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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Holy People, Holy Festivals: Giving Thanks Deuteronomy 16:1-17


Deuteronomy 16:1-17

INTRODUCTION

            Remember, Moses preached Deuteronomy to call God’s people back to faithful service. He preached the sermons before their entrance into the Promised Land to remind the Israelites of God’s guidance in the past, His covenant with them, and the outcome of their obedience or disobedience. The laws spoken of were not new laws, but the restating of God’s original laws to His people. Moses reapplied them to the people as they faced new circumstances, the inhabiting of Canaan. Deuteronomy is a book of revival. When we consider this and the promises of God to prosper them for their faithfulness to their covenant with Him, we understand more about why debtors, the poor, and slaves arose among the Israelites. These three classes of people arose because of the Israelites’ unfaithfulness to their covenant with God. We understand why God commanded they help their brothers and the foreigners among them who were in need. God planned to make them prosperous. Even when the Israelites failed in their faithfulness to Him, God had mercy on them and provided a way by which they could keep their inheritance and have what they needed (see chapter 14:22-15:23). Given that God promised to water the land from His heavens and make them prosperous, would the Israelites automatically praise and thank God for His blessing of the work their hands? Since the Israelites were human, a possibility existed in which they would not praise and thank God. Because of that, God commanded three festival pilgrimages be made each year by the males to the temple. God mandated these three festivals/feasts along with regular temple visits to give thanks and praise God with their sacrifices and offerings as noted in chapter 12. Let us now read and learn about these three pilgrimages.

PILGRIMAGES

Feast of Passover

            The first pilgrimage mentioned in Deuteronomy 16 was the Feast of Passover. Originally, the Israelites celebrated this feast/festival in remembrance of the Spirit of God passing over their homes in Egypt. Those in Egypt, pre-exodus, who did not put lamb’s blood on their doorposts and lintels, woke to find their firstborn dead. Exodus 12 teaches the institution of the Feast of Passover. Leviticus 23:4-8 and Numbers 28:16-25 teach about the Passover feast, too. Because the Israelites knew of the Passover feast from Moses’ earlier teachings, at the time of Deuteronomy, Moses just reminded them of the main points of the feast. He told them to observe the whole month of Abib, now Nissan in the Jewish calendar, late March or early April on today’s calendar. “Observe” in verse one comes from the Hebrew word shamar, which means to hear, listen, and obey. The whole month of Abib was a time to remember God’s greatness in choosing and protecting them from the Spirit of death that fateful night in Egypt when firstborns of the unfaithful died.

Though Moses commanded them to remember the Passover the whole month, he told them to celebrate it just one week of the month. Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers explain the celebration began on the fourteenth day of the first month of the year. On the tenth day of the month, the Israelites were to set aside for slaughter an unblemished, year-old lamb or goat. Moses told them to slaughter the Passover animal on the fourteenth day of the month (Exodus 12:3-6). The Hebrew word for “Passover” is Pesach. Pesach means Passover, sacrifice of Passover, or the animal sacrifice of the Passover. We must note in Deuteronomy 16:2, the people were to offer the sacrifice at the “place where the LORD establishes His name.” For the pre-temple Israelites, the place was their territorial tabernacle/sanctuary. After Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem by order of God, the place for these sacrifices was the temple.

Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy each mandate eating unleavened bread from days fifteen to twenty of Abib. Leviticus and Numbers call this the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This part of the Passover celebration reminded the people they left Egypt in a hurry and did not have time for dough rise. Instead, the Israelites ate flat bread made of flour and oil (Exodus 13:3 & 34:18). Moses called this bread the bread of affliction because they had to leave Egypt in haste (Deut. 16:3).

In addition to slaughtering an animal on the fourteenth day to enable the Israelites to spread the blood on their doorposts and lintels, the Israelites were to slaughter animals for the feast for each of the seven days of the festival. Yet none of the flesh sacrificed to God each night was to remain from one night to the next morning (16:4). “Morning” in Hebrew is boqer and means break of day or dawn. Exodus teaches this, too. Next Moses reminded the Israelites the sacrifice was to occur at the place the LORD chose - in the local tabernacle (before Solomon built the temple) or at the temple (after Solomon built it). They were not to offer the sacrifice in the towns where the people lived once Solomon built the temple, the place where God chose His name to abide. The people were to slaughter, cook, and eat the sacrifice at the place God chose, and then return to their tents at sunrise, boqer.

The final instruction about the Passover Moses gave the Israelites was they were to have a solemn assembly on days fourteen and twenty-one of the first month. An assembling of people for the first slaughter and the final day of celebration was to occur. They were to do no work on those two days.

As the Israelites continued to live in Canaan, the time of the Feast of Passover celebration became the beginning of planting season for them. The planting season came after the winter rains. This meant the Feast of Passover celebrated God’s hand in saving them from the Spirit of death and Egypt and it celebrated the beginning of the growing season. Celebrating the Feast of the Passover as a historical and agricultural event is a festival of giving thanks to Yahweh for His provision for His children.

Feast of Weeks

            This feast was to occur seven full weeks after the second day of Passover. The counting of weeks provided the name Feast of Weeks to the festival. Moses gave the command for this festival as a way to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest from what the Israelites sowed near Passover time. Because shabuwa and shavu’ot are Hebrew for “weeks,” the Israelites named the festival the Feast of Shavu’ot. The counting of the days and weeks showed the anticipation of the first fruits of the Israelites’ labor. Moses taught everything about this feast in Leviticus 23:15-21 and Numbers 28:26-31. Deuteronomy 16:9-12 is a synopsis of the earlier two teachings.

            Deuteronomy 16:9-12 teaches what Moses commanded of the Israelites. Moses reiterated the timing of this feast in verse nine. He explained what the offering was to be - a freewill, nedebah, offering to the LORD (vs. 10). This offering represented God’s sufficiency to the Israelites and His blessing of their work, which was sufficient for their celebration. The peoples’ freewill offerings were a gift back to God for His blessings of them. As the people came together to give their offerings to God, they were to rejoice with their household, the Levite of their town/city, the orphan, widow, and stranger in their town/city.

            Just as the Israelites celebrated the Feast of Passover to remember of God’s aid to them, the Feast of Weeks celebration occurred because of the Israelites’ remembrance of God’s help. The Feast of Weeks was a day set apart for the Israelites to remember they were slaves in Egypt. God chose them to be His people and to make a nation from them. He redeemed them from slavery and blessed them with a fruitful land. Because of this, they must celebrate the first fruits of the harvest and rejoice with their neighbors at what God did for them. Later, the Israelites added a spiritual element to this celebration. They celebrated this feast as the day God gave them their Torah from Mount Sinai. The Israelites felt the Torah redeemed them from spiritual bondage to idolatry and immorality. For these reasons, Moses repeated his command of shamar from verse one when he said in verse 16, “carefully observe these statutes.” The Israelites were to hear, listen, and obey this command from the LORD. Moses commanded they carefully observe this feast to celebrate God’s blessings and give thanks.

Feast of Booths

            Moses taught the Israelites to celebrate the harvest in verses thirteen through fifteen. He taught this earlier in Leviticus 23:33-43 and Numbers 29:12-38. Moses told them, “You shall celebrate the Feast of Booths seven days after you have gathered in from your threshing floor and your wine vat” (Deut. 16:13). The Leviticus and Numbers passages command this feast begin on the fifteenth day of the seventh month for seven days. Tishri is the seventh lunisolar month in the Jewish calendar and occurs during September or October of today’s calendar.

The word “booths” is cukkah and sukkot in Hebrew. Its definition is thicket, booth, or temporary shelter made of brush. Booths are what the Israelites lived in when God brought them out of Egypt. The Feast of Booths celebrated God’s food and protection for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. This feast had a spiritual and agricultural part to it, like the other two feasts. As stated before in this paragraph, the spiritual part was that God chose, provided for, and protected the Israelites in their wandering years. The agricultural part attached to this feast was that the Israelites reaped their last harvest seven days before the Feast of Booths. They celebrated their harvest at this feast.

Moses, in Deuteronomy, expressly stated the feast begin seven days after the harvest. In Leviticus and Numbers, Moses stated a specific date for its beginning - the fifteenth day of the seventh month, Tishri. The feast lasted seven days. On the first and eighth days, a holy assemblage of men occurred to present an offering of fire to the LORD. The Israelites did not work on these two days (Lev. 23:35, 36, & 39). Both Leviticus and Numbers specify the exact number of each animal, and the amount of grain, oil, and drink offering Moses told the people to offer to God on each day of the festival. Deuteronomy states God would choose the place at which the feast was to occur. Moses commanded the people make booths in which to live during the festival at the beginning of the festival (Lev. 23:40-42).

The overarching reasons Moses gave the Israelites for celebrating this festival were to rejoice with other people over what God blessed them with and so the LORD would “continue to bless them in all the work of their hands” (Deut. 16: 14-15). As stated earlier, this festival had a spiritual and agricultural basis to it. Moses commanded them to rejoice at God’s blessing of a bountiful harvest.

Recap

            Moses recapped God’s commands regarding the three mandated feasts or pilgrimages each year in verses sixteen and seventeen. The three main points of God’s commands about the feasts included:

1. “All males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place He chooses at the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths.”

2. “They shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed.”

3. “Each man shall give as he is able according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you.”

Notice the feasts are mandatory, not optional. Notice, too, every man must give according to the gifts God gave him, as a token of dependence and gratitude to God. These feasts were the only mandated pilgrimages for Israelite men. In case the Israelites forgot from where their blessings came, God provided three established feasts to help them stop, recall, rejoice, and praise Him, the fount of their blessings.

CONCLUSION AND RELEVANCE

            God expected His people, the Israelites to be faithful to their covenant with Him. The laws, commands, and statutes He declared presumed their covenant faithfulness. Because God knows the sinful nature of humankind, He provided in His covenant for both blessing on the faithful and a curse on the unfaithful. Added to this and because God knows the hearts of humankind (we often become arrogant, self-centered, and keep the glory for prosperity for ourselves), God provided and commanded the people pilgrimage three times a year to the place where His name and glory resided. The Israelites were to rejoice at what God did for them in Egypt, during the exodus, and what He did for them that year when He provided the produce from their land and animals.

            The festivals provided an additional benefit. It allowed them to strengthen their national identification as a religious community. Before this, they were a people too small to be a nation. The descendents of Abraham lived through drought, famine, and enslavement. God gathered them out of another nation and made them a people/nation for Himself. At that point, He called them His people, blessed them, and gave them another commonality, celebrations of His blessings and their prosperity. They no longer had a history of misery. They had a present experience of blessings and hope for more with the God they learned to trust, serve, and love.

            Today, we can look back and see the hard times we experienced, just as the Israelites did. We can look back to see the blessings of God, too. God wants to bless us. He wants us to share His blessings and rejoice with our families and neighbors about His blessings. We must recognize that the joy and blessings we receive come from God’s hand, not our own. God blesses the work of our hands. You may say, “I have received no blessings. Does God not love me?” The answer is that He does love you. God created you and chose you for a purpose, to be in a relationship with Him. He does not force Himself upon any of us. God gives us freewill to do what we want in our lives. He lets us choose Him or ourselves to lead our lives. When you choose to give your life to God, He receives you with open arms, forgives your sins, and promises you life. According to our studies in Deuteronomy, life has two elements – physical and spiritual. Our earthly life includes what we need for physical existence. Added to this, our spiritual life is that part of ourselves that continues to exist after our physical death – our souls/spirits. When we give our lives to God, He gives us hope. We have hope because we know we will live with Him in heaven when our time on earth is finished. We can live with God for eternity. God re-forms our hearts and renews us in His image, the way He intended, not as the sinful, willful person we were before we gave our hearts to Him.

God leaves the decision up to us.

What do you choose?

To whom will you give praise and glory?