When you are embarking on an ambitious building project, it consumes a great deal of your time and energies, as we know well here at the Cathedral. Nehemiah, governor of Judah, has set himself the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, ruinous since the Babylonian invasions over a century before. A man of energetic character who brooks no opposition, he achieves this task despite the Machiavellian tactics of his opponents. They allege that this huge act of reconstruction is to cover up a conspiracy to rebel against the Persian empire. Why build walls unless your intention is to declare independence?
If this were all there was to the story, it would hardly be worth telling. But the next part of the book shows that a deeper purpose lies behind it. When the wall is finished, and families have settled into their homes, a great assembly is convened. The people tell Ezra the priest to bring out the book of the law and read from it. For a whole morning he reads aloud at a ceremony marked by both tears of joy and shouts of thankfulness: sorrow for the years they have been alienated from this torah, God’s instruction for sound and healthy living; thankfulness to have their covenant with God given back to them. And they see how the renewal of buildings, temples, walls, houses is a symbol of something deeper: the renewal of their vocation and resolve to live purposefully in obedience to God’s rule.
Nehemiah sees that the ancient book requires them to do something specific to mark their obedience. It’s the autumn, the season of harvest. Nehemiah realises that according to the law, a long-neglected festival needs to be reinstated. So he instructs everyone to go out into the fields, gather branches of whatever trees they can find, and construct leafy booths in the open air: on their housetops or in streets and courts and public squares, even in the temple precincts. Then they are to go and live in them for a week. All this the people do. The text goes out of its way to say that they did it gladly: ‘there was very great rejoicing’.
Here’s an odd thing: to celebrate the end of a building project not by occupying the newly created buildings but by deliberately quitting them to live outside. Clearly, the people understood what this meant because the text doesn’t explain why it was important, only that it was part of being thankful. We have to look back into the torah, the books of the law, to understand the significance of the festival of Booths, If there are gaps in the law-codes, we shall need to use our imaginations a little. Here is how I read it.
First, the feast was as an act of celebration. How better to mark the ingathering of the harvest than going out to live in the very fields where you have sweated and toiled all summer to garner the fruits of the earth? It is God’s harvest, but it is also the work of human hands. There is something endearing about this command to go out and be at home in the open air. It is our natural environment, a memory of how once upon a time a man and a woman lived without fear or shame in a garden where the Lord God walked and enjoyed the company of his human friends. What we love about Cuthbert and Francis is that they were so much at home in the natural world.
By contrast, we see around us ever more evidence of how alienated we have become from good earth, so estranged from it that we can contemplate the planet burning because of our contempt for the environment. Tabernacles reminds us how our own health and the earth’s renewal depend on our learning to reconnect with the natural order, learn to treat all things living with courtesy, ‘discover our place in God’s creation’ as the Cathedral’s purpose statement puts it. It looks forward to the day when nature and humanity are reconciled and, in Isaiah’s vision, the wolf dwells with the lamb, the child plays over the hole of the asp, and nothing hurts or destroys in all God’s holy mountain, for the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Second, this exercise in al fresco living was meant to teach the Jews something important about dependence. It’s precisely at the time solid structures are completed that Nehemiah says: don’t depend on these beautiful stones and beautiful buildings. Depend only on God. Let your faith in him be re-energised by having to live for a while without the securities you are getting used to again. For this was precisely how your ancestors lived in days of old: ‘a wandering Aramean was my father’ says one of Israel’s oldest creeds: nomads and fugitives in the barren wilderness for all those years they trekked, often despondently, towards the land of promise.
Yet despite their obduracy and lack of hope, God did not forget the Hebrews but prepared a table in the wilderness for them, as Ezra puts it in his magnificent covenant-making speech in the next chapter. Tabernacles was a way of going back to that story, rekindling the memory of far-off days when the Hebrews had no houses, no temple, no abiding city. ‘You shall dwell in booths seven days, so that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them up out of the land of Egypt.’ It reminded them how life’s changes and chances threw them on the mercy of the covenant. It told them not to vest ultimate security in anything they could see or touch. It threw them on the mercy and goodness of God. We no doubt expect to learn this lesson in other ways. But learn it we must, if faith means anything.
There is a third theme running through this celebration. How often does the torah instil the habit of being generous and compassionate towards the wanderer and stranger, the outcaste, the disadvantaged, the poor. The more prosperous and successful you become, the easier it is not simply to forget those who need your help, but actively to choose not to remember them. The feast of Booths is a kind of enforced homelessness, having to live in temporary accommodation, discover what it is like to live in the cold and the wet and the dark. When people with a social conscience decide to live for a week on unemployment benefit, perhaps sleeping rough in parks or doorways, it’s easy to disparage this as the token gesture of the comfortably off: acting a part rather than truly taking part.
But this is what Tabernacles calls the people to do. I imagine that it is physically and emotionally
costly to live in a booth for a week. I have never done it. I like to think the Jews of Nehemiah’s day discovered as we can that by taking up roles and acting out rituals, their meanings become more real, are understood in new ways. That leads to the transformation of attitudes and perspectives, in this case a deeper sympathy with and compassion for those for whom living in streets and squares and the open country is not a matter of joy and will not come to an end next week.
The renewal of a people’s mind and heart is what Nehemiah wanted to achieve. He knew that building the walls was the easy part. Much harder to rebuild a community on the values of justice, loving-kindness and truth. This great communal celebration of an ancient festival was only the beginning. But it sowed the seeds of the future when, under pressure and at times of terrible persecution, Judaism covenant would remain steadfast to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who had called them into this privileged life and promised that in their seed all the peoples of the world would bless themselves. In Jesus, Christians believe that promise to be coming true. This is why we pray as he taught us, ‘thy kingdom come’, and look with eager longing for the day of God when the rich promises foreshadowed in one of the old pilgrim feasts become nothing less than a new heaven and new earth.
Durham Cathedral, 20 October 2013 (Nehemiah 8. 9-end)