Regular religious celebrations remembering God's great acts of salvation in the history of His people. Traditionally called “feasts” in the English Bibles, these can conveniently be categorized according to frequency of celebration. Many of them were timed according to cycles of seven. The cycle of the week with its climax on the seventh day, provided the cyclical basis for much of Israel's worship: as the seventh day was observed, so was the seventh month (which contained four of the national festivals), and the seventh year, and the fiftieth year (the year of Jubilee), which followed seven cycles each of seven years. Not only were the festivals as a whole arranged with reference to the cycle of the week (Sabbath), two of them (the feast of unleavened bread and the feast of tabernacles) lasted for seven days each. Each began on the fifteenth of the month—at the end of two cycles of weeks and when the moon was full. Pentecost also was celebrated on the fifteenth of the month and began fifty days after the presentation of the firstfruits—the day following seven times seven weeks.
The Sabbath See Sabbath. The seventh day of each week was listed among the festivals (Leviticus 23:1-3). It functioned as a reminder of the Lord's rest at the end of the creation week (Genesis 2:3) and also of the deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-25). The sabbath day was observed by strict rest from work from sunset until sunset (Exodus 20:8-11;
Nehemiah 13:15-22). Each person was to remain in place and not engage in travel (Exodus 16:29;
Leviticus 23:3). Despite such restrictions even as kindling a fire (Exodus 35:3) or any work (Exodus 31:14;
Exodus 35:2), the sabbath was a joyful time (Isaiah 58:13-14).
The New Moon This festival was a monthly celebration characterized by special offerings, great in quantity and quality (Numbers 28:11-15), and blowing of trumpets (Numbers 10:10;
Psalms 81:3). According to
Amos 8:5, business ceased. The festivals of the new moon and sabbath are often mentioned together in the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:13;
Ezekiel 46:1,Ezekiel 46:3). This festival provided the occasion for King Saul to stage a state banquet and for the family of David to offer a special annual sacrifice (1 Samuel 20:5-6,1 Samuel 20:24,1 Samuel 20:29). David's arrangements for the Levites included service on the new moon (1 Chronicles 23:31), and the ministry of the prophets was sometimes connected with this occasion (2 Kings 4:23;
Haggai 1:1). Ezekiel mentioned four times receiving a vision on the first day of the month (Ezekiel 26:1;
Ezekiel 32:1). This day (along with others) is included in prophetic denunciations of abuses of religious observances (Isaiah 1:13-14). The new moon of the seventh month apparently received special attention (Leviticus 23:24;
Nehemiah 8:2). Although the Exile brought a temporary cessation (Hosea 2:11), the festival was resumed later (Nehemiah 10:33;
Ezra 3:1-6). It was on the first day of the seventh month that Ezra read the law before the public assembly (Nehemiah 7-8:2). For Paul, new moon festivals were viewed as only a shadow of better things to come (Colossians 2:16-17; compare
Annual Festivals required the appearance of all males at the sanctuary (Exodus 34:23;
Deuteronomy 16:16). These occasions—called “feasts to the Lord,” (Exodus 12:14;
Leviticus 23:39,Leviticus 23:41)—were times when free-will offerings were made (Deuteronomy 16:16-17).
Passover The first of the three annual festivals was the Passover. It commemorated the final plague on Egypt when the firstborn of the Egyptians died and the Israelites were spared because of the blood smeared on their doorposts (Exodus 12:11,Exodus 12:21,Exodus 12:27,Exodus 12:43,Exodus 12:48). Passover took place on the fourteenth day (at evening) of the first month (Leviticus 23:5). The animal (lamb or kid) to be slain was selected on the tenth day of the month (Exodus 12:3) and slaughtered on the fourteenth day and then eaten (Deuteronomy 16:7). None of the animal was to be left over on the following morning (Exodus 34:25). The uncircumcised and the hired servant were not permitted to eat the sacrifice (Exodus 12:45-49).
The Passover was also called the feast of unleavened bread (Exodus 23:15;
Deuteronomy 16:16) because only unleavened bread was eaten during the seven days immediately following Passover (Exodus 12:15-20;
Deuteronomy 16:3-8). Unleavened bread reflected the fact that the people had no time to put leaven in their bread before their hasty departure from Egypt. It was also apparently connected to the barley harvest (Leviticus 23:4-14). Later references in the Bible to the observance of the Passover are found in
Joshua 5:10-12 (the plains of Jericho near Gilgal),
2 Chronicles 30:1,2 Chronicles 30:3,2 Chronicles 30:13,2 Chronicles 30:15 (during the reign of Hezekiah); and
2 Kings 23:21-23 (Josiah's unique Passover).
During New Testament times large crowds gathered in Jerusalem to observe this annual celebration. Jesus was crucified during the Passover event. He and His disciples ate a Passover meal together on the eve of His death. During this meal Jesus said, “This is my body,” and “this cup is the new testament in my blood” (Luke 22:7,
Luke 22:19-20). The New Testament identifies Christ with the Passover sacrifice: “For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). See Passover
Feast of Weeks The second of the three annual festivals was Pentecost, also called the feast of weeks (Exodus 34:22;
Deuteronomy 16:10,Deuteronomy 16:16;
2 Chronicles 8:13), the feast of harvest (Exodus 23:16), and the day of firstfruits (Numbers 28:26; compare
Leviticus 23:17). It was celebrated seven complete weeks, or fifty days, after Passover (Leviticus 23:15-16;
Deuteronomy 16:9); therefore, it was given the name Pentecost.
Essentially a harvest celebration, the term “weeks” was used of the period of grain harvest from the barley harvest to the wheat harvest, a period of about seven weeks. At this time, the Lord was credited as the source of rain and fertility (Jeremiah 5:24). It was called “day of firstfruits” (Numbers 28:26) because it marked the beginning of the time in which people were to bring offerings of firstfruits. It was celebrated as a sabbath with rest from ordinary labors and the calling of a holy convocation (Leviticus 23:21;
Numbers 28:26). It was a feast of joy and thanksgiving for the completion of the harvest season. The able-bodied men were to be present at the sanctuary, and a special sacrifice was offered (Leviticus 23:15-22;
Numbers 28:26-31). According to
Leviticus 23:10-11,Leviticus 23:16-17, two large loaves were waved before the Lord by the anointed priests. These were made of fine flour from the new wheat and baked with leaven. They were a “wave offering” for the people. They could not be eaten until after this ceremony (Leviticus 23:14;
Joshua 5:10-11), and none of this bread was placed on the altar because of the leaven content. Also two lambs were offered. The feast was concluded by the eating of communal meals to which the poor, the stranger, and the Levites were invited.
Later tradition associated the feast of weeks with the giving of the law at Sinai. It had been concluded by some that
Exodus 19:1 indicated the law was delivered on the fiftieth day after the Exodus. Some thought that
Deuteronomy 16:12 may have connected the Sinai event and the festival, but Scripture does not indicate any definite link between Sinai and Pentecost. In the New Testament the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), at the festive time when Jews from different countries were in Jerusalem to celebrate this annual feast. See Pentecost.
The Day of Atonement The third annual festival came on the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishri-Sept./Oct.) and the fifth day before the feast of tabernacles (Leviticus 16:1-34;
Numbers 29:7-11). According to
Leviticus 23:27-28, four main elements comprise this most significant feast. First, it was to be a “holy convocation,” drawing the focus of the people to the altar of divine mercy. The holy One of Israel called the people of Israel to gather in His presence and give their undivided attention to Him. Secondly, they were to “humble their souls” (“afflict your souls,”
Leviticus 23:27 KJV). This was explained by later tradition to indicate fasting and repentance. Israel understood that this was a day for mourning over their sins. The seriousness of this requirement is reiterated in
Leviticus 23:29, “If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people” (Leviticus 23:29 NAS). Thirdly, offerings are central to the day of atonement. The Bible devotes an entire chapter (Leviticus 16:1) to them; they are also listed in
Numbers 29:7-11. In addition to these, when the day fell on a sabbath, the regular sabbath offerings were offered. The fourth and final element of the day involved the prohibition of labor. The day of atonement was a “sabbath of rest” (Leviticus 23:32), and the Israelites were forbidden to do any work at all. If they disobeyed, they were liable to capital punishment (Leviticus 23:30).
The center point of this feast involved the high priest entering the holy of holies. Before entering, the high priest first bathed his entire body, going beyond the mere washing of hands and feet as required for other occasions. This washing symbolized his desire for purification. Rather than donning his usual robe and colorful garments (described in
Exodus 28:1 and
Leviticus 8:1), he was commanded to wear special garments of linen. Also, the high priest sacrificed a bullock as a sin offering for himself and for his house (Leviticus 16:6). After filling his censer with live coals from the altar, he entered the holy of holies where he placed incense on the coals. Then he took some of the blood from the slain bullock and sprinkled it on the mercy seat (“atonement cover,”
Leviticus 16:13 NIV) and also on the ground in front of the ark, providing atonement for the priesthood (Leviticus 16:14-15). Next he sacrificed a male goat as a sin offering for the people. Some of this blood was then also taken into the holy of holies and sprinkled there on behalf of the people (Leviticus 16:11-15). Then he took another goat, called the “scapegoat” (for “escape goat”), laid his hands on its head, confessed over it the sins of Israel, and then released it into the desert where it symbolically carried away the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:8,Leviticus 16:10). The remains of the sacrificial bullock and male goat were taken outside the city and burned, and the day was concluded with additional sacrifices.
Hebrews 9-10, this ritual is a symbol of the atoning work of Christ, our great high Priest, who did not need to make any sacrifice for Himself but shed His own blood for our sins. As the high priest of the Old Testament entered the holy of holies with the blood of sacrificial animals, Jesus entered heaven itself to appear on our behalf in front of the Father (Hebrews 9:11-12). Each year the high priest repeated his sin offerings for his own sin and the sins of the people, giving an annual reminder that perfect and permanent atonement had not yet been made; but Jesus, through His own blood, accomplished eternal redemption for His people (Hebrews 9:12). Just as the sacrifice of the day of atonement was burned outside the camp of Israel, Jesus suffered outside the gate of Jerusalem so that He might redeem His people from sin (Hebrews 13:11-12). The modern Jewish day of atonement (Yom Kippur) is devoid of blood sacrifice but does include a ten-day period (called “days of awe”) of penitence, prayer, and fasting in preparation for the most solemn day on the Jewish religious calendar. The feast of Rosh Hashanah (the head of the year) initiates this ten-day period.
Feast of Tabernacles The fourth annual festival was the feast of tabernacles (2 Chronicles 8:13;
Zechariah 14:16), also called the feast of ingathering (Exodus 23:16;
Exodus 34:22), the feast to the Lord (Leviticus 23:39;
Judges 21:19). Sometimes it was simply called “the feast” (1 Kings 8:2;
2 Chronicles 5:3;
2 Chronicles 7:8;
Ezekiel 45:23,Ezekiel 45:25) because it was so well known. Its observance combined the ingathering of the labor of the field (Exodus 23:16), the fruit of the earth (Leviticus 23:39), the ingathering of the threshing floor and winepress (Deuteronomy 16:13), and the dwelling in booths (or “tabernacles”), which were to be joyful reminders to Israel (Leviticus 23:41;
Deuteronomy 16:14). The “booth” in Scripture is not an image of privation and misery, but of protection, preservation, and shelter from heat and storm (Psalms 27:5;
Isaiah 4:6). The rejoicing community included family, servants, widows, orphans, Levites, and sojourners (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).
The feast began on the fifteenth day of Tishri (the seventh month), which was five days after the day of atonement. It lasted for seven days (Leviticus 23:36;
Ezekiel 45:25). On the first day, booths were constructed of fresh branches of trees. Each participant had to collect twigs of myrtle, willow, and palm in the area of Jerusalem for construction of the booths (Nehemiah 8:13-18). Every Israelite was to live for seven days in these during the festival, in commemoration of when their fathers lived in such booths after their Exodus from Egypt (Leviticus 23:40;
Nehemiah 8:15). The dedication of Solomon's Temple took place at the feast (1 Kings 8:2).
After the return from Exile, Ezra read the law and led the people in acts of penitence during this feast (Nehemiah 8:13-18). Later, Josephus referred to it as the holiest and greatest of the Hebrew feasts. Later additions to the ritual included a libation of water drawn from the pool of Siloam (the probable background for Jesus' comments on “living water,”
John 7:37-39) and the lighting of huge Menorahs (candelabra) at the Court of the Women (the probable background for Jesus' statement, “I am the light of the world,”
John 8:12). The water and the “pillar of light” provided during the wilderness wandering (when the people dwelt in tabernacles) was temporary and in contrast to the continuing water and light claimed by Jesus during this feast which commemorated that wandering period.
The eschatological visions which speak of the coming of all nations to worship at Jerusalem refer to the feast of booths on the occasion of their pilgrimage (Zechariah 14:16-21).
Feast of Trumpets Modern Rosh Hashanah is traced back to the so-called “Feast of Trumpets,” the sounding of the trumpets on the first day of the seventh month (Tishri) of the religious calendar year (Leviticus 23:24;
Numbers 29:1). The trumpet referred to here was the shofar, a ram's horn. It was distinctive from the silver trumpets blown on the other new moons. Silver trumpets were sounded at the daily burnt offering and at the beginning of each new month (Numbers 10:10), but the shofar specifically was blown on the beginning of the month Tishri. (Probably the silver trumpets were also blown since it was also the new moon.)
This day evolved into the second most holy day on the modern Jewish religious calendar. It begins the “ten days of awe” before the day of atonement. According to
Leviticus 23:24-27 the celebration consisted of the blowing of trumpets, a time of rest, and “an offering made by fire.” The text itself says nothing specifically about a New Year's Day, and the term itself (rosh hashanah) is found only one time in Scripture (Ezekiel 40:1) where it refers to the tenth day. The postexilic assembly on the first day of the seventh month, when Ezra read the law, was not referred to as a feast day (Nehemiah 8:2-3). The fact that the Old Testament contains two calendars—a civil and a religious one—further complicates our understanding of the origins of this holiday. Until modern times this day did not appear to be a major feast day. See New Year Festival.
Two feasts of postexilic origin are noted in Scripture—Purim and Hanukkah.
Purim Purim commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from genocide through the efforts of Esther (Esther 9:16-32) derives its name from the “lot” (pur) which Haman planned to cast in order to decide when he should carry into effect the decree issued by the king for the extermination of the Jews (Esther 9:24). In the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees (2 Maccabees 15:36) it is called the day of Mordecai. It was celebrated on the fourteenth day of Adar (March) by those in villages and unwalled towns and on the fifteenth day by those in fortified cities (Esther 9:18-19). No mention of any religious observance is connected with the day; in later periods, the Book of Esther was read in the synagogue on this day. It became a time for rejoicing and distribution of food and presents.
Hanukkah The other postexilic holiday was Hanukkah, a festival which began on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev (Dec.) and lasted eight days. Josephus referred to it as the Feast of Lights because a candle was lighted each successive day until a total of eight was reached. The festival commemorates the victories of Judas Maccabeus in 167 B.C. At that time, when Temple worship was reinstituted, after an interruption of three years, a celebration of eight days took place. The modern celebration does not greatly affect the routine duties of everyday life. This feast is referred to in
John 10:22, where it is called the feast of dedication.
Two festivals occurred less often than once a year; the sabbath year and the year of jubilee.
Sabbatic year Each seventh year Israel celebrated a sabbath year for its fields. This involved a rest for the land from all cultivation (Exodus 23:10-11;
Deuteronomy 31:10-13). Other names for this festival were sabbath of rest (Leviticus 25:4), year of rest (Leviticus 25:5), year of release (Deuteronomy 15:9), and the seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:9). The sabbatic year, like the year of jubilee, began on the first day of the month Tishri. This observance is attested by
1 Maccabees 6:49,
1 Maccabees 6:53 and Josephus. Laws governing this year of rest included the following: 1) the soil, vineyards, and olive orchards were to enjoy complete rest (Exodus 23:10,Exodus 23:11:
Leviticus 25:4-5); 2) The spontaneous growth of the fields or trees (Isaiah 37:30) was for the free use of the hireling, stranger, servants, and cattle (Exodus 23:10-11;
Leviticus 25:6-7). A fruitful harvest was promised for the sixth year (Leviticus 25:20-22). 3) Debts were released for all persons, with the exception of foreigners (Deuteronomy 15:1-4). Probably this law did not forbid voluntary payment of debts. Also no one was to oppress a poor man.4) Finally, at the feast of tabernacles during this year, the law was to be read to the people in solemn assembly (Deuteronomy 31:10-13).
Jewish tradition interpreted
2 Chronicles 36:21 to mean that the seventy years' captivity was intended to make up for not observing sabbatic years. After the captivity this sabbatic year was carefully observed.
Year of Jubilee This was also called the year of liberty (Ezekiel 46:17). Its relation to the sabbatic year and the general directions for its observance are found in
Leviticus 25:8-16,Leviticus 25:23-55. Its bearing on lands dedicated to the Lord is given in
After the span of seven sabbaths of years, or seven times seven years (49 years), the trumpet was to sound throughout the land; and the year of jubilee was to be announced (Leviticus 25:8-9). Although Scripture does not record any instance of the public celebration of this year, Hebrew tradition refers to it.
The law states three respects in which the jubilee year was to be observed: 1) rest for the soil—no sowing, reaping, or gathering from the vine (Leviticus 25:11); 2) reversion of landed property (Leviticus 25:10-34;
Leviticus 27:16-24)—all property in fields and houses located in villages or unwalled towns, which the owner had been forced to sell through poverty and which had not been redeemed, was to revert without payment to its original owner or his lawful heirs. (Exceptions to this are noted in
Leviticus 27:17-21.) 3) redemption of slaves—every Israelite, who through poverty had sold himself to another Israelite or to a foreigner settled in the land, if he had not been able to redeem himself or had not been redeemed by a kinsman, was to go free with his children (Leviticus 25:39-41).
It appears that the year of jubilee was a time of such complete remission of all debts that it became a season of celebration of freedom and grace. In this year oppression was to cease, and every member of the covenant family was to find joy and satisfaction in the Lord of the covenant. God had redeemed His people from bondage in Egypt (Leviticus 25:42), and none of them was again to be reduced to the status of a perennial slave. God's child was not to be oppressed (Leviticus 25:43,Leviticus 25:46); and poverty could not, even at its worst, reduce an Israelite to a status less than that of a hired servant, a wage earner, and then only until the year of jubilee (Leviticus 25:40).
After the institution of the year of jubilee laws (Leviticus 25:8-34), the year is mentioned again in
Numbers 36:4. No reference to the celebration of this festival is found in Scripture apart from the idealistic anticipation of
Ezekiel 46:17, but the influence of such laws illuminate such passages as the conduct of Naboth and Ahab in
1 Kings 21:3-29; and the prophetic rebukes found in
Isaiah 5:8 and