In trying to untangle the lengthy questions I received a few days ago from a reader , I would like to tackle one of the verses she alluded to, which happens to have been given first in Exodus 23:17 and then expanded on in a much more familiar verse, Deuteronomy 16:16. As is my custom in cases like this, I will post the verses and then comment on them at some length. The expression of interest here in this present discussion, of course, is “all your males.” It should be noted at the outset that this is not usually the context of these verses when they are discussed, but given that it is the gendered question of what God was doing here that is important, we will begin here as a way of introducing the larger topic of representation in the Bible, which we will examine in the near future if time permits. With that introduction, let us proceed to the verses in question.
Exodus 23:14-17 reads: “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 Lord God.” We see this command repeated in Deuteronomy 16:16: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord 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 Lord empty-handed.” It should be noted that these two verses are the only times where the expression “all your males” is used. It would be more convenient, of course, if the expression were more common, but as it is there are enough common elements to see a context.
If we expand the expression to include the expression for “every male,” we will see that there were two contexts in addition to this. Several verses (starting with Genesis 17:10) discuss the obligation that every male among the Israelites was to be circumcised. Later, starting with Numbers 1:2, we see that censuses were to be taken of every male above the age of 20, or at military age according to the view of the Bible. Moreover, each of these citizens was assessed an equal tax as a way of demonstrating their equality before God . In looking at the passages that deal with every male, there are a few connections that jump out. For one, these factors are all related to the responsibilities of men in ancient Israel: mandatory attendance at the pilgrimage feasts, payment of taxation and being potentially part of the armed forces. The absence of women from these concerns does not appear to have been viewed as a way that men were superior, but rather appear as a way in which men served as the representatives of their families in the business of church and state at the time. We will later show how this view of representation by heads of household continued in the New Testament with baptism instead of circumcision as the mark of the covenant, and we will see that women who were heads of household were considered as equal with men in this regard, even if the Bible considers female heads of household to be a rarer phenomenon.
Even so, the command for all the males to be represented was not a slight against women as it was a concession to poverty. While it is to be expected that if possible, all people would be able to assemble before God together, it was absolutely essential for there to be at least one representative from the family, namely the head of household, who was to instruct the rest of the family upon his return if they were unable to join him. In practice, in those few times we have a record of holy days being observed we have families showing up, such as the family of the Korahite Elkanah to Shiloh during the days of Eli the high priest. While there might be some reason why it would be a burden, especially for a family from a far flung area of Israel, for everyone in the family to go to where the Lord had put His name, there was no excuse for the entire family to be absent.
It should be noted that like taxation and military service, this too presented the men with a responsibility rather than necessarily authority. In cases where only the male head of household went to a pilgrimage feast, it would be his responsibility to convey the instruction gained there to his whole family so that they would all be in obedience to God’s ways as revealed through priests and prophets. This might seem to be a jarring task to men who might seldom speak two words that were not grunting or some sort of request to their womenfolk in contemporary times, but this same expectation that men would be able to inform their wives and children about messages is certainly relevant in our own time, especially if women have to miss messages because they are taking care of small children. Making sure that at least one member of the family is paying attention to what is said in church and takes their responsibilities as a representative of the family before God seriously in communicating what is heard and learned to the rest of the family is a responsibility that remains even if our society is structured differently than ancient Israel was. While we may see this law and its application as something that is in the past, the principle of representation still applies in the Bible and it has an important part in the way that conversion and baptism are to take place, and it is to that issue that we will turn next.
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