The cycle of the year in Israel was guided by “feasts” – annual religious events. The name “feast” can be a little misleading as it may lead us to think of celebrations with party food, but these feasts were not like that at all. One “feast” – the Day of Atonement – required all the people to “deny themselves” (Leviticus 23:27), which seems to refer to fasting.
All males in Israel were to attend three feasts every year (Exodus 23:14-17; 34:22-24; Deuteronomy 16:1-16). Details in 1 Samuel 1:21-24, Nehemiah 8:1-2 and Luke 2:41 show that women and children also attended unless there were specific reasons not to. Nowadays many families have holidays, but in Israel God’s intention seems to have been that families would have “holy days” instead.
For many living further away from Jerusalem, each of these week-long feasts meant a two-week absence from home. It is easy to imagine the concerns farmers and others would have about this. God made his demands very clear, they had no choice about these feasts. He also reassured them, though, that they need not worry about enemies attacking them while they were away. Enemies would not be interested in their land if they kept these feasts as God commanded. God promised he would do whatever was needed to keep the enemies away (Exodus 23; 34; Deuteronomy 16), but they would have to trust him and go to the feasts.
Let’s look at the three feasts they were all to attend.
The Passover was to remind Israel of God’s kindness in leading them out of Egypt and saving them from the plague in which all the firstborn of Egypt died, but the blood of the Passover lamb saved all the firstborn of Israel.
This feast took place at the start of spring (March/April), once the latter rains had slowed or stopped. Road conditions at the time of Passover were considered when deciding whether an extra “leap month” should be added to Israel’s 354-day lunar calendar. If road conditions were not very good one year after the winter rains, it may be necessary to add an extra month at the end of the year so that next year the Passover would not come so early in the spring.
As spring progressed and snow on the higher peaks melted, the Jordan River used to overflow its banks in the first month (Joshua 3:15; 5:10; 1 Chronicles 12:15). This would have made travel difficult for people from the tribes on the other side of the Jordan.
One interesting point about the date is that the feast would always start at full moon. The Passover meal happened at the end of the 14th day of the month. A full moon would make this night-time feast easiest to undertake when everyone was in a strange place.
When the feast was completed, the Israelites would have returned home invigorated and looking to find the first ears of wheat ready for harvest. The next seven or so weeks would be a busy time for them, harvesting the wheat while also tending vines and fruit trees as the rains stopped completely and the long dry season began.
There are a few mentions of special celebrations of the Passover in the times of Joshua, Hezekiah and Josiah. Luke makes it clear that Jesus’ family was in the habit of going to Jerusalem from Nazareth every year for the Passover, and it was at Passover time that Jesus was crucified.
The date of the Feast of Weeks originally depended on when the firstfruits were ready, but at some stage, the dates were fixed with the intention of making the feast occur 50 days after Passover in celebration of the traditional idea that the law was given to Moses 50 days after Passover. However, Exodus 19:1 suggests that this is unlikely to be correct.
The preparation for this feast was to start with the presentation of the firstfruits of wheat harvest (Exodus 34:22). These were to be waved on the day after a Sabbath (Leviticus 23:11) once they were ready for reaping. No-one could eat the food from the new season until this offering of firstfruits had been made. Seven weeks later on the day after the Sabbath, came the Feast of Weeks.
Normally this would happen in the third month after the finish of the wheat harvest and the start of the dry season. No more rain would fall for several months and the first of the early figs would be ready around this time.
Once the Israelites returned home from this “holy-day”, it would be time for the harvesting of summer fruits, grapes, figs, dates and olives. A hot and busy summer was just starting.
After the busy summer was over, the harvest of all things was complete and the heat had eased, the feasts of the seventh month began.
The Feast of Booths was to remind the people how Israel had lived in booths when they first left Egypt. They were to collect branches of leafy trees and palm branches and build simple booths for themselves. By this time of year, some light rain is possible in Jerusalem, so they would need to be careful how they built.
Once again, the date of the 15th would ensure that all the worshippers who came to Jerusalem would have a full moon on their first night in an unfamiliar place. Everyone would be used to their leafy homes by the end of the week as the brightness of the moon declined leaving the light of a half moon to travel home with.
The spring and summer were over and food had been gathered in to sustain them during the approaching winter. The early rains would come again to water the earth, and the cycle would begin again. After some rain, the soil would be soft for ploughing and the seed would be sown ready for slow and steady growth through winter. Flocks and herds would often be gathered into or around the home to protect them from the snows in higher areas.
Winter would pass, and another Passover, with its celebration of God’s deliverance and love in leading them to this land flowing with milk and honey, would again prepare them for another year dedicated to God, highlighting the reasons for thankfulness.
God really did want them to fit the feasts into their lives every year, and the climate he provided made it easy for them to do so, if only they would trust him. Do you trust God to work in your life?