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In an article, The Vine & Wine at JewishExpert.com, there is an observation about recently discovered Ugaritic wine rituals found in a library at the home of the high priest. According to the article, it is “the fullest Ugaritic ritual found to date.” The article states:

The importance of the rite is evident from the number of deities (nearly thirty) and sacrifices (about 180) that it involves.

The festival takes place in the month of Rišyn...meaning “first” or “best” wine [riš yn]), “roughly the last lunar month before the fall equinox... The beginning of the text dictates that a representative cluster of grapes be cut from its vine to serve as, or alongside, a peace offering for El. Subsequently the king is ritually purified, proclaims the festival from his throne, then goes to the temple where he sets up booths for various deities on the roof.

As we can see, there are several themes here that sound very biblical, including the fall festival like the Feast of Tabernacles, which features both the tabernacles/booths and vintage. It is also evident that wine and the grape harvest were highly important to the Ugaritians, whose high god El was the same as that of the Israelites. Indeed, the peace offering of the grape cluster to El reminds one again of the spies carrying Canaan’s grapes to Moses.

Is this a reasonable parallel? Do we know approximately what time of the year the spies returned, as recorded in Numbers 13, from their exploration of the promised land?

Archeologists have found a scene from the tomb of an Egyptian woman dating from 1470 B.C.E. which depicts a group of men working at a wine press. The caption of the scene reads; "Straining out wine by the Apiru.”

Biblical archeologists have made a strong connection between the Apiru and the Hebrews.

One author suggests:

We may infer from this that the Hebrews of that time were the specialized wine-makers and vintners of Egypt. The inference is strengthened by a further scene illustrating the pouring of wine into jars, with the caption: "Wine from the vineyard of the Roads of Horns."

So, a strong inference can be made that when the spies returned, the grapes that they brought back were likely wine grapes. This would fit into the concept of a reformed Ugaritic ritual as being the occasion for a new way of looking at "El" in light of the vanilla monotheism that Moses proclaimed.

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Yes, the association of Israelite harvest festivals with Canaanite traditions related to El is reasonable. However, the idea is based on archaeology not biblical texts. The Torah presents the origin of the feast as part of Moses' revelation at Sinai.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the Israelites, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and lasting seven days, there shall be the Festival of Booths to the Lord. The first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. Seven days you shall present the Lord’s offerings by fire; on the eighth day you shall observe a holy convocation and present the Lord’s offerings by fire; it is a solemn assembly; you shall not work at your occupations. (Lev. 23)

Details are given at Numbers 29:12 and the festival's origins are reiterated at Deuteronomy 16:13.

Nevertheless, in higher criticism the documentary hypothesis understands the Torah to have been composed much later than the events described. In this theory Israelite law codes, including holy days, developed over time and may well have inherited various traditions from proto-Israelites such as the Apiru or other tribes living in Canaan. This scenario fits well with the general idea laid out in the OP.

Grapes are indeed mentioned in the story of the spies:

Now the time was the season of the first ripe grapes... And they came to the Valley of Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they brought also some pomegranates and figs. (Num. 13:20-23)

However, associating the origin of Sukkoth with the wine press found from 1470 B.C.E. may be going too far. Although the OP article refers to autumn festivals this does not seem to fit with the thesis, because the early grape harvest in ancient Israel began in April. But if the "first ripe grapes" in Numbers 13 really refers to "first" in the sense that the OP uses the term, perhaps the idea has merit. In any case, IMO it is a stretch to say that the Hebrews of that time were the specialized vintners of Egypt. This especially so if one thinks of them as Apiru, since these were famously nomadic herdsmen, not settled farmers. It cannot be ruled out, however, that the Apiru mingled with vintners and eventually settled with or conquered them.

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  • Actually, the timing of the Ugaritic grape harvest would be that of the month close to the fall equinox (September 22). October is the harvest time month in most of the region 3 North American viticultural zones. So, it's really possible for the festival of booths (Sukkot, October 9, 2022) to fit in that time period.
    – Jess
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 20:48
  • Yes... but the thesis fails if the "first ripe grapes" of Numbers refers to what it seems to suggest. Strong associates the term with the "first of the crops and fruit that ripened, was gathered, and offered to God according to the ritual of Pentecost." Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 21:03
  • Dan, it depends of the varietal. The first of fruits of Cabernet Sauvignon (which did not exist back than, but something like it might have) takes place in the beginning of October. winefolly.com/tips/start-planning-now-wine-harvest-season The annual vendemmia, or grape harvest, gets underway on October 20th in the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii. wantedinrome.com/news/…
    – Jess
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 21:49
  • I admit that. Maye the idea will catch on. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 23:09
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We are not told the exact time of year that the spies in Num 13 were sent out. All that we have is that they found a large cluster of grapes suggesting that the grape harvest was near.

However, the answer to the OP's question as to whether this incident was the origin of the Sukkot is historically rather simple to answer - "NO". This can be determined by the command for the three Israelite festivals (as recorded in Ex 23:14-17, see appendix below) that pre-date the spying of the land.

The three Israelite festivals were given as part of the original Israelite covenant of grace as recorded in Ex 19-24 which included the 10 commandments as given from Mt. Sinai

  • Passover & unleavened bread
  • Feast of weeks or Pentecost also called the festival of harvest
  • Festival of ingathering at the conclusion of the grape harvest at the end of the year, when everyone was commanded to live in "booths", ie, the feast of "Sukkot".

There is further evidence for this in the explicitly stated purpose of the festival of Sukkot as recorded in Lev 23:42, 43 -

You are to dwell in booths [or tabernacles, or tents, or shelters] for seven days. All the native-born of Israel must dwell in booths, so that your descendants may know that I made the Israelites dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.’ ”

That is, the festival of Sukkot was to recall the 40-year wandering in the desert when the Israelites lived in tents; thus it had little to do with the grape harvest in purpose, only timing.

APPENDIX - Three Israelite Annual Festivals

This is the text of Ex 23:14-17 which occurred BEFORE the 12 spies of Num 13.

14 Three times a year you are to celebrate a feast to Me.

15 You are to keep the Feast of Unleavened Breada as I commanded you: At the appointed time in the month of Abib you are to eat unleavened bread for seven days, because that was the month you came out of Egypt. No one may appear before Me empty-handed.

16 You are also to keep the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the produce from what you sow in the field.

And keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather your produce from the field.

17 Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD.

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