The major festivals of Old Testament Israel were, in calendar order, Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles or Ingathering). After the exile, the Jews added memorial days for the fall of Jerusalem (eventually fixed as the Ninth of Ab), Purim, and the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah). In addition, the Israelites observed the Sabbath every week and the feast of the New Moon every lunar month.
Israel's festivals were communal and commemorative as well as theological and typological. They were communal in that they drew the nation together for celebration and worship as they recalled the common origin and experience of the people. They were commemorative in that they kept alive the story of what God had done in the exodus and during the sojourn. They were theological in that the observance of the festivals presented the participants with lessons on the reality of sin, judgment, and forgiveness, on the need for thanksgiving to God, and on the importance of trusting God rather than hoarding possessions. They were typological in that they anticipated a greater fulfillment of the symbolism of the feasts. It is not surprising that each of the major feasts is in some way alluded to in the New Testament. On the other hand, the festivals could become meaningless rituals and were subject to the criticism of the prophets (Isaiah 1:13-14
The Five Major Feasts. The Passover . The Bible traces the origin of Passover to the exodus. According to Exodus 12 , on the evening of the 14th of the first month (Abib; later called Nisan), the Israelites gathered in family units to sacrifice a yearling sheep or goat. They used hyssop to apply blood from the lambs to the sides and tops of the door frames of their homes and roasted the lambs. They also prepared bitter herbs and bread without yeast. They ate the food hastily and with their sandals on their feet as a sign of their readiness for a quick departure. That night, the Lord killed Egypt's firstborn but spared Israel.
The subsequent festival was called pesah
, generally rendered "Passover" in reference to God's passing over or sparing of the Israelites, although the precise origin of the word is unknown. In Exodus 12:21
, Moses tells the Israelites to "sacrifice the pesah
" without defining the term. This is evidence that some kind of Passover festival was already known and practiced by the Israelites prior to the exodus. Even if this is so, the events of the exodus redefined forever the significance of the festival. According to Exodus 12:26-27
, when subsequent generations inquired about the meaning of the Passover, they were to be told that it commemorated the Lord's sparing (pasah
8) of the Israelites on the night he struck down the Egyptians.
Throughout Israelite history Passover continued to be a festival of supreme importance. Chronicles records in detail two great celebrations of Passover, one in Hezekiah's reign (2 Chronicles 30 ), and one in Josiah's reign (2 Chronicles 35:1-19
Of all of Israel's festivals, Passover is of the greatest importance to the New Testament because the Lord's Supper was a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-27
; Mark 14:12-25
; Luke 22:7-22
; notwithstanding problems posed by the Johannine chronology, as in John 18:28
; see the major commentaries on John ). In passing the bread to the disciples and telling them that it was his body and that they should eat of it, Jesus was perhaps presenting himself as the Passover lamb. Christ is thus described as "our Passover lamb" in John 14:16-20
1 and as "the Lamb who was slain" in Revelation 5:12
. John's Gospel points out that none of Jesus' bones were broken in his crucifixion in allusion to the requirement that none of the Passover lamb's bones be broken (John 19:33-37
; cf. Exodus 12:46
The Feast of Unleavened Bread . The Feast of Unleavened Bread lasted for one week and followed immediately after Passover. For that week, the Israelites not only ate no bread with yeast, but they also removed all yeast from their homes. They held a sacred assembly on the first and seventh days of the week, and for the whole week they did no work except for the preparation of food.
In the context of the exodus, eating bread without yeast signified the haste of their preparation to depart. Because yeast was studiously avoided during this festival, however, it soon became a symbol for the pervasive influence of evil. Yeast was not used in most grain offerings to God (see, for example, Leviticus 2:11
In the New Testament, yeast is often associated with evil (1 Corinthians 5:6-8
; Galatians 5:9
). The latter text explicitly draws a link between the Christian's relationship with Christ and the details of the Passover and Festival of Unleavened Bread. As the Passover lamb protected Israel from the plague on the firstborn, even so Christ's sacrifice saves his people from the wrath of God. Also, just as Israel was to remove all yeast from their homes during the subsequent Feast of Unleavened Bread, Christians should avoid contamination by expelling immoral members from their congregations. Paul thus sees the church as something of a new community of a new exodus, and is concerned that Christians maintain the purity of their community. He uses the analogy of the Passover and Feast of Weeks to encourage the Corinthians to expel an immoral member (1 Corinthians 5 ). Jesus describes the hypocritical teaching of the Pharisees as "yeast" and warns his disciples to beware of it (Matthew 16:6-12
Some biblical references to yeast, however, make no allusion to the Feast of Unleavened Bread and do not use yeast as a symbol of evil. In particular, Christ's parabolic reference to the kingdom of heaven being like yeast that a woman put in a lump of dough does not mean the kingdom of heaven is evil, but merely that it grows unobserved.
Firstfruits . The offering of firstfruits took place at the beginning of the harvest and signified Israel's gratitude to and dependence on God (Leviticus 23:9-14
). The word "firstfruits" translates both resit qasir ("beginning of harvest") and bikkurim
. The word resit
5 could mean "first" either in the sense of the first to appear or in the sense of "best, " but bikkurim
clarifies the issue; it means "firstfruit to appear" on the analogy of bekor
The offering of firstfruits described in Leviticus 23:9-14
occurred in conjunction with the Feast of Unleavened Bread and focused on the barley harvest, but there was also an offering of firstfruits associated with the Feast of Weeks ( Numbers 28:26-31
) in celebration of the wheat harvest. It would seem that Israelites brought the firstfruits of their harvests before the Lord at various times in the course of the agricultural year, but that there was a special firstfruits festival every year in conjunction with Passover, seven weeks before Pentecost (Leviticus 23:15
According to Leviticus 23:9-14
, an Israelite would bring a sheaf of the first grain of the harvest to the priest, who would wave it before the Lord as an offering on the day after the Sabbath. At that time the individual offered a yearling lamb and a grain offering as a sacrifice. The Israelites were not to eat of the new harvest until the firstfruits offering had been made. Leviticus 23 does not specifically link the offering of firstfruits with the exodus event, but Deuteronomy 26:1-11
states that when the Israelites brought the firstfruits of their harvest before the priest, they were to acknowledge that God had delivered them from Egypt and had given them the land just as he had promised.
The offering of the firstfruits to God was a statement of gratitude and a confession that the benefits of the harvest came by his grace. Also, in giving the very first of their produce to God, Israel learned not to hoard but to trust God for provision.
The concept of the firstfruits becomes a theological metaphor both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Jeremiah 2:3
states that Israel was "holy to the Lord, the firstfruits ( resit
5) of his harvest." The image implies that Israel is unique among the nations as the special possession of God.
The New Testament uses the term "firstfruit" (aparche [ 1 Corinthians 16:15
; see also Romans 16:5
). In a more eschatological sense, James 1:18
speaks of Christians as the firstfruits of God's work since they have been given birth by the word of truth. The new birth experienced by the believer is the first appearing of the new order of creation in Christ. In a similar manner, Paul says that believers have the "firstfruits of the Spirit" and await the full eschatological adoption that will occur in the resurrection ( Romans 8:23
). Christ himself is the firstfruit of the power of the resurrection, and his victory over death is the guarantee that believers too will experience resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-23
In the New Testament, therefore, aparche
is used to signify that the power of the resurrection and the new creation has broken into the present creation. Whether it be the first Gentile converts in a geographic area, the new birth and gift of the Spirit experienced by Christians, or the resurrection of Jesus himself, all are like the firstfruits of the harvest in that they are tokens of the new age in Christ and give the promise of greater things to come.
The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) . The Feast of Weeks occurred seven full weeks after the wave offering of the Firstfruits at Passover (Leviticus 23:15
; Deuteronomy 16:9
). It celebrated the end of the grain harvest. Because of the fifty-day interval (in the inclusive method of reckoning), it is also known by the Greek name "Pentecost." Like Firstfruits, it took place on the day after the Sabbath. Exodus 23:14-19
refers to the Feast of Weeks when it links the "Feast of the Harvest" to the Feast of Unleavened Bread and to the Feast of Ingathering (Booths) as the three major agricultural festivals of Israel (see Deuteronomy 16:16
; 2 Chronicles 8:13
simply stipulates that individuals were to make an offering in proportion to the size of the harvest they had taken in that year, but Leviticus 23:17-20
and Numbers 28:27-30
give much more detailed lists of what the priests were to offer on behalf of the nation. Following the stipulations in Leviticus (the two lists differ slightly), this included burnt offerings of seven male lambs, one bull, and two rams, followed by a sin offering of one goat and a fellowship offering of two lambs. It was a day of sacred assembly in which no work was allowed. The primary focus of the festival was gratitude to God for the harvest.
For Christians, Pentecost is of the highest significance; it is the day on which the Spirit was poured out on the church. A question here, however, concerns the significance of the Feast of Weeks for the giving of the Spirit. Why was the Spirit given to the church on an agricultural thanksgiving holiday? The solution is to be found in Joel 2:28-32
( Hebrews 3:1-5
), the text that Peter proclaimed to have been fulfilled by the events witnessed by the Jerusalem crowd that dramatic Sunday (Acts 2:16-21
The catalyst for the Book of Joel was a terrible locust plague that left Israel destitute. Every type of crop, including grapes, olives, wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, and apples had been ravaged (Joel 1:7-12
). The cattle were left without pasture (1:18), and the severity of the catastrophe was compounded by a drought (1:19-20). Even so, Joel held out the prospect of healing if the people would come together in a sacred assembly and repent (2:12-17), and promised an agricultural restoration (2:21-27).
Then, having promised an agricultural healing, Joel abruptly proclaims that the Spirit will be poured out on all people regardless of gender, age, or social status (2:28-32). Joel links the concept of agricultural and economic abundance to spiritual restoration. His choice of the verb "pour out" (sapak
) alludes to the healing rains God would send upon the land (2:23). Amos, similarly, speaks of a famine for the word of God (8:11-12), and describes a restoration in terms of an abundant harvest (9:13-15). For these prophets, therefore, a theological link existed between the material blessing of God seen in a rich harvest and the spiritual benefits obtained when God gives his Word and Spirit.
While the "sacred assembly" to which Joel called the people (2:15-16) may have been simply an ad hoc ceremony of mourning, it is in some ways reminiscent (albeit ironically) of the day of Pentecost. Instead of a thanksgiving harvest festival, in that year the Israelites held a special day of mourning and repentance because of the devastation of the crops. Just as Leviticus 23:21
commanded that all Israel should gather together and there should be no regular business conducted on Pentecost, Joel demanded that all the people, even the bride and bridegroom, assemble before Yahweh for the sacred assembly. It is appropriate, therefore, that the giving of the Spirit in fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32
should have come about on the harvest celebration day of Pentecost.
The sequence from Passover to Pentecost is meaningful from the New Testament perspective. The slaughter of the Passover lamb recalled the great deliverance of the exodus and marked the beginning of the harvest with the gift of firstfruits, and the Feast of Weeks was the great celebration in thanksgiving for the grain harvest. Jesus' crucifixion at Passover, similarly, was the sacrifice for the deliverance of his people, and the subsequent pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost was the fulfillment of what his sacrifice had promised (1618613698_40 ; 16:7 ).
The Feast of Trumpets . The law prescribes that the first day of the seventh month (Tishri) should be a holiday with a sacred assembly and special sacrifice (Leviticus 23:23-25
; Numbers 29:1-6
). Numbers 29:1
states that it is "a day of trumpet blast" ( yom terua ), hence the traditional name "Feast of Trumpets" even though that designation does not occur in the Bible. In fact, there is some question whether terua
can mean both "trumpet blast" and that trumpets were sounded at the new moon; the traditional interpretation of this day as a day on which trumpets were sounded is thus reasonable and should be followed.
Insomuch as every new moon was a holiday in the Israelite calendar, the question naturally arises as to why the new moon of the seventh month is given special status. Since Tishri 1 became the New Year's Day (Rosh Hashanah ) in postbiblical Judaism, many believe that the Feast of Trumpets was the ancient Israelite New Year's Day as well. Scholars who maintain that Israel observed the beginning of the New Year in autumn (in Tishri) put forth several lines of evidence. For example, Exodus 23:16
states that the Feast of Booths (Tishri 15) occurred "at the end of the year." The Year of Jubilee (and presumably also Sabbath years) began in Tishri ( Leviticus 25:9
). Also, the Gezer Calendar (ca. 925 b.c.) begins with the olive harvest in autumn.
These and similar arguments are not compelling, however, and the calendar of festivals especially seems not to have followed an autumnal New Year cycle. Exodus 23:16
provides no real evidence that the early Israelite calendar commenced in autumn. The Feast of Booths is at the end of the agricultural year—that is, at the end of the harvestsbut that does not mean that it was the end of the calendar year. For the same reason one would naturally expect the Sabbath year to begin at the close of the previous year's harvest. In modern society, analogously, one can speak of an agricultural year, a fiscal year, or an academic year, each of which may differ from the official calendar year. The Gezer Calendar is a schoolboy's exercise and not an official calendar. Postbiblical Jewish practice, similarly, is not decisive.
The very fact that Tishri is the seventh month should call into question whether it marked the beginning of the year. It is also difficult to see how the Feast of Booths on Tishri 15 could be called "the end of the year" if Tishri 1 was New Year's Day. Israel's calendar of festivals begins not in Tishri but in Abib (Nisan), the first month, with Passover. Exodus 12:2
, in fact, explicitly calls the month of the Passover "the first of the months of your year." From the agricultural standpoint, the seventh month was the end of the year, but the beginning of the new year did not come until the following spring.
Ancient Israel did not have a single, uniform calendar throughout its history, and problems in Israelite chronology are well-known. For the purposes of the calendar of festivals, however, the Feast of Trumpets was not a New Year's festival. The two critical texts (Leviticus 23:23-25
; Numbers 29:1-6
) never imply that it had anything to do with the new year.
The Feast of Trumpets did, however, initiate the end of the agricultural and festival year. The seventh month was important for this and for having in it two major holy days, the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Booths. The blasting of trumpets on the first day was therefore in celebration of the commencement of this special month.
This is the natural conclusion from the text of Leviticus. Leviticus 23:23-25
simply and briefly states that trumpets are to sound the first day of the seventh month and that it is a sacred holiday; verse 27 follows with the statement that the tenth day of the month is the Day of Atonement and verse 34 with the statement that the fifteenth day is the Feast of Booths. The overall impression is that the seventh month is especially sacred.
The use of trumpets to mark the beginning of this month is noteworthy. Trumpets are associated with the theophany on Sinai (Exodus 19:16,19
). Priests sounded trumpets prior to the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 6:16
), and trumpets were regularly used as a military signal (2 Samuel 2:28
). Prophets regularly referred to trumpets as warnings of judgment and destruction to come (Jeremiah 4:5
; 6:1 ; Ezekiel 33:3
). Trumpet blasts also signalled the inauguration of a new era, such as the installation of a new king (1 Kings 1:34
The trumpet blasts on the first day of the seventh month were meant to signal to Israel that they were entering a sacred season. The agricultural year was coming to a close; there was to be a reckoning with the sins of the people (the Day of Atonement); and Israel was to reenact the time of sojourning prior to gaining the promised land (the Feast of Booths).
The New Testament associates trumpets with the end of the age. Revelation describes the apocalyptic judgments as occurring in a series of trumpet blasts (chaps. 8-9). Jesus stated that the last judgment would be inaugurated with a trumpet blast (Matthew 24:31
), and Paul says that trumpets will sound on the day of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15 1 Thessalonians 4:16
). The point that trumpets initiate the end of one age in judgment and the beginning of another in resurrection should not be missed. Even if not a New Year's Day, the Feast of Trumpets heralded the close of the festival year, a time of reckoning with God, and a reenactment of the days of longing for the promised land.
The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) . The Day of Atonement was Israel's most solemn holy day since it was exclusively concerned with atoning for the sin of the people. It is described in detail in Leviticus 16 , and the solemnity of the day is underscored by the notation that the Lord spoke to Moses "after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the Lord" (Leviticus 16:1
). This was not a ceremony to be taken lightly. The Day of Atonement is more briefly described in Leviticus 23:26-32
and Numbers 29:7-11
. The Hebrew name yom hakkipurim is popularized as "Yom Kippur."
The ceremony took place on the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishri 10) and is rich with symbolism. Briefly, the details of the ceremony are as follows. The high priest would first bathe and then put on white undergarments and a white tunic; he would not wear the ceremonial insignia of the high priest. He offered a bull for the sin of himself and his house, and then took a censer with burning coals and incense into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled some blood from the bull on the ark of the covenant. He cast lots over two goats; one would be sacrificed and the other became the "scapegoat" (the goat for azazel
). He sacrificed the one goat for the sin of the people and sprinkled some of its blood on the ark. He then came out of the tent and cleansed the altar with the blood of the bull and the goat. He then put his hands on the head of the scapegoat and confessed the sins of the people over it. An appointed man then took the scapegoat out into the wilderness and released it; he had to wash his clothes and bathe before he could return to the camp. The high priest would leave his white clothing in the tent of meeting, bathe again, and then put on his regular priestly apparel. The bull and goat that had been sacrificed were to be burned entirely.
Aspects of the symbolism of the ceremony are fairly transparent in meaning. By bathing before entering the tent of meeting, the high priest avoided bringing any form of contamination into it. By bathing at the end of the ceremony, he removed the holiness from himself before returning to the community. In wearing linen garments rather than his regular priestly insignia, he showed himself to be a penitent sinner who had stripped himself of all dignity and presumption of rank. The clearest statement of the high priest's personal sinfulness was his sacrifice of a bull for the sin of himself and his family.
The real heart of the ceremony, however, and the real point of controversy, is in sacrifice of one goat and the release of the scapegoat. Two issues are at stake here. First, what is the meaning of the goat "for azazel
"? Second, what does this ceremony say about the Israelite concept of atonement?
Several interpretations of the goat for azazel
have been proposed. A common interpretation is that azazel
is a goat-demon of the desert. Verse 8 says there was one lot for Yahweh and one lot for azazel
, and this might imply that azazel
, like Yahweh, is the proper name of a supernatural being. Those who hold to this interpretation generally argue that the Israelites sent the goat to azazel
to placate the demon. This analysis is astonishing, however, in light of the prohibition against giving sacrifices to satyrs (sair ) in a text as close as Leviticus 17:7
. Some interpreters, however, take the more conservative line that this was merely a way of sending sin back to Satan. This interpretation is strained, however, since nowhere else does the Old Testament (or the New Testament) speak of returning sin to Satan as if it were his possession.
Another interpretation is that azazelx is a cliff from which the goat would be thrown. Others, similarly, take azazel
to mean "destruction" and thus understand the goat for azazel
to be a goat that will be destroyed. Either interpretation is possible, but if the goat was simply to be killed in the wilderness one might have expected the text to use more conventional language.
A traditional interpretation, however, that is still worthy of acceptance is azazel
is the "scapegoat, " that is, a goat to be sent away. This interpretation is found in the Vulgate (capro emissario ) and the Septuagint (apopompaio ), and is based on taking azazel
as a combination of ez
("goat") and azal
("depart"). As such, azazel
is a technical term for a goat taken out and released in ritual fashion. Verse 8 thus speaks of one goat for (i.e., as a sacrifice to) Yahweh and one goat for (i.e., to serve as) the scapegoat. This interpretation is in accord with normal Hebrew grammar and azazel
need not be taken as the proper name of a demon. The meaning of the ritual of releasing the scapegoat can only be determined in the context of Israel's understanding of atonement.
For some time, theologians, especially New Testament scholars, have debated whether the biblical concept of atonement includes a notion of propitiation (that is, whether sacrifice in some sense appeases the wrath of God). Those who reject the idea of propitiation assert that it is a pagan notion that makes God appear vicious. Those who believe that atonement includes propitiation maintain that the justice of God must be reckoned with for the character of God to be consistent. Most of the debate focuses on various New Testament passages such as Romans 3:25-26
and the precise meaning of Greek words such as hilasmos [