This article offers an exposition of Deuteronomy 16:1-22. It focuses on the calendar of Israel as a tool God used to remind his people of their identity. The following feasts are mentioned and briefly discussed: the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles.

Source: The Outlook, 1992. 3 pages.

Deuteronomy 16 – Israel's Calendar as Covenant Commentary

Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you.

Deuteronomy 16:16-17

The 'Church Year' — Then🔗

Anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows the important place that remembering occupies in life. So many of Israel's customs and regulations were designed to help remember both God's past redemption and her own past affliction. Forgetting these was a sign of indifference and the prelude to apostasy, so that, unlike today, personal identity arose primarily from participation with the past rather than the present. (Question 1)

Israel's calendar was one of God's tools for re­minding His people of her identity. The new year was marked by a celebration of Passover, recalling Israel's birthday in the exodus from Egypt. Each month required sacrifices and memorials, in addition to the weekly sabbaths commemorated throughout the land. And national-church feasts brought people streaming together to 'the place of God's choosing,' for celebra­tion and commemoration.

Deuteronomy 16 deals with three pilgrim feasts which marked Israel's annual calendar: Passover and Unleavened Bread (vv. 1-8); Weeks (vv. 9-12); and Booths (vv. 13-15). This legislation is summarized in verses 16-17.

God's guidelines for these feasts had been spelled out already (for directions about the Passover, see Exodus 12, Leviticus 23:5-8, and Numbers 28:16-25). The unique emphasis here in Deuteronomy seems to be that Israel's liturgical year was a picture of life entirely devoted to the LORD'S service. The annual cycle of festivals forced Israel to recall her miserable affliction, God's miraculous redemption and her obligation to joyful gratitude.

Israel's calendar, in other words, was a commentary on covenant living. Each year she remembered her bondage, her exodus, her wilderness journey, and her entrance into Canaan. Each pilgrimage provided opportunity to teach the children their history and to engage in personal examination and reflection upon The Story. (Question 2)

The Feast of Unleavened Bread (read 16:1-8)🔗

The first month of Israel's religious year was Abib (later called Nisan; approximately March/April in today's calendar). During this month, all Israel was to hold a feast consisting of two parts: Passover (Abib 14) and Unleavened Bread (Abib 15-21).

We may be inclined to believe that since the Passover commemorated Israel's liberation, this eight-day feast had little or no association with her prior misery and affliction. But read again 16:3: 'You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread with it, that is, the bread of afflic­tion (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), that you may remember the day in which you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.'

Israel's God-given calendar stipulated one day for Passover, followed by seven days of Unleavened Bread! Why?

During these seven days, Israel was to eat the 'bread of affliction,' or bread of misery. Leaven (or yeast) makes bread fluffy and delicious; unleavened bread is tasteless, and lands in the stomach like a lump.

Remember that the Passover was instituted amid plagues, death and slaughter throughout all of Egypt, afflictions that really should have been visited upon Israel too, for her unbelief and hardheartedness! To be sure, deliverance that night was from Egypt's bondage; but Israel was also delivered from God's well-deserved judgment upon her own sin. So, for seven days every year, as she munched her unleavened wafers, Israel was to remember quietly the judgment out of which she had been redeemed. Of course, she had been delivered from the cruel oppression of the Egyptians, but that suffering doesn't alter the fact that Israel was a sinful people. The blood of the passover lambs, painted on the doorposts, pointed her to the need for atonement to cover her sins.

The Feast of Weeks (read 16:9-12)🔗

The Feast of Weeks, later called Feast of Pente­cost, came fifty days after Passover (Sivan 6; May-June).

Characteristic of this feast was the freewill offering in proportion to divine blessing. Notice again the command to rejoice in the LORD'S presence, bringing along children, servants, Levites, alien residents, or­phans and widows. One Jewish commentator puts it nicely: 'The four people who belong to you (son, daughter, menservants and maid servants), and the four people who belong to God (Levite, alien, orphan and widow).'

The Feast of Weeks was an agricultural festival. The firstfruits of harvest were dedicated to the LORD. But verse 12 provides a surprising description of the feast's main activity: 'And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.' The joy of this feast was motivated and tempered by recalling slavery in Egypt, deliverance from Egypt, and the obligation to obedi­ence. (Question 3)

The Feast of Tabernacles (read 16:13-17)🔗

Near the end of the year (Tishri 15-21; September-October) came the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths. Israel was to come together to live for seven days in booths, reminding God's people of their wilderness dwelling after He led them out of Egypt (cf. Leviticus 23:42-43).

By this time in Israel's year, the entire harvest had been gathered, everything from grain to wine. So this was the most jubilant of Israelite feasts. In fact, joy is the only command and the sole promise that God gives in connection with this feast: 'And you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant and the Levite, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow, who are within your gates. Seven days you shall keep a sacred feast to the LORD your God in the place which the LORD chooses, because the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you surely rejoice' (Deuteronomy 16:14-15).

Verses 16-17 decorate this divine festival calendar with an important instruction: all Israelite men were to appear at the central sanctuary three times annually, but 'they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you.' At first glance, this warning not to come empty-handed seems like mother's reminder to bring some money to church, for the offering. But there's more to it than that. When you go back to Deuteron­omy 12:17-18, and 16:9, you see that the LORD wants Israel to come with something in hand so that they may be able to eat, rejoice and enjoy fellowship in His presence. Coming empty-handed would hinder their enjoyment and detract from reaching God's purpose for the festival commemoration.

The 'Church Year' — Now🔗

There is in Israel's annual festival-cycle a climax of sorts. The dampened tones of Unleavened Bread are followed by the mixed joy of Weeks, and crowned with the undiluted joy of Booths.

How does this fit together for us in the New Testament?

People often say that Passover finds its fulfillment in Good Friday and Easter; the Feast of Pentecost is fulfilled with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But what then is the New Testament equivalent of the Feast of Booths, that feast of unfettered and undiluted joy?

The fulfillment of this feast is still coming. It will arrive when all tears are wiped from our eyes, when we sing with inexpressible joy before the Lamb who is seated upon the throne of God. According to Zecha­riah 14:16-19, an international Feast of Tabernacles will be celebrated at the end of history when every­thing from horse bells to cooking pots will be sancti­fied unto the LORD'S service.

Until then, all joy is mixed with pain; all victory is tempered with the passing of time and the limits of the human condition. Sin, and the memory of sin, affect all our spiritual enjoyment. For now. (Question 4)

From Festival Back to Daily Life (read 16:18-22)🔗

From the sphere of festivity we move back to everyday life with its problems, choices and decisions. In these verses the LORD instructs Israel to appoint local ministers of justice. In every town judges and helpers were to be selected to decide disputes fairly. Specific warning is given against perverting justice by accepting bribes. When money talks, justice falters, 'for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous' (Deuteronomy 16:19).

Why does the LORD move, without apparent reason, from instructing Israel about feasts to guidelines for judges? Because passion for justice is both a fruit of, and a condition for God-pleasing feast-keep­ing. Remember Christ's words: 'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled' (Matthew 5:6). We read often in the Bible of the need to worship aright and do justice, of combining piety with equity. Religious sacrifices and festivals stink in God's nostrils when His children neglect justice, institutionalize violence and transgress His commandments.

The root of abiding justice lies, however, in wor­shiping the one true God. Once again, in the closing verses of this chapter, Israel is warned against erecting gods of wood and stone, shrines to false deities. Only the worship of Jehovah, the LORD God of the Bible, provides the motivation and the direction for genuine fairness among people. Pure worship is the prerequi­site for social justice.

This necessary connection between godly worship and fair judgment is celebrated in David's festal poem about the sanctuary of the LORD: 'I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go into the house of the LORD' . . . For thrones are set there for judgment, the thrones of the house of David' (Psalm 122:1, 5).

Questions for Reflection and Reply🔗

  1. Do you agree that today, personal identity arises most often from adapting to the present rather than living from the past? Why do(n't) you agree? Give examples of idolizing the past (tradition) and of idolizing the present (innovation)? How can we avoid idolizing either tradition or innovation?
  2. Mention some family customs (as distinct from church customs) that might help parents teach their children the real meaning of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost.
  3. Read Acts 2:1-4. Which came first in biblical history: Pentecost or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? What does this imply for understanding the Spirit's outpouring in terms of harvest and first­fruits?
  4. Find several references in the book of Revelation to saints enjoying feasts of celebration. What activities accompany these feasts and who partici­pate in them?

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