In Chapter 7 of John, Jesus goes to the Feast of Tabernacles, and once again, Brown’s attention to exegetical detail illuminates the scene.
According to Brown, the Feast of Tabernacles at the time of Jesus was the greatest of the celebrations that Jews held. It was considered a pilgrimage feast, and all able-bodies males were expected to make the trip. (At first, Jesus refuses to go, but later sneaks in and amazes the crowd with his teaching – see pt 3 of this series for the “hidden” messiah John portrays.)
The focus of the celebration was twofold. First, it was a celebration of the Jews as the chosen people of God – of the people alone who had the tabernacle in which God dwelt. Within the celebration itself was much pomp and tradition that was reminiscent of the exodus from Egypt. Second, it was a agricultural feast in which the men of Israel entreated God (who dwelt in the Temple) to bless their land and their crops with bountiful rain so that they might have a good harvest. As the tradition goes, it was thought that when the Messiah came God would cause the very stones of the temple to gush forth water, which would supply the land to overflowing with water for their crops. Then, the excess water would cascade out of Jerusalem in great rivers that would reach the gentile nations. The gentiles, curious as to whence this issue of water came, would follow the rivers back to the Temple, and worship the one true God there.
Keeping in mind the idea behind the Feast of Tabernacles, many things within Chapter 7 make more sense. For instance, when the Jews wonder why the authorities are not arresting or killing Jesus in vs 25-27, they wonder if the authorities have perhaps concluded that Jesus is the messiah. Such speculation is absurd, unless John is “priming the pump” for the reader to remember the Messiah imagery within the feast. Then, when the Jesus states in vs 33-34 that he will go to where no one can find him, the Jews wonder if he will go to the Greeks (i.e., gentiles) and teach them. Again, an image taken from the mythology behind the Feast of Tabernacles.
Then, in vs 37-38, on the greatest day of the Feast, Jesus declares that any who believe in him will have rivers of living water flow within them. Once again, powerful imagery from the Feast being usurped by Jesus to describe himself. And when you remember that in Chapter 2 Jesus called himself the temple – the very thing from which waters of life are supposed to flow – the imagery becomes overpowering. Jesus is not only the temple, but the messiah, and the God who tabernacled with men who causes rivers of life to flow. And since the Feast of Tabernacles is a pilgrimage feast, all the Jews will journey home to far away lands, tell of their experience with Jesus, and thereby bring others to worship God, too.
Fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles has come, hidden in the person of Jesus.
So, here’s the question I struggle with – was the author of the book of John really crafty enough to weave all this together? Or are we perhaps seeing what we want to see – imagery that isn’t really there? What do you think?