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The festival of weeks (February 14, 2016)

Scripture passage and lesson focus: Leviticus 23:9-22

Along with the weekly Sabbath day, the Israelites observed five religious festivals every year. They are described in Exodus 23:14-17 and 34:18-26; Deuteronomy 16:1-17; Leviticus 23; and Numbers 28-29. With varying degrees of detail and specificity, they outline the proper time to celebrate the feasts, the required sacrifices to be offered, and the role of the priests. Israel’s liturgical calendars include some variations that reflect the gradual development of the traditions associated with each festival.

The term “festival” might be a little misleading in our contemporary ears. These festivals were more than occasional celebratory gatherings. The Hebrew terms used to describe these festal events have been variously translated as “the appointed feasts of Jahweh” or “sacred day of celebration” or “sacred assembly.” They were sacred times, holy days, when God met the people to reaffirm the covenant relationship that existed between God and Israel.

Leviticus 23:9-14 — Israel offers first fruits
In contrast with much of the book of Leviticus that is directed toward the priests of Israel, Leviticus 23 is addressed to the people — and more specifically to the farmers who raise the crops. God instructs them to bring a sheaf (literally, “an armful”) of the first crop that is ready for harvest, probably barley. The priest’s role is to lift up the offered barley to God, the giver of this gift. Leviticus 2:14 describes barley as a grain that is to be roasted, a practice Arab farmers still do to this day.

Along with the first harvested barley, a lamb without defect is to be sacrificed and offered to God. Furthermore, a grain offering consisting of cakes made from two tenths of an ephah of flour (approximately 7 quarts) mixed with olive oil is stipulated. An offering of wine (approximately two and one-half pints) suggests that the feast was a convivial celebration. Only after these offerings have been offered to God could the people partake of the harvested grain.

Leviticus 23:15-20 — Festival of weeks
After the first fruits had been presented to God, Israel counted seven weeks (literally “seven Sabbaths”) and one day, a total of 50 days, until the grain — wheat this time — was ripe for harvest. The harvest festival is called the feast of weeks by virtue of the seven weeks leading up to it. Each community is to offer two loaves of leavened bread prepared from the newly harvested wheat. The number of animals to be sacrificed is considerably more that the festival of first fruits. Seven lambs without defect, a young bull and two rams are to be offered to God.

In addition, a male goat is to be offered as a sacrifice for sin and two male lambs will be an offering for well-being (thanksgiving for health and prosperity). The priests offer these animals as sacrifices holy to the Lord and then they are given to the priests.

Leviticus 23:21-22 — Israel shares the harvest
The festival of weeks concludes with a proclamation that Israel will convene in a solemn assembly to worship God. It shall be a day when one’s daily work is forbidden. It will be a holy day. This sweeping command is a law that will always be observed in every community for all time.

A final note describes how the harvest is to be done. The Israelites are instructed to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that there should be some wheat left over for the poor and the alien (a non-Israelite) to glean. Leviticus 19:34 spells out Israel’s responsibility to the aliens: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” God personally underlines the importance of this command by saying in terms reminiscent of the covenant, “I am the Lord Your God.”

The significance of Israel’s holy days echoes in the New Testament and in our Christian liturgical calendar. Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, during the feast of weeks, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the early church in what we now celebrate as Pentecost.

For discussion
How would you define “holy”? What is a holy day? When you compare the holy days of ancient Israel with our celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas, what similarities and what differences do you see? When our daily news is full of reports about people who are homeless or refugees fleeing violence and oppression, what should Christians do to obey God’s command to provide for the poor and the aliens?


JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.