Water and the Feast of Tabernacles


The connection is not obvious. In the OT, it is never made explicit, except (possibly) for Zechariah 14:16-19. Even there, the connection is thin. It is limited to the withholding of rain for those nations neglecting to go up to Jerusalem for the feast of booths or tabernacles. In the NT, the connection only appears in the act and the words of Jesus as preserved in John 7:37-39.

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This is what John writes about the event:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39 ESV)

The feast in question is identified earlier in the chapter as the feast of booths (John 7:2). The imagery of thirsting and water in relation to the Spirit is a familiar one in John and the rest of the Bible. But what, if anything, does it have to do with the feast of booths? Where did Jesus get the idea and what does it mean?

The feast of booths or tabernacles is the seventh and last of the yearly celebrations prescribed in Leviticus 23. It is to take place in the seventh month, that is, in early autumn. For seven days, the people of Israel were to live in booths or huts made of boughs and branches. They were to do this in remembrance of living in tents during their journey through the desert to the promised land (Lev. 23:40-43). Simultaneously, it appears to have been a joyful celebration of the harvest, marking the end of the agricultural cycle (perhaps implied in Lev. 23:39 and made explicit in Dt. 16:13-15).

Both the first and the eighth day were to be “a solemn rest” (Lev. 23:39), a special sabbath. For each of the seven days, a specified number of sacrifices were to be brought (Nu. 29:12-38). In all of this, there is nothing about water.

Water as a Prophetic Image

Turning to the figurative use of water in the prophets, I won’t attempt a comprehensive overview. Water is an obvious image for life, refreshment, and renewal, especially in a climate that knows droughts. The imagery of water and a life-bringing river is common in the OT. It is especially prevalent in the book of Isaiah, where it functions as an image of salvation and the coming renewal of creation. There is also an explicit connection made between water and the Spirit of God (Is. 44:3; Ezek. 36:25-27).

We first meet the image in Genesis 2, where a river flows from the presence of God, divides into four rivers, and waters the whole earth. Presumably, this inspired the prophetic imagery of a river or stream flowing from a future temple (Ezek. 47:1-12; Zech. 14:8; Joel 3:18).

But what does all this have to do with the feast of booths?

Water and Feast in the Second Temple Period

It was in the era of the second temple, between the return from exile after 539 BC and the temple’s destruction in AD 70, that the connection between water and the feast came about. By the time of Jesus, it had become an established custom at the feast that the priests would go to the pool of Siloam to fetch water. They would carry it up in a golden pitcher and walk in procession around the altar, accompanied by the singing of Psalm 113-118. Then, the water would be poured it out. The ritual was performed on each of the seven days, but on the seventh day, the priests would walk around the altar seven times (Beasley-Murray 1999: 113f; Köstenberger 2007: 453f).

The water was likely poured in remembrance of God providing water in the desert. It was also meant as a prayer for abundant rain for the new agricultural season. In addition, it was understood as pointing forward to the promised river that would flow from the temple after the day of the Lord. Zechariah 14, which mentions this, was read on the occasion.

Back to John 7

Three things in the passage quoted above (John 7:37-39) are not entirely clear.

1. What is the correct punctuation? Does the ESV, following the standard Greek text (USB/Nestle-Aland), have it right? Or should we adopt the alternative punctuation, which leads to a different translation:

If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let him drink[, he] who believes in me. As the scripture said, “Rivers of living water will flow from his heart” (Beasley-Murray 1999: 102)

In this case, the water may be understood to flow from the heart of Jesus, whereas the standard reading has the water flowing from the heart of the believer.

It is true, of course, that we first need to receive and drink from this water; it does not originate with us. Isaiah 12: 3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation”, may be quoted in support of this interpretation.

But once we take and drink, we become a source of new life, restoration, and regeneration ourselves. There is OT support for this: “You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail” (Is. 58:11). Earlier in his gospel, John himself speaks of this ‘multiplying effect’, too: “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Besides, a phrase beginning with “whoever …” or “the one who …” in John’s writings frequently introduces a thought rather than completing it.

I will therefore stick with the ESV.

2. Which Scripture did Jesus have in mind? Among the many relevant references, none matches what Jesus said. It may be a collation of several or even many of these. The passage from Isaiah just mentioned (Is. 58:11) gets the closest to the idea expressed in John 7:38. Either way, Jesus provides a fairly free paraphrase of whatever verses he had in mind.

3. On which day did the event take place? Is “the last day of the feast, the great day” (John 7:37) the final day of the seven? Or is it the eighth day, which was, after all, a special sabbath? Either option is defensible. And either way, Jesus would have stunned his audience.

This is the main point to make. Regardless of whether Jesus spoke on day seven or day eight, either way, he was making a grandiose claim. If it was day seven, the day of the climactic, seven-fold ritual, the implication is that Jesus is the reality of the symbol they were watching. If day eight, the day no water was poured, he was claiming that, far from the celebration being over, he would make the reality expressed through the ritual available to all who believe in him.

The claim Jesus made is: You can receive and experience the reality of this now, through faith in me!

The feast of tabernacles has found its fulfilment, both in Jesus and in our pilgrimage of hope through this life, in which we are sustained by the Spirit of God. Whatever is not yet fulfilled, has been redefined and refocused on Jesus. There is therefore no need to travel to Jerusalem or wait for another Jewish temple.

When look at Jesus and receive from him, we become part of the river of life flowing out into creation.


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All Bible quotations from: The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles)

Beasley-Murray, George R. 1999. John, Word Biblical Commentary, v. 36 (Dallas, TX: Word Books)

Köstenberger, Andreas J. 2007. “John,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI;  Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic;  Apollos)

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