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Leviticus 23:1-44

We continue with liturgical regulations in chapter 23, but regulations of a very different kind. Here we are introduced to Israel’s liturgical year, to all the festivals or religious holidays celebrated in biblical times. If the previous two chapters concentrated on the Lord’s holy things, this chapter devotes attention to the Lord’s holy times. The following instructions obviously presuppose that Israel would be settled in the Promised Land. As one scholar has pointed out, if you add up the sacrifices stipulated in Numbers chapters 28-29, a similar list to what we are given here in Leviticus chapter 23, though the Numbers list adds the daily sacrifices, you come up with this.

“Every year in future the priests will have to sacrifice 113 bulls, 32 rams, and 1086 lambs and offer more than a ton of flour and a thousand bottles of oil and wine. Clearly Israel is destined to be a prosperous agricultural community. These laws about sacrifices then contribute to the note of triumph that grows ever louder as the border of Canaan is reached.” [Wenham, 197]

It would not have been possible for Israel to maintain this schedule in the wilderness, still more to provide all the other sacrifices that individuals would bring to the sanctuary day by day. They wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to supply all the animals and the grain necessary. But soon she would be settled in a fertile country and would have assumed ownership of large herds and large areas of cultivated fields, orchards, and vineyards. So this is Israel as she will live year by year once in the Promised Land.

Text Comment

v.2       Four things are said in general about the annuals holidays. First, they are the Lord’s. They have something in particular to do with him. Second, they are days of assembly, of the gathering of the people. Third, they are appointed by the Lord. They are his ordinances, his orders for the people. And fourth they are holy. They have been set apart for sacred use, for devotion to the Lord. People must observe them as such, with respect to all four of their characteristics.

v.3       The Sabbath commandment is repeated here from the Ten Commandments because the weekly Sabbath was one of the Lord’s holy convocations or days of assembly. That it was a day of assembly is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments; that is spelled out here. While implied before, here is the first time it is explicitly said that the Sabbath was a day of worship. The so-called “synagogue,” the local assembly or the local church, originates here, as all of Israel was to observe the weekly Sabbath, not just those who happened to be at the sanctuary in Shiloh or later in Jerusalem. Everyone was to assemble on the Lord’s Day, wherever they lived. The main obligation in Sabbath sanctification, of course, was the cessation of work, but now we learn it was not rest for rest’s sake only, but rest so that other things might be done. Indeed the word Shabbat itself does not so much mean “rest,” as in rest from weariness, as “cessation,” that is, cessation from work. The Bible will spell out other uses of the Lord’s Day in greater detail, but the key thought here is that it was the Lord’s Day. It is a Sabbath to the Lord. Much is left unsaid even when all the biblical material about the keeping of the Lord’s Day holy is taken together, but here is the principle by which all questions of Sabbath ethics are to be answered: does what I do on this day make it more the Lord’s Day and less a day like any other? [cf. Ross, 401-403]

The Israelite was, by and large, an agricultural worker. His days were filled with back-breaking labor. Cessation from work would have been a happy thing for him! But in the modern day we need to be careful not to confuse biblical rest with either relaxation or entertainment, as if the day were set aside for our amusement.

v.5       Israel followed a calendar of lunar months, beginning in the spring of the year. In some respects it is a much more natural beginning to the year, is it not, than January 1 in the dead of winter? The first month, Nisan, compares to our March/April.

v.7       Throughout the chapter there will be seven days scattered among these annual feasts that are themselves to be treated as a Sabbath. In other words, there are weekly Sabbaths, fifty-two of them in a year, and there are these additional seven Sabbaths that give the entire year its own Sabbaths. The Sabbath, as you may know, was one of the most important signs of the covenant God made with Israel. [Exod. 31:12-17] This is a unique feature of Israel’s life among the nations of the ancient near east.

v.8       So Passover was immediately followed by a week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. They both commemorated the exodus from Egypt as both the Passover lamb and the unleavened bread were features of that history (the blood of the Passover lamb protecting Israel from the Lord’s avenging angel and the unleavened bread made necessary by the haste with which Israel had to leave Egypt). Israelites would have considered Passover as the first day of eight.

This was the first of the three pilgrimage feasts in which the men of Israel (at least the heads of households) were required to be present at the central sanctuary. However, it was common for whole families to travel to the sanctuary. But whether or not anyone but the father traveled, everyone in the home celebrated. All yeast was removed from their homes during that week, only unleavened bread was eaten, and, no doubt, though we are not told explicitly, there would have been services in local meeting houses.

v.10     The first harvest of the year was that of barley. A “sheaf” would be a bundle of grain stalks bundled together with the grain still attached; so after reaping but before threshing. First Fruits was an important and powerful way of acknowledging that all their bounty came from the Lord.

v.11     The priest’s waving of the sheaf was a means of presenting it to the Lord on behalf of the one making the offering, in this case the people as a whole. So the offering would be made on the first day after the first Sabbath that followed the first days of the harvest. Sounds something like the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring, which is how we calculate the date of Easter!

v.14     Once they knew that the Lord had provided another harvest, when the first fruits had appeared, they expressed their thanksgiving with what was, as it were, a full meal for the Lord: meat, bread, and wine. Of course much of this meal was, in the symbolism of the sanctuary, then given by the Lord back to his priests. [Sklar, 282] Only after this offering had been made could the Israelites eat the new crops.

v.15     This is the festival that was called Pentecost in the days of the New Testament, because it was celebrated 50 days after First Fruits (pentēkostos is Greek for 50th). It was very like the Feast of First Fruits, but, in this case, it was the offering of the first fruits of the wheat harvest, not the barley harvest. This was the second of the three pilgrimage feasts.

v.21     Few families in Israel could have afforded so many offerings, which means almost certainly that these offerings were given by the community as a whole, or communities, not single individuals and families. All three of the principal offerings were required in this particular case: the burnt offering, the sin offering and the fellowship offering, all of which together amounted to atonement, thanksgiving, and communion with God and one another.

v.22     This instruction, repeated from 19:9-10, is mentioned here to remind Israel that God’s gifts should be shared with others.

v.24     The sounding of the trumpet, in other words, was a summons to the festival itself, as we read in Psalm 81:4: “Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast day.” [Levine, 160] The sound of the trumpet represented the voice of the Lord. [Ross, 426]

v.25     It is debated whether Israel at this time and for centuries after regarded the first day of the seventh month as New Year’s Day, but it has been celebrated as such from the 4th century B.C. It is known as Rosh Hashanah (literally “head of the year”) and a ram’s horn is blown on the day. It is the first day of the first month of the civil year, but the first day of the seventh month of the liturgical year. Nowadays it comes in the Autumn.

v.30     This is the only place in Leviticus and one of the few places in the Pentateuch where it is said that the Lord would destroy a sinner, or cause him to perish.

v.32     The ritual of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) was given in chapter 16. Here is the first explicit mention of the fact that the celebration of days was marked from evening to evening, not morning to morning. [cf. Levine, 161]

v.36     The Jews call it “Sukkoth,” the Hebrew word for “booths.” A “booth” in this usage refers to a small, usually temporary structure, covered on top but perhaps only partially on its sides. [Levine, 162] On our recent trip to Israel we were shown apartments that had little faux “booths” built on a porch or deck so that the holiday could be observed without leaving one’s home. It was called “Tabernacles” in the older English translations of the Bible and is also referred to as the Feast of Ingathering (Exod. 23:16). It was the third and last of the harvest festivals, in this case the harvest of the trees and the vines (figs, dates, grapes, and so on).

The seventh month was particularly busy: Trumpets, The Day of Atonement, and Booths all fell in that month.

v.38     That is, there were many offerings made on other days of the year. The sanctuary was busy all the time, but particularly so on feast days.

v.39     Some further instructions for the celebration of the Feast of Booths are now given.

v.40     It is impossible to know for sure to what tree “splendid trees” refers to unless it is the general category of which the following trees mentioned are types. [So Levine]

The festivals of the year were a powerful way for God to claim his people’s time. Morning and evening sacrifices (mentioned earlier in the book) were required by which God claimed the day. By the Sabbath the Lord claimed the week. With the new moon observance God claimed the month. Then the year was claimed by the New Year festival and by the three great harvest festivals in early spring, early summer, and the autumn. The three harvest festivals, in particular, were major events in the life of the people (as Christmas and Thanksgiving are for us today). Great crowds would gather in Jerusalem, happy days would be spent with family and friends eating meals more delicious than usual. They created a sense of belonging to something greater, of national unity, and of the goodness of God. [Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 461-463]

There are a number of observations to be made in connection with this chapter and all that its regulations suggest about the life and worship of Israel, at least when the people of God lived in obedience to the Law of God; observations that will help the modern American appreciate what all of these festivals contributed to Israel’s life and faith and what similar festivals contribute to their own.

I.  First, the feasts of Israel in most cases fell at the same time of year as did the pagan feasts of the ancient near east.

In the pagan religions of that part of the world at that time the new moon was observed as a religious duty as were the times of harvest. Passover, of course, commemorated a particular date, the day of the year on which Israel departed Egypt at the exodus. But Pentecost and Tabernacles were not related to any particular events that could be dated to the early summer or autumn. They were celebrated when they were because those were times of harvest.

Our liturgical celebrations are like those ancient ones in that same way. Good Friday and Easter are celebrations of specific events that happened on particular days. They fall in the year when they fall because the events which they commemorate fell in those times of year. But Christmas is not like that. There may well have been – there were in fact – efforts to prove that Jesus was born on the 25th of December, but that probably wasn’t the real reason that date became the date of the festival of the Lord’s nativity. It has long been supposed that the Christian festival simply replaced a pagan one, set on the date of the winter solstice. Remember we are talking about the lunar year not the solar year, not our Gregorian calendar. That kind of replacement had been done in Israel before. December 25th was as good a date as any given the fact that no one knew on which day of the year the Lord was born. [Cf. T.J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 85-103]

Of course, whether we are talking about Passover or about Good Friday and Easter, we are not talking about the exact date, which no one can with certainty relate to the Gregorian calendar that we have used in the west since the 16th century, but at most simply to a particular day of a particular month or season of the year. So, for example, we celebrate Easter on a Sunday, not on the exact date each year on which the Lord rose from the dead (as if anyone knew for sure what that date actually was! We don’t even know for sure in what year the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified.). It’s interesting. We have argued about the celebration of holidays in the post-Reformation church and still argue about them today. They were arguing about holidays in exactly the same way in the early church.

A brief but fierce controversy erupted in the mid-second century, named the Quartodeciman controversy after the Latin name for the number 14, that is the fourteen days of which we read in Lev. 23:5. Some Christians were celebrating the date, the fourteenth day of the month, while others were celebrating Easter on the Sunday that followed that date, figuring that since the Lord rose on the first day of the week, they should celebrate the resurrection on that first day of the week. As is typical in controversies of this kind, nomenclature was developed to identify the sides: the advocates of the former practice were called Quartodecimini or “the fourteeners.” We celebrate Good Friday and Easter on the appropriate days of the week but at only an approximate date of the year. It is perfectly understandable that we should celebrate something that happened on the first day of the week – a fact of extraordinary importance in Christian liturgical history – on Sunday, rather than on the moving target of the day of the particular Jewish month. Imagine celebrating Easter, the day of resurrection, on a Tuesday as you would every seventh year or so! But no one, in any case, could argue that we are, in either case, celebrating either Good Friday or Easter on the exact date of the year, since we don’t know what that date would be.

I mention all of this because it is sometimes argued that we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter because they are not explicitly provided for in the New Testament and that we shouldn’t celebrate either one because they have associations with pagan celebrations at the same time of year: the worship of the sun at the winter solstice and pagan fertility rites in the spring (eggs, Easter bunnies, and so on).

My answer to that objection is two-fold: First, if the Bible teaches us anything it is that we should celebrate the great events of salvation history. It would be entirely unbiblical not to embody our thanksgiving for the incarnation of God the Son and the resurrection of the Lord in great annual feasts. The Lord himself obviously had no problem with feasts not explicitly provided for in the Bible. We know from the Gospels that he observed the Feast of Dedication, the Jews’ Hanukah, which was added to the Jewish liturgical calendar between the Testaments to celebrate the rededication of the temple after it had been defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes in the middle of the 2nd Century B.C. It is the remembrance of a time of great spiritual life among the Jews as we know because their faith is mentioned in hall of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11.  If Israel celebrated the Passover and the exodus and the Lord’s provision in the wilderness with great feasts, surely we should celebrate the still greater works of God: the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, and Pentecost. Christmas and Easter, in other words, conform to the pattern of biblical worship. And lest you think that a weak argument for them, remember that most of what we do in worship is justified not by explicit instruction, but by conformity to the biblical pattern.

What Leviticus 23 gives us is a pattern of liturgical celebration. The church has rightly emulated that pattern in the new epoch with Advent, Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost.

II.  That leads us to the second observation about all of this material. The festivals and celebrations of the liturgical year were all invested with Israel’s utterly unique theology.

That is, these days and weeks of festival and assembly may have been in some ways like the pagan feasts of the world of that time. Certainly they ate the same food. I like Easter eggs, cold, hardboiled eggs, I’m not going to let some pagan take my Easter eggs from me! But they were given a completely new and different rationale. We have noted this same phenomenon with respect to the sacrifices themselves. Everyone had sacrifices in the ancient near east, but Israel used them in service of a profoundly different theology. And so it was with her festivals. Each of them, from the weekly Sabbath to the Day of Atonement, from the simpler and shorter celebrations to the three great pilgrimage feasts, had something to do with who Yahweh is and what he had done for his people. They were both commemorations of great events in the past and participations in the continuing blessings and benefits of those events. The celebrations of Israel’s year were celebrations of her election as the people of God, her redemption from bondage in Egypt, her life in the Promised Land, and her life in fellowship with Yahweh.

Passover and Tabernacles recalled the Lord’s deliverance of his people and provision for them in the wilderness. The Day of Atonement was a means of dealing with Israel’s moral fault and restoring her communion with God who had brought her into fellowship with himself. All of them in one way or another served to express thanksgiving for God’s unmerited favor.

Well, is that not true of our celebrations through the year. There is something very different about Labor Day or the fourth of July. There is no theology there. But Advent and Christmas are celebrations of the incarnation of God; Lent the remembrance of Christ’s suffering for us; Palm Sunday and Good Friday are the commemorations of his willing sacrifice of himself for our sins and Easter of his triumph over sin and death. True enough, and we’ll be the first to admit it, these holidays may have been degraded into something virtually unrecognizable as distinctly Christian celebrations in the modern world, but they exist because of Christian theological conviction and would not exist otherwise. No one would ever have heard of Christmas or Good Friday or Easter or Pentecost were it not for the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Israel’s holidays suffered similar corruption. It is the nature of human life to lose the meaning, but Christians are bound to preserve it. A great Christian liturgical scholar once wrote:

“Christian worship is the strongest denial that can be hurled in the face of the world’s claim to provide men with an effective and sufficient justification of their life. There is no more emphatic protest against the pride and the despair of the world than that implied in Christian worship.” [Jean-Jacques von Allmen]

And that is true of these annual festivals as well. There is a witness being born, a powerful witness at Christmas time, the happiest time of the year, everyone thinks so. It is our gift to them. These great feasts, first in Israel, and now in Christendom are our public witness to the fact that no one can understand life or find its true fulfillment who does not realize that the Son of God came into the world as a man, suffered and died to atone for our sins, and rose again to give new and everlasting life to those who trust in him. That is the bedrock of reality. If you don’t know that, you are not living in accordance with that truth. You are in fact living an illusion and our festivals, our annual feasts, are our powerful, beautiful, public witness to that fact.

I doubt that any one of us can fully appreciate to what extent the public celebration of the great events of the history of redemption has preserved Christian faith and life in the world, to what extent it has brought notice to our faith and made it credible to unbelievers, and to what extent it has helped to preserve it in the hearts of Christians and perhaps especially Christian children.

III. The third observation to be made about Israel’s liturgical calendar is that it powerfully accented the corporate nature of believing life.

These festivals brought God’s people together for worship and fellowship. Most Israelites in those ancient days lived in small villages or on their own farms. They worked the land and, as all farmers know, they were tied very closely to their property. These were not days when the ordinary folk traveled as tourists. People lived in the area of their clan and remained on the same land for generations. It was only at the great feasts that they actually experienced their belonging to the whole nation and to the people of God.

For someone who lived on a farm or in a village, going to Jerusalem for one of the pilgrimage feasts – and for the family members who might well have gone with him from time to time – was the highlight of the year! The big city, the crowds of people — you’ve seen pictures of the temple mount where the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim mosque stands now – Muslims can get as many as 400,000 people into the court of the Dome of the Rock! These were memorable and wonderful experiences! It would not be unlike someone today who grew up in a little country community church going to the big city for the first time, and attending services in his denominational congregation, finding it an immense sanctuary filled with several thousand people, a great choir, and so on. It would be an uplifting experience just to know that there were churches that large, sanctuaries that beautiful, music so powerful, and that all of this was part of his own church.

I was last Lord’s Day morning preaching in a PCA church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It happened to be Covenant College Sunday and the College chorale had come to sing in the service. Three of our young people were in the chorale. I was sitting on the platform with my back to the choir so could not see them as they sang. But when I heard the first notes sound behind me, it was the men who were singing, it was remarkably beautiful – great acoustics and a superb choir singing a very beautiful anthem – I was genuinely moved, everybody was moved, you couldn’t help but be moved. If only all Christians could have such music in their Sunday services. But, of course, most churches do not and many cannot. But at the temple they heard great choirs, they sang as a part of a great congregation. They knew and felt then what it meant to belong to the nation of Israel and the people of God!

In the Lord’s own day the population of Jerusalem might swell by three or four times its ordinary size. Imagine how exciting to an Israelite boy or girl to walk through streets jammed with crowds of people – their own people – in their own capital city and all there to worship Yahweh and to give thanks for his mercy and love. Very patriotic Americans have something of this experience when they visit Washington D.C. and tour the great buildings. Their hearts swell at the thought that they belong to something greater than themselves. But how much more Christians who belong not to some nation state but to the worldwide and everlasting kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ!

IV.  Then, finally, the festivals were occasions of joy and happiness.

This is one of the reasons why they fell at times of harvest. There was more good food to eat those three times of the year. We tend to think of the Sabbath as a duty to perform. After all, it is one of the Ten Commandments! But that was not the way a pious Israelite thought of that day. It was his weekly holiday. He didn’t get Saturday (or Friday in his case) off. He worked six days and had one day free from the ordinary labors of his daily life. The Sabbath was a literal God-send for him or her.

But even more so these other festivals. They too were holidays. You know where the word holiday comes from: “holy day.” In many cases these holidays involved cessation from ordinary work. Who does not like a day off from work? But in the nature of the case they were family days – like our Thanksgiving or Christmas –, they were days for great meals, fellowship, days to gather for services. What all of these holidays did was to interrupt the ordinary round of daily life, which can be something of a grind, can’t it be? And to interrupt it with special occasions.

You know your children. You know how they look forward to Christmas, perhaps less so to Easter but to Easter as well. And you know why; the occasion itself, the food, the presents, the music, and the gatherings of loved ones and friends. Well that would have been just as much the case in Israel. Tabernacles or Booths, I guess, would have been nearest to our Christmas, so far as the children were concerned. Living outside for several days in a tent, the special food that would have been eaten, the traditions that would soon have gathered around the celebration of that holiday, the special services: all of this would have made a youngster think Tabernacles was the greatest time of the year!

All of these festivals had spiritual and theological significance, as we have already said. But they were also fun. They were occasions to look forward to for everyone. How like the Lord that he should have ordered that his worship be such a pleasure for his people and should enrich their lives in many different ways. You wouldn’t want to take Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter out of your life would you? You would miss those holidays terribly if they were to disappear from our common life. Like it or not, those festivals, those holidays are rituals. That is what a ritual is: the regularly repeated actions and behaviors of life. And for Christian believers, as for Israelites long ago, those rituals are based on and bear witness to and communicate to ourselves and others the great tenets and the spiritual convictions and the experiences of the Christian life as they commemorated the great events upon which those convictions and those experiences are based. Israel had a year marked by such special rituals: the week, the month, and the seasons of the year.

It is perfectly clear from this and many other texts that Israel’s life was a ritual life and that by the direct commandment of God. There are many people nowadays who will tell a survey taker that they are spiritual, but not religious, by which they mean that they have some belief in God but don’t go to services at a church. Well you can be spiritual, whatever that means, everybody is spiritual in some way because everybody has a soul, but you can’t be a Christian and not participate in the ritual life of the church. The Christian life, the biblical life is a life of ritual, of ordered worship with the body of Christ on the Lord’s Day and of the remembrance of the great events of our redemption through the year.

Rituals express and preserve the deepest values of a society and continue to preserve the memory of them even when many in the society may well have long since forgotten or abandoned those values. The offering of prayers, the singing of hymns, kneeling for prayer, and the rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper preserve the memory of the Christian faith in churches where that faith was in fact long ago abandoned. We know what those rituals mean because we are familiar with them and with their biblical theological justification. But it is precisely because these rituals were so basic to Israel’s self-understanding, their meaning so well understood by Israel’s worshippers, at least in the times of her spiritual health, that their meaning and purpose are not elaborated in any detail in Scripture itself. There are few texts in the Old Testament that actually set out to explain what the various sacrifices meant, the meaning of their differences from one another, and precisely what the worshipper was to expect from participation in them. The rituals are described in some detail; their explanation is only hinted at. We know some things, of course — in the animal sacrifices there is the transfer of guilt and there is atonement by substitutionary death – but, as we have noted more than once, much more has to be guessed at. So with the festivals. We don’t know the details of their celebration.

But we know enough to know that these rituals, from the Sabbath day to Passover to Tabernacles were beautiful and happy celebrations of Israel’s faith and life in God. Mark Twain reminds us in Tom Sawyer that “church ain’t shucks to the circus.” But I’m not sure than anyone who came from an Israelite village to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover or Booths with the people of God would have agreed. They would have thought this is better than any circus; better by far!