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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 23

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Here begins the fourth major division of Leviticus dealing principally with the various holy days and festivals observed by the children of Israel. This division comprises Leviticus 23-25, with Leviticus 24 being somewhat of a parenthesis.

Significantly, these great festivals outlined here are still observed by the Jews all over the world, although with changes that have inevitably occurred. There was only one fast day, the Day of Atonement. In post-exilic times, the Jews imposed many fasts upon their people, but without God’s command or sanction. It was a boast of the Pharisee (Luke 18) that he “fasted twice in the week”!

This part of Leviticus is distinguished by the continued use of “I am the Lord your God,” frequently used to terminate paragraphs. Here it divides this chapter into two parts detailing the spring festivals (Leviticus 23:22), and the autumn festivals (Leviticus 23:43). The major divisions of the chapter ending in those verses are further subdivided by the clause, “this is a permanent rule for your descendants wherever you dwell” (Leviticus 23:14; Leviticus 23:21; Leviticus 23:31; Leviticus 23:41).

The principal thrust of the chapter regards the people’s observance of these festivals. The detailed types of sacrifices required, which concerned chiefly the priests, are presented later in Numbers (Numbers 28-29).

Some of these festivals occurred at times of the year when many festivals in the pagan world had been observed continually for ages, and, as we should have expected, critical enemies of the Bible try to find the origin of these O.T. festivals in the older pagan ceremonies occurring about the same time, but all such attempts have failed. “The original ground of these festivals was not the natural celebrations of pagans, but historical. All of these observances derived from circumstances attending the birth of the nation of Israel and their deliverance from Egyptian bondage.”(F1) The divine origin of these celebrations is seen, for example, in the very name Passover, which memorializes the passing over of the houses of Israel the night when an angel of God slew the firstborn in all Egypt. Also, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, during which no leaven was used for a whole week, still speaks, as it did at the inception of the celebration, of the haste in which the children of Israel were brought out of the land of their bondage, there being no time for leaven to be allowed to rise! The finger of God was in all of those ancient festivals, and it is still visible for those who will observe it. Thus, “The naturalistic identification of these feasts with the harvest feasts of other nations is a mistake.”(F2)

Verses 1-3

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, The set feasts of Jehovah, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are my set feasts. Six days shall work be done: but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of work: it is a sabbath unto Jehovah in all your dwellings.”

“Holy convocations” These words “do not signify the necessity of a journey to the sanctuary. Appearance at the tabernacle to hold the holy convocations was not regarded as necessary either in the law itself or in later orthodox custom.”(F3) As a matter of fact, and of history, religious meetings for the purpose of conducting worship were held every sabbath day WHEREVER Jews lived; and, “It was out of these that the synagogues arose.”(F4)

The sabbath itself is here mentioned somewhat parenthetically, because the sabbath itself was NOT one of the great festivals about to be proclaimed. However, it was a most vital part of the Jewish religion and is appropriately named here at the outset. Besides, the observance of additional sabbaths was involved in festivals themselves.

“Ye shall do no manner of work” (Leviticus 23:3). This is a more restrictive commandment than the one found in Leviticus 23:7-8; Leviticus 23:21; Leviticus 23:25; Leviticus 23:35-36, where “ye shall do no servile work,” is the prohibition. “There is a definite indication here that the regular, frequently occurring sabbath was intended to be a holier day than any of the set feasts.”(F5) Similarly, in Christianity, the extreme sanctity of the regular, frequently-occurring Lord’s Day services, constitute the holiest occasions of all. What a shame it is that the historical church has tended to downgrade the weekly observance and give the great stress to “special occasions,” not commanded by the Lord at all, but devised by men, such as Easter, Christmas, Whitsunday, Good Friday, etc.

Verses 4-8

“These are the set feasts of Jehovah, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their appointed season. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, is Jehovah’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto Jehovah: seven days ye shall eat unleavened bread. In the first day ye shall have a holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work. But ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto Jehovah seven days: in the seventh day is a holy convocation; ye shall do no servile work.”

Sometimes one encounters the proposition that “six feasts are mentioned in this chapter, whereas there are only three in Exodus 34,” with the usual reference to “later editors,” “redactors,” etc., but, as Kellogg pointed out, the three major feasts here: Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles are carefully distinguished and set apart from the others by “the use of the Hebrew word [~haggiym], a word that sets them apart and signifies a special degree of gladness and festivity.”(F6) The purpose in Exodus was to name only the [~haggiym]; whereas, here, “the appointed seasons” are named (distinguished by the Hebrew word [~haggam]). Since the [~haggam] included also the [~haggiym] given in Exodus 34, they were of necessity included here also.(F7)

PASSOVER. This was the great celebration of the night of God’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage, an event that followed immediately after the tenth and final visitation of God’s wrath upon Egypt in the slaying of the firstborn. It was celebrated on the fourteenth of Nisan (the old name was Abib), the first month of the ecclesiastical year.

FEAST OF UNLEAVENED BREAD. This followed at once upon the celebration of Passover; it lasted seven days; and both the first day (the fifteenth) and the last day (the twenty-first) were also observed as holy convocations (sabbaths, or periods of rest). In this appears the back-to-back sabbaths on the successive dates of Nisan 14 and 15 which also occurred while our Lord was in the tomb. That is why Matthew wrote, “And after the sabbaths (plural) were past… came Mary Magdalene… etc.” (Matthew 28:1, see the Greek Text). The recognition of this truth has a significant bearing upon determining what day it was when our Lord was crucified.

“Ye shall do no servile work” (Leviticus 23:7). We have already noted that this was a less strict command than the “no manner of work” prohibited on the sabbath. Orlinsky gave the meaning of this phrase as, “You shall not work at your occupation.”(F8)

Both the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were discussed at length in my commentary on Exodus, and they will appear a third time in Numbers 28.

It should be remembered, however, that both Passover and Unleavened Bread are significant in their implications for Christians. Christ is our Passover. He is the great Antitype of the Passover Lamb. His blood redeems people, not by being sprinkled on a door-post, but by Christ’s shedding his blood on Calvary for the sins of the whole world.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread is likewise significant. “Bread signifies communion or fellowship with Christ, and the leaven which was purged out signifies sin, or evil.”(F9) Christians are commanded to “purge out the old leaven” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8; 2 Corinthians 7:1; and Galatians 5:7; Galatians 5:9).

Verses 9-14

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye are come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring the sheaf of the first-fruits of your harvest unto the priest: and he shall wave the sheaf before Jehovah, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it. And in the day when ye wave the sheaf, ye shall offer a he-lamb without blemish a year old for a burnt-offering unto Jehovah. And the meal-offering thereof shall be two tenth parts of an ephah of fine flour mingled with oil, an offering made by fire unto Jehovah for a sweet savor; and the drink-offering thereof shall be of wine, the fourth part of a hin. And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched grain, nor fresh ears, until this selfsame day, until ye have brought the oblation of your God: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.”

Lofthouse and other critics, ever anxious to attack the unity of Biblical passages, assert: “That the chapter is not a unity is shown by the new beginnings in Leviticus 23:9.”(F10) Such expressions as that found in Leviticus 23:9 are found literally dozens of times in the O.T., and the use of it again here is no evidence whatever of a “new beginning.” Those who hope to fragment the unity of this chapter must find something a lot better than that.

“On the morrow after the sabbath shall wave it” “These words mean `the day after the first day of unleavened bread’.”(F11) The great significance of this lies in the fact of ultimate fulfillment of the inherent prophecy that Christ would rise from the dead on “the third day.” Christ was crucified on Thursday. Friday was the first day of unleaven bread. Saturday was the ordinary sabbath. And Sunday was the day after the morrow of the first day of unleavened bread. Thus, it was the occurrence during the Passion Week of those back-to-back sabbaths that resulted in the fiftieth day (the Pentecost) coming on Sunday. (See my commentary on Mark 14:42.)

“The meaning of this phrase has been the subject of much controversy. Is the sabbath in question the ordinary sabbath, or is it the first day of unleavened bread (also a sabbath)?”(F12) Wenham went on to declare that, “Orthodox Judaism and most modern commentators favor the second suggestion.”(F13) Of course, there was controversy among the Jews over which was meant even in the days of Christ’s earthly ministry. The Pharisees insisted that the sabbath was a weekly sabbath (Saturday), and the Sadducees made it the “high sabbath” of the first day of unleavened bread (John 19:31). This old controversy is reflected in the statement of the gospel of Luke that, “When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all together… etc.” (Acts 2:1) It is a pity that this extremely illuminating passage should have been changed in our version (American Standard Version), and in the Douay, RSV and many others. The use of “fully come” shows that there was a dispute about when it came, that the apostles honored the more extensive count (as in the second interpretation), and that the Holy Spirit came on the day that the apostles accepted as Pentecost. It is notable that the apostles did not follow the lead of the Pharisees. Lightfoot noted that the apostles’ Pentecost did not coincide with the Jewish Pentecost.(F14) Dosker also admitted that according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Passover that year occurred on Thursday, Nisan 14, hence, Passover fell on Saturday, which, of course, would have been the case if there had been only one sabbath that week! Dosker was also mystified by the fact that according to John, the Passover that year occurred on Friday the 14th of Nisan. The back-to-back sabbaths explain everything connected with this question, which is called “one of the knottiest problems in harmonizing the Christian gospels.”(F15) The only thing that makes this problem difficult, however, is the erroneous tradition that Christ was crucified on Friday. Add that other sabbath to John’s calculations and Pentecost comes out on Sunday where it belongs. The “sabbath” in Matthew and Mark was not Saturday at all, but Friday, “the high day” mentioned by John, namely, the first day of unleavened bread.

“Ye shall bring the sheaf of the first-fruits” (Leviticus 23:10). Just as the Passover was inherently a prophecy of the crucifixion of Christ our Passover, so also the first-fruits three days later contained the inherent prophecy of the rising of Christ from the dead “on the third day.” “Thus this feast prefigured the resurrection of Christ as `the first-fruits’ from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:23, Romans 8:29).”(F16)

“And the drink-offering” This verse and Leviticus 23:18; Leviticus 23:37 are the only mention of a drink-offering in Leviticus.(F17) Apparently, the drink-offering was always the accompaniment of a greater offering and did not appear to be of the same rank and importance. How this wine was used was given thus by Josephus: “They bring the same quantity of oil which they do of wine, and they pour the wine about the altar.”(F18)

In later times this feast of the first-fruits came to be called Pentecost, which is derived from the Greek word meaning “fiftieth,” which was reckoned by counting seven weeks (49 days) plus one day after the Passover. This complete cycle of seven weeks also resulted in its being called “the Feast of Weeks.”

Verses 15-21

“And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave-offering; seven sabbaths shall there be complete: even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meal-offering unto Jehovah. Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave-loaves of two tenth parts of an ephah: they shall be of fine flour, they shall be baken with leaven, for first-fruits unto Jehovah. And ye shall present with the bread seven lambs without blemish a year old, and one young bullock, and two rams: they shall be a burnt-offering unto Jehovah, with their meal-offering, and their drink-offerings, even an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor unto Jehovah. And ye shall offer one he-goat for a sin-offering, and two he-lambs a year old for a sacrifice of peace-offerings. And the priest shall wave them with the bread of the first-fruits for a wave-offering before Jehovah, with the two lambs: they shall be holy to Jehovah for the priest. And ye shall make proclamation on the selfsame day; there shall be a holy convocation unto you; ye shall do no servile work: it is a statute forever in of all your dwellings throughout your generations.”

“A new meal-offering” This was to be new in several ways:

(1) It would be from a new crop.

(2) It would be of a new kind of grain (wheat), barley being used for the first-fruits (Leviticus 23:13). “The Talmudic tradition is that this offering was wheat, whereas the first-fruits was of barley.”(F19)

(3) The loaves would be baked with leaven (Leviticus 23:17), contrasting with the bread of the feast of unleavened bread.

(4) This “newness” prefigured the coming of the Gentiles (a new kind of people) into God’s church, which began on Pentecost, with the significant fact (typified by the leaven) that there would continue an element of evil within the holy church itself. This latter fact received emphasis from Jesus Christ in the great parables of the kingdom which represented the “tares” growing in the wheat, and the “good and bad fishes alike” being encompassed within the visible structure of it (See Matthew 13).

(5) The use of leavened bread on this occasion may also have indicated that, “complete and final redemption was not yet attained by the church,(F20) but that her probation had begun.

PENTECOST. The great festival proclaimed here was that of the fiftieth day, or Pentecost, as reckoned from the day after the morrow of the first day of unleavened bread. (See Leviticus 23:11.) This was the first day of the week, Sunday, the day of the week on which Jesus rose from the dead, the church was begun, and that of successive appearances of Jesus Christ to his disciples assembled for Lord’s Day worship. (See the extended comment on “Pentecost” in my commentary on Acts 2:1.)

“Ye shall offer a new meal-offering” (Leviticus 23:16). Orlinsky gave the meaning here as, “An offering of new grain,”(F21) but, as indicated by subsequent Jewish practice, it might also have included the meaning of “a new kind of grain.” (Wheat instead of barley).

“Two wave-loaves… baken with leaven” (Leviticus 23:17). Why two loaves? Unger was of the opinion that, “This anticipated the N.T. Pentecost when, under the administration of the Holy Spirit, both Jews and Gentiles were baptized into union with the glorified Christ.”(F22)

Verse 22

“And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them for the poor, and for the sojourner: I am Jehovah your God.”

This was discussed under Leviticus 19:9-10; and this passage confirms what we supposed there, that a consideration for the poor lay behind such instructions as these. “Thanksgiving to the Lord can frequently be best demonstrated by acts of kindness for the underprivileged.”(F23) Note that the expression, “I am Jehovah your God,” divides the spring festivals from the autumn festivals.

Verses 23-25

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation. Ye shall do no servile work; and ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto Jehovah.”

Perhaps one of the great reasons for celebrating a feast of trumpets on the first day of the seventh month was to usher in the Day of Atonement and the Festival of Tabernacles a short time later. Also, this was the Jewish New Year, the ROSH HASHANAH still observed by the Jews. To understand this, one must remember that the Jews had at least two calendars: (1) that of the religious year; and (2) that of the civil year. This month was called Tishri by the Jews, but an older name is given to it in 1 Kings 8:2, where it is called Ethanim.

Many scholars have pointed out that the long interval between Pentecost and the feast of Trumpets signaling the arrival of the Harvest Festival (Tabernacles) corresponds to the age of the Church from Pentecost to the Final Judgment.(F24) This seems reasonable enough. The church’s age will surely end with the “sound of the trumpet” so often mentioned in the N.T. in connection with the Second Advent, and that the harvest festival immediately afterward suggests the harvesting of God’s people from the earth is logical enough. Christ himself used the harvest metaphor, and it recurs repeatedly in the Book of Revelation.

There are divided opinions about what kind of trumpet was used. The ram’s horn seems to be the most ancient device used for this, but later trumpets were long instruments fashioned of metal. We found no Biblical clarification of the question. The Hebrew word here means simply “loud blasts.”(F25) Here is “the first mention of the festival of trumpets” in the Bible.(F26) It was upon this occasion (first day of seventh month) that Ezra read the law publicly (Nehemiah 8:2). The numerology of the Jews laid stress upon the sacred number seven, and it was appropriate that the seventh month in which occurred both the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles should be ushered in ceremonially by the Feast of Trumpets.

Verses 26-32

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Howbeit on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement: it shall be a holy convocation unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; and ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto Jehovah. And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before Jehovah your God. For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day; he shall be cut off from his people. And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any manner of work in that same day, that soul will I destroy from among his people. Ye shall do no manner of work: it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be unto you a sabbath of solemn rest, and ye shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even unto even, shall ye keep your sabbath.”

The Day of Atonement was a high sabbath of the utmost holiness, as attested by the recurring admonition, “no manner of work,” thus ranking it with the weekly sabbath in sanctity. For comment on “afflict your souls” see under Leviticus 16:29. Although fasting is not mentioned here, it was, nevertheless, a day of fasting, being, in fact, the only fast day that God commanded Israel to keep. Of course, the abbreviated reference to the Day of Atonement here is due to the fact of its having already been thoroughly detailed in Leviticus 16. Moses’ method through the Five Books is that of returning again and again to the same subject, but with full consciousness of the sum total of all that he wrote.

YOM KIPPUR. This Day of Atonement is still honored by the Jews who call it Yom Kippur.

Verses 33-36

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the feast of tabernacles for seven days unto Jehovah. On the first day shall be a holy convocation; ye shall do no servile work. Seven days ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto Jehovah: on the eighth day shall be a holy convocation unto you; and ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto Jehovah: it is a solemn assembly; ye shall do no servile work.”

SUCCOTH (booths). This feast is the one called Succoth by the Jews, due to the requirement that people should live in booths, thus remembering the times when they were in slavery and in the times of their journeys in the wilderness. It came at the conclusion of the annual harvest and was also called the Harvest Festival. The booths were constructed much after the manner of the brush arbors that were widely used for the church in the early part of this century as outdoor gathering places where the gospel was preached.

Verses 37-38

“These are the set feasts of Jehovah, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to offer an offering made by fire unto Jehovah, a burnt-offering, and a meal-offering, a sacrifice, and drink-offerings, each on its own day; besides the sabbaths of Jehovah, and besides your gifts, and besides all your vows, and besides all your freewill-offerings, which ye give unto Jehovah.”

This passage mentions a number of offerings without giving specific instructions for the manner of their offering, except for the order that they should be offered on the appropriate days. Since these instructions were for the people generally, it was not necessary to detail all of the rules which the priests would follow in carrying out these instructions. Moses would cover these in Numbers 28 ff.

Verses 39-44

“Howbeit, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruits of the land, ye shall keep the feast of Jehovah seven days: on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before Jehovah your God seven days. And ye shall keep it a feast unto Jehovah seven days in the year: it is a statute forever throughout your generations; ye shall keep it in the seventh month. Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generation may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am Jehovah your God. And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the set feasts of Jehovah.”

These instructions pertain to the Feast of Tabernacles (booths). The mention of the “fruit of goodly trees” (Leviticus 23:40) does not have the usual meaning of “fruit,” but is a reference to the appropriate branches to be used for constructing the booths. The mention of the willow tree, for example, proves this, because it was not a FRUIT tree at all. The palm, the willow, and other types of trees would have provided what was needed.

“When ye have gathered in the fruits of the land” This specific mention of the harvest is significant.

If Pentecost typified the first-fruits of the world’s harvest in the ingathering of an election from all nations (Jews and Gentiles), the completion of that Harvest in the great spiritual ingathering final and universal must be typified by the Feast of Tabernacles.(F27)

The harvest metaphor so often utilized by Jesus Christ justifies such an analogy. We shall conclude this chapter with a prophetic picture of the Final Judgment of mankind set forth in the terminology of the harvest metaphor:

“And another angel came out from the temple, crying with a great voice to him that sat on the cloud, Send forth thy sickle, and reap: for the hour to reap is come; for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” (Revelation 14:15-16)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Leviticus 23". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/leviticus-23.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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