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The Final Festival of Shemini Atzeret

I’m sure many of you agree with me that the annual Festivals of Israel are prophetic of future events. There is general agreement among Christians that Passover was fulfilled by the death and resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah, and that Pentecost was realized on the “Day of Pentecost”, which is recorded in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. Pentecost brought the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to those with faith in His son, both Jew and Gentile.

When we anticipate the Fall Festivals, we are especially drawn to Sukkot because many believe, as I do, that it points to the completion of God’s work. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with prophetic passages of this end of time, and they serve as a powerful incentive for righteous living in our lives today. If we know what is coming, it is easier to stand for God in times of adversity, and the joy that results blossoms with exciting new life.

Perhaps you are surprised that the seven days of Sukkot are not quite the end of the annual cycle of Festivals. There is an eighth day following Sukkot that is separate and set apart from the last annual festival of Sukkot. This eighth day is called Shemini Atzeret, which simply means the eighth day of assembly. One scholar recently wrote that “the awesome significance of this final festival day in God’s Plan has gone unnoticed, misinterpreted and misunderstood by millions.”[1] Perhaps the reason for this lack of understanding is that Scripture offers only two tantalizing and brief references with little explanation.

“For seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord [the seven days of Sukkot]. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the Lord; it is an assembly. You shall do no laborious work.” (Lev 23:36 cf. Num 29:35-36)

What seems so puzzling is that dwelling in a sukkah during the seven days of Sukkot, with its partial opening to the sky, represents the end of time when mankind will be one with God and will dwell in His presence. However, on the eighth day Jewish tradition does not allow dwelling in a sukkah.

Furthermore, the offering by fire in the passage above refers to a burnt offering, but none of the other sacrifices and offerings that occur during Sukkot are included on the eighth day. This commandment for only one burnt offering is startling because it stands in stark contrast to the large number of sacrifices that offered to God during Sukkot (Num 29:12-34).

To understand the spiritual significance of this last eighth day, we will consider five characteristics of Shemini Atzeret that are biblically related. Our conclusion will be drawn from these five themes.

A Holy Convocation

In Scripture, a holy convocation is when the people of Israel assemble together so God can be among His people. These sacred gatherings are called “appointed times” (moedim). The first, and perhaps the most significant holy assembly mentioned in Scripture is the weekly Sabbath when the family gathers together to be with God. Then, during the annual festivals a holy convocation is held on the first and last days of Passover. This holy day of gathering occurs again on the Day of Pentecost, on Rosh Hashanah, and on Yom Kippur. However, the festival of Sukkot mimics the Passover with a holy assembly on the first day and again on the last and seventh day. Then on the eighth day of Shemini Atzeret there is one final holy convocation with God.

Jewish tradition holds that, following the end of God’s great plan to redeem mankind that Sukkot represents, God will spend one last precious day with His people, Israel, to honor them for all they have suffered and endured on His behalf.[2] I am especially drawn to this perception because my study of Jewish history has led me to empathize, with intense and increasing emotion, all that the Jews have undergone and continue to experience at the hands of an ungodly world. I am also drawn to the intense love expressed by God toward His people in this tradition.

The Burnt Offering

The significance of the burnt offering of an unblemished animal is the sweet aroma that floats up to God. The animal acts a substitute for the person bringing the sacrifice, and this person must be equally unblemished when he or she offers the gift of the burnt offering. I can imagine God sighing with pleasure and exclaiming, “Ah, My precious child who is holy and righteous and ready to come into my presence.”

The prophet Ezekiel gives the symbolism of the burnt offering a prophetic meaning. Speaking for God he declares, “As a soothing aroma I will accept you when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you from the lands where you are scattered” (Eze 20:41). In the New Testament the instruction intensifies. We are told to mimic our Lord Yeshua, who was “an unblemished offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph 5:2). So, in our lives today, as believers in Christ, we can operate the gift of the Holy Spirit by our love and faith for our Lord Yeshua, which becomes a witness of what is coming in the future final fulfillment.

The Day Following the Wedding Ceremony

The marriage banquet in Scripture symbolizes the end of time when God is joined with a beloved bride. Since one can only come into the presence of the Righteous God in an equally righteous condition, the bride must be holy and pure. Following the day of the wedding celebration, the Bridegroom takes His bride into the bridal chamber and the marriage is consummated. Metaphorically this coming together of the bridegroom and his bride leads to abundant righteous seed, that is, holy descendants.

It appears that the eighth day of Shemini Atzeret represents this consummation of God with His holy bride. The result is what God had prophesied in the beginning. In the creation account, plants yielded seed (which becomes fruit for God) “after its kind.” As we apply this prophetic concept to the consummation of marriage, the resulting seed, or descendants, will be in the image of the Holy God and His holy bride.

The Spiritual Meaning of Numbers

The classic reference for the spiritual meaning of numbers in Scripture is in a book by E. W. Bullinger entitled Number is Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance. The book was first published in 1898 and is now out of copyright protection, so you can find the entire text of this wonderful reference online. I find the most useful website to be levendwater.org.

Our curiosity draws us to two numbers – the seven days of Sukkot and the eighth day of Shemini Atzeret. Bullinger reminds us that seven is the Hebrew word sheva, which is formed from the root savah meaning to be full or satisfied. Of course, the classic reference in Scripture to the number seven is in the creation account when God took six days to complete His creation and on the seventh day He rested. The weekly Sabbath is on the seventh day when God fellowships with His people. As for the annual festival of Sukkot, the seven days represent the completion of God’s work when He dwells with His people and they are one with Him.

The eighth day of Shemini Atzeret is tantalizing with provocative meaning. Again, we turn to Bullinger for guidance on the meaning of the number eight. In Hebrew the word for eight, shmonei, stems from the verbal root shaman which means to be made fat. This interesting word has numerous variations. As an adjective it can mean rich or fertile. In its noun form it means oil pressed from olives, and is often connected with oil for anointing, either in a holy sacrifice as a gift for God or for the anointing of God’s representative such as a priest or king. Thus eight, which follows the day of perfection and completion when God rested, represents super-abundant fertility. This reminds us of the day following the wedding ceremony when the marriage is consummated and abundant righteous seed results.

Simchat Torah and the Prayer for Rain

The eighth day observance of Shemini Atzeret is biblically based as we saw in Leviticus and Numbers. This eighth day festival appears to have been honored from a very early time in Israel’s history, but there is another celebration that occurs on the same eighth day following Sukkot and its origins are much later. Called Simchat Torah, the completion of the annual reading of the Torah is honored with joyous processions accompanied by singing and dancing. After the scrolls are returned to the Ark, a Prayer for Rain is recited.

Although considered in Jewish tradition as a celebration that is distinct and separate from Shemini Atzeret, I think there are aspects of this separate festival of Simchat Torah that relate to the final convocation of God with His people.

First, walking in the ways of God’s instruction in the Torah enables one to come into God’s presence. The completion of the annual reading of the Torah signifies that righteous walk. Second, and perhaps more provocative and enticing, is the Prayer for Rain.

The weather pattern in Israel is characterized by two seasons. The rainy season begins around the middle of October, soon after the end of Sukkot, and continues to the end of April. Much of the rain falls during the months of December, January and February, whereas the summer months are very hot and dry. Although the Prayer for Rain beseeches God for abundant rain so crops will grow, there is a much deeper aspect to this prayer.

Water represents a life of abundance whereas drought brings famine and death. In God’s goodness and mercy, the fertility from plentiful rain at the end of time will cause an abundance of righteous seed or descendants. However, until the end of time we live with the choice of blessings when we walk in the ways of God, whereas pain and suffering are the consequences of living in the ways of the world. The final words of the prayer lead to a chiastic structure in which the parallel A lines are the blessings and curses that we bring to our lives today by our godly or ungodly choices. The chiastic center of the B line is the final outcome at the end of time.

You are the Lord our God
Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall
For blessing and not for curse. Amen.
For life and not for death. Amen.
For plenty and nor for lack. Amen.

Note the parallel of “blessing” and “plenty.” This is what we can expect from a life of intimate communion with God. The alternative is a life of “curse” and “lack” that will someday be extinguished at the end of time. But for now, we can witness the light of God to others.

[1] William F. Dankenbring, Mystery of the Holy Days (Omak, WA: Triumph Prophetic Ministries), 410.

[2] This interpretation is offered by Rashi.