In the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration (cf. Mt 17:1-9; Mk 9:2-10; Lk 9:28-36), we read that Peter wanted to make “booths” for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus when these three gloriously appeared at the top of the mountain. What are “booths” and why did Peter want to build them?
First, the booths: these are small huts made of tree branches, the same shelters the Israelites used during the 40-year journey through the wilderness after the Exodus. They also utilized these booths in their encampment around Mt. Sinai, while Moses received the Law from God. Orthodox Jews construct these booths today when they celebrate the “Feast of Booths,” a seven-day commemoration of God’s protection of His people while they journeyed those 40 years.
I consulted several Scripture commentaries and the perception seems to be that Peter wanted to construct booths for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus so that he could prolong the glorious event that he was witnessing. That is certainly understandable. The Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (©1953), however, gives us another reason: Peter may have assumed that Moses and Elijah had come to stay and to herald Jesus in his glory.
This makes sense. After all, according to vs. 11, they believed that Elijah would return to pave the way for the Messiah. They also believed, according to Deut 18:15, that God would raise up a prophet like Moses to lead His people, and they would “listen to him.” And now here they are, Elijah and Moses, conversing with Jesus before their very eyes! And what does the voice from the cloud say? “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” This may have made Peter realize that he was witnessing the fulfillment of what the Jews had been anticipating. Moses and Elijah have come to tell the entire world that Jesus is the Messiah, the prophet like Moses! In Peter’s mind, if Elijah and Moses have come to stay then they need shelter, so he desired to make them each a booth. Of course, in his excitement he has forgotten that glorified bodies have no need for shelter!
Ultimately, I think the booths (as well as the setting and the cloud and pretty much everything else in the scene) serve to connect the Transfiguration with God’s revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Both take place on the seventh day, both occur on a mountain, both Jesus and Moses take three companions with them, both of their faces shine with God’s glory, both involve the cloud of God’s presence, and both events involve God speaking through a heavenly voice. These parallels solidify Jesus as the “new Moses,” and the fulfillment of the Law that Moses received. Like Moses, Jesus stands as the mediator between God and His people. Like Moses, Jesus frees us from slavery and bondage. Like Moses, Jesus feeds us with bread from heaven. Praise be to God!