Sukkot 2023 – Let Him Dwell In The Tents Of Shem

Here we are, in the midst of Sukkot, the most joyous of all Jewish festivals. This holiday is also known as Zeman Simchateinu – ‘The Season of Our Rejoicing’. In fact, so significant is this seventh of the seven God-ordained holidays, occurring in the seventh month, lasting seven days, and featuring the sacrifice of seventy bulls, that it came to be known as Ha Chag – The Feast! There are many lessons to be gleaned from Sukkot, but let’s spend the next few minutes focusing on what is arguably the ultimate theme of this holiday: the gathering together of redeemed Jews and Gentiles – as one – into God’s Kingdom (under His great Sukkah, if you will). And we will see how from ancient times the Scriptures were giving us us hints about this.

A word of warning: Those who are dedicated to maintaining the artificial divide, of keeping Jews and Gentiles worshiping in separate congregations, are going to find this sermon highly unpalatable. Conversely, if you’re someone who believes there shouldn’t even be messianic congregations – that all Jewish followers of Jesus should simply jettison their identity and blend into Protestant churches, you aren’t going to like this sermon, either. Scripture calls us to unity, not homogeneity. And, to be honest, I consider this issue to be of such importance, that I really don’t mind if this message rubs certain people the wrong way.

Our little Sukkot tour of Scripture begins (where else?) in Genesis chapter 9. Noah and his family have survived the catastrophic worldwide Flood and emerged from the ark. Noah plants a vineyard, and one day gets drunk and falls asleep uncovered. His son Ham finds him naked, but rather than taking measures to preserve his father’s dignity, goes and tells his brothers about it. Shem and Yefet (Japheth) cover their father with a blanket, making it a point not to look on his nakedness. Noah wakes up, realizes what has happened, and through the Holy Spirit prophesies over them. Please note that it isn’t Ham who is cursed, but Canaan the son of Ham. This is a passage of Scripture that has historically been twisted to justify bigotry against those of African ancestry. But of particular interest to us this morning is the prophecy in verses 26-27. Noah declared:

“May God extend the territory of Japheth; and let him dwell in the tents of Shem… (Genesis 9:27).

Shem, of course, became the progenitor of all the Semitic peoples, including the Jews. But there is a play on words here. The name Japheth – in Hebrew Yefet is built on the verb Patah, meaning ‘spacious’. Yefet’s territory indeed extended greatly. He became the progenitor of the European and Asiatic peoples. So, when Noah prophesies, saying, “May Yefet dwell in the tents of Shem,” we should understand that this isn’t just about the two brothers; it is about their descendants.

The imagery is wonderful, if you understand the big picture of the Gospel. The prophecy calls for Yefet’s descendants to come under the shelter of Shem’s tent. It is a hint that God intended to bring Jew and Gentile together. But note that it isn’t Shem dwelling in Yefet’s tent; rather it is Yefet dwelling in Shem’s tent. In other words, Gentiles coming under the covering (the sukkah, if you will) of the Jewish people! How would such a thing happen, you ask? The Jewish Messiah Himself would bring them. In fact, He will bring both Yefet and Ham under that tent!

The next stop on our little tour is Ruth, chapter 3, verses 1-9.

Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you? Now is not Boaz our kinsman, with whose maids you were? Behold, he winnows barley at the threshing floor tonight. Wash yourself therefore, and anoint yourself and put on your best clothes, and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. It shall be when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies, and you shall go and uncover his feet and lie down; then he will tell you what you shall do.” She said to her, “All that you say I will do.” So she went down to the threshing floor and did according to all that her mother-in-law had commanded her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and she came secretly, and uncovered his feet and lay down. It happened in the middle of the night that the man was startled and bent forward; and behold, a woman was lying at his feet. He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth your maid. So spread your covering over your maid, kee go’el atah – for you are a redeemer!” (Ruth 3:1-9).

Once again, underlying the actual story is the larger theme – a beautiful joining together of Jews and Gentiles, and it is Messiah who brings it about. Here I want to express appreciation to Jonathan Cahn, whose teaching on the book of Ruth several years ago helped me begin to see prototypes of the Gospel in the narrative portions of the Jewish Scriptures.

The symbolism in the book of Ruth works out this way:

  • Famine in Judah = God’s (temporary) judgment on Israel
  • Elimelech and Naomi’s family departing for Moab because of the famine = Exile of the Jewish people to the nations
  • Death of husband and sons = dire circumstances for Jews outside the land (helpless/alone/vulnerable)
  • Naomi’s return to the land = latter day return of the Jews to Israel
  • Orpah’s turning back to Moab = Gentile non-Christians (those who have no commitment to or regard for the welfare of the Jews)
  • Ruth’s insistence on staying with Naomi = Gentile Christians (those with a heartfelt desire to identify with and protect Israel, even at personal cost)
  • Naomi brings Ruth to Israel = the Jews bless the Gentiles by introducing them to the God of Israel (Gospel)
  • Boaz provides for Ruth and Naomi as kinsman redeemer = Messiah as the One who unites Jew and Gentile and provides for both
  • Ruth works/provides grain for Naomi = Gentile Christians return the blessing to the Jews through love and kindness
  • Boaz takes Ruth as wife = Gentiles grafted into the olive tree, become one family with Jews in Messiah’s kingdom

This story occurs during a harvest, and Sukkot is a harvest festival. Looking ahead, Sukkot symbolizes the greater harvest of humanity. We see a hint of the Sukkot imagery, the ultimate unity of Jew and Gentile in God’s Kingdom, and of Yefet coming under Shem’s tent, when Ruth says these wonderful words to Boaz: “…Spread your covering over your maid, for you are a redeemer!”

Those who take issue with Jews and Gentiles worshiping together are faced with a real dilemma. You see, it is no coincidence that through the union of Boaz the Israeli and Ruth the Moabite would eventually come King David and even Messiah Himself. And once again, it follows the pattern of Yefet dwelling in the tents of Shem, not the other way around.

Our next stop is a short layover in John chapter 10, beginning at verse 11. Yeshua had something to say about Jews and Gentiles being b’yachad – one.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father– and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:11-16).

The ‘other sheep’ Yeshua spoke of are Gentiles. Messiah’s sheepfold, it may be argued, is a decidedly Jewish sheepfold. But it is not exclusionary. People from all the nations of the world are invited to join this flock. And Yeshua says we are to be one flock, not two. There is nothing wrong, per se, with denominations. But we share a common love for Messiah and the Word of God which transcends denomination, so that we may still, at some level, enjoy true fellowship with other Christians and Messianic Jews. And to that unity we are obligated, according to this teaching. Jews and Gentiles are different from one another, but in Yeshua’s Kingdom, we are expected to unite, not divide.

Concerning the Sukkot imagery of nations joining with Israel in worship, we have a lesser-known prophecy in Zechariah chapter 14. Chapters 12 and 14 describe what we have come to know as the Battle of Armageddon, when the nations of the world will assemble in order to annihilate Israel. And, according to this prophecy, just when all seems lost, King Messiah Yeshua will return to planet Earth, set his feet down on the Mount of Olives, and come to Israel’s rescue, completely destroying those armies. When Israel sees that it is the Pierced One who has saved them, the nation will enter into a time of unprecedented grief in light of the many centuries of their having disdained Him. And the Lord pours out healing on the land, and Israel is turned to faith in Messiah Yeshua. In that context we have this prophecy:

Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths. And it will be that whichever of the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. If the family of Egypt does not go up or enter, then no rain will fall on them; it will be the plague with which the Lord smites the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths. This will be the punishment of Egypt, and the punishment of all the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths (Zechariah 14:16-19).

Sukkot not only gives us a picture of Jews and Gentiles coming together under God’s covering, but according to the Word of God, which cannot fail, this seventh and greatest Feast will be the one that all the world celebrates during Messiah’s Millennial reign. And any nation that refuses to send its delegates to Jerusalem to worship King Messiah and participate in Sukkot will have no rain and suffer drought until they repent. This is because they refuse to acknowledge Yeshua’s divine kingship and refuse to identify with His gathered people.

Can you see, then, why divisive people who start factions are such an affront to God? Can you see, for example, why it was right and necessary for Paul to confront Peter publicly for separating himself from his Gentile brothers and sisters out of fear for what other Jews would think (Galatians 2:11ff)? God’s great purpose is not only to save Jews, and to save Gentiles, but to bring us together and remove forever the wall that once divided us.

In the person of Messiah Yeshua, God Himself will tabernacle with man in that day in a greater way than He did through the Incarnation. That was a brief sojourning among us. This time it will last for 1,000 years, followed by the New Heavens and the New Earth, where we will dwell with Him for all eternity! And in that light, let me conclude our Sukkot message for 5778 with two passages from The Revelation.

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them!” (Revelation 7:9-15).

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new!” And he said, “Write: for these words are faithful and true!” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Sukkot really is the all-in-all Feast! What wonderful things await us on that day, and this festival of booths helps us keep everything in perspective. We remember that our ancestors lived in temporary shelters when we came out of Egypt. We were free, but we weren’t home yet. We had a sojourning to do before we entered Eretz Canaan. In the same way we are living out this life on earth in these temporary shelters we call our bodies. This body isn’t meant to last into eternity. We’ll have new bodies for that! And just as Israel was freed from Egypt but had a sojourning to do before entering the Land of Promise, we have been set free from our own bondage – bondage to sin and death and Hell; but we’re not home yet, either. The Greater Land of Promise awaits us.

This seventh feast, in the seventh month, lasting seven days, shows us the completion of all things. And the eighth day of holding back, Shemini Atzeret by name, represents a new beginning. God is making all things new! What joy awaits us!

But if you aren’t a follower of Yeshua, then this is merely academic. If you have not made a conscious decision to yield to God’s will and transfer your loyalty to Yeshua and enter the New Covenant, then none of this Good News applies to you. So I urge you to conduct your unfinished business with God right now, right here, today… while it is still called ‘Today’. There’s room for you under God’s Tabernacle if you’re willing. This is a party you do not want to miss!