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Remembering Water Gate

by Tim O'Hearn

The last day of the Feast of the Tabernacles (Succoth; September 26 – October 3 in 2007) is called Hoshanna Rabbah (The Great Hosanna). The name comes from the tradition of reciting Psalm 118:25 (“Save now [hosanna], I beseech thee, O LORD: O LORD, I beseech thee, send now prosperity.”) seven times, as opposed to once a day on the other days of the feast. This recitation is part of a ceremony that dates back at least as far as the return of Israel from Babylon.

The “water-drawing” ceremony occurred on every day of the feast until the destruction of the Temple. A specially-designated priest proceeded to the pool of Siloam. He was accompanied by a crowd of believers, and a chorus of flute players. At Siloam the priest, with much ceremony, filled a special golden pitcher with water. Accompanied by the faithful and the flutes, he returned to the Temple through the Water Gate. (It was from this ceremony that the gate got its name, and the gate is mentioned in the book of Nehemiah.) When he returned to the altar he found two silver basins set up. The wider one was on the east of the altar, and received the drink offerings. The narrower basin was for the water. Several musicians blew shofars, the flutes continued playing, and the Temple chorus recited the verse from the Psalm as the priest poured the water into the basin. Throughout the feast the chorus recited the psalm once as the priest walked around the altar before pouring the water. On the last day of the feast, much like at the siege of Jericho, the priest walked seven times around the altar before pouring the water. The chorus thus sang “Hosanna” seven times on that day, giving the day the name of “the Great Hosanna.”

First Watergate

People of the “baby boom” generation know of the Watergate scandal. What most don’t know is that there were earlier Water Gate scandals. In about 95 BCE one priest, Alexander Jannaeus, poured the water that had been brought through the Water Gate onto the ground rather than into the basin on the altar. Apparently Alexander was, as his name indicates, partial to the Greeks. He would later probably be considered a Sadducee. As such, he would have supported reforms bringing Jewish culture more into line with Greek customs. This may have been his reason for not fulfilling the water-drawing ceremony.

One of the characteristics of the week of Succoth is that the people are required to carry certain items. “And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.” (Lev 23:40) Traditionally this takes the form of a “bouquet” of palm, myrtle, and willow branches, along with an etrog, the fruit of the citron tree.

When Alexander Jannaeus failed to pour the water from Siloam into the basin, but rather onto the ground, the crowd was incensed. They began pelting him with etrogim and beating him with the branches they were carrying. The temple guard, who were followers of Alexander, came to the defense of their priest-king. When the riot was over, it is said, over six thousand Jews had been killed.

Why would the people get so upset because he (intentionally) missed the basin in pouring the water? One reason may relate to one of the reasons for the feast of Succoth. It is also called the Feast of Firstfruits. It is a harvest festival. The origin of the water-drawing ceremony may go back to an enactment of a request for sufficient rain for the following season. If so, then pouring the water on the ground was equivalent to asking for a drought during the year that had just started. In an agricultural society it is understandable that Alexander Jannaeus was lucky if he just got away with his life.

A second reason may relate to the symbolism of water. To the Jewish mind, the pouring of water was equivalent to the giving of the Ruash haKodesh, the Holy Spirit of God. The prophet Joel had predicted that the Messiah would “pour out” God’s spirit on all people. (Joel 2:28) Isaiah had said, “With joy shall you draw out the wells of salvation.” (Isa 12:3) The ceremony was equal to a promise that Israel would receive the blessings of God’s Spirit. To pour out the water on the ground was to deny that possibility. It was almost equivalent to denying the existence of God. Therefore, the people were afraid that this renegade priest had denied them the rain for their crops and the rain of God’s blessings for the coming year. Furthermore, if this were the same priest that had offered the sacrifice of atonement two weeks earlier, or if that priest were of the same persuasion, this would call into question their atonement for their previous sins. The people feared for their physical and spiritual lives. No wonder they reacted so violently to this first Water Gate scandal.

Second Watergate

The second Water Gate scandal occurred approximately 125 years later. It is recorded in John 7. It involved a young rabbi named Yeshua (translated Joshua or Jesus). For about three years this young man had been preaching a revolutionary view of the Law. He generally opposed the Sadducees, but never quite agreed with the Pharisees. He was not a Zealot, but drew some of them to him. He was growing in popularity, and the priests, who were mostly Sadducees, had decided that he had to go even if it meant killing him. For this reason it had appeared that he was not going to attend the Feast, although not doing so would essentially destroy his position as a follower of the Law.

Nevertheless, he went to the feast secretly. At least his arrival was in secret. Shortly after getting to Jerusalem, however, he could not resist teaching in the temple courts. Even then the people did not immediately recognize him. When some did, he disappeared before the temple guards could take him into custody. Then came Hoshana Rabbah.

Crowds from all over the world filled the city. The priest went to the pool of Siloam and filled the sacred pitcher. Accompanied by the crowds and the usual flute choir he proceeded upward, through the Water Gate. At the altar he poured the water, accompanied by the temple choir and the shouts of thousands of worshipers.

Then Jesus stood up in a corner of the courtyard. To the assembled crowd he said, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:37-38) Isaiah had said “I will pour … floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring.” (Isa 44:3) Zechariah had said, “And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be. And the LORD shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one LORD, and his name one.” (Zech 14:8-9) Jesus had earlier promised the woman at the well a well (Jn 4:14) Now he was promising a river of the Holy Spirit. There was only one who could make such an offer. Jesus was claiming to be Messiah! What a scandalous claim, if he was not Messiah. What a dangerous claim, if he was.

Naturally the people were divided in their reaction. Some asked if he was “the Prophet,” meaning Elijah coming back to announce Messiah. Others said, “No. He is not Elijah. He is Messiah.” Still others called the temple police.

The chief priests (Sadducees) and the Pharisees, in a rare agreement to work together, argued from a lack of knowledge of scripture. They did not know of the birth of Jesus in Beit Lechem. They only knew him as a Galilean, and ignorantly stated that no prophet was from Galilee. (They apparently forgot Jonah, or ignored him because he was a prophet to the gentiles.)

What was the cause of this second Water Gate scandal? Some might say it was ignorance, or greed, or a desire for power. Perhaps it was all these. Mostly it was fear. Some of the people were afraid that this man who claimed to be Messiah might not be that one. Others were afraid that he might be Messiah.

Jesus had promised the Holy Spirit in abundance. The poor, the downtrodden, the truly faithful had been looking for just such a promise. Every time Israel changed political hands they looked for one who would take them out of their poverty and pain. The faithful few waited constantly for Messiah. (Many Jews today have entirely given up on his coming.) An Egyptian claimed to be Messiah, and led some away, only to fail in his promises. (Acts 21:38) Then, as now, many claimed to be Messiah. While Jesus offered proof, many were afraid that he would again disappoint them.

Others were afraid that he truly was Messiah. They were afraid they would lose their power. They were afraid they would be shown to be charlatans. They were afraid that God just might be telling the truth, and they doubted the scriptures. They were afraid they might have to change their lives.

The attitudes shown in this second Water Gate scandal continue even to today. When we preach the gospel, many are afraid to believe. The wonder, “what if it is not really true? Then where will I be?” They ignore that they would be better off, lie or truth. Others are afraid that Jesus is God’s son. They are comfortable in their sin or their complacency. They are afraid that they will have to change. They are right. To believe that Jesus is Messiah requires a change. It involves a new life (Rom 6).

As we preach the gospel of the Messiah we have to take these attitudes into consideration. Even now we must remember the lessons of Water Gate.