The Old Testament describes three major feasts that became part of the Jewish annual calendar, each having its own unique theological significance for the community. In this article, Jeremiah Garrett summarizes their history and locates them in the Bible’s story.
The Old Testament describes three major feasts that became part of the Jewish annual calendar, each having its own unique theological significance for the community (2 Chr. 8:13). These three major feasts include the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Pesach/Passover), the Feast of Weeks (Shavout/Pentecost), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkoth). Although other festivals or holy days are mentioned in the Old Testament—e.g. Purim, the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah/New Year), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and the Day of Assembly (Azaret)—the article here will focus on providing a description of these three major festivals. Included in the description will be a discussion of their biblical origins, the dates on which they are celebrated, the components of each of the festivals, what each one commemorates, and its implications in the New Testament for the Church today.
1) The Feast of Unleavened Bread (Pesach/Passover)
Passover is perhaps the most important of Jewish festivals in the Old Testament. The origins of Passover in Exodus 12-15 are well known from Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments, though the Old Testament text unfortunately is not often as widely read. In Exodus 12, the LORD first gives the instructions for the Passover festival. Passover occurs in the first month of the Jewish religious calendar, the month of Nisan, corresponding to March, April, or sometimes May on our calendar. On the evening before the fifteenth day of the month, Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb and place its blood above their doorposts as a sign that the angel of judgment passed over them when they were in Egypt, sparing their lives. After the Egyptians had received judgment, they admonished Israel to leave immediately. In preparation for this exodus, the people were to make bread without leaven, for it had no time to rise. They were to eat their meal in haste knowing that the following day would be the day of their deliverance. As a memorial, the Feast of Unleavened bread continued to be practiced throughout the Old Testament times and beyond, a memorial of God’s redemptive acts for His people.
Although Exodus 12 has the most detailed instructions for Passover, additional (rather, repeated) instructions also appear in Leviticus 23, Numbers 9, Deuteronomy 16, and—eschatologically—in Ezek 45. In pre-exilic times, the festival is observed in by Joshua in Joshua 5, by Josiah in 2 Kings 23 and 2 Chronicles 35, and by Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles 30. Ezra 6 also records a post-exilic celebration of Passover by the returnees from exile. Perhaps the most widely known reference to the Passover in the Bible by Christians relates to Jesus being crucified during Passover week in the Gospels (Mark 14-15, Matt. 26-27, Luke 22-23, John 18-19). The synoptic Gospels seem primarily interested in historical accuracy, placing Jesus’ death on the day before Passover, while the Gospel of John—more theologically oriented—places Jesus crucifixion on the day of Passover. It appears John is less interested in relaying the precise historical date and is more interested in likening Jesus to the Passover lamb sacrificed for the redemption of God’s people.
2) The Feast of Weeks (Shavout/Pentecost)
In the same way that the Feast of Unleavened Bread celebrates the origination of the Exodus, the Feast of Weeks—also known as the Feast of Ingathering (Exod. 34:22)—celebrates the culmination of the Exodus at Mount Sinai. The Feast of Weeks occurs seven weeks and one day following Passover, thus the Greek term Pentecost, meaning “the 50th (day),” following the historical account in Exodus 19:1-3 of Israel’s arrival at Sinai fifty days after the Passover. The Feast of Weeks included giving grain offerings to God and included a “holy convocation” (Num. 28:26, NASB), and a day of rest (Num. 28:26, NASB). The phrase “holy convocation” perhaps could better be rendered “a convocation of holiness,” i.e. a “declaration of holiness” or “call to holiness,” reminiscent of the assembly at the foot of Sinai wherein God called His people to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:3-6). During the festival, grain offerings were given as freewill offerings to God in gratitude for redeeming His people and calling them to holiness (Exod. 34:22; Deut. 16:10, 16).
God’s spirit descended upon Sinai at Pentecost in Exodus 19, offering Israel prevenient grace in the form of the Law and a call to holiness. In the same way, the Holy Spirit was sent upon the Church at Pentecost in Acts 2, offering the apostles and all who would follow prevenient grace enabling us to respond to His call to holiness.
3) The Feast of Booths (Sukkoth) and The Day of Assembly (Azaret)
The Feast of Booths is prescribed in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16. The festival is a weeklong feast that begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month Tishrei, roughly late-September to mid-October on our modern calendar. The feast begins with a collection of palm and willow branches to be used as a symbol of rejoicing before the LORD (Lev 23:40). All of Israel would camp out in tents for the entire week (23:42), offering all types of sacrifices as burnt offerings to the LORD (Lev 23:37-38). The prescription in Deuteronomy extends participation in the festival not only to (male) Israelite citizens but also to priests, orphans, widows, immigrants, and both male and female children and slaves (Deut. 16:14). The purpose of the Feast of Booths was to remember the giving of the Law and to renew the covenant made between Israel and the LORD (Duet. 31:10-13).
The Prophet Zechariah references the Feast of Booths eschatologically, metaphorically describing a time where all nations would come into covenant with the LORD or be wiped out (Zech 14). In Ezra, the scribe notes that the celebration was held during the Second Temple period (Ezra 3:4). In the New Testament, the Gospel of John implies that the disciples participated in the Feast of Booths while stating that Jesus did not, stating His time had not come (John 7:1-9). However, during the Feast of Booths, Jesus secretly went to the Temple and was teaching (John 7:10-24). As the Feast of Booths was a celebration of the giving of the Law, Jesus’ lack of participation in it may signify his refusal to endorse the celebration by those who do not follow the Law, while His teaching in the middle of it may signify His authority to teach God’s true Law.
The Feast of Booths lasted seven days. On the eighth day, a separate but related holiday was celebrated, the Day of Assembly (Azaret). On this day, the people were to “have a holy convocation” (Lev 23:36, NASB), perhaps better rendered “a convocation of holiness,” i.e. a “declaration of holiness” or “call to holiness.” The eighth day was to be a day of rest (Num 29:35) where the people would solemnly dedicate themselves to the LORD (Neh 8:18). In Chronicles, this is the day on which the altar was to be dedicated (2 Chr 7:9). Ezekiel may have this day in mind when he says it will be the day that the LORD accepts the restoration of offerings in the eschatological temple (Ezek 43:27).
Bonus Feast: The Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah)
According to the Gospel of John, The Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) had become an important festival by the first century CE (John 10:22), though it is not directly mentioned in the Old Testament. The Feast of Dedication celebrates the (re)dedication of the temple and of its altar, and was instituted in approximately 165 BCE following the Seleucid (Greek) desolation of the temple as described apocalyptically in Daniel 9. A description of the Feast of Dedication can be found in 1 Maccabees 4 and 2 Maccabees 2, though the original Hebrew use of the word Hanukkah has been lost to the Greek translation egkainismos, “renewal” or “restoration.” Hanukkah is an 8-day festival in the month of Kislev, usually December on our calendar. It was originally instituted to restore the second temple to its original purpose following Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) sacrificing a pig to Zeus in the temple in approximately 167 BCE. Although Chronicles has a similar account of the dedication of the altar on the Day of Assembly (Azaret) after the Feast of Booths (Sukkoth), this was a separate occurrence (2 Chr 7:9). Chronicles’ dedication was of the original second temple and occurred in late-September to mid-October in the late sixth or early fifth century BCE. Although the word Hanukkah is used for the “dedication” in Chronicles, the meaning of the word in Maccabees and the Gospel of John had come to connote the rededication and renewal of the temple in the second century BCE.