Lessons from the Law: No.25 : Three Annual Feasts
Ex 23:14-15 “Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me. Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
If we’ve had a religious upbringing then perhaps a feast simply indicates a particular festival in the church’s calendar. However, a dictionary defines a feast as “to eat sumptuously” and the sense is of a big meal. You have a big meal when you have something to celebrate and that was true of Israel. We have feasts at a wedding or the celebration of a special birthday or wedding anniversary. It is a way of celebrating. In verses 14 to 19 that cover the feasts, the word ‘celebrate’ occurs four times, once in the introductory sentence and then once for each of the three feasts mentioned. A dictionary will tell you that to celebrate something means to make public by rites or ceremonies. Some older versions don’t use the word celebrate and just say “you shall keep….” but the word ‘keep’ doesn’t emphasise so much to us today the sense of honouring by ceremony.
So, says the Lord, three times a year hold a special ceremony based on food, to remember the crucial things that have happened when you came out of Egypt, and then of my provision for you. There is, therefore, a sense whereby these three feasts are all celebrations of God’s provision. The Feast of Unleavened Bread celebrated God’s provision of freedom from slavery. The Feast of Harvest (v.16a) celebrates the arrival of the first crops or fruits – God’s provision of food. The Feast of Ingathering (v.16b) celebrates the completion of bringing in all the harvest – again God’s provision of abundance. These are times of rejoicing in the wonder of God’s provision. Why legislate for these? Because we are notoriously bad at taking things for granted and forgetting the origin of all we have! So let’s look at the law for each of the feasts.
First there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Now the Passover was a one-day celebration but the Feast was a seven day celebration! It reminded them of the hurry with which they had to leave Egypt, not having enough time to use yeast in the usual way to make bread. By spreading it over a week they could fully reflect on the wonder of what had happened when God delivered them from Egypt. If that had not happened then they would not have been able to be constituted a nation at Sinai. They only were a nation because of the Passover. The remembrance of this meant that this was never forgotten for this was no quick one-day memorial but a whole week’s worth of celebrating.
Next we find, “Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the first fruits of the crops you sow in your field.” (v.16a) This feast was otherwise known as Pentecost. Then we find, “Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.” (v.16b) This was otherwise known as the Feast of Tabernacles and we’ll see more details of each of these in later studies.
Verses 17 to 19 are all ‘shorthand’ comments about aspects of these feasts. First comes, “Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD,” (v.17) a simple reiteration of the importance of these feasts. Men were the breadwinners and the warriors but nothing was to stop them coming to these feasts of remembrance. Then comes, “Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast.” (v.18a) In the later laws of sacrifice when blood was poured out, it was the sign of life being given and it was often accompanied by flour but, as a continual reminder of the haste of their deliverance, it was never to have yeast mixed with it, especially at the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This was followed by, “The fat of my festival offerings must not be kept until morning.” (v.18b) The fat, we will see, was to be the Lord’s portion so it would be disrespectful to feast with the meat in the evening and not bother with the Lord’s part until next day. No, make sure you perform the whole together, especially that which gives respect or reverence to the Lord. Then comes, “Bring the best of the first fruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God.” (v.19a) Whenever first fruits were brought (especially at the second Feast here) this is a gentle reminder to give the Lord the best. Sacrifices and offerings should never be from the leftovers, but from the best.
Finally comes what appears at first sight a very strange exhortation: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”(v.19b) It is only when we realise that this was a pagan practice believed to be carried out both in Egypt and Canaan as an occultic magical charm, that this makes sense. A broth was made in this way and was poured out on their gardens and fields to make them more productive. This injunction which appears in the Law three times (see also Ex 34:26 & Deut 14:21) is a shorthand warning a) not to turn to occult means of blessing on food provision and b) not to let there come any substitute for the second two Feasts mentioned here which are all about proclaiming the Lord’s goodness in providing for them.
These introductions to the laws of the Feasts are here, simply reminders to be kept year by year of the Lord’s provision for them. Thankfulness to the Lord keeps us from the sin of taking Him and His provision for granted. May we too remind ourselves of His constant goodness to us!