The Law of Holiness (Leviticus 17-27).
The main section of the Book of Leviticus is constructed on a definite pattern. It commences with a description of the offerings and sacrifices of Israel (chapters 1-7), and ends with a description of the times and seasons as they are required of Israel (chapters 23-25). It continues with the establishment of the priesthood (chapters 8-10), which is balanced by the section on the maintenance of the holiness of the priesthood (chapters 21-22). This is then followed by the laws of uncleanness (chapters 11-15) which are balanced by the laws of holiness (chapters 17-20). And central to the whole is the Day of Atonement (chapter 16).
This second part of the book has been spoken of as ‘The Holiness Code’. We may balance this by calling chapters 1-15 ‘The Priestly Code’. The first part certainly has a priestly emphasis, for the priests control the offerings and sacrifices (chapters 1-7) and administer the laws of cleanness and uncleanness (chapters 11-15), and the second part a holiness emphasis. But this must not be over-emphasised. The whole book is mainly addressed to the people, it is for their benefit as God’s covenant people, and the maintenance of the holiness of the priests is just as important in the second half. It is to be seen as a whole.
We may thus analyse it as follows (note the chiasm):
1). THE PRIESTLY CODE (chapters 1-15).
a) Offerings and Sacrifices (chapters 1-7)
b) Establishment of the Priesthood (chapters 8-10)
c) The Laws of Cleanness and Uncleanness (chapters 11-15)
2) THE DAY OF ATONEMENT (Leviticus 16)
3) THE HOLINESS CODE (chapters 17-25)
c) The Laws of Holiness (chapters 17-19)
b) Maintenance of the Holiness of the Priesthood (chapters 20-22)
a) Times and Seasons (chapters 23-25).
As will be seen the Day of Atonement is central and pivotal, with the laws of cleanness and uncleanness and the laws of holiness on each side. This central section is then sandwiched between the establishment of the priesthood (chapters 10-12) and the maintenance of the holiness of the priesthood (chapters 20-22). And outside these are the requirements concerning offerings and sacrifices (chapters 1-7) and the requirements concerning times and seasons (chapters 23-25).
So the Holiness Code may be seen as a suitable description of this second half of the book as long as we do not assume by that that it was once a separate book. The description in fact most suitably applies to chapters 19-22. It describes what Israel is to be, as made holy to Yahweh.
It was as much a necessary part of the record as what has gone before. The Book would have been incomplete without it. The Book of Leviticus is, as it claims, the record of a whole collection of revelations made to Moses at various times, brought together in one book, and carefully constructed around the central pivot of the Day of Atonement. There is no good reason for doubting this, and there are possible indications of colophons to various original records which help to substantiate it. It was the necessary basis for the establishment of the religion of Yahweh for a conglomerate people.
So having in what we know of as the first sixteen chapters of the Book laid down the basis of offerings and sacrifices (chapters 1-7), the establishment of the Priesthood (chapters 8-10), the laws of cleanness and uncleanness (chapters 11-15), and the requirements of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), the whole would have been greatly lacking had Moses not added some further detail of the holiness that God required of His people and of His priests.
The former is contained in Leviticus 17:1 to Leviticus 20:27. In this section Moses deals with the sacredness of all life (Leviticus 17), the sexual relationships which can defile (Leviticus 18), and the positive requirements for holiness in the covenant (Leviticus 19-20).
It is then followed by the further section dealing with the maintenance of the holiness of the priesthood (Leviticus 21:1 to Leviticus 22:16), with Leviticus 22:17-33 forming a transition from speaking to the priests to speaking to the people.
Chapters 23-25 then deal with sacred times and seasons, including the seven day Sabbath (Leviticus 23:1-3), the set feasts of Israel (Leviticus 23:4-44), the daily trimming of the lamps and the weekly offering of showbread (Leviticus 24:1-9), the Sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:1-7), and the year of Yubile (Leviticus 25:8-55). Included in this is a practical example of blasphemy against the Name (Leviticus 24:10-23), which parallels the practical example of priestly blasphemy in Leviticus 10:1-7. Thus practical examples of the blasphemy of both priests and people are included as warnings.
Leviticus 26 seals the book with the promises of blessings and cursings regular in covenants of this period, and closes with the words ‘these are the statutes and judgments and laws which Yahweh made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses’ (Leviticus 26:46). Leviticus 27 is then a postscript on vows and how they can lawfully be withdrawn from, and closes with a reference to tithing, the sanctifying of a tenth of all their increase to Yahweh.
Chapters 11-15 dealt with the uncleannesses of Israel, leading up to the Day when all uncleannesses were atoned for (Leviticus 16). But the Day of Atonement covered far more than those. It covered every way in which the covenant had been broken. It also covers the direct transgressions of Israel. Leviticus 17 onwards therefore deals further with the basis of the covenant against which they ‘transgressed’ and for which they also needed atonement. Chapters 11-15 dealt with practical matters considering what was ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ as they faced daily life, these chapters from 17 onwards now deal with the basis on which they should live their lives as Yahweh’s holy people, and the attitudes that they should have. They deal with prospective sin and disobedience. The former were more within the cultic section up to Leviticus 16, but the latter are firmly directed at the people’s moral response, so that their responsibilities under the covenant might be made clear directly to them. The distinction must not be overpressed. They are all still, of course, cultic, but the latter from a less direct viewpoint. They do not have so much to do with priestly oversight. They come more under the jurisdiction of the elders.
There is, however, no change of direction in overall thought. The whole of Leviticus emphasises holiness from start to finish. There is not a change of emphasis only a change of presentation because God is now directly involving the people.
It must, however, be firmly asserted that, as we shall see in the commentary, there is nothing in what follows that requires a date after the time of Moses. Having been given by God control of a conglomerate people (Exodus 12:38), with a nucleus made up of descendants from the family and family servants of the patriarchs (Exodus 1 - ‘households’), he had to fashion them into a covenant keeping nation under Yahweh and provide the basis on which they could be one nation and kept in full relationship with their Overlord. It was precisely because the disparate peoples believed that his words came from God that they were willing mainly to turn their backs on their past usages and customs and become one nation under Yahweh, culminating in them all being circumcised into the covenant when they entered the land (Joshua 5).
And with such a conglomeration of people with their differing religious ideas, customs and traditions, it is clear that this could only have been successfully achieved by putting together a complete religious system which was a revelation from Yahweh, which would both keep them together as one people and would ensure that when they reached Canaan they would have no excuse for taking part in the Canaanite religious practises such as he knew of from his time of administration in Egypt and from his time with the Priest of Midian. Had they arrived in Canaan without a single binding system, they would soon have fallen prey (as they almost did anyway) to the attractions of Canaanite religion. It was only the firm foundation that Moses had laid (combined with God’s own powerful activities) that finally resulted in their rising above their backslidings, and in their constantly turning back to Yahwism, because Moses had rooted it so deeply within them. And this finally enabled the establishing of the nation under Samuel and David after times of great turmoil.
This system did not come all at once. He had to begin instructing them soon after the crossing of the Reed Sea (Exodus 15:26), and a system gradually grew up (Exodus 17:13-16) as they went along, based as we learn later on a tent of meeting set outside the camp (Exodus 33:7-11), until at Sinai the book of the covenant (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:33) was written down as a result of God’s words to the people and to Moses. Then in his time in the Mount this was expanded on. But it would continue to be expanded on in the days to come, until the time came when Moses knew that he had to accumulate in one record all the regulations concerning sacrifices, priesthood and the multitude of requirements that went along with them. By this time he had much material to draw on.
For leaders from different groups had no doubt been constantly coming to him for direction and leadership (Exodus 16:22), and especially for those who were not firmly established in the customs of Israel he no doubt had to deal with a wide number of diversified queries, and seek God’s will about them. This explains why sometimes the collections may not always seem as having been put together in as logical order as they might have been. They partly depended on what questions he had been asked, and what particular problems had arisen, and what particular issues were important at the time. But it was on the basis of all this activity that we have the Book of Leviticus as a part of the wider Pentateuch.
Our Times Are To Be In His Hands (Leviticus 23:1 to Leviticus 25:55).
We now come to the final section of the book before the listing of the blessings and cursings, which deals with different aspects of how Israel should celebrate and regulate the passing of time. In the make-up of the book this parallels the section dealing with offerings and sacrifices (chapters 1-7). All their lives were to be an offering to God.
Leviticus 23 covers the Sabbath and the religious festivals which were to be celebrated at different times in the year throughout the years (a year of twelve moon periods, with an extra intercalary moon period added when necessary in order to keep the seasons in line), chapter 24 covers the daily and weekly indicators of the passage of time in the tabernacle, and Leviticus 25 looks at the longer outlook and includes instructions concerning the sabbatical year, which was to come every seven years, and the year of jubile which was to come every fifty years. The whole of their lives in both the short and the long term were to be seen as regulated by, and under the control of, Yahweh.
Chapter 23 The Set Feasts of Yahweh.
In this chapter the set feasts of Yahweh are described which were to be celebrated annually. It begins with the regular feast of the seventh day Sabbath, and follows with a brief description of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Sevens or Harvest (Pentecost), and the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles.
These three main feasts of the year where when the men of Israel were to gather at the central sanctuary to worship Yahweh (Exodus 23:14; Deuteronomy 16:16 with 1-17) and to celebrate God’s provision of the different harvests for that year. They were to be a time of binding together and of oneness within the covenant. Ideally at these feasts they would discuss major events which were taking place among the tribes, together with any necessary major covenant decisions which needed to be considered, and there they would hear read to them words from the covenant. Once every seven years the whole of the covenant was to be read out (Deuteronomy 31:10-13). But most importantly the celebrations would include the prescribed ceremonies and offerings which indicated confirmation of and renewal of the covenant.
It would be a time of joining together as one, and of settling differences. How regularly this happened once they were in the land we do not know, for no record would be kept of these feasts, and they would only be mentioned in the records we have if something unusual had occurred, and then only in passing. But they probably happened as laid down, although attendance may have varied. There are certainly indications of such gatherings, and they are the only real explanation as to why when we come to the time of Samuel, Saul and David the people were still to be seen as a kind of unity, even if a partly divided one.
The theory had, of course, been that the land would be quickly conquered with the inhabitants expelled. Israel would then divide the land between them, with each tribe controlling its own section, and the land would then be distributed among the people, with each member of the covenant receiving his own portion of the land. This is in fact the general picture portrayed by the Book of Joshua, although it is admitted that ‘there remained very much land to be possessed’ (Joshua 13:1).
But the final reality was far different from the dream. Initial faithlessness and disobedience had previously led to the postponement of the entry into the land for thirty eight years, and when entry was made, once the initial successes were behind them and they were established in the hill country, the continuing disobedience of the people and their continual flirtation with idolatry resulted in the situation portrayed in the Book of Judges.
Under those conditions we need not doubt that the regular gathering of the tribes would certainly have been attempted, but some would at various times have been less well represented there than others, and constraints on attendance, especially for those a greater distance away, would have been many. Indeed outside the hill country they were not the rulers of the land but partly subjected to other nations, including the Philistines to the West, and the northern Canaanites.
However, it is clear from Joshua and Judges that such gathering of the tribes certainly did happen at times, and that they continued to happen, and that leaders of tribes felt that they could call on other tribes for help. Consider Joshua 23:2; Joshua 24:1; Judges 1:1; Judges 2:1-5; Judges 20:1; Judges 21:13 with Judges 21:24; compare Judges 4:27; Judges 5:14-20; Judges 6:34-35 with Judges 7:24; 1 Samuel 1:3; 1 Samuel 4:1; 1 Samuel 7:3; 1 Samuel 7:8; 1 Samuel 8:4; 1 Samuel 10:17; 1 Samuel 11:15 etc., and that by the time of Samuel, after many trials, we have the picture of a nation (although as it proved divided into two main groups) responding to the leading figure at the Central Sanctuary, even though it was no doubt a very different nation from that first envisaged. Had it not been for these important gatherings of the tribes and the Central Sanctuary this would never have happened. Unity would not have been maintained.
Introduction With Regard To The Feasts And The Sabbath (Leviticus 23:1-3).
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’
Once more it is stressed that we have the words of Moses as given to him by God.
“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, The set feasts of Yahweh, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are my set feasts.”
Moses is to declare to the children of Israel what are His set feasts. He is to proclaim them as ‘holy convocations’, holy ‘calling-togethers’. They are the times when His people must come together for the purposes of joint worship and renewal of the covenant which bound them all together as His people.
There were, of course, already recognised times of celebration among many nations and tribes. They covered the lamb harvest, the barley harvest, the wheat harvest and the harvest of summer fruits and vintage. But in Israel’s case they also included celebration of the deliverance from Egypt at the Passover, and a recognition of the nation’s failures at the Day of Atonement, and a reminder of when they had dwelt in tents in the wilderness. Thus they were to celebrate both Yahweh’s continual provision in the various harvests and Yahweh’s deliverance, both past and present, deliverance from Egypt in the past (Passover), and deliverance from sin in the present (Atonement).
The Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3).
“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no manner of work. It is a sabbath to Yahweh in all your dwellings.”
The first celebration mentioned is of the seventh day feast. This was the Sabbath, the seventh day, the day laid down in the covenant beginning at sunset after each period of six working days when all work was to cease in the camp, and later throughout the land (Exodus 20:11; Deuteronomy 5:12-14). Wherever they were throughout the land they would on that day cease from labour, both they, and all their servants, and all their bond-men and women. No manner of work could be done. It was a Sabbath of solemn rest, in every dwelling. The whole of Israel was to stop work as one. And as work ceased they would remember, ‘we were once in bondage in the land of Egypt, we had to work without ceasing, and by His mighty power Yahweh delivered us’ (Deuteronomy 5:15).
The Sabbath was a holy ‘calling-together’ in an act of obedience and tribute to Yahweh, and recognition of His overlordship. This more than anything else would bind them together, distinguishing them from all others, and forming a bond of unity between them. They were the Sabbath-keepers to the glory of Yahweh.
On this day at the Central Sanctuary two lambs instead of one would be offered for the morning and evening sacrifices (Numbers 28:9), and twelve loaves of showbread were presented to God (Leviticus 24:5-9; 1 Chronicles 9:32). However far they may be from that Sanctuary they would be aware that ‘the Priest’ was offering these on their behalf.
There was no day like it anywhere else in the world. The Babylonian sabbatu was not part of a regular cycle but occurred on specific days of the month (the fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty first and twenty eighth), and was for the purposes of religious observance and sacrifices in order to divert the wrath of certain gods. But it was limited to certain classes of society, including the ruler and certain priests, while work continued on it for others, as is evidenced by business contracts of which we have copies. It was not a day of total rest. Other nations also had days in the month on which there were certain restrictions, but none like the Sabbath. The Sabbath was totally free from connection with the moon (see below). It was a new idea altogether.
We are so used to the idea of ‘a week’ that we automatically read it into Scripture. But everyone, including Israel, dated things by the moon. Everything happened on such and such a day of a moon period. The first possible mention of ‘a week’ in the sense in which we know it was in Jeremiah 5:24, and even there it is extremely questionable. Otherwise the concept does not appear in the Old Testament. (Where we find the translation ‘week’ we should retranslate as ‘seven’). The seven day period leading up to the Sabbath operated independently of dating. There is never any reference to a particular ‘day of the week’, it is always to a ‘day of the month’.
With regard to the Sabbath being a day of complete cessation of all work it is difficult for us in our day, when we have so much free time, to recognise what it must have been like to live in days when some had no free time at all, and when many could find themselves literally worked without respite until they died of exhaustion. The Sabbath ensured that this could not happen to anyone in Israel. No exceptions were allowed specifically for this reason. Men must not be allowed to find a way round it. All men, slave or free, must every seventh day have that one day of total rest.
The timing of the ‘seventh’ day Sabbath was probably determined by the first day on which manna appeared (Exodus 16:23). Whether it was known before that we do not know. There is no mention of the Sabbath prior to that point, nor of a regular day when men were to cease to work, even though, once commenced, it was patterned on the seventh day of the creation narrative. But Moses declared that the reason that Yahweh had given them the Sabbath was as a reminder of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt by His mighty power (Deuteronomy 5:15). Isaiah would later stress that it was to be a day when men remembered God and sought His pleasure and not their own (Isaiah 58:13-14). Then they would be blessed indeed.
Note On The Sabbath.
The first mention of the Sabbath is in Exodus 16. The impression given there (Leviticus 23:23; Leviticus 23:25-26; Leviticus 23:29) is that when Moses spoke of the Sabbath he was imparting new information. He was declaring that at the same time as the giving of the Manna God had given them the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:29). He explained that the seventh day of the giving of the manna was to be a holy sabbath (a ‘ceasing from work’), and therefore also that every seventh day after that was to be a Sabbath as it followed a six day supply of Manna.
Indeed the ‘rulers’ were confused about it and had to have it explained to them (Leviticus 23:22). This can only be explained by the fact that they were at this stage unaware of a regular Sabbath. If they had been their question could hardly have arisen. Had the Sabbath already been instituted they would have expected that there should be no gathering on the Sabbath.
The seventh day Sabbath was then firmly established as something which was to continue while the Manna was given (Leviticus 23:26). Later in the giving of the covenant at Sinai it was made a permanent feature, and there it was made a reminder of creation (Exodus 20:8-11) which established its permanence. God had rested on the seventh day and blessed it, and now also so must Israel on each seventh day that followed the giving of Manna. But it should be noted that the creation account says nothing about the Sabbath, nor about ‘a week’. Nor does it suggest that time should follow that pattern. It simply speaks of a divinely perfect period of ‘seven days’.
In fact Moses specifically declared in Deuteronomy 5:15 that the reason that Yahweh commanded them to keep the Sabbath day was as a memorial of their delivery from Egypt, with the ceasing from work symbolising their ceasing from bondage. Every Sabbath as they ceased work it would be a reminder of that great deliverance from bondage by the mighty power of Yahweh.
This gives good reason to think that Exodus 16 was in fact the time when the regular permanent seventh day Sabbath was first established, in order to commemorate the giving of the Manna as something better than the bread of Egypt, and as a symbol of deliverance and of God’s care. Previously holy rest days had been mentioned on which all work should cease (Exodus 12:16), and they were sometimes, but not always, ‘seventh days’, but they had never been called sabbaths, and they were specific memorial days indicating the beginning and ending of special feasts. The Sabbath was something new.
Because it was a sabbath (shabbath - a stopping of work) they were to cease work on it. It was a holy rest (shabbathon). This would hardly have needed to be explained if they were familiar with it.
So while no specific statement was made in Exodus 16 that it was a new institution, everything about the narrative suggests that it was. The sabbath had not previously been mentioned, and the only mention of a seventh day feast previously was in Exodus 13:6 and there it was a seventh day numbered from another day (the first day after the fourteenth day of Abib) fixed by the moon. And new and full moons did not always occur on a specific day of the week. Indeed in Exodus 13 there was also a special feast on the first day after the fourteenth of Abib as well as on the seventh after. Both were holy days. This was the pattern of special days elsewhere. They were on fixed days of a moon period
It may well be therefore that the first giving of the Manna also represented the first establishing of the strict seven day ‘week’ pattern and of the regular Sabbath. Previously they probably simply numbered the days of each moon period and have utilised periods of the moon for recording time, or followed the ways of the Egyptians. This new way of measuring time from one Sabbath to another would be another indication of their new nationhood, and their new position under God their Provider. But they still dated everything under the old non-week system.
Indeed had the Sabbath and the seven day period on which it ended already been a well recognised feature we might have expected that those who broke it (Exodus 16:27) would be put to death (compare Numbers 15:32-36). But instead they are only rebuked for having disobeyed the command not to gather.
It is also interesting to note that there is no specific emphasis in Exodus 16 of doing no work, although it may possibly be seen as implied in Leviticus 23:23 and Leviticus 23:26-27, the latter only being stated, however, after the failure to observe the Sabbath. This may be why they were only rebuked.
If this be so its introduction was probably made easier by the fact that ‘seven days’ (not directly related to the week) was often seen as a holy period (see Genesis 7:4; Genesis 7:10; Genesis 8:10; Genesis 8:12; Genesis 8:22; Genesis 29:27-28; Genesis 50:10; Exodus 7:25; Exodus 12:15; Exodus 12:19; Exodus 13:6-7 and often). Seven was the number of divine perfection. Thus they learned that from now on their life was in a sense to be made up of holy periods of seven days in which God provided their food for six days, followed by a day on which they ceased work as a reminder of their deliverance from bondage.
It is true that in Genesis 2:1-3 God stopped working on ‘the seventh day’ from all His activity in creation, but that is not applied there to any requirement for man to observe it, and had it been a requirement when that was written we would have expected it to be mentioned, especially if that was the intention. Nor is the seventh day there called the Sabbath, although it is true that shabbath is related to shabath, to stop, be at a standstill, stop working, the verb used there. Later in Exodus 20:10 (see also Exodus 31:17) this example is given as proving that the idea of the seventh day was something which God has blessed but there is no necessary suggestion or indication that the Sabbath itself was inaugurated at the time of creation. Creation did not take place in a ‘week’, it took place over a seven day period. The distinction is important for accuracy. As we have seen in Deuteronomy 5:14-15 it is in fact the deliverance from Egypt that is given as the reason why God instituted the Sabbath. The bondmen had become free and in gladness and gratitude would honour Yahweh by dedicating a work-free day to Him.
Thus we should note that ‘the seventh day’ was not something that was fixed as the last day in a week. The week did not come first. The idea of the seventh day of a series of days came first. The reason that it was special was precisely because it was the seventh day of a divinely complete series. It was because God introduced the idea of a Sabbath every seventh day in Exodus 16 to follow each six day series of giving of the Manna that the week eventually resulted. This brings out how important the Manna was seen to be, that the giving of it led up after each six day period to a Sabbath. God was sealing the fact that it was a divine supply. But for calendar purposes they still thought of moon periods.
End of Note.
So the Sabbath was to be seen as primary. It would distinguish Yahweh’s people from all others, and ensured that on one day in seven they turned from the demands and trials of daily life to a day of contemplation and worship. Every seven days they would observe a feast. It was to be Yahweh’s day, a day of ceasing work and a day of remembering. It reminded them of creation, and of the Creator (Exodus 20:11). It reminded them that their lives continually followed His creation pattern. It reminded them that they had been delivered from bondage in the land of Egypt, that they had not been able to cease work then, and that Yahweh had mightily delivered them. Indeed the latter is why He commanded them to keep the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:15).
The Set Feasts.
“These are the set feasts of Yahweh, even holy convocations, which you shall proclaim in their appointed season.”
The writer now goes on to outline the recurring feasts, ‘the set feasts’ other than the Sabbath, which were to occur throughout the year, ‘in their appointed season’. These were almost certainly based on agricultural feasts with which they were already familiar, but with them also being given a new significance. The Patriarchs would certainly have observed such feasts at lambing and at harvest times.
These indicated that not only was the passage of time from Sabbath to Sabbath in His hands, but also the times and seasons. While the earth remained, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night would not cease (Genesis 8:22), and they were to recognise the fact and be grateful for it.
The three main feasts, Unleavened Bread, Sevens and Tabernacles, were the times when the men of all Israel would gather together at the Central Sanctuary to worship Yahweh, and to renew the covenant (Exodus 23:14; Deuteronomy 16:16 with 1-17). And every seven years at Tabernacles there would be a reading of the whole covenant (Deuteronomy 31:10-13).
The Passover (Leviticus 23:5).
“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, is Yahweh’s passover.”
The first feast was the Passover which occurred on the fourteenth of Abib/Nisan (March/April), fourteen days after the new moon which marked the beginning of the new year as established in Egypt (Exodus 12:2). This was in remembrance of their deliverance from Egypt when Yahweh ‘passed over’ their houses when he smote the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:2-14; Exodus 12:21-36). Later the feast and the feast of unleavened bread would be seen as united together in one as ‘the Passover’ (Luke 22:1). Whatever happened in their future Israel never forgot how God had delivered them from Egypt.
At this feast over a thousand years later (John 19:14-18) God’s great Passover Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ would be offered as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7).
The Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:6-8).
“And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread to Yahweh. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.”
Passover was immediately followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15-20; Numbers 28:16-25) which began when the moon was full. This was probably an old feast adapted for the new situation of fleeing from Egypt. For seven days unleavened bread was to be eaten as a reminder of the speed with which they had had to leave Egypt. But the unleavened bread may also have previously celebrated a newly arrived harvest when the old leavened grain would no longer be required. It may well have once celebrated the beginning of the barley harvest when the Patriarchs were in Canaan, and have been continued by long custom as a feast to celebrate even when things were different in Egypt (old habits die hard), possibly being adapted to connect with the wheat harvest or with lambing or some other aspect of life in Egypt. The old customs would continue although their significance would be reinterpreted. Once they reached Canaan it would be re-established with its old significance (Leviticus 23:10-11).
“In the first day you shall have a holy convocation. You shall do no servile work.”
The first day of that week was to be a sabbath, no matter which day it fell on (Exodus 12:16), a day when no servile work was done. The minimum necessary so that they could eat and celebrate the feast was allowed. This restriction was possibly not quite as rigid as for the regular Sabbath.
“But you shall offer an offering made by fire to Yahweh seven days. In the seventh day is a holy convocation, you shall do no servile work.”
The seventh day was also ‘a holy convocation’, a further sabbath (and the regular Sabbath would fall somewhere during the seven day period). Each day of the feast an offering by fire would be made to Yahweh.
This feast is a reminder to us of the need to remove from our lives all the leaven of wickedness and malice and to partake of the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). We are to purge out the old leaven so that we might be like a new lump, totally unleavened. We are also to beware of the leaven of false teaching, the ‘leaven of the Pharisees’ (Matthew 16:6; Matthew 16:12), and of worldly constraint, ‘the leaven of Herod’ (Mark 8:15).
The Firstfruit of the Barley Harvest On The Second Day of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:9-14).
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’
This continually repeated may suggest that these details had been provided and built up separately and were now being drawn together to form a total picture. But again there is the emphasis that they were all God-given.
“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you are come into the land which I give to you, and shall reap its harvest, then you shall bring the sheaf of the first-fruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before Yahweh, to be accepted for you. On the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it.”
Once they were again in Canaan (this was continually stressed so as to maintain their hope for the future) they would revive the celebration of the firstfruits of the barley harvest, and during the feast of Unleavened Bread, on the evening after the Sabbath, would bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of the harvest to the priest for him to wave before Yahweh. This would be accepted by Him on their behalf as an acknowledgement of gratitude for the harvest.
“And in the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a he-lamb without blemish a year old for a whole burnt offering to Yahweh. And its grain offering shall be two tenth parts of an ephah of fine flour mingled with oil, an offering made by fire to Yahweh for a pleasing odour; and its drink-offering shall be of wine, the fourth part of a hin.”
On the same day a whole burnt offering of a year old lamb would be offered together with a grain offering (seven litres) mingled with oil and a drink offering (1:7 litres) of wine. These would be offerings made by fire to Yahweh, and their offering would give Him pleasure, arising as a pleasing odour. Each of these represented an expression of gratitude to God. for the gift of lambs, the gift of barley harvest and the gift of wine.
“And you shall eat neither bread, nor parched grain, nor fresh ears, until this selfsame day, until you have brought the oblation of your God. It is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.”
Until this oblation and firstfruit was offered to God they were not to partake of anything to do with the harvest. They must eat neither bread, nor parched grain nor fresh ears. God’s goodness must be acknowledged first.
The firstfruit reminds us of many things. It reminds us that we must never be slow in expressing our gratitude to God for His provision. We have much to be grateful for and we must not be like the healed lepers of whom only one returned to Jesus to give thanks (Luke 17:17). It reminds us that we must continually give thanks for Jesus Christ Who is the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20). And it reminds us that we who have been begotten again by Him are the firstfruits of His creation (James 1:18)
The Feast of Sevens (Weeks) or Harvest - Pentecost (Leviticus 23:15-22).
This was a one day feast (Deuteronomy 16:9-12) to be held fifty days after unleavened bread.
“And you shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave-offering, seven sabbaths shall there be complete, even to the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall you number fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to Yahweh.”
From the second day of unleavened bread, the day after the initial Sabbath, the day of waving of the sheaf of the wave-offering, seven seven day periods ending with the Sabbath are to be measured, and then on the next day, the fiftieth, the feast of sevens is to be celebrated. This was a joyous feast which celebrated the gathering of the harvest and expressed gratitude to God for His provision of food.
Note the continual emphasis on ‘sevens’. Unleavened Bread lasts seven days, and then seven sevens lead up to the fiftieth day Feast of Sevens. The final feast will be in the seventh moon period. This divinely perfect and sacred number underlines all.
“You shall bring out of your habitations two wave-loaves of two tenth parts of an ephah: they shall be of milled grain, they shall be baked with leaven, for first-fruits to Yahweh.”
In recognition of this gratitude two wave-loaves made of milled grain (about seven litres), baked with leaven (a rare use of leaven), were brought as first-fruits to Yahweh. Leaven could be offered as firstfruits, but not as an offering made by fire (Leviticus 2:11). They were waved before Yahweh as an offering to Him, firstfruits of the final harvest, although their final destination was the priests.
The deliberate change from unleavened to leavened may indicate the difference between the firstfruits of the harvest (when there would have been no time for it to leaven) and the finally gathered in harvest when leavened dough would be plentiful and rejoiced in.
“And you shall present with the bread seven lambs without blemish a year old, and one young bull ox, and two rams: they shall be a whole burnt offering to Yahweh, with their grain offering, and their drink-offerings, even an offering made by fire, of a pleasing odour to Yahweh.”
With the bread was a multiplied offering. Seven lambs without blemish a year old, one young bull ox and two rams were to be offered as whole burnt offerings to Yahweh, each with its usual grain and drink offerings. These made up an offering made by fire, a pleasing odour to Yahweh. This multiplied offering was a demonstration of rededication and tribute, a joyous response to God’s love and goodness revealed in the harvest.
“And you shall offer one he-goat for a purification for sin offering, and two he-lambs a year old for a sacrifice of peace offerings.”
On top of the whole burnt offerings a he-goat was to be offered as a purification for sin offering. Even on such a joyous occasion there had to be a recognition of the need for forgiveness, of a need to be made pure before God. And two one year old he-lambs were offered for a sacrifice of peace offerings, to indicate peace and wellbeing. These would be for the priests.
“And the priest shall wave them with the bread of the first-fruits for a wave-offering before Yahweh, with the two lambs: they shall be holy to Yahweh for the priest.”
The bread of the firstfruits and the two lambs offered as a peace sacrifice were to be for the priests. They were waved before Yahweh to indicate that they were offerings to Him, before being passed on to the priests. They were ‘holy to Yahweh for the priest’.
“And you shall make proclamation on the selfsame day; there shall be a holy convocation unto you. You shall do no servile work. It is a statute for ever in all your dwellings throughout your generations.”
And that day was to be a sabbath, a ‘holy gathering-together’ during which no servile work should be done. It was a statute which was to be permanent into the distant future in all their dwellings.
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest, you shall leave them for the poor, and for the sojourner. I am Yahweh your God.”
And in recognition of all that God had given them they were to ensure that they left in their fields sufficient food for the poor and needy. They were not to reap the corners of the fields, nor gather loose grain that had fallen to the ground. These ‘gleanings’ should be left for the poor and the resident alien (who would have no land). And this on the authority of Yahweh their God.
This feast too is a reminder to us of the gratitude that we should show to God, this time not only for firstfruits but for the whole harvest. And it reminds us that of what God has given to us we should be ready and eager to give to others.
It is especially a reminder of the greatest gift of all which came at Pentecost, the giving of His Holy Spirit (Acts 2), Who came that He might produce a harvest in the bringing of men and women to Christ. We are that harvest. How full of praise we should be. And the offerings made on this day remind us of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was offered up for us as a purification for sin offering, and Who as a multiplied whole burnt offering was fully satisfactory to God to make atonement for us and bring us to God as His own.
The Day Of The Blowing Of Rams’ Horns (shophars) (Leviticus 23:23-25).
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, In the seventh month (moon period), on the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest to you, a memorial of blowing of rams’ horns, a holy convocation.”
Rams’ horns as described in Numbers 10:1-10 were blown at the commencement of every moon period, and on special and solemn days (Numbers 10:10). But the first day of the seventh month was a special day (compare Numbers 29:1). It was a solemn rest (shabbaton), a holy convocation. The rams’ horns were blown as a memorial before Yahweh. They were a call to God to consider them on this special month of the year. All would be aware that on that day the rams’ horns were being blown to call them to the Day of Atonement and to the Feast of Tabernacles.
It is no coincidence that the seventh month was so full of feasts. Seven was the number of divine perfection and completeness, and the seventh month must thus inevitably be full of awareness of and response to God. It was His month like no other was, a time for getting right with God, and rejoicing in what He had abundantly provided and looking to the future for what He would provide. No wonder it was welcomed with a special feast for the blowing of ram’s horns. It would then be followed by the Autumn/Winter rains, the hopefully abundant former rains, which would prepare the ground for sowing, would bring nature back to life again, and would improve the grazing grounds so that the flocks and herds could prosper, all no doubt, they would think, the result of their faithful repentance and worship in the seventh month. And then later still it was followed by the latter rains in the spring which finalised what the former rains had begun, commencing the new year of harvests as another round of reaping began. Together their coming was the basis of their physical happiness and prosperity.
“You shall do no servile work, and you shall offer an offering made by fire to Yahweh.”
It was a day when all servile work should cease, and an offering be made by fire to Yahweh. This would include as whole burnt offerings a bull ox, a ram, seven lambs of the first year together with suitable grain offerings in each case, and a young goat for a purification for sin offering, in order to make atonement This was besides the whole burnt offering for the month, and the daily whole burnt offerings offered with grain offerings and drink offerings. (For details see Numbers 29:2-6).
We should see the day of the blowing of the rams’ horns as a wake-up call. Now it is high time to awake out of sleep, for now is our salvation (our full final deliverance) nearer than when we first believed (Romans 13:11). Are we alert and ready for that day, or are we sleeping as do others? (1 Thessalonians 5:6).
The Day Of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32).
Here the Day of Atonement (compare Leviticus 16) is looked at from the point of view of the people. Its solemnity is emphasised by the strict warnings concerning proper observance (Leviticus 23:29-30). On this important day all the failures and sins of Israel that had not previously been atoned for would be gathered up and atoned for.
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Howbeit on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement. It shall be a holy convocation to you, and you shall afflict (humble) yourselves; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to Yahweh”
The tenth day of the seventh month is to be the Day of Atonement. It is to be a holy ‘calling-together’, a day on which they ‘afflict themselves’ and a day when an offering is made by fire to Yahweh. For full details of the latter see chapter 16.
“Afflict (humble) themselves.” That is, deal hardly with themselves (compare Genesis 16:6; Genesis 31:50), or submit themselves humbly (compare Genesis 16:9; Exodus 10:3). No indication is given of exactly what this means. It may refer to fasting, to self-examination and family-group-examination, or to other forms of consideration of sins and of repentance, or to a general humbling before God. The main point is presumably a demonstration to God of a genuine desire to put away sin. Compare Isaiah 58:5 where ‘afflicting themselves’ appears to refer to ‘bowing down the head as a bulrush’, and ‘spreading sackcloth and ashes’, presumably to kneel on as a sign of repentance.
“And you shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before Yahweh your God.”
No manner of work may be done on that day (thus going further than banning ‘servile work’). It was a day when all concentration must be on atonement.
“For whatever person it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people.”
And whoever fails to take the day seriously and to make a genuine effort to deal with their sinfulness must be cut off from his people.
“And whatever person it be who does any manner of work in that same day, that person will I destroy from among his people.”
And whoever does any manner of work, God Himself will destroy from among his people. For it will be evidence that he has no time for getting himself right with God.
“You shall do no manner of work. It is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves. In the ninth day of the month in the evening, from evening to evening, shall you keep your sabbath.”
What has been said is now repeated as a permanent statute into the distant future. No manner of work is to be done. It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest, a day for self-humbling and self-chastisement, and it shall commence at the twilight of the ninth day, and continue until the twilight of the tenth day, by which time the High Priest will have satisfactorily made atonement for the sin of Israel.
This feast reminds us of our deep need continually for repentance from current sins. Jesus Christ made atonement for us once for all, and we rejoice in that, but we are to constantly walk in God’s light, allowing Him to reveal to us our sins so that we might admit to them and have them removed (1 John 1:7-10).
The Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:33-36).
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the feast of tabernacles for seven days to Yahweh.”
In the seventh month, when the moon was at its full, there would in fact be a few days of bright moonlight, the Feast of Tabernacles was to begin. If the Day of Atonement was a day of gloom, the feast of Tabernacles was the opposite. It was a time of joy and feasting, of making merry and enjoying the vintage harvest. It was a time for giving thanks for the harvests that had been, and for praying for the coming of the rains for the new series of harvests for the following year, the rain that would soften and prepare the ground, and which if it failed to appear would mean heartbreak for the days to come. It paralleled the other seven day feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread, which came six months before, as a seven day period of worship and praise for both past and future blessings.
“On the first day shall be a holy convocation. You shall do no servile work.”
The first day of the feast was a holy ‘gathering-together’. It was a sabbath. During it no servile work (work not associated with the feast) was to be done. All concentration was to be on God and His call to worship and thanksgiving. None was to be prevented from its full enjoyment.
“Seven days you shall offer an offering made by fire to Yahweh, On the eighth day shall be a holy convocation to you; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to Yahweh. It is a solemn assembly. You shall do no servile work.”
And then for seven days the joyous feast would continue, with offerings being made every day by fire to Yahweh. The full count of these munificent offerings can be found in Numbers 29:13-34, including the whole burnt offerings over the week of seventy bull oxen, fourteen rams and ninety eight lambs of the first year (all multiples of seven) together with their accompanying grain offerings. And each day the necessary he-goat for a purification for sin offering. And this would be followed by another sabbath on the eighth day, with special offerings (one bull ox, one ram and seven lambs, and the compulsory he-goat), no servile work performed, and all attention on Yahweh.
This feast is the climax of all the others. It is a reminder to us of all that God has given through the year in which we can rejoice and be glad, it reminds us that we are but strangers and pilgrims in the earth who should abstain from all worldly desires which war against our souls (1 Peter 2:11), living in tents and in temporary booths because here we have no continuing city but seek one to come (Hebrews 13:14; Hebrews 11:8-10), and it points us forward to seek the ‘rain’ of the Spirit from the new season that will produce a further harvest of men and women to the glory of God (John 4:35-36).
A Summary (Leviticus 23:37-38).
“These are the set feasts of Yahweh, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to offer an offering made by fire to Yahweh, a whole burnt offering, and a grain offering, a sacrifice, and drink-offerings, each on its own day;
These then were the set feasts of Yahweh which were to be proclaimed as holy ‘getting-togethers’ for the offering of offerings made by fire to Yahweh, including whole burnt offerings, grain offerings, sacrifices and drink-offerings each on its own day. The ‘sacrifices’ were presumably the purification for sin offerings of the he-goats.
“Besides the sabbaths of Yahweh, and besides your gifts, and besides all your vows, and besides all your freewill-offerings, which you give to Yahweh.”
And this time and these offerings were offered to Yahweh on top of the regular Sabbaths, and their own freewill gifts, and all their vows, and all their freewill offerings which would provide the basis of the feasting. All these too would be given to Yahweh.
Further Instruction On The Feast Of Tabernacles Re Dwelling In Booths (Leviticus 23:39-44).
“Howbeit on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you shall keep the feast of Yahweh seven days: on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest.”
But most important of all was the feast of Tabernacles, when the final fruits of the land have been gathered in and for seven days they can keep a feast to Yahweh, with a shabbathon on the first day, and a shabbathon on the eighth day as days of solemn rest.
“And you 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 you shall rejoice before Yahweh your God seven days.”
And these days were to be days of great joy and excitement. They were all to live in booths constructed from natural materials such as branches of palm trees, boughs from thick trees and willows which flourished by the waters, to partake of the fruit of goodly trees and of the vintage, and to eat of the freewill offerings, and a good time was had by all. But also during this period, when the regular whole burnt offerings were made, the Law would no doubt be read, and necessary admonition given. Every seventh year the Law had to be read out in full.
“And you shall keep it a feast to Yahweh seven days in the year: it is a statute for ever throughout your generations. You shall keep it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations 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 Yahweh your God.”
And they were to keep this feast for seven days each year, in the seventh month. Both sevens symbolic of divine blessing. It was a statute to be observed into the distant future. And they would dwell in booths as a reminder of how they had dwelt in booths and tents when they were delivered from Egypt and brought to the land of His inheritance. All home-born Israelites would dwell in booths over the whole period for this purpose. And they will remember that He is Yahweh their God, their great Deliverer, their covenant Lord, the One to Whom they owe everything. And they will rejoice, and they will worship, and they will remember. And they will renew the covenant.
“And Moses declared to the children of Israel the set feasts of Yahweh.”
Thus did Moses declare to the children of Israel the set feasts of Yahweh.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Leviticus 23". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany