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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Leviticus 23

Verse 4

4. These are the feasts of the Lord. The other festivals which Moses here enumerates have an affinity to the Sabbath. In the first place the Passover is put, the mystery of which I have annexed, not without reason, to the First Commandment, for its institution was there explained, inasmuch as it acted as a restraint on the people from falling away to strange gods. In that rite they were initiated to the service of God, that they might abandon all the superstitions of the Gentiles, and acquiesce in the pure instruction of the Law. The Passover, therefore, in itself was a supplement to the First Commandment; yet the day recurring from year to year is fitly enumerated amongst the other festivals. And surely it is plain that the Fourth Commandment had no other object or use except to exercise the people in the service of God; but since the killing of the lamb represented the grace of adoption whereby God had bound them to Himself, it was necessary to annex it to the First Commandment. Let my readers therefore now be content with the other part, i.e., that its annual celebration was a help to the perpetual recollection by the Israelites of their redemption.

Verse 10

10. When ye be come to the land. Moses now lays down rules as to the second day of festival, which was dedicated to the offering of the first-fruits. The ceremony is described that they should deliver a handful into the hand of the priest; though some think that the measure is signified which was the tenth part of an Ephah. The word Omer (345) means both. But in this passage the expression “handful” is most appropriate, since it represented in a lively manner the beginning of the harvest; inasmuch as it was not lawful to taste even of parched grain before the offering of the firstfruits. The priest lifted it up before the altar, but with a waving motion; for thus the Hebrews distinguish between the two modes, (346) תרומה, therumah, which was lifted up, and תנופה , thenuphah, which is mentioned here, and which was waved towards the four points of the compass, and then a sacrifice and libation were made. We know that heathen nations (347) thus invented gods and goddesses presiding over the fruits, so that the earth was the great and common mother of gods and men. Into this error the Jews would have straightway fallen, or would have gorged themselves without thinking about God, unless they had been reminded by this ceremony that the Father of their subsistence was in heaven, whose minister the earth was for providing their food. For since the whole harvest was consecrated in the single handful, it was as if they had shewn that whatever the earth produced altogether belonged to God. But thus the admirable goodness of God was conspicuous, when, in claiming what was His own, He did not at all diminish the food of the people; afterwards they received, as if from His hand, whatever each individual had stored at home, just as though it had come out of His sanctuary. Paul’s statement is well known, “For if the first-fruit be holy, the lump is also holy,” (Romans 11:16,) wherein he alludes to this ancient ceremony of the Law. The word which they translate “unto your acceptance,” (348) is the same which interpreters elsewhere render “good pleasure,” and refer to the people, as if it were said, “at your own will,” or “ ad libitum,” as it is barbarously said. But I have before shewn that it must be understood of the favor and good-will of God, although it is transferred in a passive sense to the people, as in Psalms 106:4, רצון, ratson, or the favor of the chosen people, means the gratuitous love wherewith God regards His Church. But Moses signifies that the fruits of the earth cannot otherwise be eaten with a clear conscience, because they would not feel that God accepted them, and looked upon them with paternal affection. The ceremony, now abolished, still remains in full force amongst us as regards its substance, for nothing but the acknowledgment of God’s bounty, which springs from faith and thanksgiving, sanctifies whatever we receive of His hand.

Next to the first-fruits comes the feast of seven weeks, which the Greeks have rendered Pentecost, having reference to the same object; for after they had offered the first-fruits from the standing harvest, they added another token of gratitude in the shape of the loaves and the greater sacrifice. It must however be observed, that the two loaves are required of every family, and that they consist of two-tenths; but that the sacrifices of seven lambs, one bullock, and two rams, and also of a goat and two lambs, is enjoined upon the whole people. This is in fact the legitimate acknowledgment of God’s liberality, because the waving of the sheaf, as being performed in haste, was but a trifling one; since we have seen that before they touched the grain, God required that the first-fruits should be offered to Him, until at leisure and in a more convenient season they might more fully discharge their duty. Thus what we have above observed respecting the first-fruits, was only a preparation for the day of Pentecost, on which the holy oblation was not ears of wheat, but loaves made of the new wheat.

(345) “The word עמר , gomer, was both a measure, which was the tenth part of an ephah, as also a sheaf, or handful, ( δράγματα, LXX.,) as it is taken where Ruth is said to have gathered among the sheaves; and the reason is, because usually that which was beaten out of a sheaf might fill a ghomer.” — Willet, in loco.

(346) Vide ante, p. 132.

(347) Compare Virgil, Georgic 1:—

Vos, O clarissima mundi Lumina, labentem coelo quae ducitis annum, Liber et alma Ceres; vestro si munere tellus Chaoniam pingui glandem mutavit arista, Poculaque inventis Acheloia miscuit uvis, etc — 5:5-9.

(348) See note #284

Verse 24

24. In the seventh month, in the first day of the month. I wonder how it ever entered the mind of the Jews (349) that in the feast of trumpets the deliverance of Isaac was commemorated, when a goat was substituted to be slain in his stead; (350) but they have invented this with their wonted audacity. Surely it is as baseless as it is unreasonable. Others more rightly suppose that it was a preparation for the approaching feast of atonement, on account of the slight interval of time; for since this day is distinguished by no peculiar mark, it is probable that it ought not to be separated from the other which follows soon afterwards, viz., on the tenth day. Unless, perhaps, it is more probable that they were thus called together once a year by the sound of trumpets, first of all, that they might learn that all their sacred assemblies were appointed by the voice of God; and secondly, that this His voice was thus renewed, that they might always be ready to obey Him. And this seems to signify by the expression, “a memorial of blowing of trumpets;” as if He had said that the trumpets sounded in their ears once a year, that they might be attentive to God’s voice throughout their lives, and ever willing to follow whithersoever He should command them to go. Others think that the trumpets sounded at the beginning of the month, that they might prepare themselves for the three festivals, and also because this month was remarkable both in the Sabbatical year and in the Jubilee. But what, if when God displaced this month from being the beginning of the year to stand seventh, He chose to leave it some traces of its original dignity? for by general consent it is admitted that, until the people came out of Egypt, this was the first month. Some even think that the world was created in it, which is not without probable show of reason. And the Jews now also, in political matters and in things which relate to this earthly life, retain this original computation in accordance with unbroken custom: it is only in sacred matters that they commence the year in March. This indeed seems to me the probable reason why, on the day now referred to, God renewed the memory of His dominion by a solemn proclamation, and assigned this seventh month both to the Jubilee and the Sabbatical year. (351) The solemnity was completed in one day, differing very little from an ordinary Sabbath, except by the trumpet-blowing and the sacrifice, as is described in Numbers 29:0. For Moses there speaks of more than he does here; he there enumerates a calf, a ram, seven lambs, a goat for a sin-offering, with its accompaniments, besides the burnt-offering of the new moon, and commands an offering to be made by fire of them all. Here he speaks generally in a single word.

(349) “The Hebrews and Latins hold that the feast of trumpets was instituted in memory of the patriarch Isaac having been delivered from the sword of his father, and of the ram supplied in his place, (Genesis 22:11,) and thence that they used to blow rams’ horns on that day, etc. Moreover, the Hebrews report that on this very day, i.e., the first of the seventh month, Isaac was delivered from slaughter. This blowing of trumpets was therefore a memorial of Isaac’s deliverance, and also a silent prayer that God would remember them, and as He had delivered Isaac, would also deliver his posterity from peril of death.” — Corn. a Lapide, in loco; see also R. Salomon Jarchi, in loco.

(350) “ Se trouva miraculeusement;” was found miraculously. — Fr.

(351) Add., “ Outre les trois festes dont il sera parle consequemment;” besides the three festivals which will be spoken of. — Fr.

Verse 27

27. Also on the tenth day of this seventh month. The word כפר, caphar, whence the noun כפרים, cephurim, signifies both to propitiate and to blot out guilt and accusation by means of expiation; כפרים, therefore, are atonements ( libationes) for appeasing God; and the word is used in the plural number, because they were not under the imputation of a single kind of guilt, but had need of manifold reconciliations on account of their many and various transgressions. This was indeed done both publicly and privately throughout the rest of the year, for all the victims they offered were so many satisfactions in order to obtain pardon and to reconcile God. Still to these daily exercises was added also a yearly feast-day as a special memorial, and as a sharper spur to repentance: for it was fit that they should be stirred up to pious grief by solemn fasting and sacrifices, inasmuch as they had provoked God’s wrath against themselves through the whole year. Therefore on this feast-day they were cited before His tribunal, in order that, placing themselves there, they should acknowledge that they deserved this judgment, and yet prayed that they might escape punishment; and this was the object of the fast. Meanwhile they learnt from the sacrifices that they were restored to His favor, since simple confession would have been only a ground for despair. Thus, therefore, God required of them sorrow and other indications of penitence, that on His part He might testify that He was duly appeased so as to be propitious to them. The expression, “ye shall afflict your souls,” here refers to the fast, which was required as an outward profession of repentance. And assuredly there was no weight in the fast of itself, since God plainly shews through Isaiah that He makes no account of hypocrites, who trust that they appease him by fasting, (Isaiah 58:3;) but being withdrawn from mere luxurious food and all delicacies, they were reminded of their misery, so that being cast down by grief and humbled, they might more ardently and zealously seek for the remedy. For remission of sins is promised to none but those who, affected with serious sorrow, feel themselves to be lost and miserable, and acknowledge and confess what they have deserved. In this way a door is opened for imploring God’s mercy. Still it is not to be supposed that those who are thus dissatisfied with themselves deserve pardon by their preparation for it. (352) But since it would be contrary to God’s nature to embrace men with His favor who are plunged in their iniquities and obstinate in sin; and again, since it would be most unreasonable that by His clemency license to sin should be given under the pretext of impunity, it is needful that penitence should precede our reconciliation to God. Whence also it appears that He so pardons sinners as still to hate their sins, since He only absolves those who voluntarily condemn themselves, nor admits any into His favor except those who forsake their sins; not that any one perfectly renounces himself or his sins, but through indulgence that penitence is acceptable to God, (353) which might justly be rejected on the ground of its deficiencies. Whereby also what I have just said is confirmed, that it is not on account of the merit of our penitence that God acquits us of our sins; as if we redeemed ourselves from guilt and punishment by weeping, sorrowing, and confession, whereas in the best of us all penitence will always be found to be weak and imperfect. Wherefore the cause and the honor of our pardon must only be ascribed to the gratuitous goodness of God. Hence I have said that in their fast the Israelites professed their guilt and condemnation, whilst they were expiated by the sacrifice, since there is no other means of satisfaction.

(352) “ Pour s’estre disposez en bon estat, comme on parle.” — Fr.

(353) “ Quand elle n’est point feinte; ” when it is not feigned. — Fr.

Verse 29

29. For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted. Hence let us learn how greatly the sacrifice of an afflicted and humbled heart pleases God; since He commands so severe a punishment to be inflicted for the contempt of this ceremony. And surely this would have been a proof of most gross indifference, if, when God was inspiring men with the dread of His wrath, and inviting them to tears, they should rest in security and ease, and give themselves up to luxuries. On this account He declares with a terrible oath in Isaiah, that will never pardon the Jews, to whom the hour of repentance never came, but, when he reprovingly called upon them by His prophets to make haste “to weeping, and to mourning, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth,” merrily feasted and drank together, and said, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” (Isaiah 22:12.) And no wonder, since this is the extreme height of impiety, to stupify our consciences in brutal contumacy, and to rob God of His judicial power. As long as the sinner is so far affected, and pricked by a sense of sins, as anxiously to sigh for a remedy, there is some hope of his recovery; whilst he who shakes off fear as well as shame, is in altogether a desperate state. Now, since it was not without reason that God exercised His ancient people under the Law with external rudiments, it was an act of profane and intolerable carelessness to omit what was so necessary; and of still greater hardness of heart purposely, as it were, to despise it, so that no one need wonder at the severity of the punishment. In Numbers 29:0 the number of the victims is stated; but I pass over this point, as not requiring to be expounded.

Verse 34

34. The fifteenth day of this seventh month. It is shewn in the end of the chapter why God instituted the Feast of Tabernacles, viz, that the children of Israel might remember that they dwelt in tents in the desert, when they had no certain dwelling-place, but, as it were, passed a wandering life. The Passover shewed how they were marvellously rescued from immediate death by the hand of God; but by this other day God magnified the continuous and daily flow of His grace; for it would not have been enough to acknowledge His power in their actual departure, and to give Him thanks for their momentary deliverance, unless they reflected altogether on the progress of their perfect deliverance, which they had experienced during forty years. In allusion to this the Prophet Zechariah, when he is speaking of the second redemption, enjoins upon all the nations which should be converted to God’s worship, that they should go up every year to celebrate this day. (Zechariah 14:16.) And why this rather than the other festivals? because their return from Babylon by a long and difficult journey, endangered by the violent assaults of enemies, would be equally memorable with the passage of the people from Egypt into the Promised Land. Hence we gather that, though the ceremony is now abolished, yet its use still exists in spirit and in truth, in order that the incomparable power and mercy of God should be constantly kept before our eyes, when He has delivered us from darkness and from the deep abyss of death, and has translated us into the heavenly life. But it behooved that the ancient people in their ignorance should be thus exercised, that all from youth to old age, going forth from their homes, should be brought, as it were, into the actual circumstances, and in that spectacle should perceive what would have else never sufficiently penetrated their minds; whilst at the same time they were instructed for the time to come, that even in the land of Canaan they were to be sojourners, since this is the condition prescribed to all the pious, and children of God, that they should be strangers on earth, if they desire to be inheritors of heaven. Especially, however, God would stir them up to gratitude, that they might more highly estimate their quiet occupation of the Promised Land, and the comfort of their houses, when they recollected that they were brought hither by His hand out of the desert, and from the most wretched destitution of all things.

Verse 36

36. Seven days ye shall offer. They only kept holiday on the first and eighth day, yet they dwelt in huts, and for seven successive days offered sacrifices, of which a fuller account was elsewhere given. What, therefore, Moses distinctly treats of in the book of Numbers, I have preferred to introduce in another place, where I have spoken of the sacrifices in general. All are not agreed about the word I have translated “solemnity.” (354) עצרת , gnatsereth, is derived from עצר , gnatsar, which means both to restrain and to gather together. Some interpreters, therefore, preserve the first etymology, translating it, “it is the retaining or prohibition of God;” but since this meaning is somewhat obscure, I have not hesitated to take it, as in other passages, for a solemnity; for, without controversy, it sometimes means feast days, sometimes assemblies or conventions. Let my readers, however, make choice of whichever sense they prefer. After Moses has prescribed concerning the rest and the offerings, he adds a caution, that there should be no diminution of the ordinary service; for else they might, have transferred fraudulently the sacrifices, which they were already obliged to offer, to the feast days, and thus, as the saying is, have endeavored to whitewash two walls out of the same pot. Wherefore, at the beginning of verse 39, the particle אך, ac, seems to be taken adversatively; (355) for there is an antithesis between the peculiar service of this solemnity and the common rites which were to be observed at other times; as if he had said, that when they had done all which the Law required every day, still they were not to fail in this observance; and hence, that they must comply severally with both the general and special command, if they would properly do their duty. Moreover, by reference to the time, he shews that they ought to be cheerful in its performance, because they would then incur but little loss, as the fruits would all be harvested; and this is what he refers to when he says, “when ye have gathered in the fruit of the land;” as if he had said, that he had regard to their convenience, since otherwise they would have been at leisure at home; and thus he takes away all excuse (for neglect.)

(354) A. V. , “a solemn assembly.” Margin, “Heb., day of restraint.” עצרת from עצר to retain, detain, or restrain. S.M. says the Latin interpreters commonly render the noun an assembly; but the Hebrews interpret it a retaining, because the people were still retained a day after the completion of seven days of the solemnity. — W

(355) “ Il y a un mot qui emporte antant corame Neantmoins, ou Quoy qu’il en soil;” there is a word which is equivalent to Nevertheless, or At any rate. — Fr.

Verse 40

40. And ye shall take you on the first day. By this symbol the Jews were instructed that this day was to be celebrated with joy and gladness; for it was not only a memorial of the favor which He had graciously bestowed on their fathers in the desert, when they were exposed to all the vicissitudes of heaven, (356) and He cherished them under His wings as an eagle does her brood; but it was also an act of thanksgiving, because He had provided them so commodious a reception in the Promised Land; thus, by carrying the boughs, they proclaimed their joy and triumph as it were. Nor would it have been reasonable that they should go into the booths in sorrow and sadness, since they represented visibly to them both the former and present goodness of God, and at the same time gave them a foretaste of the life of heaven, inasmuch as they were but sojourners on earth. Some suppose הדר, hadar, (357) to be a proper name, but since it everywhere means “comeliness,” I have been unwilling to depart from its ordinary sense; nor do I curiously insist on the words, except so far as it is necessary to ascertain the actual substance.

(356) “ De pluyes, de gresles, de froid, et de chaud.” — Fr.

(357) “The Jews limit this to the citron; but this is a mere tradition of men. The words mean any tree whatsoever that was attractive and goodly. Jahn says, ‘Any noble tree, such as the palm, or the malum Punicum.’ So Rosenmuller.” — Bonar in loco.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Leviticus 23". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.