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Today we return to the Book of Deuteronomy after a hiatus of four weeks. We are in the midst of Moses’ explanation of the law to the people of Israel, in the second main section of the book. In this chapter he outlines the three major feasts for which they are to travel to ‘the chosen place’.
Passover is the festival with the most detailed instructions (cf Ex 12:14-28; Lev 23:4-8; Num 28:16-25). It takes place for seven days in Abib (our March-April) because that is when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. There is an evening sacrifice of meat which is to be eaten with matzah (unleavened bread), which symbolizes both affliction and also the haste with which they left Egypt, not giving time for the bread to rise. The absence of leaven (yeast) for seven days helps the Israelites to remember the importance of this feast, at the end of which they have an assembly and do not work. The heart of this feast is as a memorial, so that they would not forget what God had done for them (16:3). This was, and is, the most important festival in the Jewish calendar. Its significance in the Christian faith cannot be underestimated (cf John 19; 1 Cor 5:8), particularly the notion that Jesus himself is the Paschal sacrifice which helps us to remember God’s great deliverance (eg Luke 22:14-20). One thing I find interesting is that this feast was originally commanded to be celebrated at ‘the place the LORD God would choose’, but has come in these days, after the destruction of the temple, to be a family celebration in the home.
The second festival is known as ‘Weeks’ because seven weeks are counted from the beginning of the harvest. It also became known as Pentecost (from the Greek for ‘fifty days’), and was counted from the second day of Passover (which is strange because they clearly didn’t do any work on the last day of Passover). It is said that the barley harvest began during Passover and the wheat harvest ended seven weeks later. This passage of the Bible describes it as a feast of rejoicing for the whole family and everyone in the nation, including foreigners, orphans, and widows, as all celebrated God’s provision. Later this festival was associated with the giving of the Law at Sinai, seven weeks after departing Egypt, but this is a tradition rather than coming from the Bible. Nevertheless, this gives extra significance to the miracle of Pentecost in the New Testament (cf Acts 2).
The third festival is known as ‘Booths’ or ‘Tabernacles’ and took place about six months after the Passover, in the seventh month, Tishrei (our Sept-October). It is also a joyful harvest festival which celebrates God’s abundant provision – this time of grapes and presumably other fruits such as dates and olives. Again, everyone is to join in the feast. Lev 23:33-44 outlines instructions for living in temporary structures for these eight days, enjoying the outdoors together during the harvest. It is also a memorial for leaving Egypt, when the Israelites had to live in tents for forty years. Interestingly, given our foray there in the last four weeks, the book traditionally read during this festival was Ecclesiastes. As they enjoyed their harvest, they were to rejoice in their toil and its fruit.
16:16-17 summarizes the three festivals, for which all the men are supposed to appear with a sacrificial gift, according to their ability from the blessing of God, in the chosen place before Yahweh. I wonder what the women were doing while the men were traveling and in Jerusalem? Did they enjoy camping out in the fields during the Feast of Booths? Were they expected to do the final harvesting for eight days while the men travelled to the capital, much as we enjoy picking berries with our kids? Or is there a contradiction between 16:14 and 16:16? The Bible text doesn’t answer these questions but only raises them.
While there are many, many fascinating points to consider from this passage, we must conclude. My take-away is that God wants us to remember what he has done for us in salvation, and in provision, and to rejoice. He has created timely moments in the annual calendar for his people to do this. Let us ensure we create space in our own calendars to remember and rejoice.
Prayer: Lord God, I thank you for all that you have done for me. Thank you for saving for me; thank you for providing for me. Help me to remember and to rejoice in all that you have done.