The five Torah festivals (Purim and Hanukkah were added later to make a total of seven) may be pictured in a number of ways, but it seems very possible that they were given to illustrate the love of God for His people, following the pattern of a wedding. We should first note that the order of the Festivals changes following the Exodus event. The original giving of the Feasts, beginning with the 1st month, has the order: Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. However, following the Exodus God gave a specific command to Israel that she should renumber her months:
This month [Nisan] shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you. (Ex. 12:2)
From that time on, the 1st month is what was previously the 7th month, the month of Nisan. This likewise changed the order of the Festivals, for now Pesach, in the 7th month, would be the first of the cycle. Thus, the Festivals would be ordered: Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.Why? For what purpose would the calendar be changed following the Exodus? I would like to suggest that the Exodus, standing forever as the paradigm of God’s redemptive power and purpose, would require the order of the Festivals to be so arranged as to tell the story of God’s unfailing love for Israel and all who attach themselves to her by faith.
The first issue of marriage in the Ancient world was the redemption of the bride—paying the bride price to the bride’s father as the first step in the betrothal process. This also meant that a selection—a choosing—had taken place. The groom-to-be, along with his father, had cast their eyes upon a maiden as the fairest prospect for a bride.
But the bride would not come without a price. Paying such a bride price speaks to the issue of redemption, the heart and soul of the Pesach festival. There, at Passover, the payment required to redeem Israel from Egypt’s servitude is dramatically displayed every year. The slaying of the Lamb, the blood on the doorposts, and the slaughter of Egypt’s firstborn sons all vividly remind us that the freedom we enjoy was purchased at great cost. But such a price was paid, and Israel was redeemed to become the bride of Adonai.
Shavuot, or the Feast of Pentecost, is directly connected to Pesach by the counting of the omer. This means that the bride-price symbolized by Pesach is directly tied to the events of Shavuot. While the festival itself has a great many other symbolisms, the fact that, by traditional reckonings, the first Shavuot occurred while Israel was standing at Sinai, is significant. The Torah, given on Sinai, comes to Israel as a contract, and in our picture, as the ketubbah or the marriage contract. Written to assure the maintenance of the Bride, the ketubbah outlines what is expected of each party, and the commitment the bride and groom make to each other.
The giving of the Torah, then, may be viewed within the context of the love relationship between God and Israel. Redeemed as His future bride, the Torah comes to her as the treasured token of her Groom’s fidelity and promise to maintain her. It also requires her faithfulness but promises enduring blessings and security within the marriage bond.
Interestingly, the Ruach was poured out at the Feast of Shavuot (Acts 2) in anticipation of the harvest of the nations to worship Israel’s God. Yet the Ruach is also viewed as a marriage contract or bride price when Paul uses the term arrabon, “pledge” in reference to the Ruach (2Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14). This same word (which is actually an Aramaic term, transliterated in the Greek) is used to describe the bride price. Thus, the giving of the Torah as a ketubbah and the giving of the Ruach as an arrabon continue the picture of the Divine betrothal of Israel.
Rosh HaShannah is the Feast of Trumpets, and literally Yom Teruah, Day for Blowing the Shofar. What is the significance of the shofar blasts? It is a call to return—a call for repentance.
The betrothal of Israel to Adonai was interrupted by the maiden’s unfaithfulness. This is the message of the Prophets. Consider Jeremiah 31:31-34 which promises the New Covenant:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
Here the Lord presents Himself as Israel’s Husband (or Husband to be, for in ancient times betrothal was legally binding even as marriage was) and describes Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him.
When a betrothed maiden is unfaithful to her betrothed, he has every right to “put her away,” that is, to give her an annulment of the betrothal contract. In such a case, the bride price returns to the would-be groom, and the bride is disgraced. The groom is not required to do this, mind you, but he may if he so desires. The example that immediately comes to mind, of course, is that of Mary and Joseph.
What Rosh HaShannah tells us is that, while Israel played the part of the unfaithful, betrothed maiden, God, her betrothed, calls her back—calls her to repentance. Her waywardness is grievous, but He is willing to forgive, and even to heal, but she must return—she must repent of her evil deeds. The rightful Husband, the one who has signed the ketubbah with His own finger, calls His betrothed wife back to Him—back to faithfulness to the betrothal agreement, the Torah.
Thus, Rosh HaShannah also emphasizes God’s rightful ownership of His bride. The Day commemorates His sovereign kingship, and His right to possess His betrothed. In calling her back to Him, He re-establishes His rightful place beside her.
Yom Kippur (or Yom HaKippurim) is only 10 days after Rosh HaShannah. It is a day of solemn fasting, seeking to be cleansed of one’s sins. The bride, as she returns, is tattered and torn. Her garments are not white—they are soiled with the filth of unfaithfulness, and besmirched by the selfish indulgence of disloyalty. Can these garments ever be made white? Can she come from the wedding chamber “without spot, wrinkle, or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27) when in her teshuvah she came wearing such aweful clothes?
The message of Yom Kippur is “yes”—Yes, she can be cleansed. The blood of the Lamb washes her garments and makes them white again. She comes, made new, and thus made ready for the Wedding ceremony itself.
Indeed, in the solemn activities of Yom Kippur, there is a sense of coming back to where one belongs—back to the One to Whom one belongs.
This, of course, is another significant aspect of Yom Kippur, for it is the beginning of every Jubilee year. Thus, Yom Kippur has a special attachment to the Yovel year, and this figures into the wedding picture as well. At the Jubilee, everything returns to its rightful owner, including the Land. It is fitting, then, that the bride should return and be cleansed at Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, for her rightful owner is none other than HaShem Himself.
The Festival of Sukkot hastens immediately on the heels of Yom Kippur. The sorrow of the maiden’s unfaithfulness during her period of betrothal is swept away by the forgiveness and cleansing afforded by the Yom Kippur atonement, and the rejoicing of the wedding feast begins.
The Sukkah symbolizes dwelling together. Here, the groom takes His bride into His own dwelling, a dwelling He has made for her, and the marriage is consummated. Nothing but joy can prevail: the bride and groom have joy unspeakable, for finally—at last, that which is promised is realized.
It is common to eat in the Sukkah, and thus the “marriage supper of the Lamb” fits into this picture well. What is more, the Festival of Sukkot is the only one prescribed in the Torah to be eight days long. Yet there is an issue: the Feast is described as seven days, yet requires assembly on the eighth day. The Sages have made much of the question whether or not the eighth day, called “Shemini Atzeret” is part of Sukkot or not. No one can actually decide. It is thus seen as connected to Sukkot, but a Festival unto itself, nonetheless.
What does this symbolize? The seven days represent the “week” of the world’s history, with the seventh day the “millennial rest.” The eighth day must therefore represent eternity, connected to the millennial reign of Messiah, but distinct from it. The picture is obvious: God and His bride will remain forever, moving from His millennial reign directly into eternity: “and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
Here, then, is a picture (one of many) that helps us understand why the Festivals are so important for God’s people. They remind in symbolic and real ways of God’s desire to “dwell among His people,” to engage in that intimate relationship pictured between the husband and his wife. This is the “big picture” of redemption—of God’s desire for His people.
The final word on this is simple: our marriages should reflect this cycle of redemption, a cycle so profound and infinite that God developed the whole scheme of the ages around it. Surely when Paul labels this a “great mystery” (Ephesians 5:32) he spoke well.