GOD INSTRUCTED ISRAEL TO OBSERVE SABBATH LAWS AND CELEBRATE THREE ANNUAL PILGRIM FEASTS
There was a distinct rhythm to the life of the Israelites that the Lord commanded in order to keep their focus on His redemptive work as their sovereign covenant God. He wanted His people to constantly remember and celebrate their Exodus from bondage in Egypt and His miraculous care for them in their wilderness journey to the Promised Land. He wanted them to show mercy and consideration to those under their care so that they would not overwork them as the Israelites had been oppressed in Egypt. There was a time to work and a time to rest. There was a time to celebrate and partake of special feasts as well that would bring together the nation in unity and rejoicing. Through it all the Lord was concerned with the details of how they lived their lives so that His holiness would be honored by their obedience.
James Jordan: Man was made a creature who needs a day of rest in a pattern of one in seven. Also, he needs times of festivity during the year. God has revealed to us a rest pattern and a festival pattern. In the New Covenant, in its fullest form, men will be in continuous rest and festival, in the resurrection. Thus, the New Testament writers tell us that the sabbath day has been done away in the New Covenant; it has been fulfilled (Col. 2:16; Rom. 14:5; Gal. 4:9-10). In essence, the New Covenant entails a perpetual sabbath and festival.
I. (23:10-13) SABBATH OBSERVANCES
A. (:10-11) Observe the Sabbath Year = Every Seventh Year
1. (:10) Work the Land for Six Years
“And you shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield,”
2. (:11a) Rest the Land on the Seventh Year
“but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow,”
Unclear whether they were allowed to stagger which fields lay fallow at which times … or whether this was a blanket command that applied to all of their fields at the same year – which would have made it difficult for the poor to glean.
Philip Ryken: Although the Sabbath rest was good for the land, this was not its stated purpose. The Sabbath was mainly for the people and the animals who depended on the land for food. In the seventh year the orchards, fields, and vineyards were left to grow on their own – “unpruned, unguarded, and unharvested.” There is some question as to whether the whole land of Israel rested in the same year, or whether the rest was staggered field by field (the latter would seem most beneficial to the poor). However it was timed, the Sabbath year was one of the ways God provided for the hungry, and also for the animals that he created. Plenty of food was left for wild animals and the poor, who were free to gather whatever they needed.
James Jordan: God’s promise was, however, that there would be a triple harvest in the sixth year (Lev. 25:20-22), which would make up any financial loss.
Even though we do not have such a guarantee of a miracle today, the principle of crop rotation, of letting the land lie fallow one year in seven, remains sound. The use of fertilizers to keep soil in continual production eventually destroys the earth.
David Thompson: J. Vernon McGee made a very interesting observation about Sabbath day things. He said that he observed that people who claim to be Sabbath day keepers ignore Sabbath year responsibilities. In other words, they pick some Sabbath day concepts but disregard Sabbath year concepts. . .
If we were to make some real Sabbath year application of this principle, it would be we are to work for six years and then not take a paycheck or any income in year 7 and let the poor and the needy have it. Of course, no modern day Sabbatarian would be willing to do this, which shows the ignorance people have about the Sabbath day.
“so that the needy of your people may eat;
and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat.”
John Hannah: The sabbatical year reminded Israel that God owns the land and that it was theirs merely as a trust (Lev. 25:23). Also the sabbatical year provided for the poor, who could glean form the fields.
3. (:11b) Same Pattern for Vineyard and Olive Grove
“You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.”
B. (:12) Observe the Sabbath Day = Every Seventh Day
1. Work for Six Days
“Six days you are to do your work,”
2. Rest on the Seventh Day
“but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor”
“in order that your ox and your donkey may rest,
and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.”
John MacKay: The word for ‘refreshed’ implies catching one’s breath, as well as regaining strength to go on (31:17; 2 Sam. 16:14). The need for this would have been especially evident to those ground down by the unremitting oppression of Egypt and would show them that the service of the Lord took into consideration their welfare.
John Oswalt: That is, when we obey God, living and worshiping as he wishes, those whose lives and well-being are dependent on us, far from being harmed, will, in fact, be helped. If we are true to God, we are necessarily true to those around us.
Philip Ryken: As a day of rest for both man and beast, it was really a form of social justice. The Sabbath was God’s guarantee that workers and livestock would get a day off.
C. (:13) Guard Against Idolatry
1. Be Vigilant
“Now concerning everything which I have said to you,
be on your guard;”
John MacKay: Why include this warning here? — While consideration was to be given to their [aliens] welfare, there was to be abhorrence for, and avoidance of, their false worship.
2. Be Loyal
“and do not mention the name of other gods,
nor let them be heard from your mouth.”
Walter Kaiser Jr.: There would come a “day” when God would cut off the names of the idols out of the land, and they would “be remembered” no more (Hos 2:17; Zech 13:2). This was the practice of David in Psalm 16 (note Exod 20:3; Josh 23:7).
Douglas Stuart: Calling on gods by name has always been essential to worshiping and obeying them. To prohibit saying a god’s name is to prohibit all exercise of the religion associated with that god. Accordingly, this law represents an unmistakably clear assertion of monotheism within the Covenant Code from the time of Moses.
II. (23:14-19) PILGRIMAGE FEASTS
A. (:14-17) Observe Three Annual Feasts
1. (:14) General Command
“Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me.”
Application to church today: Christians need to memorialize and celebrate their own salvation through acts of remembrance, celebration, sacrifice, and offering.
John Davis: Having twelve tribes as the foundation of the nation created great concern when it came to the matter of national unity and identity. The one thing that provided the cohesion necessary for national unity was Israel’s God and her religion. The maintenance of national, spiritual and social unity was provided for in three major feast. It was required that all males should appear before the Lord during these three feast seasons (v. 7). The practical effect of this would be a continued uniting at a central place: namely, the tabernacle.
David Thompson: No matter what the dispensation, true Biblical worship requires corporate worship. All Israelite families were to gather together three times a year and participate in a worship service that was designed to offer adoration and praise to God. By the way, it is obvious that all of this was for Israel, not the Church. The specific promise to Israel was that if she would do this as a nation three times a year, God would in fact run foreign nations out of her land and expand her land borders (Ex. 34:23-24).
2. (:15-16) Specific Feasts
a. (:15) Feast of Unleavened Bread – March-April
“You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed.”
About the time of the barley harvest
John Davis: It began with the Passover and a holy convocation and lasted for seven days. At the end of the seven days another holy convocation was held (cf. Lev. 23:5-8). During this seven-day period unleavened bread was to be eaten in commemoration of the hasty exodus from Egypt (Exod. 12:33, 34, 39). This feast had many spiritual lessons to teach the children of Israel. Foremost was the fact that God constantly wanted sin to be put away form their midst.
John MacKay: ‘Appear before me’ refers to the presence of the Lord which was especially found at the sanctuary. This was the palace of their King, and when they gathered round him to express their allegiance they were to bring appropriate tribute to him (34:20).
The word “empty” is reqam – empty-handed or vain. The last time the word was used was in Exodus 3:21
“So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in its midst; and after that he will let you go. 21 And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be, when you go, that you shall not go empty-handed.”
b. (:16a) Feast of the Harvest of the First Fruits – early summer
“Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field;”
John Hannah: also called the Fest of Weeks (Ex. 34:22) because it was celebrated seven weeks (50 days) after the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In the New Testament (Acts 2:1; 20:16; 1 Cor. 16:8) it is called the day of Pentecost.
John Davis: This feast was always a joyful occasion (Deut. 16:9-11) simply because it was an expression of gratitude for all that God had provided for them. To give expression to such thankfulness for the grain which God had provided, two loaves were baked with leaven and presented before God (Lev. 23:17).
c. (:16b) Feast of the Ingathering – beginning of October
“also the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field.”
John Oswalt: elsewhere called “the Festival of Shelters” (Lev 23:34), occurred as the harvest season was ending with the gathering of the olives and the grapes (about the beginning of October). The second name was probably drawn from the fact that the harvesters, needing to save time from walking back to the village at the end of the day, and also to guard the harvest, would spend the nights in the field, sleeping in hastily-built shelters. Among Israel’s neighbors this festival tended to be a time of sexual orgies aimed at ensuring that the god of vegetation would return from the dead in the spring. But for Israel it was once more a festival of thanks for God’s immediate past provision and for his care in the more distant past when the people had lived in temporary shelters in the wilderness (cf. Lev 23:39–44).
3. (:17) General Command
“Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.”
James Jordan: These three festivals come together in the Lord’s Supper for Christians. . . Because these festivals are fulfilled in the lord’s Supper, we have no more required feasts. Man is still a creature of festivity, however, and where the Church refuses to set up a festival calendar, men simply use whatever pagan calendar surrounds them. Churches which attack Christmas and Easter as “pagan” holidays (because pagan cultures also celebrate feasts at these times of year) generally wind up making a big to-do about Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, and the Fourth of July, festivals which tend to partake of the genuinely pagan idolatry of nationalism.
Philip Ryken: The three major Old Testament feasts were rich in their teaching about salvation. Jesus Christ is the Savior God always planned to send; so already in the Old Testament he gave his people experiences that would help them (and us) understand the meaning of their salvation. Jesus is the source of our sanctification, the firstfruits of our resurrection, the Lord of the harvest, the water of life, and the sacrifice for our sin. This is the gospel according to Moses, as recorded in Exodus 23.
B. (:18-19) Obey Specific Instructions Regarding Sacrificial Worship
1. (:18a) Don’t Mix Blood with Bread
“You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread;”
Douglas Stuart: The first command prohibited Israelites from offering “the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast.” Ancient peoples were well aware that when the blood was drained from an animal, the animal would die. They thus rightly concluded that the life of an animal was in its blood. In an attempt to strengthen or prolong their own lives, they started drinking or eating blood from animals sacrificed for worship or merely for eating, performing in effect an act of what is known as “sympathetic magic.” This was strictly forbidden to the Israelites (Lev 3:17; 7:26; Deut 15:23) and even to the patriarchs long before there was an Israel (Gen 9:4).
Philip Ryken: But what about the yeast? Why were the Israelites forbidden to offer a sacrifice that included any form of yeast? As we have seen, the Bible uses yeast as a symbol of growth, and especially for the spread of spiritual corruption. Thus, keeping yeast away from the sacrifice was a symbol of separation from sin. It would not be right for the people to present themselves to God—no matter how regularly—and then return to their old patterns of sin. They were called to put away all unrighteousness, and this was symbolized by making unleavened offerings.
John MacKay: Blood represented the Lord’s gift of life in creation and all use of it was reserved for presentation to him.
2. (:18b) Don’t Save Leftovers
“nor is the fat of My feast to remain overnight until morning.”
Douglas Stuart: The fat portions were separated from the muscle meats and were supposed to be presented as burnt offerings on the altar to God. Someone who tried to keep them for any other purpose—perhaps something as “minor” as keeping them overnight for use along with the morning offering, but perhaps for actual eating—was failing to sacrifice properly. At a minimum keeping the fat until morning would be “making God wait for his portion of the sacrifice,” and could not be tolerated. Canaanites and other pagan peoples did not necessarily burn all the animal fat as a divine offering at the time of cooking animals on their altars: thus the temptation of the Israelites to imitate their neighbors instead of following God’s decrees and the need specifically to obviate such an approach.
John MacKay: As the fat was considered to be the choicest part of the offering, there might be a greater temptation to keep any that was not immediately consumed. Perhaps to avoid the festivals being improperly lengthened there was a prohibition on leaving the fat (and presumably by implication anything else as well) until the next day.
3. (:19a) Give Your Choice First Fruits
“You shall bring the choice first fruits of your soil
into the house of the LORD your God.”
4. (:19b) Avoid Fertility Cult Practices
“You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother.”
Douglas Stuart: The prohibition “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” occurs three times in the Pentateuchal law (also in 34:26 and Deut 14:21). Canaanite fertility religion imitated the fertility practices generally found throughout the ancient world. These included “marrying” seeds when planting a field (Lev 19:19; Deut 22:9) on the theory that such a ritual would magically stimulate the powers of nature to procreate, producing more fertile crops. Since mother’s milk (the milk of the goat doe) was what made the goat kids grow big and strong, the folk theory developed that doe’s milk employed in the process of a sacrifice (in this case by boiling rather than by roasting on an altar) would somehow impart strength to the goat flock, making the whole flock more fertile. Such nonsense, if believed, could have led the Israelites to conclude that the power to shape their destiny and to live the abundant life was to be found in magical practices and fertility religion rather than in the only true, alive God. Even if all other people groups known to them practiced these sorts of rituals, the Israelites could not. As Yahweh’s people, they were to be above such things, attributing all life to the single Source thereof.
John MacKay: it may be that the element of heartless cruelty involved in cooking the young animal in the milk that should have sustained it made it especially objectionable.