(by Daniel Peterson 10-2-14)
Arguably, the two most significant annual festivals of ancient Israel were Passover, which occurred in March/April, and “Sukkot” (typically translated as “Tabernacles” or “Booths”), which was celebrated in September/October. Along with “Shavuot” (“Pentecost” or “Weeks”), which fell 50 days after Passover, they constituted the three “pilgrimage festivals” for which all faithful Israelite males living in Palestine were to gather at the temple in Jerusalem.
This year, in 2014, Passover extended from April 14-22, while the Feast of Tabernacles will be celebrated Oct. 8-15. The similarity to the modern Mormon general conference calendar probably isn’t entirely coincidental: Both the ancient festivals and our modern conferences originated in societies dominated by the agricultural cycles of seedtime and harvest.
As we enter into October conference season of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s perhaps appropriate to remember John Tvedtnes’s 1990 article on “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” although this brief column cannot possibly do justice to its detailed argument.
Tvedtnes, for many years a senior resident scholar at BYU’s now defunct Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or FARMS, contends that “The biblical Sukkot celebration is closely paralleled by the account of King Benjamin's assembly recorded in Mosiah 1:1-6.”
The Feast of Tabernacles is named for the fact that, as part of its celebration, Israelites were to construct temporary shelters or “sukkot” (“tabernacles” or “booths”) and to spend at least some time in them, in order “that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (see Leviticus 23:43).
Several elements of the first six chapters of Mosiah seem to imply an observance of the Feast of Tabernacles. The gathering of the Nephites “up to the temple” (see Mosiah 2:1), for example, suggests a pilgrimage festival. Additionally, since more sacrifices are connected with Sukkot than with any other Hebrew festival, it’s noteworthy that the Nephites make offerings “according to the law of Moses” at Mosiah 2:3.
Likewise, the tower that King Benjamin caused to be erected, and from which he spoke, recalls the wooden “pulpit” (or, better, the “tower,” Hebrew “migdal”) traditionally constructed for the king at the Feast of Tabernacles (see the 1995 FARMS article “Upon the Tower of Benjamin”; also Nehemiah 8:4, where, the Israelite monarchy being extinct, Ezra speaks from such a “pulpit”). Benjamin’s reference to the blood of Jesus Christ (see Mosiah 3:11) may also be Sukkot-related, reminiscent of the blood of the covenant that Moses sprinkled on the people during the first Sukkot (see Exodus 24:8).
Most noticeably, the Nephites pitched their “tents round about the temple, every man having his tent with the door thereof towards the temple, that thereby they might remain in their tents and hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them” (see Mosiah 2:5-6). As already mentioned, Sukkot memorializes the Exodus of Israel from Egypt — during which the traveling Camp of Israel set up its tents facing its priesthood shrine (see Exodus 33:8-10).
Themes of atonement and of God as creator permeate both King Benjamin’s speech and Ezra’s Sukkot remarks (see Nehemiah 8:13-18). Moreover, Ezra explicitly addressed “those that could understand” (see Nehemiah 8:3), and “every one having knowledge, and having understanding," took an oath before him (see Nehemiah 10:28-29). King Benjamin too spoke only to those “who (could) understand (his) words” (see Mosiah 2:40).
Deeply moved, King Benjamin’s people fell to the ground, repented of their sins and invoked divine atonement upon themselves (see Mosiah 4:1-2, 6-7), as all Israelites were expected to do for the Day of Atonement (which almost immediately precedes Sukkot). Following this, King Benjamin recorded “the names of all those who had entered into a covenant with God to keep his commandments” (see Mosiah 6:1-3).
The Jews in Jerusalem, stirred by Ezra’s remarks, likewise “entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God's law” (see Nehemiah 10:29). They, too, fell to the ground; their names were also recorded (Nehemiah 8:6, 9:38).
Biblical descriptions of Sukkot are scattered and fragmentary. Moreover, Lucy Mack Smith wrote that, of all her children, Joseph was the least inclined to read and that, prior to 1830, he’d never read the Bible through. Still, Mosiah 1-6 seems to reflect a specialist’s knowledge of the ancient Hebrew festival. Yet it’s implicit, not explicit, and Joseph Smith may never have noticed it. Nor did anybody else before Tvedtnes. But he was a longtime student of the Old Testament, fluent in Hebrew, doing graduate work in ancient studies in Jerusalem.