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Israelites were largely a farming people, and their religious festivals, or feasts, were built into the agricultural cycle (see FARMING). There were three main annual festivals: Passover-Unleavened Bread and Pentecost-Harvest at the beginning of the year, and Tabernacles-Ingatherings in the middle of the year. (For the Israelite calendar see MONTH.) On these three occasions all adult males had to go to the central place of worship, which was originally the tabernacle and later the temple (Exodus 23:14-17).

The Israelite festivals recalled the nation’s history, but they were also relevant to the people’s current experiences. Within the festivals there was a mixture of solemnity and joy, as the sinful people were humbled before their God yet thankful to him for his merciful salvation and constant provision (Leviticus 23:2; Leviticus 23:21; Deuteronomy 16:11-12).

Passover and Unleavened Bread

God decreed that the month during which the Israelites escaped from bondage in Egypt should be the first month of their religious year (Exodus 12:2). (This Jewish month fits somewhere into the period of March-April on our calendar.) In the middle of the month the people kept the Passover, followed by the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:5-8; Mark 14:1). The Passover recalled God’s ‘passing over’ the houses of the Israelites when he killed the firstborn throughout Egypt (Exodus 12:27). The accompanying Feast of Unleavened Bread recalled the people’s hasty departure from Egypt when they had to make their bread without leaven (yeast), cooking as they travelled in order to save time (Exodus 12:8; Exodus 12:34; Exodus 12:39). (For details of the Passover rituals see PASSOVER.)

Once the Israelites had settled in Canaan, the festival became an occasion to acknowledge God’s care in giving them their grain harvest. At Passover time the barley was ready for harvest, but before the people could reap it and use it for themselves, they had to acknowledge God as the giver. Therefore, on the third day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, they presented the first sheaf of reaped barley to God. They accompanied this with animal sacrifices that expressed confession, gratitude and dedication (Leviticus 23:10-14; Numbers 28:16-25).

Feast of Harvest (Pentecost)

After the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the people returned home and for the next six weeks were busy harvesting, first the barley and then the wheat. At the end of the wheat harvest they showed their thanks to God for their food by presenting to him two loaves of bread such as they would eat in their normal meals. Again there were additional sacrifices (Leviticus 23:15-21; Numbers 28:26-31).

Since this festival fell on the fiftieth day after Passover, it later became known as the Feast of Pentecost (‘pentecost’ meaning ‘fifty’) (Acts 2:1; see PENTECOST). It was also known as the Feast of Weeks, being a week of weeks after the offering of the first barley sheaf (Deuteronomy 16:9-10). More commonly it was called the Feast of Harvest or Feast of Firstfruits.

Between the two festival seasons

After the cereal harvest there was much activity as the people threshed, winnowed and stored the grain. The hottest part of the year had now arrived, and over the next few months the figs, grapes, olives and dates ripened and were harvested. By the middle of the year, summer had almost gone, most farming activity was finished, and people began preparing for the mid-year festival season.

On the first day of the seventh month (within the period of September-October on our calendar) the ceremonial blowing of trumpets called the people together for a special day of rest and worship (Leviticus 23:24-25). This was to prepare them for the solemn cleansing from sin that followed ten days later on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32; for details see DAY OF ATONEMENT).

Feast of Tabernacles (or Shelters)

Five days after the Day of Atonement was the Feast of Tabernacles. The name ‘tabernacle’ in this case does not refer to the Israelite place of worship, but to small shelters, or booths, made of tree branches and palm leaves. During the festival people lived in these shelters in remembrance of Israel’s years in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:34; Leviticus 23:39-43).

The festival was also known as the Feast of Ingatherings, because it marked the end of the agricultural year, when all the produce of the land had been gathered in and the people rejoiced in thanksgiving before God (Leviticus 23:39; Deuteronomy 16:13-15). The number of sacrifices at this feast was greater than at any other, though the number decreased a little each day (Leviticus 23:36; Numbers 29:12-38).

There are records of Israel’s celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles after Solomon’s completion of the temple and after the Jews’ return from captivity in Babylon (2 Chronicles 8:12-13; Ezra 3:4). They still celebrated it in the time of Jesus (John 7:2), and had introduced into it a water-pouring ceremony. Jesus referred to this ceremony when he addressed the people on the final day of the feast, offering to satisfy the spiritual needs of all who came to him for help (John 7:37-39).

Feast of Purim

The Feast of Purim was not one of the feasts appointed by God through Moses. It was established in Persia in the fifth century BC by Mordecai, a leader of the large community of Jews that had grown up in Persia after the Babylonian captivity.

Haman, Persia’s chief minister, had gained the king’s approval for a plan to destroy the Jewish people. He determined the date to carry out his plan by casting lots, or purim (purim being the Hebrew plural of the Persian-Assyrian word pur, meaning ‘lot’) (Esther 3:7). In the end, however, Haman was executed and Mordecai made chief minister in his place. When Haman’s ‘lucky day’ arrived, the Jews, instead of being slaughtered, took revenge on their enemies (Esther 9:1). Mordecai then ordered that Jews celebrate the great occasion with feasting, exchanging gifts and giving to the poor (Esther 9:20-28; see ESTHER). Jews have celebrated the festival to the present day.

Feast of Dedication

During the second century BC, the Greek ruler of the Syrian sector of the Empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, used his military power to try to destroy the Jewish religion. In a brutal attack he invaded Jerusalem and slaughtered the Jews. He then defiled the Jewish temple by setting up an altar in honour of the pagan gods and sacrificing animals that the Jews considered unclean.

A group of zealous Jews, the Maccabees, began a resistance movement against Antiochus, and after three years of untiring fighting won back their religious freedom (165 BC). They promptly cleansed and rededicated the temple, in celebration of which the Jews established the annual Feast of Dedication. It was the Jews’ only winter festival (John 10:22-23).

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Feasts'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​f/feasts.html. 2004.
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