Celebrating as Community: Deuteronomy 16
In Summary: Deuteronomy 16 covers the three major religious festivals of the Jews in Israel. These are the “major” festivals because, as you see in 16:16, all the men of Israel were required to appear before YHWH at the place of His choosing. More on that when we come In Focus.
Let us turn to a quirk of Deuteronomy 16. This chapter, more than many others, acknowledges that the Israelites will have a decentralized governance. Many of the segments of the Law deal with how to offer sacrifices and individual obedience to God and other sections address how the nation is to act, beyond dividing the land there is not much about how each city and town is to operate. Or about how to balance centralized worship with people living scattered.
Alongside the religious festivals, this chapter addresses local governance. The people are commanded in 16:18 to appoint judges and officers in all of their towns (literally “gates”—I would suggest that any settlement big enough for an enclosure would be in view). These are to judge righteously, not taking bribes to ignore what is right. Verse 20 admonishes the people to pursue only justice, or there would be trouble. What is justice? A working definition I would suggest is this: justice is truth diligently acted on with wisdom and grace. We could use more of that in each of our towns.
In Focus: Let us return, in focus, to the three major festivals. Rather than deal with the spiritual significance of each one, consider how the people were commanded to observe them.
First, they were communal. The important moments of Israelite history were not celebrated as individuals, but as the people. They were commanded to be together, which required them to be able to be together.
Second, they were inconvenient. With many others, I’ll push for a simple celebration of the upcoming holiday season rather than the madness so often encountered. The Israelites could not have a convenient Passover—they had to pack it up and head out. Then there was the Feast of Tabernacles, where they had to move out!
Third, they were dangerous. Think about it. Who is the defense force? From bandits, invaders, and wild animals? The men. All of whom are headed to the place God commanded. That empties the land, and trust in God was required for those left behind.
In Practice: We obviously do not practice as the Israelites did. Americans are not going to all cram Philadelphia on July 4, and Christians would do well not to overrun Bethlehem by all going for Christmas. Not that there’s anything wrong with a few of us going…I’d love to do both of those.
I would suggest to you that we consider the principles of communal, inconvenient, and dangerous. Now, we can quickly use modern definitions and concepts for these and ruin ourselves. Don’t do that.
But think about this: how are you celebrating what God has done together with others? Do you think that God worked in your life alone, or that He didn’t command you to be with other believers?
It can be hard, difficult even. So be it. Celebrating the work of the Most High should be about honoring His commands and ways, not about sliding into our schedules. That does not mean we just tell people to get over a schedule problem—usually we do that for our man-made schedules, not for His commanded ones!
And it is dangerous. Dangerous as little else can be, for when we are publicly with God’s people, doing what God has commanded, we are at risk from both sides. From the world that will lump us with the rest of the crazies (which we are a subset of) and from God who will draw us ever nearer to Him through our obedience.
Guess what? I hope your Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every other opportunity to draw near to God is communal, inconvenient, and dangerous. Those move us toward Him in ways that we cannot imagine, because obedience does that.
In Nerdiness: Then there’s the end of the chapter. Asherahs and sacred pillars are mentioned, and labeled as things that God hates. These were likely fertility cult symbols, likely fashioned as anatomical items.
The contrast evident between these and the earlier commands is clear: either we worship as God commands or we worship our basic drives. If God is to be worshiped, our response must affect our full behavior. We cannot blur those margins.