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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 23

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-3

1. The Sabbath 23:1-3

The Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3) was, of course, a weekly observance in contrast to the other feasts that occurred only once a year. Moses introduced the annual holidays in Leviticus 23:4. God had prescribed Sabbath observance earlier (Exodus 20:8-11; Exodus 31:13-17; Exodus 35:2-3; Leviticus 19:3). Evidently Moses included it in this list because, like the feasts, it was a day set apart to God for holy purposes. The Sabbath was a "convocation" in that the people assembled in spirit to remember God’s work for them that resulted in their being able to rest. For this convocation the Israelites did not assemble around the tabernacle but observed the day in their own dwellings.

The Sabbath was the heart of the whole system of annual feasts in Israel. The other feasts all related to the central idea of rest that the Sabbath epitomized. They focused the Israelites’ attention on other Sabbath-like blessings that Yahweh provided for them. [Note: See Timothy K. Hui, "The Purpose of Israel’s Annual Feasts," Bibliotheca Sacra 147:586 (April-June 1990):143-54.]

"Jesus claimed that ’the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:28); he could therefore abolish the sabbath, and he did in fact do so, for the New Covenant which he brought abrogated the Old Covenant, of which the sabbath was the sign. The Christian Sunday is not in any sense a continuation of the Jewish sabbath. The latter closed the week, but the Christian Sunday opens the week in the new era by commemorating the Resurrection of our Lord, and the appearances of the risen Christ, and by directing our attention to the future, when he will come again. And yet Sunday does symbolize the fulfillment of those promises which the sabbath foreshadowed. Like all the other promises of the Old Testament, these promises too are realized not in an institution, but in the person of Christ: it is he who fulfills the entire Law. Sunday is the ’Lord’s Day,’ the day of him who lightens our burdens (Matthew 11:28), through whom, with whom and in whom we enter into God’s own rest (Hebrews 4:1-11)." [Note: de Vaux, 2:483.]

"Christians are not merely to give one day in seven to God, but all seven. Since they have entered the rest of God, every day should be sanctified. But they have to set apart some time to be used in voluntary gratitude for worship and ministry and for the rest of body, soul, and spirit." [Note: Ross, p. 405.]

"God’s people witness to their participation in the covenant [Old or New] by ceasing their labors and joining the believing community in the celebration of the LORD’s Sabbath rest." [Note: Ibid., p. 403.]

Verses 1-44

C. Sanctification of the Sabbath and the feasts of Yahweh ch. 23

God considered the Israelites (chs. 17-20), the priests, the holy gifts, and the sacrifices (chs. 21-22) as set apart to Him as holy. He regarded certain days and times of the year in the same way (ch. 23). This chapter contains a list of seven festal days and periods of the year when the Israelites were to celebrate holy meetings. These were normally convocations (Leviticus 23:2) when the Israelites assembled around the tabernacle area. The recurring phrases "holy convocations" and "rest days" indicate that this calendar was primarily for the benefit of the ordinary Israelites rather than for the priests.

"There must be days set apart from the calendar of ’secular,’ self-serving activity so that the servant people might ponder the meaning of their existence and of the holy task to which they had been called." [Note: Merrill, p. 59.]

The Israelites observed a solar year, which contains 365 days, and a lunar month. Lunar months have 29 and 30 days alternately. The Egyptians followed these alternations carefully giving them six months of 29 days and six months of 30 days. The Israelites followed the Mesopotamians, however, who observed 12 months of 30 days. All three civilizations made up the difference between 12 lunar months and one solar year by inserting another month after several years. [Note: See Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, Part I, Chapter 2: "Divisions of Time."]

The chapter begins with an introduction (Leviticus 23:1-2) that bears repetition at the end (Leviticus 23:44).

Verses 4-8

2. The Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread 23:4-8

Leviticus 23:4 introduces the seven annual festivals. Whereas the Sabbath could be observed anywhere, the other feasts required attendance at the central sanctuary for participation.

In one sense the Passover (Heb. Pesah, Leviticus 23:5) was the most important feast (cf. Exodus 12:1-28). It commemorated God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery by a powerful supernatural act and His preparation of the nation for adoption as His special treasure.

Jesus died as the Paschal Lamb on Passover in the year He died for our sins (John 19:14; Matthew 26:17-29; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19). [Note: For the prophetic significance of all of these feasts, see Terry Hulbert, "The Eschatological Significance of Israel’s Feasts" (Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1965).]

The Passover was primarily a time when Israel commemorated the Lord’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Likewise our worship should include a commemoration of our past salvation from the bondage of sin (cf. Matthew 26:26-29).

"It is noteworthy that the object of faith was not the typology of the sacrifices . . . or a consciousness of the coming Redeemer, but God Himself." [Note: Lindsey, p. 165.]

The day after the Passover marked the beginning of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread (or Festival of Thin Bread, CET, Leviticus 23:6-14; cf. Numbers 28:16-25). This was one of the three feasts that all the adult males in Israel had to attend along with the feasts of Firstfruits and Tabernacles (Exodus 23:17; Deuteronomy 16:16). It was a holy convocation or gathering together of the nation around the sanctuary.

This feast reminded the believing Israelite that he needed to live a clean life since God had redeemed him by the blood of the Passover lamb (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Galatians 5:9).

"God requires his people to preserve their spiritual heritage through the commemoration of their redemption and the life of purity to follow." [Note: Ross, p. 413.]

Verses 9-14

3. The Feast of Firstfruits 23:9-14

The Feast of Firstfruits included the presentation of firstfruits of the spring barley harvest in the Promised Land. The Israelites also offered a lamb, flour, and wine, all representative of God’s provisions of spiritual and physical food and drink for His people (Leviticus 23:9-14). They presented this offering on the day after the Sabbath following Passover. The ancients regarded the firstfruits (Heb. shavuot) as a kind of down payment with more to follow.

Jesus arose from the grave on this day as the firstfruits of those who sleep in death (1 Corinthians 15:20).

In modern times it is customary for observant Jews to stay up the entire night of Shavuot studying and discussing the Torah. The tradition that the Israelites had fallen asleep the night before God gave them the Torah and Moses had to awaken them is the basis of this custom.

"In order to acknowledge that the LORD provides the needs of their life, God’s people must present the first of their income to him as a token of their devotion." [Note: Ibid., p. 418.]

Verses 15-22

4. The Feast of Pentecost 23:15-22

This festival had several names: Harvest, Weeks (Heb. Shabuoth), and Pentecost (Gr. pentekostos). The Contemporary English Version translated it the Harvest Festival. It fell at the end of the spring harvest 50 days after Passover, namely, the day after the end of the seventh week. Pentecost means fiftieth day. This feast was a thanksgiving festival, and it lasted one day. The people offered God the firstfruits of the spring harvest as a thank offering for His provision for their physical and spiritual needs.

The loaves of bread that the Israelites offered to God (Leviticus 23:17) contained leaven.

". . . in them their daily bread was offered to the Lord, who had blessed the harvest . . ." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:443.]

These were common loaves of daily bread. The Israelites did not cook them specifically for holy purposes. They also presented other accompanying offerings (Leviticus 23:18-19). The evidence of true gratitude is generosity, so the Israelites were to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the poor could glean (cf. Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-21).

God sent the Holy Spirit to indwell believers permanently as the firstfruits of God’s blessings on Christians on the Pentecost following our Lord’s death and resurrection (Acts 2).

This feast was primarily a time of appreciation for God’s present provisions and care. Likewise our worship should include appreciation for these mercies as well.

"In thanksgiving for God’s bounty, God’s people must give him a token of what his bounty has produced and make provision for the needs of the poor." [Note: Ross, p. 424.]

Verses 23-25

5. The Feast of Trumpets 23:23-25

During the seventh month of Israel’s religious calendar three festivals took place. This reflects the importance that God attached to the number seven in the Mosaic economy. Not only was the seventh day special (Leviticus 23:3) but so were the seventh week (Leviticus 23:15-22) and the seventh month.

The Jews celebrated the Feast of Trumpets (Heb. Rosh Hashana) on the first day of this month. The Israelites blew trumpets on the first day of every month, but on this month the trumpets signaled the Feast of Trumpets as well as the beginning of a new month. After the Babylonian captivity the Jewish civil year began on this day. It became a new year’s celebration in Israel’s calendar. We can calculate the Jewish year number at Rosh Hashana by adding 3761 to the Christian year number.

The ram’s horns (shophars) that the priests blew on this occasion were quite large and produced "a dull, far-reaching tone." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:444.] They called the congregation to turn attention freshly to God and to prepare for the other two festivals of the month and the 12 months ahead. They also signaled God’s working again on behalf of His people.

A trumpet will sound calling Christians to meet the Lord in the air (1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). It will also assemble the Israelites and herald the Day of the Lord when God will again resume His dealings with His people Israel in Daniel’s seventieth week (Jeremiah 32:37). Some commentators have felt that this event will provide a prophetic fulfillment of the Feast of Trumpets.

"God calls his people away from their earthly labors to join the saints in his presence where they may worship him wholeheartedly." [Note: Ross, p. 427.]

Verses 26-32

6. The Day of Atonement 23:26-32

Moses described this day (Heb. Yom Kippur) in chapter 16 more fully for the priests’ benefit. Here he stressed the responsibilities of the ordinary Israelite.

This day was a fast rather than a feast. The people were to "humble" or "deny" themselves (Leviticus 23:29), which involved fasting and abstaining from their normal pleasures and comforts (cf. Leviticus 16:29). God permitted no ordinary work on this day (Leviticus 23:28; Leviticus 23:30-32). By this He taught the Israelites that the yearly removal of their sins was entirely His work, to which they contributed absolutely nothing (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9).

The sacrifices the priests made on this day atoned for all the remaining sins of the believing Israelites that other sacrifices did not cover. However the benefits of the Day of Atonement lasted for only one year.

"The principles taught by the Day of Atonement are valid for the New Testament believer: sin must be regularly removed in order for spiritual service and fellowship to take place. Beyond that, sin can only be removed eternally through the sacrifice of Christ made once and for all-not annually." [Note: Ibid., p. 431.]

Prophetically this day will find fulfillment at the second coming of Christ. Then God will purify His people who have returned to Him in repentance and self-affliction as a result of His chastening during the Tribulation period (Zechariah 12:10; Zechariah 13:1; cf. Hebrews 9:28).

"The release from the pressure of work and social inequalities, experienced on and through the Sabbath and its sister institutions, could effectively epitomize both past and future divine deliverance." [Note: Samuele Bacchoicchi, "Sabbatical Typologies of Messianic Redemption," Journal for the Study of Judaism 17:2 (December 1986):165.]

"In order to find spiritual renewal, people must cease their works, humble themselves before God, and draw near to him on the merits of the atoning sacrifice." [Note: Ross, p. 432.]

Verses 33-44

7. The Feast of Tabernacles 23:33-44

This feast (Heb. Sukkot) was another very joyous occasion for the Israelites. It was the third fall festival. It commemorated the Israelites’ journey from Egyptian bondage to blessing in Canaan. Its other names were the Feast of Booths and the Feast of Ingathering (CEV the Festival of Shelters). The people built booths out of branches and lived under these for the duration of this eight-day festival as a reminder of their life in the wilderness. They presented many offerings during this holiday (Numbers 29:12-38). In this feast the Israelites’ looked backward to the land of their slavery and forward to the Promised Land of blessing. The feast opened and closed with a Sabbath. It was primarily a time of joy since God had provided atonement. It was the only festival in which God commanded the Israelites to rejoice, and it revolved around the harvest of grapes and other fall field products.

". . . in the later postexilic period [it] took on something of a carnival atmosphere." [Note: Harrison, p. 220.]

The Israelites will enjoy a similar prolonged period of rejoicing in the Millennium when they will enjoy national blessing as a result of Jesus Christ’s atoning work for them (Zechariah 14:16). Then the Jews in the millennial kingdom will be believers in Him and therefore redeemed and adopted as His chosen people. However there will be greater blessings on ahead for them in the eternal state.

God designed this feast primarily as a time of anticipation as well as reflection. Similarly our worship should include the element of anticipation as we look forward to entering into all that God has promised us in the future. The Puritans patterned their Thanksgiving Day feast in New England after this Jewish festival. [Note: Harris, p. 629.]

"The people of God must preserve in memory how the LORD provided for them throughout the year and how he provided for their ancestors as he led them to the fulfillment of the promises." [Note: Ross, p. 437.]

"The dozen feasts of the Hebrew calendar [counting those added later in Israel’s history] are pitifully few when compared with the fifty or sixty religious festivals of ancient Thebes, for example." [Note: Kenneth Kitchen, The Bible In Its World, p. 86.]

Feasts & Fasts in the Early History of Israel
SeasonMonthDay(s) of MonthFeast or FastAttendance by Adult Males
Spring17March/April14-20Unleavened BreadRequired
Spring17March/AprilThe day after the Sabbath following PassoverFirstfruitsOptional
Spring39May/June4Pentecost (a.k.a. Harvest, Weeks)Required
Fall71September/ October1TrumpetsOptional
10Day of Atonement (the only fast)Optional
15-21Tabernacles (a.k.a. Booths, Ingathering)Required

"When we celebrate Good Friday we should think not only of Christ’s death on the cross for us, but of the first exodus from Egypt which anticipated our deliverance from the slavery of sin. At Easter we recall Christ’s resurrection and see in it a pledge of our own resurrection at the last day, just as the firstfruits of harvest guarantee a full crop later on (1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Corinthians 15:23). At Whitsun (Pentecost) we praise God for the gift of the Spirit and all our spiritual blessings; the OT reminds us to praise God for our material benefits as well." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 306.]

Leviticus does not mention the Feast of Purim (lit. lots) that the Jews added to their calendar later in their history (cf. Esther 9:20-32). Neither does the Old Testament refer to the Feast of Dedication (Heb. Hanukkah) because the Jews instituted it much later in their history. Purim celebrates the Jews’ deliverance from the Persians in Esther’s time. Hanukkah, often called the Feast of Lights, commemorates the revolt and victory of the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) against Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria and the rededication of the temple in 165 B.C. [Note: For an interesting article giving the historical background, institution, and customs of this feast plus suggestions for using it as an opportunity to witness to Jews, see Charles Lee Feinberg, "Hanukkah," Fundamentalist Journal 5:1 (December 1986):16-18.] During the Babylonian captivity the Jews began to celebrate other fasts as well (cf. Zechariah 7:1-8)

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 23". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/leviticus-23.html. 2012.
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