tabernacles among us: “ The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
I know that many are coming with good intentions, but I pray that someday the hearts of these brethren will be enlarged to care about showing Jesus’ glory among all people of the Holy Land. I pray that they will begin to live and teach a gospel that points to Jesus who is full of grace and truth rather than loudly celebrating a feast that has become polarizing and political; the celebrations of which only hinder the cause of Christ here. It is my firm belief that the fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles will make clear that He has tabernacled among us so that everyone would know their belovedness in Christ and have life, and that more abundantly.
*Rev. Dr. Jack Sara is the President of Bethlehem Bible College