Deuteronomy 16:1-17: Three Times A Year

For many members of the Church of God, whatever their particular organizational loyalties, there is a certain sense of familiarity (and perhaps even dread) when an offertory messages goes to the most cliched of locations for an offertory message [1], Deuteronomy 16:16-17, which read: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Eternal 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 Eternal empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Eternal your God which He has given you.” These verses are so familiar, so cliched even, that the context of these verses within the worship system of ancient Israel is often entirely neglected. While many ministers have done a very good job of explaining what this verse means, the absence of the context both the near context as well as the larger context, often leaves these verses open to conflict as there are some who attempt to criticize others for asking for offerings more than three specific times in a year.

If one wants to be very technical in one’s reading about offerings, and has the time for a lengthy Bible study that is far outside of the narrow scope of this particular blog entry, reading chapters like Leviticus 1-7 and Numbers 28 and 29 would be instructive in talking about the larger extent of the offerings required in ancient Israel. It is not the purpose of this blog to talk about the subject of offerings specifically, but rather to place these scriptures about not appearing before the Eternal empty-handed, which are quoted so often that they are taken to be a truism that applies to the subject of giving offerings at Holy Days (but not normal services) which requires some explaining and finessing, but without an examination of the larger importance of those festival seasons as an aspect of God’s Sabbath command. Let us therefore at least hint at that importance today and examine the forgotten context of Deuteronomy 16 that examines these three festival seasons and explains what the three “times” in a year really mean and why it matters to us today.

Helpfully, Deuteronomy 16:1-15 gives us a sufficient understanding of what those three times in the year are. Let us look at those verses and then briefly comment on them as is necessary, given that they are vastly less familiar than the last two verses of the passage which are so familiar that they are taken for granted, first looking at Deuteronomy 16:1-8, which talk about the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread: “Observe the month of Abib, and keep the Passover to the Eternal your God, for in the month of Abib the Eternal your God brought you ought of Egypt by night. Therefore you shall sacrifice the Passover to the Eternal your God, from the flock and the herd, in the place where the Eternal chooses to put His name. You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread [2] 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 o the land of Egypt all the days of your life. And no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory for seven days, nor shall any of the meat which you sacrifice the first day at twilight remain overnight until morning. You may not sacrifice the Passover within any of your gates which the Eternal your God gives you; but at the place where the Eternal your God chooses to make His name abide, there you shall sacrifice the Passover at twilight, at the going down of the sun, at the time you came out of Egypt. And you shall roast and eat it in the place which the Eternal your God chooses, and in the morning you shall turn and go to your tents. Six days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a sacred assembly the Eternal your God. You shall do no work on it.”

The importance of the Passover to Christianity is of vital importance, given that Jesus Christ Himself gave us the symbol of the unleavened bread and the wine as being symbolic of his body and blood, a fact that is important enough to be mentioned in the Gospels as well as 1 Corinthians, to name a few locations. Let us note, though, a few elements of importance that may not be easy to recognize. For one, God expects the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread (including the festival of the firstfruits [3] [4]) to be observed in the place where God has set His name, and not within our normal homes and cities. This would presuppose some sort of travel to the Spring Holy Days, something which was common in the time of ancient Israel, but not something that is particularly common in our own experience within the Church of God, except among those who were in the Church of God in the early days when this was apparently a practice for some time. As might be noted, Deuteronomy 16:7 refers to the fact that this festival is kept in tents rather than our usual permanent dwellings. This passage gives a lot of food for thought, but food for thought that is seldom read or commented upon.

Deuteronomy 16:9-12 follows in talking about the Feast of Weeks, the second of the three missionary feasts, in the “summer” harvest of wheat so richly symbolic of the harvest of the firstfruits of believers: “You shall count seven weeks [4] for yourself; begin to count the seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the grain. Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Eternal your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Eternal your God blesses you. You shall rejoice before the Eternal your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your gates, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are among you, at the place where the Eternal your god chooses to make His name abide. And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.”

The Feast of Pentecost (or the Feast of Weeks, as it is known in the Hebrew scriptures) as it is described in Leviticus 23 has some special provisions for the care of the poor and needy within the community of Israel [5]. Deuteronomy 16:9-12, in talking about this same festival, shows the same universal concern for believers who may be considered marginal within the community of brethren: the fatherless, widows, strangers, servants, and landless and impoverished Levites [6] [7]. This is also a festival which ought to be familiar to Christians, given that it happens to be when the Holy Spirit was given to all of the believers of the early church seven weeks after the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As is fitting for this day, the Holy Spirit was not given only to the apostles or only to the leaders, but to the believers as a whole. The Feast of Weeks is a festival that ought to bind all of the brethren together in unity and loving concern, both because of the unity of the Spirit as well as the unity of our love and service and generosity to others as we are able.

Deuteronomy 16:13-15 speaks about the Feast of Tabernacles as follows: “You shall observe the Feast of Tabernacles seven days, when you have gathered from your threshing floor and from your winepress. 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 Eternal your God in the place which the Eternal chooses, because the Eternal your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you surely rejoice.”

Here again we see in the command about the Feast of Tabernacles for this festival to be something to be enjoyed by all, just as is the case with the Feast of Weeks. This is certainly one area of obeying God’s commands that comes easily to many of us, as the Feast of Tabernacles is generally a particular pleasure for the wide body of believers, and something that has long been the cause of a great deal of generosity [8]. Not surprisingly, the other fall feasts were often celebrated in biblical times at the temple as well [9]. Also unsurprisingly, we see a reference to the Fall feasts occur for Christians as well, although it happens to be the Day of Atonement being used as a marker for dangerous navigation after the Fall festivals when Paul is en route to Rome as as prisoner of conscience.

What we read of in Deuteronomy 16:1-17 is a threefold division of the Holy Days into seasons, discussing the most notable festivals within those seasons and (in the case of the Fall Holy Days in particular) not discussing all of the commanded assemblies that fall during that time, which are discussed elsewhere in greater detail. Are there other passages of the Bible that help us to understand the importance of these three missionary feasts in God’s design for the Holy Days in greater detail and depth of understanding? As it happens, there are. First, let us note that the importance of the Holy Day seasons is not something limited to Deuteronomy 16 alone. Second, let us at least briefly refer to the fact that the practice of the missionary feasts was something that was so important as to become embedded within the scriptures in a very important way.

The first place that this importance of seasons occurs in scripture is in the very Creation account itself, in Genesis 1:14-15: “Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so.” Here we see that the importance of seasons was established from the very beginning. The seasons we are familiar with in most of the temperate parts of the world at least are given poetically in Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease.” The fact that the reality and importance of the seasons, and their connection to work (and, through the Holy Days, to rest), are given in the solemn form of biblical poetry ought to impress upon us their importance, as the Bible’s poetry is an immensely serious matter.

We first explicitly see the trifold seasonal division of the Holy Days in Exodus 23:14-17 [10]: “Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year. You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread (you shall eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt; none shall appear before Me empty); and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Eternal God.” Here again we see these appointed times as seasons, with each of these seasons of harvest being known by their most notable festival.

Before we close, let us at least comment on the way that the Holy Days have been embedded into the scriptures in ways that are often unrecognized by many readers. For one, the celebration of the Holy Days is seen as a sign of covenant renewal at periods of righteousness within the history of Israel and Judah [9] [11]. This pattern of celebration is not something that is found in the “Old Covenant” time alone, but also the practice of Jesus Christ, His family, as well as the early church of God (Paul in particular was very serious about his travels and celebration of the festivals of God, matters which arose both in Acts as well as his epistles). In addition to this scattered evidence there is one very large chunk of embedded psalms about the vital importance of the missionary feasts of God, and that happens to be the obscure collection of Psalms known as the Psalms of Ascents [12], psalms which apparently were sung by the pilgrims to these three festival seasons, and psalms which remain inspirational and sometimes very well known even in our days when the context of those psalms has been lost and when the communal travel and worship is less commonly practiced.

Let us therefore note that Deuteronomy 16 has a much more rich importance for us than merely being a proof text about giving offerings to God when we assemble before Him in the place where He has set His name. This chapter is so well known for that purpose that its deeper meaning of the importance of God’s festivals in the overall scheme of God’s practice, and in the way that God’s festivals are supposed to bind us together with all believers and serve as a testament to our loyalty to God’s ways and our brotherhood with God’s people is to be celebrated. To the extent that we forget about this unity of spirit and love that is to bind us together, we fail to live up to the signs that God has called us to exhibit, in that our obedience of God’s ways is to bring us together with other believers rather than splinter us off into ever more divided and impotent groups proclaiming our special insights and purity while condemning others of only slightly different belief and practice. Let us therefore study and apply the rest of Deuteronomy 16 to our own lives so that we may better be examples of the ways of God which we have been called to model before a rebellious and fallen world.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/three-times-a-year/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/seven-days-you-must-eat-unleavened-bread/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/a-false-dilemma-between-polycarp-and-anicetus/

[4] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/counting-the-days/

[5] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/you-shall-leave-them-for-the-poor-and-for-the-stranger/

[6] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/nor-did-he-acknowledge-his-brothers-or-know-his-own-children-a-personal-reflection-on-the-tribe-of-levi/

[7] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/numbers-18-25-32-the-tithe-of-the-tithe/

[8] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/and-you-shall-rejoice-in-your-feast/

[9] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/sine-nomine/

[10] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/exodus-231-19-the-relationship-between-the-sabbath-and-justice/

[11] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/passover-and-the-pattern-of-religious-revival/

[12] Commentaries of some of these psalms include:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/psalm-129-yet-they-have-not-prevailed-against-me/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/23/your-children-like-olive-plants-a-reflection-on-psalm-127-2/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/unless-the-lord-the-city-keeps-the-military-insight-of-psalm-127/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/i-am-for-peace-psalm-120-and-the-role-of-religion-and-war/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/psalm-133-how-good-and-how-pleasant/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings, Psalms and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Deuteronomy 16:1-17: Three Times A Year

  1. Pingback: A Crisis Of Gratitude: On The Confluence Of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and Predatory Commercialism | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s