The Israelites gathered regularly to celebrate their relationship with God. Such festivals were marked by communal meals, music, singing, dancing, and sacrifices. They celebrated, conscious that God had graciously brought them into a relationship with him. Within this covenant he had committed himself to act on their behalf both in regular ways, such as the harvest, and in exceptional ways, such as deliverance from Egypt. At the festivals, Israel celebrated God’s work in its past, present, and future and reaffirmed its relationship with this covenant God.
We know of Israel’s festivals from several calendars in the Mosaic legislation (Exod. 23:14–17; 34:18–23; Lev. 23; Num. 28–29; Deut. 16:1–17), calendars further clarified by the prophets (e.g., Ezek. 45:18–25; Zech. 14), and narrative material (e.g., 2 Kings 23:21–23). Some read discrepancies between calendars as evidence of multiple sources, but this fails to account for the various purposes that these calendars served. The narrative and prophetic passages suggest that Israel did not observe these festivals as frequently as, and in the ways, God intended (e.g., Amos 8:5), but when Israel sought to renew its relationship with God, it often did so with a festival (e.g., 2 Kings 23:21–23).
Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread
Israel’s religious calendar began with Passover, the day set aside to commemorate deliverance from Egypt. Occurring in spring, this single day was joined with a weeklong celebration known as the Festival of Unleavened Bread, during which all males were required to make a pilgrimage to the sanctuary and offer the firstfruits of the barley harvest (Lev. 23:9–14). Israel observed Passover with rituals that reactualized the night God’s destroyer spared the Israelites in Egypt. A lamb was killed, and its blood was put on the doorposts of the homes and on the bronze altar in the sanctuary. The lamb was roasted and served with unleavened bread and bitter herbs while those partaking—dressed in their traveling clothes—listened to the retelling of the exodus story. No yeast was to be found anywhere among them, no work was to be done on the first and last days of the festival, and offerings were to be brought to the sanctuary (Num. 9:1–5; Josh. 5:10–11; 2 Kings 23:21–23; 2 Chron. 30; 35:1–19).
Early Christians associated Jesus’ death with that of the Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7–8), encouraged by Jesus’ comments at the Last Supper (described by the Synoptic Gospels as a Passover meal [e.g., Matt. 26:17–30]). Perhaps Jesus meant to emphasize that just as Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread reminded God’s people of his deliverance and provision, his followers would find true freedom and full provision in him.
The Festival of Weeks
Also known as the Festival of Harvest, the Day of Firstfruits, or Pentecost (because it occurred fifty days after Passover), the Festival of Weeks took place on the sixth day of the third month (corresponding to our May or June). This marked another occasion when all Jewish men were required to come to the sanctuary. They were to bring an offering of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, abstain from work, and devote themselves to rejoicing in God’s goodness.
Early in the NT period, if not before, this festival also became associated with the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. The Jews who assembled in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost as described in Acts 2 came to celebrate not only God’s provision but also the revelation of his nature and will. Significantly, God chose this day to send the Holy Spirit, the One who would produce a harvest of believers and reveal God more fully to the world.
The Festival of Tabernacles
So important was the Festival of Tabernacles (also known as the Festival of Ingathering or the Festival of Booths) that Israel sometimes referred to it as “the festival of the Lord” (Judg. 21:19) or simply “the festival” (cf. 1 Kings 8:65). Held from the fifteenth to the twenty-first of the seventh month (September–October), this was the third of the three pilgrimage festivals. For that week, Israel lived in booths to remind them of their ancestors’ time in the wilderness. They also celebrated the fruit harvest. They were to “take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice” before God for seven days (Lev. 23:40 NRSV). Avoiding all work on the first and last days of the festival, they were to mark the week with sacrifices, celebration, and joy. Also, every seventh year the law was to be read at this festival (Deut. 31:10–11).
The Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic laws compiled around AD 200 but often reflecting earlier traditions, records how Israel observed this festival during the early Roman period. As part of the celebration, men danced and sang in the courtyard of the temple while Levites, standing on the steps that led down from the court of the Israelites, played harps, lyres, cymbals, and other instruments. Two priests blew trumpets—one long blast, then a quavering one, then another long blast—while walking toward the eastern gate. When they reached the gate, they turned back toward the temple and said, “Our fathers when they were in this place turned with their backs toward the Temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, and they worshiped the sun toward the east [referring to the apostasy of the Jews as described by Ezekiel]; but as for us, our eyes are turned toward the Lord” (m. Sukkah 5:4). Another part of this festival involved the drawing of water for a libation offering from the Pool of Siloam with great ceremony and joy. John 7 records Jesus’ secretive departure to Jerusalem for the Festival of Tabernacles, where he spent several days teaching in the temple courts. It was on the last and greatest day of the festival when Jesus invited those thirsty to come to him and drink.
The Festival of Trumpets
Occurring on the first day of the seventh month (September–October), this feast marked the beginning of the civil and agricultural year for the Jews; it was also referred to as Rosh Hashanah (lit., “head/beginning of the year”). Observed as a Sabbath with sacrifices and trumpet blasts, this day was intended for rest and to begin preparations for the coming Day of Atonement. The Mishnah makes this connection more explicit by identifying the Festival of Trumpets as the day when “all that come into the world pass before [God] like legions of soldiers” or flocks of sheep to be judged (m. Rosh HaSh. 1:2).
The Day of Atonement
Some festivals, like Passover, looked back to what God had done or was doing for his people; other festivals, like Trumpets and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), focused on the relationship itself. The latter was marked by repentance and rituals designed to remove the nation’s sins and restore fellowship with God. Coming ten days after the Festival of Trumpets, this was a solemn occasion during which the Israelites abstained from eating, drinking, and other activities. This was the only prescribed annual fast in the Jewish calendar, though other fasts were added in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months to mourn the Babylonian exile (Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19).
In Leviticus, God clarified the purpose of this day: “On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (16:30). Not only would the people be purified, but so also would the sanctuary, so that God could continue to meet his people there. Sacrifices were offered for both priest and people, and the blood was taken into the most holy place. Only on Yom Kippur could this room be entered, and only by the high priest, who sprinkled blood on the cover of the ark of the covenant. Leaving that room, he also sprinkled blood in the holy place (16:14–17) and then on the bronze altar in the courtyard.
Yom Kippur was marked by another ritual that symbolized the removal of Israel’s sins, this one involving two goats. One goat, chosen by lot, was offered as a sacrifice to God. The high priest placed his hands on the other goat and transferred to it the sins of the nation. He then released the goat into the wilderness, for “the goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place” (Lev. 16:22).
The Mishnah describes how this day was observed when the second temple stood. The high priest, having been carefully prepared, washed, and clothed, placed both hands on the head of a bull and confessed his own sins. After this, the lots were drawn for the goats; the goat to be sacrificed had a thread tied around its throat, while the other had a scarlet thread bound around its head. When the high priest had confessed the sins of the priests over the bull, it was slaughtered, and its blood was collected in a basin. Taking coals from the bronze altar and incense from the holy place, he then entered the holy of holies. There he placed the incense on the coals, filling the room with smoke to obscure the ark from his view. Returning to the holy place, he offered a short prayer, lest he pray too long and “put Israel in terror” that he had died performing the ritual. He returned to the courtyard and took the basin of blood back into the most holy place. Dipping his finger into the blood, he sprinkled it with a whipping motion, and repeated this seven times. He did the same with the blood of the goat chosen for sacrifice, and then he poured out the remaining blood at the base of the bronze altar.
Then the high priest laid his hands on the head of the scapegoat and said, “O God, thy people, the House of Israel, have committed iniquity, transgressed, and sinned before thee. O God, forgive, I pray, the iniquities and transgressions and sins which thy people, the House of Israel, have committed and transgressed and sinned before thee; as it is written in the law of thy servant Moses . . .” (m. Yoma 6:2). The goat was then led outside Jerusalem, where it was pushed down a ravine to its death, apparently to keep it from wandering back into the city.
The Mishnah recognized that rituals alone were insufficient for true forgiveness, for it contains this warning: “If a man said, ‘I will sin and repent, and sin again and repent,’ he will be given no chance to repent. [If he said,] ‘I will sin and the Day of Atonement will effect atonement,’ then the Day of Atonement effects no atonement. For transgressions that are between man and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement, but for transgressions that are between a man and his fellow the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow” (m. Yoma 8:9).
The book of Hebrews uses the symbols of Yom Kippur to describe Jesus’ death. As the high priest entered the most holy place, so Jesus entered God’s presence, carrying not the blood of bull and goat but his own. His once-for-all death at the “culmination of the ages” (Heb. 9:26) not only allows him to remain in God’s presence (10:12) but also gives us access to God’s presence as well (10:19–22).
Every seven years, the Israelites were to observe a “Sabbath of the land” (Lev. 25:6 ESV), a time for the land to rest. They could not sow fields or prune vineyards, but they could eat what grew of itself (Lev. 25:1–7). Deuteronomy 15:1–11 speaks of all debts being canceled (some would say deferred) every seventh year, presumably the same year the land was to lie fallow. When Israel was gathered at the Festival of Tabernacles during this Sabbath Year, the law of Moses was to be read aloud. The Chronicler described the seventy years of Babylonian exile as “sabbaths” for the land, perhaps alluding to the neglect of the Sabbath Year (2 Chron. 36:21; cf. Lev. 26:43). Those returning from exile expressed their intent to keep this provision (Neh. 10:31), and it appears to have been observed in the intertestamental period (see 1 Macc. 6:48–53; Josephus, Ant. 14.202–10).
This year seems intended to maintain the fertility of the land and to allow Israel’s economy to “reset,” equalizing wealth and limiting poverty. Observing such a provision took great faith and firm allegiance, for they had to trust God for daily bread and put obedience above profit. Rereading the law at the Festival of Tabernacles reminded the Israelites of God’s gracious covenant and their required response.
God instructed Israel to count off seven “sevens” of years and in the fiftieth year, beginning on the Day of Atonement, to sound a trumpet marking the Jubilee Year. As in the Sabbath Year, there was to be no sowing and reaping. Further, the land was released from its current owners and returned to those families to whom it originally belonged. Individual Israelites who had become indentured through economic distress were to be freed. The assumption underlying the Jubilee Year was that everything belonged to God. He owned the land and its occupants; the Israelites were only tenants and stewards (Lev. 25:23, 55). As their covenant lord, he would provide for their needs even during back-to-back Sabbath Years (Lev. 25:21). The year began on the Day of Atonement, perhaps to emphasize that the best response to God’s redemptive mercy is faith in his provision and mercy to others. Although the Jubilee Year is commanded in the Mosaic law and spoken about by the prophets (Isa. 61:1–2; Ezek. 46:17), rabbis, and Jesus (Luke 4:18–19), Scripture is silent on how or if Israel observed this year.
The beginning of each month was marked with the sounding of trumpets, rejoicing, and sacrifices (Num. 10:10; 28:11–15). There is some indication that work was to be suspended on this day, as on the Sabbath (Amos 8:5), and that people gathered for a meal (1 Sam. 20:5, 18, 24, 27). By faithfully observing this day, Israel was in a position to properly observe the remaining days, set up, as they were, on the lunar calendar. Paul learned of some in Colossae who were giving undue attention to New Moon celebrations (Col. 2:16).
Beyond the festivals commanded in the law of Moses, the Jews added two more to their sacred calendar, one during the postexilic period and one between the Testaments. Both commemorated God’s deliverance of his people from their enemies. A wave of anti-Semitic persecution swept over the Jews living in Persia during the reign of Xerxes (486–465 BC). God delivered his people through Esther, and the Jews celebrated this deliverance with the festival of Purim. Their enemies determined when to attack by casting lots, so the Jews called this festival “Purim,” meaning “lots.” It was celebrated on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the twelfth month (February-March) with “feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22).
Festival of Dedication
During the intertestamental period, the Jews came under great persecution from the Seleucids, who outlawed the practice of Judaism and desecrated the Jerusalem temple. After recapturing the temple, the Jews began the process of purification. On the twenty-fifth day of their ninth month, in the year 164 BC, the Jews rose at dawn and offered a lawful sacrifice on the new altar of burnt offering which they had made. The altar was dedicated, to the sound of hymns, zithers, lyres and cymbals, at the same time of year and on the same day on which the gentiles had originally profaned it. The whole people fell prostrate in adoration and then praised Heaven who had granted them success. For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar, joyfully offering burnt offerings, communion and thanksgiving sacrifices. . . . Judas [Maccabees], with his brothers and the whole assembly of Israel, made it a law that the days of the dedication of the altar should be celebrated yearly at the proper season, for eight days beginning on the twenty-fifth of the month of Chislev [December], with rejoicing and gladness. (1 Macc. 4:52–56, 59 NJB)
What did God want to impress on his people by commanding and permitting these specific festivals? First, these festivals reminded Israel of God’s help in the past, how he delivered them from Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness wanderings, or protected them from their enemies. Second, the festivals were occasions to celebrate God’s present provision. He had promised to provide for his covenant partner; the festivals, especially those timed to occur at the harvest, were occasions to celebrate how faithfully he had kept that promise for another year and opportunities to commit to providing for the needs of others.
The festivals prompted the Israelites not only to look back to God’s help in the past and recognize God’s help in the present, but also to look ahead, anticipating the promised consummation. The OT announced God’s intention to bring all nations into full allegiance, and the festivals were occasions to anticipate that day. Isaiah spoke of a festival in which all the nations would share: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isa. 25:6). God promised to bless “foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isa. 56:6–7). Micah predicted a day when the nations would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Mic. 4:1–5), and Zephaniah anticipated when God would “purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder,” even bringing offerings to the temple (Zeph. 3:9–10). According to Zechariah, a time was coming when “the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles” (Zech. 14:16). Israel’s festivals allowed them to look back at what God had done, was doing, and was going to do for them and, through them, for the whole world.
The Israelites experienced a wide range of emotions during these festivals, but the prevailing emotion was joy. They rejoiced in their selection by God, living “together in unity” (Ps. 133:1), in God’s deliverance, provision, and protection, and in the hope of God’s consummation of his plan. Over and over, God instructed them to gather and rejoice in his presence, suggesting a fourth insight: a God who desires his people’s happiness must love his people.
Finally, the festivals were occasions to recognize God’s rule over Israel. Especially in an agricultural economy such as Israel’s, to refrain from work on the Sabbath and on festival days was to confess God’s sovereignty over time and to admit dependence on God. To leave house and fields and travel to Jerusalem confessed faith in God to protect. Offerings of firstfruits confessed that the whole harvest came from God. When they gathered, it was in the sanctuary, God’s palace, yet another reminder that God was Israel’s king, and they were his subjects.