Three Sukkot on Mount Transfiguration

Why did Simon Peter offer to build three booths (sukkot) for Moses and Elijah? Does this imply that the transfiguration took place during Sukkot?

Transfiguration of Jesus, Oil on Canvas by Armando Alemdar Ara (Creative Commons License © via Wikimedia Commons)

While the Master prayed through the long hours of the night, Simon Peter, James, and John could not fight off sleep. Their eyes were very heavy. As they would later do in Gethsemane, they fell asleep while Yeshua prayed. They slept, unaware of His transfiguration and the presence of Moses and Elijah until they awoke. Then they saw His glory. The darkness of the night around them had transformed to dazzling light. “And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah” (Luke 9:30). They “appeared in glory” with the Master (Luke 9:31). The disciples did not need any introductions. Somehow, by means of some soulish-spiritual recognition, they knew at once that they looked upon Moses and Elijah.

The three disciples heard only the end of the discussion. The visitors indicated that the conversation was at an end. “As these were leaving Him,” Simon Peter offered to build shelters for his rabbi and the two exalted guests (Luke 9:33).

Why did he offer to build shelters? The Septuagint uses the same Greek word that is sometimes used to translate the Hebrew word sukkah (“booth”). The Hebrew word sukkah means a small shelter, stable, shack, or hut. The sukkah invokes the festival of Sukkot imagery. Each year, the Jewish people live in temporary, tent-like structures during the seven days of the festival of Booths. The festival of Sukkot uniquely symbolizes the Messianic Era; Simon Peter’s offer to build sukkot for the Messiah and his Messianic-era guests seems especially appropriate to the holiday theme of inviting exalted guests into the Sukkah.

Simon Peter did not have that type of symbolic significance in mind when he offered to build the shelters. Nor was he attempting to keep the mandate to dwell in booths during Sukkot. The gospels provide no reason to assume that the transfiguration occurred during the festival of Sukkot. Had it been Sukkot, the Master and His disciples needed to be in Jerusalem for the festival, not at Caesarea Philippi.

Simon Peter’s offer intended no cryptic symbolism. He only wanted to prolong the moment. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here!” he said. He offered to build the booths as a gesture of hospitality. He imagined himself gathering some branches and foliage from the nearby trees and creating the type of sukkah in which He and the other disciples were accustomed to sleeping during their travels with Yeshua. Many times, when night had overtaken them on the road, they had put together shelters from the available materials and spent the night. Simon Peter had probably made many such booths for His rabbi. In retrospect, the offer seemed foolish to him—as if Moses and Elijah needed some place to stay! The Gospel of Mark parenthetically comments on the awkward suggestion, explaining, “He did not know what to answer; for they became terrified” (Mark 9:6). Mark’s comment sounds like an authentic recollection from Peter himself: “I didn’t know what to say! We were terrified. What would you say?”

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