How Should We Keep the Feast of Tabernacles In Our Day?

This year, our family went to Gatlinburg, Tennessee for the Feast of Tabernacles. Gatlinburg is only a few miles from Pigeon Forge. Between the two cities, almost everything imaginable is available to eat, drink, try, buy or experience. There are hundreds of restaurants and shops of all sizes and types. There are plays, musical performances, amusement parks, arcades, and go-cart tracks. For those who want to experience things, there is laser-tag, bungi-jumping, in-door sky-diving and human sling-shotting. For those more interested in nature, there are scenic mountains, hills, streams and parks which may be accessed by hiking, horseback, automobile or cable-car.

None of these things are inherently evil. They are not sins. Due to the generosity of others, my family took part in some of these things and enjoyed them very much. But should these things be the focus of the Feast of Tabernacles? What does the Bible teach on this matter?

For years, "Church of God" groups taught their members to save 10% of their income and to spend it all having fun during the Holy Days, primarily the Feast of Tabernacles. This teaching was based largely on Deuteronomy 14:26:

And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household,

The above quotation is from the KJV. Since it includes the word "lust", it almost sounds like it is all right to sin a little by "lusting" at the Feast. Also, since the expression "whatsoever thy soul desireth" does not specifically mention food, some interpreted it to apply to amusements, gift shops and the like. But is that what this verse is saying? Let us read the verse in its context in a translation which I believe is technically more accurate here:

22 Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. 23 In the presence of the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24But if, when the LORD your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the LORD your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, 25 then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the LORD your God will choose; 26spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together (Deut 14:22-26, NRSV).

Deuteronomy 14 Does Not Support Lavish Feast Spending

The NRSV is similar to many other modern translations. It simply says that people may buy whatever food they want—they do not have to buy the same kind of food that they sold to obtain the money. The Hebrew avaw, translated "lust" in the KJV, has the piel stem here and is better translated "desire" or "wish" as above. It does not refer to anything unusual or sinful.

From verses 24-25 we see that only the people who "lived too far away" were told to turn their tithe into money. Is it only these people who can spend their money on any entertainment that they desire? Do these verses mean that people who live near Jerusalem must eat their tithe at the Feast, but that only those who live a long distance away can sell it, then use the money for other things besides food? That would seem to be unreasonable and pointless.

In reality, these verses are only talking about "eating before the Lord". They say nothing about purchasing anything except food. Furthermore, the food named is in the form of "raw materials"—sheep, oxen, wine, etc. The verses do not talk about paying someone to prepare food for you (a steak dinner at a restaurant). Obviously, when ancient Israel kept the Feast, they were all keeping the Feast—there were not thousands of people who worked the whole time serving in restaurants and entertainment attractions. In the Millennium, the Feast will be similar. Everyone will keep it—there will not be an "unconverted" group of people who are busy trying to make money from our Feast-keeping.

Indeed, the Church of God doctrine of saving 10% of one’s income as "second tithe" to be spent at the Feasts required that many people spend it on expensive restaurants and entertainment. They had much more money than what was necessary just to buy food and lodging. We do not have room to show the difficulties with this doctrine here, but let us say that the expressions "first tithe" or "second tithe" never appear in the Bible. For more information, write for our article How Do We Give To the Eternal?

A typical "Church of God" Feast day often involved listening to a sermon in the morning, then asking a friend or two to go out to fancy meals and then "do something" together. Brethren at the Feast were often separated by their economic status in life: The wealthier ones stayed in the expensive hotels, ate at the expensive restaurants and went to the expensive entertainment. Brethren with less money went to completely different establishments. People without friends or with very little money stayed late after services hoping to find someone who would include them in their plans. There is no doubt that these Feasts had some good group activities and that the poor and friendless were sometimes included by kind individuals. But most of the planned organization of the Feast was making sure that everyone heard sermons—there was much less emphasis on making sure that everyone was able to spend a lot of time meeting other brethren and enjoying conversation and food with them.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that going to restaurants or entertainment places at the Feast is sin. We have to do the best that we can in a world that, in general, ignores the Holy Days. In ancient Israel and in the Millennium, governments and business all prepare for the Feasts and cooperate so that only minimum essential work has to be done during that time. Our society cooperates with the Feasts as long as we pay people their standard fees to do what we need. However, I am saying that the orientation of the Feast should be on spending time with other brethren: talking, preparing food, and eating together—not on paying others to serve or entertain us. With the exception of an assembly on the first and eighth day, the Bible does not say very much about what we should do at the Feast.

With our understanding of Christ, spiritual food should be even more important than physical food. Deuteronomy 31:10-11 requires the law to be read every seventh year at the Feast of Tabernacles. But much more of the Bible has been written since that time. We have so much more to learn. We should have the Holy Spirit teaching us even more. It is much easier to share these things in an environment consisting primarily of believers.

Using the Feast as a luxurious "vacation with sermons" was informative and fun for many "Church of God" people for many years. The scriptures do not forbid most of what was done. But it is difficult to claim that what was done came directly from the Scripture. It was our interpretation of the scripture. The scriptures are not very specific, and we developed our own traditions for keeping the Feast. Others, studying the scriptures apart from our tradition, may come up with some different conclusions on how to keep the Feast. We should not condemn them, but be willing to work with them.

Improving Feast Observance

We should consider our own practices of keeping the Feast in light of the 1 Corinthians 12-14 teaching on spiritual gifts. Are there ways where we can more closely follow these principles at the Feast?. Our previous issue (SN August, 1998) contained an article explaining the need for everyone to bring spiritual things to "feed" each other at the Feast. The Feast needs to be structured so that brethren can do that. There needs to be plenty of opportunity in interactive studies and in fellowship situations for brethren to encourage one another. The feast should bring believers together—creating sort of a "family reunion" of the family of the Eternal. Everyone, young or old, should come away from the Feast talking about the people they met, the new friends they made, and the help they received with their Christian life.

The following are a list of concrete suggestions which should help improve the keeping of the Feast of Tabernacles in the coming years. We plan to implement all of these suggestions to some degree in the Butler State Park Feast site in 1999. Some of the other people who help to sponsor Feasts have also recently expressed an interest in doing some of these things at their 1999 Feast of Tabernacles.

1. Central Accommodations
& Facilities

If brethren are staying 20 minutes away from the meeting facility, they will spend several extra hours during the Feast just driving. Taking someone home with them to visit, or coming from home to an evening activity at the main facility will take an extra 40 minutes of driving. If brethren are staying 20 minutes in opposite directions from the facility, it may take an hour and a half for one to drive to the others place and back. While these things do not make visiting impossible, they make it very difficult.

Contrast this with a Feast where most brethren are staying in either one, or a very few nearby motels. It is very easy to go back and forth between activities, organize a swimming party at a motel pool, or just stroll through the halls and lobbies talking to brethren as they pass. Also, it is relatively easy for individual family members to pursue like interests with individuals in other families: mothers with sleeping babies may want to stay in a room and talk to other moms, children may want to swim, teens may want to do sporting activities, dads may want to attend a Bible study session or watch a "World Series" game. This is not to discourage some activities for the whole family, but there are times when family members do pursue separate activities (a three-year old does not play basketball and Grandma may not swim). When that happens, it is nice to be living close to other families and easily share activities.

In both ancient Israel and the Millennium, people would be surrounded by joyous Feast-goers. Choosing Feast sites where the meeting place and most of the accommodations are close together helps to produce this effect.

2. Set Up Facility for Interaction.

The typical Church of God services are set up theater style: A lectern with a microphone in front, and chairs crowded together facing the lectern. This induces people to simply watch and listen to the front—to be spectators. The setup of a building and room can greatly encourage interaction. How this is done will vary somewhat depending on the size of a group, but we offer the following suggestions.

a. Do not set up many more chairs than needed—people are less likely to interact when they are separated by many chairs—nor can they hear each other if they speak.

b. Set chairs in a semi-circle. it decreases the "spectator" feeling by allowing people to see the faces of some of the others rather than just the backs of heads.

c. Try to arrange for one or more side rooms near the main meeting room. These are helpful for mother’s rooms, children’s classes, teen studies, etc. It may even be good to designate a nearby room as a place for people to go who are not getting much out of the main study and would like to discuss some other subject. Is that heresy? Well, Christ and the apostles were not always in the main "court of Israel" in the temple, but sometimes in a "side room"—"Solomon’s porch" (John 10:23; Acts 3:11; 5:12).

Sites with more than 100 people should consider these things:

d. Avoid making rows more than 10 chairs wide. Long rows make it difficult for people to get up to go to a microphone or for people to pass a microphone.

e. Interactive studies are frustrating if you cannot hear everyone. A microphone will be needed for the main speaker, and at least will be needed for questions and comments. One method is to place an "audience microphone" on a stand in an aisle in the middle of the audience. This provides a natural way of ordering the questions and comments—people speak in the order that they line up behind the microphone. Unfortunately, some shy people with good things to say will not walk up to the microphone (either they won’t talk at all, or they will speak from their chair and many will not hear them). Another approach is to plan for someone (get a teen involved here!) to take a microphone to whomever raises their hand to speak. A cordless microphone is much easier to pass around.

3. Plan To Eat Together
as Much as Possible.

For most people, it is difficult to meet someone new for the first time, and immediately begin a long conversation or plan an activity. However, during the process of preparing, serving, and eating a meal, there are many natural conversation-starters. But more than just conversation, Feast meals should encourage conversation on meaningful and spiritual topics. When one is eating in a restaurant with many people who are not keeping the Feast, there is a tendency to avoid spiritual subjects that might be offensive or "weird" to others. It is easier to have meaningful and spiritual conversation when among believers and when it is encouraged by a short prayer or encouraging word before the meal, quiet background music praising the Eternal, etc.

Implementing this concept of "feasting together" is not always easy—it must be considered before a site is chosen. Many convention facilities have strict rules prohibiting people from bringing any food into them. They will often claim it is for health reasons, but usually they simply want to sell you their more expensive food and service. (You can try asking for an exception: one conference facility let us bring dry snacks if we purchased coffee and tea from them.)

If you find a hall that allows you to bring your own food:

a. Provide generous snacks and drinks in or near the main hall after services. This encourages people to stay much longer and talk afterward—often about the service, especially if it was inspiring. Food is always welcomed by children—parents need not worry about feeding them. For people who do not eat big lunches, this may be their lunch. Much money can be saved by buying the food in bulk at a warehouse-type food store. You can probably pay for it by placing a box on the table for contributions.

b. Organize a "potluck" meal. This may sound difficult when many people are staying at motels without cooking facilities, but it is amazing how resourceful people can be. They can buy prepared food, buy "sandwich-fixings" and make them, buy a disposable bowl and salad-makings, etc.

c. Bring in specialty meals, such as pizza, Mexican food, submarine sandwiches, or whatever is available "to go" locally.

d. If a kitchen and people with the appropriate skills are available, cook a meal yourselves. These can be extremely memorable experiences.

If your hall does not allow you to bring your own food:

e. Have the establishment provide snacks and or meals. The main drawback to this is that is will be expensive.

f. Plan some groups meal at a large nearby restaurant. Many restaurants will offer a private room and/or discount prices for large groups making reservations well in advance.

g. Plan an outdoor picnic or barbeque if there is a nearby park. The meal can be catered or "do it yourself".

The feast will be more interesting if several of the above ideas can be used. No one should ever feel like they are being forced to eat with the group—there are no such scriptural commands. But those planning the Feast should make the opportunity for group meals available and encourage others to participate.

4. Plan for Group Activities

Smaller groups will have more flexibility than larger groups (It may not be possible for 200 people to all go bowling together.) Exercise is certainly beneficial—especially when people are eating a lot. But the main purpose for group activities is for brethren to get to know one another. In many of these activities, some people will choose not to participate, but will watch (and talk to others):

a. Swimming pool parties.

b. Outdoor sports (volleyball, basketball, baseball, frisbee, etc.

c. Novelty Olympics—teams competing in a variety of unusual races and events.

d. Nature hikes. (Children can run and explore while the older ones can talk.)

e. Talent or "fun" show.

f. Sing-along and/or board games. (The two go well together—people who do not like one usually like the other.)

g. Bible quiz competition. (You may make up questions or use them from an existing Bible trivia game. Buzzer sets—devices that will determine which player presses his or her button first—cost $199 from Triple Q Questions, 618-949-3888. (More expensive sets with more features are available from Groupics 757-424-4021, J/J Enterprises 580-622-5772, Quizmachine 800-294-0494 and Zeecraft 800-662-7475.)

Some activities are preferred by younger people, some by older. It is good to have a mixture of activities and it is good for people to learn to participate in activities that are often favored by other age groups.

5. Introduce Everyone on the First Day of the Feast

The first service of the 1997 Burr Oak Feast consisted of singing and a very short message, the rest of the time being devoted to each person (who wanted to) introducing themselves, telling something about their religious background, and saying what they hoped to accomplish at the Feast that year. A very friendly person walked around carrying the microphone and helped by asking questions About 100 people were present—most of whom did not know each other at the beginning of the Feast. From that point on, the Feast seemed like one big family—everyone knew who was there and why. Can this be made to work with a larger group? Yes, and a little technology might help. Try using a video camera and large-screen TV so that everyone can clearly see as well as hear.

6. Invite Everyone To a Planning Meeting the Evening After the First Day.

This allows people to make any contribution that the Eternal would have them make. It also helps to gain a consensus regarding any particular topics that are of interest that should be discussed at the feast. Teen-agers should not be left out in the planning. They are old enough to begin thinking about what the Eternal would have them learn from the Feast. With the guidance of a gifted adult, they should plan their schedule for the Feast (This worked quite effectively at Gatlinburg in 1998). This writer knows of several successful feasts where speaking and activity schedules were not finalized until after the Feast had begun. People seemed much happier because they had been a part of the Feast, not just arrived to be a spectator.

7. Studies and Messages Should All Be Interactive

Even if a person believes they have a message directly from the Eternal (a prophecy), the scripture teaches that the other believers should judge whether it is according to scripture (1Cor 14:29). How much more is there a need for evaluation if a man is simply giving his own opinion of the Scripture. If questions and comments are not permitted during a message, there should certainly be time allowed for them at the end.

The scripture commands an assembly only on the first and eighth day of the Feast. There is no command to have a "church service" every day of the Feast, though there is certainly nothing wrong with doing it. On the other hand, it may be helpful to have several different studies going at once on some days and encourage people to attend the one most relevant to their personal needs. This was successfully done on one day at the Gatlinburg 1998 feast site.

8. Plan one event to which the general public is invited.

The Feast is a good time to gain experience in helping to reach out to others. Many people coming to a religious meeting for the first time want to hear and observe the new teaching without confrontation—they want to "blend into the crowd". In most local Sabbatarian congregations, there is little crowd to blend into. But at the Feast there is a crowd. One event can be structured so that it will be of interest to both Feast attendees and others. If no new people attend, at least the Feast-goers will enjoy the event.

What kind of event should it be? It should be something that someone is gifted to present. It could be an explanations of the Feast of Tabernacles from the Bible, or a Bible lecture on some other topic that would attract attention. A Christian music program might work if the talents are available. A well-organized picnic/sporting event is also possible. Whatever type event is chosen, either a brief message explaining the Feast of tabernacles or literature item should be presented. It is important for others to understand that we teach the Bible as well as having a good time.

The event will need to be advertised in some way. A person who lives where the Feast is held might know the best way. Free advertising can often be obtained on a hotel or convention center bulletin board or their outdoor marquee. Newspapers and some radio stations may have a "community calendar" where they will give a brief promotion for free. Larger paid ads in newspapers will attract more attention, especially if they are run more than once, but this can be expensive. Pray and ask for understanding of the Eternal would have you do.

Happy Feast 1999!

These suggestions reflect conversations with many people. Nearly all of them have been tried at one or more sites. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list or a "perfect Feast plan", but some helpful suggestions to those organizing Feasts and to those planning to attend them. We would welcome and probably publish letters with other constructive Feast suggestions.

This is the last feast before the year 2000. It may not be as easy to organize Feasts in years to come. We hope that everyone will start thinking about what they would like to accomplish at this coming Feast and where they would like to go. It is always helpful to Feast planners to know how many people they should plan for. In 1998, some non-aligned feast sites had many more people than they were planning for and others had a lot less. This caused some sites to be overcrowded, while others had empty space and spent much more on facilities than they needed to.We realize that some people cannot plan very far in advance where they will go to the Feast, and others are still reacting to the overly controlling Feast attendance policies of other organizations. But if you were planning a Feast, you would want to know who is coming, so use the Golden Rule, and try to let Feast planners know where you plan to go as soon as you are relatively sure.

Start thinking about what you can spiritually contribute to a Feast next year. Happy Feast, 1999!

—Norman S. Edwards

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