Back to the Old Testament today, we continue going through the whole Bible by taking a look at Exodus 23 (link). As we take a look through here, the highlight of the chapter is the prescription of three annual feasts for the people of Israel. They are to gather three times a year and worship God together as His people.
The first celebration is the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This commemorates the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. We also know from earlier accounts (Exodus 12:38) that there were many who were not of the descendants of Jacob who joined God’s people in that time. It is a celebration that prefigures the deliverance of humanity from the curse of sin, and it is commanded to be recognized by all of God’s people.
The second celebration is the Feast of the Harvest of First Fruits, celebrating the initial results of the agricultural efforts for the year. This marked a time to remember God’s faithfulness, and was a reminder that no amount of human effort is enough. It takes the work of Almighty God to bring all to its fulfillment.
The third celebration is the Feast of the Ingathering. It’s at the end of the year, a reminder of the faithfulness of God to bring you through the year prior, a crying out to ask that He do the same in the year ahead.
Each of these Feasts are mentioned with the corporate command that every man is to appear before the Lord GOD (Yahweh Adonai, Hebrew for the covenant name of God and the Hebrew for “Lord, Master”). Every man in the country is supposed to be at one place at one time for this. Think about that for a few minutes, then come back. I should be done writing this by then.
Ok, finishing up: if every man in the country is at the Tabernacle (later, the Temple) for these religious festivals, who in the world is watching the border stations to make sure Israel does not get overrun at these times? The women are left, but this is a time that women generally did not fight in those types of battles. Further, the males are commanded to attend the Feasts, but the women are not forbidden and many likely would have made the trip—I see an opening here for the newly delivered or very pregnant mother to not have to journey. Think of the grace in that, compared to Caesar Augustus and his tax plan in Luke.
The idea that the countryside would be devoid of the usual wielders of the sword and bow leaves us with a few practical points. The first is that Israel was never intended to be a giant country. Think about it: some of the greatest geographic knowledge has been compiled by religious pilgrims across the years. That’s why Muslims of the late first millennium developed great maps, why nearly anyone Medieval could find Rome, why all Rednecks can get to Talladega. Pilgrims make long trips and figure out the routes and methods involved in travel. Yet these are sourced in annual (even once-in-a-lifetime, when you consider ticket prices) trips.
Not thrice-annual journeys. It would be nigh unto impossible to journey from even modern-day Syria to Jerusalem (or Shiloh) and back and still get the work done if you did it that often. So, Israel, by design, should have been a compact, close-knit country.
Second and more importantly, appearing before God to worship required the people to trust in God for their safety and security. That actually connects well to the remainder of this chapter. The rest of the chapter speaks of avoiding bearing false witness and granting the land its Sabbath years. Every seventh year, the land was not to be planted but to rest. The people had to depend on the harvest of year six and the wild growth of year seven to survive. That took faith.
It takes faith also to trust that justice will be served without lies and connivances. Consider how easy it seems to pervert the system even to this day—a few perjurers here, a shady lawyer there, and now the guilty walk free, the innocent can’t make bail, and you cannot find a way to stop electing, much less jail, the biggest criminals in America.
It took faith and that is what God is commanding. It takes faith to walk in obedience to God in all things, even when those things are hard. Where does it come from? That faith is planted in our hearts by God and grows through exercising in obedience. The first Sabbath year, they had to trust it would be okay before they saw it would. They had to gather to know they were safe--
So we must walk in obedience to know that it will all turn as He wills it, and that in the scope of eternity, He is glorified and we get to see and be joyful in that glory.
Today’s Nerd Note: The most famous Jewish Festival in modern in America is most likely Hanukkah (or Chanukah, or some form thereof). So, which of these three festivals is that?
None. The origin of Hanukkah falls in the second century B.C. during the Maccabean Revolt, which brought Judah independence from the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucid Empire had taken control of the realm of Judah after it was taken from the Persians by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.
Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabean victory that liberated the Temple by remembering the miracle that happened in the process of purifying the Temple. Not being a Jew, I am not clear on all the aspects, but essentially it comes down to one night’s worth of lamp oil being miraculously used for eight nights. This was taken, rightly in my mind, as a sign of God’s blessing on the dedication and purification of the Temple and as a sign that marked the return of His favor on the Jewish People.
It’s important, but it’s not the most important or even second most important celebration. In a way, it is not unlike our national celebrations in the United States: we take off for the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, but not often for Patriot’s Day or Constitution Day. The latter are important, but not viewed as quite as important as the former.
Why, then, do we all seem to know Hanukkah? Easy. It falls near Christmas and for much of American history, the two dominant religious forces in this country have been Judaism and Christianity. Christianity rightly followed carries a deep respect for Judaism, and so it was important not to ignore the Jewish holiday that falls so close to the biggest American Christian holiday: Christmas. Plus, it made for a nice trade-off: the Christians could work on Hanukkah and the Jews on Christmas. And yes, I have heard physicians speak of such arrangements, alongside arrangements for the Christian doctors to work on all Saturdays and the Jewish doctors to work on Sundays.