GOD’S PEOPLE AS A COMMUNITY MUST TAKE TIME ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS TO CEASE FROM WORK AND REJOICE IN GOD’S REDEMPTIVE AGENDA AND PROVISION FOR OUR NEEDS
Allen Ross: Through the observance of the festivals in the holy calendar, the Israelites were taught that time in all its demarcations and with all its events belonged to God, and that they, the members of the covenant, should honor God by observing these sacred days and seasons and by giving thanks in them for his bounty. . .
The festivals in the year charted the essential aspects of God’s redemptive work. Year by year God’s saving acts were reenacted, beginning in the spring with the deliverance from bondage by the blood of the lamb, followed by the purging of corruption for a life of purity, the celebration of a new life given to God, and the guidance and instruction given to that life. At the end of the year came the summons to enter his presence, followed by the removal of all sin by full atonement, and then finally entering the fulfillment of the promises with great joy.
Kenneth Mathews: The question for the church today is not what to do or what not to do on Sundays so much as it is to rediscover the significance of a gathered body of believers who set aside special times for worship. The Lord instructed the Israelites to observe special days and celebratory feasts as days of worship. The early church followed a similar pattern that recognized certain days for special times of worship. . .
There were three pilgrim convocations, also called feasts, when the men of the household appeared before the Lord at his sanctuary (Exodus 23:14; 34:18–23; Deuteronomy 16:16). These included the Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks (also known as Pentecost), and the Feast of Booths (also known as Tabernacles). These three were weeklong celebrations. Psalms 120–134, called the Songs of Ascents, were sung by the pilgrims on their journey to Jerusalem. Psalm 122:1, for example, reads, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ ”
The two holy days listed are daylong convocations—the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement. Attendance at the sanctuary for these two days was not required of the people, but they were to observe the days in their homes.
Richard Hess: A cultic calendar in the Bible is a passage that presents the annual major (and sometimes minor) festivals of God’s people in chronological sequence. It normally designates the name of the festival and includes details about the month and days when it takes place, the particular offerings involved, and other significant elements regarding its celebration. It can also describe the purpose of each festival as well as the requirements or expectations of lay participation in the event. Indeed, some of these festivals concern lay involvement, with few or no notes of priestly responsibilities.
Merrill: There must be days set apart from the calendar of ‘secular,’ self-serving activity so that the servant people might ponder the meaning of their existence and of the holy task to which they had been called.
I. (:1-4) INTRODUCTION TO THE RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS
(:1-2a) Address to Moses
“The LORD spoke again to Moses, saying,
2 ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them,’”
A. (:2b) Appointed Times for Holy Convocations
“The LORD’s appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations– My appointed times are these:”
Kenneth Mathews: The convocations were called “holy” because they were consecrated to the Lord’s service. They were not family or community potlucks with a bit of religion thrown into the mix. They were celebratory remembrances of their God that called for the people to consecrate themselves to the holy task of worshipping the Lord. Yes, worship was an assignment for God’s people to obey, as it is for us as his Church. The community at worship, both during the regular cycle of gatherings and during special seasons of the sacred year, is a holy task that demands all that we are and the best of what we are. Hebrews 10:24, 25 exhorts us “to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.”
R. K. Harrison: The celebrations are described as appointed feasts (Heb. mō‘ed), the term used in the expression ‘tent of meeting’ (’ōhel mō‘ed). They are thus assemblies of the people taking place at set times, and as holy convocations they are celebrated at the tabernacle. The description of these events as feasts (ḥag) indicates their joyful character, and shows that not all the gatherings within the sanctuary precincts were necessarily solemn or filled with foreboding.
Perry Yoder: The wording is repeated in verse 4. This repetition forms an envelope around verse 3, which concerns the Sabbath, and sets it off from the annual festivals in the following verses.
B. (:3) Sabbath as Foundational
“For six days work may be done; but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the LORD in all your dwellings.”
Allen Ross: The text makes the point of reminding Israel that the day belongs to the LORD: “It shall be a Sabbath to the LORD.” The preposition to here connotes possession—it was the LORD’s Sabbath. That is why the people were not permitted to pursue their own affairs, but gave themselves to godly matters (Isa. 58:13–14). Because he is the “LORD of the Sabbath” in all their dwellings, he would decide what could and could not be done on this day. And because the day was his, he graciously invited his people to share his Sabbath rest. . .
The fourth commandment is not, however, a binding law for the church. Or, to put it another way, the church is not to go back under the law to make that command active. Christians are not merely to give one day in seven to God, but all seven. Since they have entered the rest of God, every day should be sanctified. But they have to set apart some time to be used in voluntary gratitude for worship and ministry and for the rest of body, soul, and spirit.
Kenneth Mathews: In addition to naming the weekly Sabbath rest (Exodus 31:15; 35:2), this phrase describes two other special times. It depicts the Day of Atonement, which occurs in the seventh month, that is, the Sabbath month (Leviticus 16:31; 23:32). It also describes the sabbatical year when cultivation of the land was prohibited each seventh year (Leviticus 25:4). And the number seven occurs in the calculation of the Year of Jubilee, the fiftieth year after seven Sabbaths of years, equaling forty-nine years (Leviticus 25:8–10). There is a link between the seventh day, the seventh month, and the seventh year, giving the people a sense of symmetry and wholeness in their worship of God throughout their lives.
Why is the number seven and multiples of seven so key to calculating sacred periods of worship? The number seven in the Bible is the number of perfection and symbolizes perfection. This is the appropriate number for the worship of God who alone is complete in his perfections.
Robert Vasholz: Keeping the Sabbaths expressed Israel’s regard for their covenant with God. It measured Israel’s fidelity to the God who created Israel by redemption from Egypt. The Sabbath was a sign between the nation and the God of the Exodus: This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come … (Exod. 31:13; Ezek. 20:12, 20). While circumcision was a sign that Israelites were the elect children of Abraham (Gen. 17:10–14; Rom. 4:11), the Sabbaths were signs that they were a redeemed nation under Moses. Failure to respect the Sabbaths was a repudiation of the covenant relationship between God and His people.
The importance of observing Sabbaths is emphasized:
(1) by the judgment announced for failing to observe the Sabbaths; and
(2) by the blessings promised for observing them. If God’s people fail to honor the Sabbaths, the Sabbaths, nevertheless, will be observed. Exile is strongly linked to violating the Sabbaths: I will scatter you among the nations.… Then the land will enjoy its Sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its Sabbaths (Lev. 26:33–35).
Roy Gane: Because Leviticus 23 is about holy occasions, it logically begins with the foundation of all sacred time: the weekly Sabbath (v. 3), which the Lord instituted at creation by his archetypical cessation (Qal of šht) from work (Gen. 2:2–3). While nothing in Genesis 2 explicitly tells us that the Sabbath has been made for human beings or is a cyclical event, these factors are clear from the context. By blessing the seventh day and making it holy (Gen. 2:3), God has bestowed on it a special relationship to himself, who alone is intrinsically holy (cf. 1 Sam. 2:2). Elsewhere in the Creation story, it is clear that God set up Planet Earth for the benefit of his creatures, not to make human beings work while he rested (contrast the Old Babylonian epic Atraḫasis). This implies that the blessing of Sabbath was for the benefit of human beings from the beginning, as Jesus explicitly declared (Mark 2:27). In order to receive the blessing, human beings made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27) emulate him by consecrating the day as he did: by altering their behavior.
C. (:4) Appointed Times for Holy Convocations
“These are the appointed times of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at the times appointed for them.”
Gordon Wenham: Through sheer familiarity the weekly sabbath could come to be taken for granted. But these festivals and sabbatical years constituted major interruptions to daily living and introduced an element of variety into the rhythm of life. In this way they constantly reminded the Israelite what God had done for him, and that in observing the sabbath he was imitating his Creator, who rested on the seventh day.
II. (:5-22) THE SPRING RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS
A. (:5) Passover
“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight
is the LORD’s Passover.”
Robert Vasholz: The scarcity of references to the observance of the Passover in the Old Testament must not discount the importance Leviticus directs toward it. The Passover feast in the Old Testament is explicitly both a rehearsal and reminder that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. Ten times in Leviticus the Lord reminds Israel that He redeemed them from Egypt.
Allen Ross: Passover commemorated the deliverance from bondage, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread reminded everyone that a life of holiness should be pursued.
B. (:6-8) Unleavened Bread
1. (:6a) Timing
“Then on the fifteenth day of the same month
there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD;”
Perry Yoder: Notice the lack of transition from the Passover to Unleavened Bread, both literarily and chronologically. The Festival of Unleavened Bread begins the very next day after Passover and is called a festival or feast, in contrast to Passover, which is not so titled. In fact, Unleavened Bread could include Passover since only unleavened bread was allowed at Passover. . . Passover became the name for the combined spring festival of Passover/Unleavened Bread. It remained a pilgrimage festival in theory, taking over this characteristic from the Festival of Unleavened Bread (see Josiah’s reform in 2 Kings 23:21-23). This combined festival celebrated the deliverance from Egypt and was the most important spring festival.
2. (:6b) Duration and Defining Characteristic
“for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.”
3. (:7) First Day
“On the first day you shall have a holy convocation;
you shall not do any laborious work.”
4. (:8a) Entire Week of Offerings
But for seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD.”
5) (:8b) Seventh Day
“On the seventh day is a holy convocation;
you shall not do any laborious work.”
C. (:9-14) Presentation of First Fruits (First Sheaf)
(:9-10a) Address to Moses
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
10 ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them,’”
Kenneth Mathews: The ritual of firstfruits entailed presenting the first sheaf of the barley harvest to the priest at the sanctuary, who on behalf of the worshipper lifted it up before the Lord, indicating that the worshipper offered thanksgiving to God as the source of his livelihood. It was the first evidence of the coming months of spring harvest. The memorial included animal sacrifice and grain offerings. The people were not to indulge in the grain of the land until God had received his due first (v. 14). This was God’s harvest; he was the owner of the land, and its produce was his to do with as he pleased. He graciously shared the land and its harvests with the people to farm as tenants. By their offering of firstfruits the people acknowledged that theirs was a bounty that had come from the Lord. The benefit of the land remained theirs as long as they lived as good tenants, keeping the agreements made with the divine Landowner (Leviticus 26:3–13).
Robert Vasholz: In the Old Testament era, both First Fruits and Weeks would have served as a repudiation of the Canaanite religion. The chief god of the Canaanites was Baal. He was their god of fertility and the inhabitants of Canaan sacrificed to him (as did the Israelites on occasion), believing such behavior was responsible for agricultural prosperity. The Feast of Weeks provided a strong statement that it was the God of the Exodus who provided for Israel’s welfare and not Baal. The contest between God and Baal is especially highlighted in the Book of Hosea (cf. Hos. 2:8–9 [10–11]).
1. (:10) Timing and Defining Characteristic
“When you enter the land which I am going to give to you and reap its harvest, then you shall bring in the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.”
Allen Ross: The prophetic purpose of the feast has to do with its typology of the resurrection of Jesus, the firstfruits from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20).
Perry Yoder: The offering of the first sheaf (v. 10) is an anomaly. It is not one of the three pilgrimage festivals, nor is it a holy convocation and day of rest, nor is it even called a festival (ḥag). It has no fixed date, since the time of the barley harvest varied from year to year and from region to region. This implies that it is not national in scope but is the offering of the individual farmer at the beginning of his harvest. Like the great pilgrimage festivals, it has an agrarian basis, since the offering of the first sheaf marks the beginning of the harvest season (Exod 9:31-32).
2. (:11) Waving of the Sheaf
“And he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD for you to be accepted; on the day after the sabbath the priest shall wave it.”
3. (:12-13) Burnt Offering and Grain Offering
“Now on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb one year old without defect for a burnt offering to the LORD. 13 Its grain offering shall then be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering by fire to the LORD for a soothing aroma, with its libation, a fourth of a hin of wine.”
4. (:14a) First Fruits Belong to the Lord
“Until this same day, until you have brought in the offering of your God, you shall eat neither bread nor roasted grain nor new growth.”
Perry Yoder: the first Sabbath after the farmer has begun to harvest his grain . .. from the time the farmer harvests his first sheaf until it is presented to God by the priest, they must not eat from the new harvest.
5. (:14b) Perpetual Statute
“It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations
in all your dwelling places.”
B. (:15-22) Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)
1. (:15-16a) Timing
“You shall also count for yourselves from the day after the sabbath,
from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering;
there shall be seven complete sabbaths. 16 You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath;”
R. K. Harrison: The festival of pentecost (weeks) occurred at the termination of the harvest season, and was regarded by later Jewish authorities as the complement or conclusion of the passover celebrations, since it followed the latter by seven weeks. This interval gave rise to the name ‘pentecost’ or ‘fiftieth’. The celebration lasted for one day only (Deut. 16:9–12), and was a joyous occasion in which the entire nation gave thanks to a provident heavenly Father for his abundant gifts of food. . . It was on the feast of pentecost that the Holy Spirit was first poured out upon the apostles (Acts 2:1–4).
Constable: This festival had several names: “Harvest,” “Weeks” (Heb. Shabua’) . . . and “Pentecost” (Gr. Pentekostos). The Contemporary English Version translated it the “Harvest Festival.” It fell at the end of the spring harvest, 50 days after Passover, namely: the day after the end of the seventh week. “Pentecost” means “fiftieth” day. This “feast” was a thanksgiving festival, and it lasted one day.
2. (:16b) Grain Offering
“then you shall present a new grain offering to the LORD.”
Allen Ross: The emphasis in this passage about the Feast of Weeks is once again on gratitude for God’s bounty, but in this case the gratitude extends to what the harvest produced—bread. Thus in two festivals the Israelites commemorated the beginning and end of the grain harvests: they celebrated at the first sign of God’s provision, and they celebrated when they had the finished product.
3. (:17-19) Variety of Offerings
“You shall bring in from your dwelling places two loaves of bread for a wave offering, made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of a fine flour, baked with leaven as first fruits to the LORD. 18 Along with the bread, you shall present seven one year old male lambs without defect, and a bull of the herd, and two rams; they are to be a burnt offering to the LORD, with their grain offering and their libations, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the Lord. 19 You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering and two male lambs one year old for a sacrifice of peace offerings.”
Kenneth Mathews: This festival focused on the grain crops. Special loaves of bread were baked and waved before the Lord at the sanctuary. Unlike the Feast of Unleavened Bread, these loaves were made with leaven, indicating the season of joyful gladness at God’s provision. Additional animal offerings accompanied the bread, making a full meal, so to speak, in which the Lord partook.
4. (:20) Wave Offering
“The priest shall then wave them with the bread of the first fruits for a wave offering with two lambs before the LORD;
they are to be holy to the Lord for the priest.”
5. (:21a) Proclamation of Holy Convocation
“On this same day you shall make a proclamation as well; you are to have a holy convocation. You shall do no laborious work.”
6. (:21b) Perpetual Statute
“It is to be a perpetual statute in all your dwelling places throughout your generations.”
7. (:22) Provision for the Needy and Alien
“When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the LORD your God.”
Perry Yoder: A note is attached to each of these harvest festivals, reminding the Israelites of their social responsibility at harvest time. Individual farmers are not to maximize their harvest. Rather, they are to leave grain standing at the sides of their fields, and bundles of grain left behind by the harvesters are not to be retrieved. This grain is for the impoverished and the non-Israelite (ger). This reinforces the harvest restrictions given in 19:9-10. Additional recipients, the orphan and the widow, are mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:19-21.
Richard Hess: God commands the farmers to leave something of their harvest for those who are unable to acquire food for themselves. This repeats the injunction of 19:9–10. Here, however, it reminds the Israelites that they do not work for themselves, but for God. God’s concern for the poor must be respected and his ability to provide for the farmers must be trusted, even though this may require missing a valuable day of work during the harvest season and refusing to take advantage of the whole harvest. For the Israelite farmers, this teaches the dangers of greed and extols the principle of a generous spirit—generous toward God and toward one’s needy fellows. God is in control and will bless whom he will.
III. (:23-43) FALL RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS
(:23-24a) Address to Moses
“Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
24 ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying,’
Kenneth Mathews: The Feast of Trumpets inaugurated the call to worship. Although trumpets were sounded at the beginning of each month, this month was special, and the trumpets sounded a summons to a sacred convocation. The people turned aside from their work and gathered for a full day of sacrifice and worship (Numbers 29:1–6 gives the details). . . The point of this day of rest and sacrifice was to prepare the people for the momentous events to follow. The key idea for us when considering the Feast of Trumpets is the importance of spiritual preparation for worship. Spiritual preparation must accompany worship. We convene to lift up the Savior in prayer, praise, and proclamation.
A. (:24b-25) New Year’s Festival (Feast of Trumpets – Rosh Hashanah)
“In the seventh month on the first of the month, you shall have a rest, a reminder by blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation.
You shall not do any laborious work,
but you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD.”
Wiersbe: According to Numbers 10:1-10, the priests blew the silver trumpets for three occasions, to call the people together, to announce war, and to announce special times, such as the new moon.
– New beginnings
– Regathering of God’s scattered people
B. (:26-32) Day of Atonement (Day of Cleansing – Yom Kippur)
(:26) Address to Moses
“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,”
Kenneth Mathews: The Day of Atonement was the only day in the calendar of worship that entailed fasting and contrition because it was a day of sorrow, a day of repentance for sin. The Day of Atonement was a special holy day that occurred on the tenth day of the seventh month. On this one day a year the high priest was permitted to enter into the most sacred place in the tabernacle, before the ark of the covenant, where he bore the blood of a slaughtered animal and sprinkled the blood on the seat of atonement (Leviticus 16:1–34; Hebrews 9:7). The ark of the covenant symbolically represented the presence of God among his people, Israel. The word atonement means a reconciliation of a relationship that has been broken. Reconciliation is achieved through removing an offense suffered between two parties. The people had offended God by their sin throughout the year, and this was the means for settling the issue of the nation’s sins with God.
1. (:27-28) Timing and Distinctive Characteristic
“On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. 28 Neither shall you do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.”
2. (:29-30) Punishment for Violaters
“If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. 30 As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people.”
3. (:31-32) Perpetual Statute as a Sabbath of Humbling and Complete Rest
“You shall do no work at all. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. 32 It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath.”
C. (:33-43) Feast of Tabernacles (Booths – Sukkoth)
(:33-34a) Address to Moses
“Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
34 ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying,’”
Kenneth Mathews: The Feast of Booths brought together two reasons for Israel to remember the Lord. The reason cited in our text is, “when [the people] have gathered in the produce of the land” (v. 39). This ingathering was a joyous occasion, a blessing that urged the people to thank God for the autumn month’s harvest of fruit (Deuteronomy 16:13–15). It concluded the agricultural year, rounding out the provision that God had given for the year. The second reason for the Feast of Booths explains why the festival was called “Feast of Booths.” During the wilderness period after their liberation from Egypt, the people lived in temporary huts (v. 43). God provided for the people’s needs during the travail of this time, including miraculous provisions of food, water, and shelter.
The feast not only looked back but also was a portent of the future when the Lord would bring his people back from their exile among the nations. Zechariah spoke of this future age, describing how the nations would join with the returning Jews in the land to worship God in his temple (14:16, 17). One of the signs of the nations’ repentance and assent to the God of Israel as their own God would be their celebration of the Feast of Booths. The message of the feast spoke of this inclusiveness, for the Jews and foreigners both benefited from the harvest and could join their voices in joyful celebration at the Lord’s goodness.
1. (:34b-36) Timing and Duration
“On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths for seven days to the LORD. 35 On the first day is a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work of any kind. 36 ‘For seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the LORD; it is an assembly. You shall do no laborious work.”
Robert Vasholz: The Feast of Booths was the highlight of the year, the number of sacrifices alone marking it is as special (Num. 29:12–38). On the first of the seven days, thirteen bulls were sacrificed and, on each of the following days, one less bull, until, on the seventh day, seven bulls were offered up.
2. (:37-38) Part of the Overall Calendar of Worship
“These are the appointed times of the LORD which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, to present offerings by fire to the LORD– burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and libations, each day’s matter on its own day– 38 besides those of the sabbaths of the LORD, and besides your gifts, and besides all your votive and freewill offerings, which you give to the LORD.”
3. (:39-41a) Schedule of Events for the Festival
“On exactly the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the crops of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD for seven days, with a rest on the first day and a rest on the eighth day. 40 Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. 41 You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year.”
4. (:41b) Perpetual Statute
“It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations;
you shall celebrate it in the seventh month.”
5. (:42-43) Significance of the Booths
“You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, 43 so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
Allen Ross: Israel was instructed to keep the Feast of Booths, the last of the LORD’s appointed times, by bringing to the LORD produce from trees in a joyful harvest, by living in temporary shelters for a week to remember their dwellings in the wilderness, and by observing Sabbath rests on the first and eighth days of the feast. . .
when the people dwelled in the land and enjoyed God’s bounty, they could not forget the hardships of the temporary dwellings in the wilderness.
“So Moses declared to the sons of Israel the appointed times of the LORD.”