The Annual Festivals1
Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt.
No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.
You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of my festival remain until the morning.
The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.
You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
Philippians 2:14–18, 3:1–4a
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me. “
Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.
Breaking with the Past
To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.
Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
Context really throws us for a loop when it comes to understanding the sacrifices God commanded in the Old Testament. Our retroperspective, reading backwards into that time and place, is completely colored by consumerism, animal rights, humanism, the industrial revolution, and a market society. All of these things were nonexistent in the time of Moses, and most of the millennia in which the entire Bible was written. They are new things that we try to look for to connect with in the scriptures, often leading us to see shapes in the shadows that are not real and are not there, like the men inside Plato’s cave.
So What was the purpose of all those sacrifices in the Old Testament anyway?
The sacrifices, as set out in the books of Exodus and Leviticus were set around functional events (such as when a person was sick and had been healed, or when a person realized they had sinned), and around seasonal times of reflection and celebration. Those seasonal celebrations were set to retell the story of the people’s relationship with God, beginning with Passover, their day of atonement and deliverance from slavery and Egypt. The next series of celebrations followed both their story getting to the Promised Land as well as their agricultural seasons.
These celebrations served the dual purposes of bringing the community together and reinforcing the story that their community was based upon and the values that God was instilling within them. As any ruler knows, there is a certain amount of taxation that is necessary to remind people that their leadership has value. It is not an act of cruelty. It is a fact of human existence that if we are not asked to give anything, we begin to love the giver more than the gift. We begin to become entitled. Offering up meaningful and valuable sacrifices created a bond between God and His people. Most ancient religions were very similar. Perhaps the biggest difference was that God regulated those sacrifices so that all people, rich and poor, could participate, while keeping them from going too far, sacrificing too much, such as one another or their children. God gave them clearer boundaries that helped them keep their community identity centered around Him without allowing it to fall into fanaticism.
Today, we rarely practice sacrificial rituals, at least in an agricultural sense. We have many traditions though, and the bigger the effort involved, the more sacred the tradition typically becomes. First birthdays are a big deal. Fifty-first birthdays… not so much. First weddings are a big deal. Fifth weddings… not near as much. There are small but sacred traditions practiced by military families when their soldier family members ship out, as well as when they return, that those who have not ever offered up their spouses and children to the military sacrificially will never understand.
Some of these traditions are very good, and embody the best values we have. Others are not good and embody some of our worst. Hazing parties in secret societies often embody our worst. Bachelor and bachelorette parties sometimes embody our worst. Reunions of all sorts can often go either way. People look on us and see our true values by when and in what way we choose to celebrate
God’s ultimate purpose is not to prevent us from celebrating, nor to control our celebrations. Instead He wants to infuse our lives an give us something good that is really worth celebrating. He wants our joy to shine forth from us in such a way that the world stands up and takes notice of us and the God we are thanking in our celebrations. He wants the world to hear about and see His work in us.
What do you have to celebrate this week?
How will you celebrate it?
What role does God have in your celebration?
- (Ex 34:18–26; Deut 16:1–17) ↩