Roger D. Isaacs
New Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible

Sukkot: A Very Ancient Festival?

Facsimile of a vignette from the Book of the Dead of Ani. The deceased Ani kneels before Osiris, judge of the dead, who is seated in a booth (British Museum/Public Domain)

Co-authored with Adam R. Hemmings

Of the many festivals mentioned throughout the Hebrew Bible, Sukkot – literally the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles – is particularly perplexing. A combination of memorial and harvest festival, its origins are shrouded in layers both textual and historical. Only by examining the festival in terms of its socio-cultural and linguistic position in the ancient Near East can we begin to unpack these origins and draw one striking conclusion: that clear parallels exist for this festival and its practices in other Near Eastern cultures of the time.

Sukkot in the Hebrew Bible

As a festival, Sukkot is mentioned by name a total of four times in the Five Books (and once in Exodus 34:22 under the name Festival of Ingathering) and an additional five times in the remaining books. Also, numerous other instances of simply the word “booth” are encountered. Its proclamation in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy actually contains a fair amount of confusion and repetition, leading some scholars to believe it is a later addition to the festival schedule. Broadly, though, the following aspects are ordained for observance:

Exodus 34:22 

  1. As the Festival of Ingathering (a harvest festival) mandating the assembly of all males before the Lord.

Leviticus 23:33-43

  1. A Festival lasting for seven days, with an assembly and total rest days on the first day and eighth day (that is, the day after the official festival has concluded).
  2. A Fire Offering to be given each day.
  3. The gathering of foliage from trees (the exact species of plants is a matter of debate) and rejoicing before the Lord.
  4. That the above three aspects are to be observed by all generations into the future.
  5. That all native-born of Israel should live in booths for the seven days of the Festival as a memorial to the nomadic nature of the Hebrews during their wanderings.

Deuteronomy 16:13-17

  1. A Festival lasting for seven days after the harvest.
  2. That all are to rejoice in the Festival, specifically at a place chosen by the Lord and with the intention of blessing the harvested produce. Note that those doing the rejoicing are “within the gates,” suggesting that the people are settled by the time this ordinance is written.
  3. That it shall constitute an assembly of all the people (along with Passover and Shavuot) with everyone to give a gift as an offering to the Lord.

Deuteronomy 31:10-13

  1. That every 7 years during the Festival and coinciding with the Shemittah year (debt release/remission year) all the people should be assembled to hear the law read.

It appears that the ordinances surrounding Sukkot quite possibly speak of several different observances at different times – although such speculation is beyond the scope of this article. For our purposes, we are most interested in the Leviticus passages, given that this is the only section directly referring to the construction of the booths that give the Festival its name.

Established Etymology

Scholars seeking to establish the etymology and thus meaning behind Sukkot must first look to the word itself. This is a festival associated with structures which in Biblical Hebrew are referred to as סכה (sukkah), meaning booth, but variously translated as tabernacle, and outside the Five Books, canopy, pavilion, temporary shelter, hut, lair, cottage, or tent – in other words a structure that does not have the permanence of a house, which are still built to this day by Jews across the world during the festival. Sources such as Strong’s Concordance have traced סכה back to סך (sok – a thicket, covert, lair), and finally to סכך (cakak/sakak – a covering, to cover, to weave together). These words all describe the function or properties of a booth, providing shelter physically and created from temporary materials.

Upon first inspection, there would have been no reason for earlier scholars to assume that the Biblical Hebrew סכה and related words had cognates in any other ancient Near Eastern languages, mainly because the etymology traditionally provided does not seem surprising – the constituent parts and function of the structure become the name for the structure itself. However, we were curious to investigate whether both the word and practice of the festival had parallels in other civilizations, in the process learning that סכה is not a uniquely Biblical Hebrew word, but has potential cognates (some far predating the biblical account) in Egyptian, Ugaritic, and Akkadian.

New Linguistic Connections

Egyptian

Recently, there has been a trend amongst some scholars to make a connection between the stated Egyptian context of the Exodus-Wilderness Narrative and the relative abundance of potential Egyptian loanwords in that narrative (see in particular the work of Benjamin J. Noonan). We were interested in investigating whether there were any linguistic or cultural parallels that might extend this research to the study of the Sukkot passages.

In Egyptian, the word for booth or hall is transliterated as sḥ. It can also have the sense of council, shrine, tent, or pavilion. Whilst not an exact parallel to the Hebrew, the similarity between the words is undeniably striking, especially given the tendency of loanwords to slightly transform when passed from one language to another. The word sḥ is attested from the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BCE) and comfortably used until the Roman Period.

In the usage of this word, however, the similarities in the religious context become even more clear. The Pyramid Texts, Egypt’s oldest funerary texts containing a mixture of utterances broadly meant to help the deceased king navigate into the afterlife, have multiple references to booths constructed of reeds. Pyramid Text (PT) 210, in the pyramids of both pharaohs Unas (c. 2345–2315 BCE) and Teti (c. 2323–2291 BCE) refers to each of the kings’ tent or booth being woven of rushes. Meanwhile, PT 690 in the Pyramid of Pepi I (reigned c. 2nd half of the 24th century BCE or early 23rd century BCE) contains the lines:

Oh Pepi!
Horus has woven his tent/booth over your head,
Seth has spread your canopies,
The God’s Hall (or Divine Booth) surrounds you [possibly the place of embalming or burial chamber itself]
So that you can go [about your places that you wish],
Being driven.

Depictions of booths and shrine-like structures themselves feature prominently in Egyptian art. In fact, the very architectural elements of stone temples themselves, namely papyriform, palmiform, and lotiform columns, suggest an echoing of early forms of construction now lost due to the decay of these organic materials.

Though less clear in their relation, other Egyptian words also seem potentially like their Hebrew counterparts. From a different root, sḫt means to weave, or to form (likely referring to bricks in a mould), and in fact is the verb used above when referring to the weaving of tents or booths from rushes. Meanwhile, and with great caution due to the lack of attestations to demonstrate contextual usage, skk/sḫ has the meaning to cloud over, or darken, perhaps mirroring Biblical Hebrew cakak/sakak (a covering, as above).

Ugaritic

Ugaritic, a dialect of Amorite, in contrast to Egyptian, is a fully Semitic language and thus the parallels with the Hebrew text are more marked. Becoming extinct around the 12th century BCE, it predates attested forms of Hebrew and therefore is useful for discovering prior parallels amongst the neighbouring peoples of the region.

Several clear equivalents can be found. Ugaritic sk means a coverlet, mantle, coverage, or a top – this reflects the root Hebrew cakak/sakak precisely with the sense of covering. Also, a secondary meaning of den or hovel is so close to the idea of the temporary nature of the sukkah that the linguistic comparison is likely beyond doubt. [1]

As for physical ritual comparison, the Ugaritic Autumnal Festival seems to be most similar to Sukkot. During the ritual offering of the first grapes (or wine) and the purification rituals, “four and four dwellings of cut-off foliage” would be erected on the temple terrace. [2] Whilst it might be quite common to erect temporary structures during festivals for additional cover for the people, the ritualized nature of the Ugaritic example is particularly interesting.

Akkadian

Like Ugaritic, Akkadian (and its constituent varieties) is also a Semitic language, thriving in Mesopotamia from approximately 2500-600 BCE. As such, several potential cognates exist.

As a shrine structure, sukku in Old Babylonian (c. 1950–1530 BCE) refers to a shrine or small chapel, although in contrast to the Ugaritic and Egyptian structures they would appear to be constructed of mudbricks. [3] More tentatively, Old Babylonian šukešed refers to clothing, with again the sense of a covering. [4]

What Does This Mean?

It must be cautioned that although many of these comparisons seem valid, we may never fully know whether Sukkot has components derived from (or, indeed, whether it influenced) other cultures in the region. We can say, however, that a variety of civilizations were using similar words to describe similar structures and similar observances throughout the ancient Near East, stretching back into great antiquity.

Today, Sukkot is still celebrated as a remembrance of the nomadic heritage of the Hebrews during their wanderings, even if an exact interpretation of the relevant passage in Leviticus would only mandate that those born in the Land of Israel are required to live in booths. Nevertheless, the ancient nature of this holiday traces a clear line from these modern-day practices into a distant past, where the use of booths made of foliage was common amongst the peoples of the Middle East.

[1] Olmo Lete, Gregorio del, and Joaquín Sanmartín. Diccionario De La Lengua Ugarítica. 1. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Sabadell, Barcelona: Editorial AUSA, 1996, 400

[2] Botterweck, G. Johannes., Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. 10. Vol. 10. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999, 249

[3] Brinkman, John A., Miguel Civil, Ignace J. Gelb, A. Leo Oppenheim, and Erica Reiner, eds. “Sukku.” In The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. 15 (S): 361–62. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2000.

[4] Tinney, Steve, and Philip Jones, eds. “šukešed.” Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, June 26, 2006. http://psd.museum.upenn.edu/cgi-bin/distprof?cfgw=%C5%A1uke%C5%A1ed%5Bclothing%5D.


Join our ongoing investigation of the Hebrew Bible’s puzzling questions at TalkingWithGod.net


Adam R. Hemmings is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he specialized in Egyptian and Near Eastern studies, as well as archaeological and heritage law. He is currently engaged in research for his PhD regarding the repatriation of Egyptian antiquities removed during the colonial period.
About the Author
Roger D. Isaacs is an independent researcher specializing in Hebrew Bible studies and the author of two books, "Talking With God" and "The Golden Ark". Isaacs' primary research site was the archives of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where he is a member of the Advisory Council. He also conducted research at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, as well as digs, museums, and libraries in many countries, including Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and England.
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