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Not Really Pilgrims

by Tim O'Hearn

"Here, we are but straying pilgrims.” This first line of a favorite hymn may not be entirely accurate. The New English Translation (NET) calls Sukkos (the Feast of Booths) a “pilgrim feast.” Those translators supply the word “pilgrim” although there is no such word in the original Hebrew texts. We like to think of ourselves as pilgrims on a sacred journey. We are on a journey, but is it necessarily a pilrimage?

A pilgrim is defined as a person traveling to a sacred place for religious reasons. It has been extended to mean a newcomer to the western United States (John Wayne’s calling someone pilgrim) or (with an initial capital) the group of people who came to America on the Mayflower. The word, itself, however, implies one going to a place for a religious reason or to fulfil a vow, but with no intent of remaining there. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories told by pilgrims on their way to the grave of Thomas Becket (probably at a slow horse’s pace now known as a canter, from Canterbury). These people had no intention of staying. Nor did the people making pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Crusades. Nor do Muslims making pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hindus to the Ganges.

It was different with the Israelites in the desert. The Israelites had no intention of returning to their starting point. They were forbidden from doing so. (Deut 17:16) They were not a nation of pilgrims, but rather a nation of refugees. They eventually became an invading army, but were certainly not pilgrims.

The Feast of Booths (October 14-20 in 2019) is a remembrance of the time in the wilderness. As is true of many refugees, it was a time of hardship. The feast is a reminder of how good God was to the wanderers. Compare with them many refugees today. It matters not whether they are from Central America headed for the United States, formerly from Cuba to Florida, or from Syria to nations in Europe. The Israelites faced similar dangers. People died on the way. Fresh water was scarce. They had to rely on someone else to show the way, although the pillar of cloud/fire was much kinder to Israel than most “coyotes” are to their Guatemalan charges. Even when they spent up to a year in any given place, they made no permanent homes. It was only by the grace of God that they had manna and quail to eat, and “Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years.” (Deut 8:4) When they arrived at a country that was not their final destination, they were refused admittance. (Num 20:17) Like many refugees today they had to cross a water barrier to get to where they were going. In Israel’s case it took a miraculous crossing of the Jordan; in modern cases it is the Rio Grande or the Aegean Sea.

We are traveling toward heaven. We are emigrants, or perhaps refugees. We are not pilgrims, although are destination is a most holy place; we have no intention of returning to this world, even if we could.

These… confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly (Heb 11:13-16)

Sukkos is a feast of remembrance of Israel’s refugee status. In this day when we see so many refugees from oppressive governments, might we not remember them as well during this most joyous feast!