Major community events occurring throughout the year that recognized God’s work and presence with His people.
Feasts and festivals were a common component of ancient religious practice. They were celebrations of divine provisions or protection. Each major Israelite feast recognized a specific aspect of God’s saving work. Every member of Israelite society participated in feasts. Since sharing a table signified peace or fellowship, feasts as religious observances demonstrated a peaceful relationship between God and Israel. The most significant texts regarding the feasts of Israel are Lev 23, describing the festivals, Num 28–29, emphasizing the offerings, and Deut 16, emphasizing pilgrimages.
In addition to religious festivals, Israelites celebrated other feasts, including birthdays, weddings, and agricultural or personal events (Harrison, “Feasts and Festivals of Israel,” BEB, 784). These occasions were not secular, as each event had a divine blessing.
Sabbaths were the most frequently observed festivals of God. They occurred weekly, monthly, every seven years, and every fifty years. Sabbath celebrations were included in the list of Israel’s appointed feasts (Lev 23:1–44). The Sabbath Year was more festive than the weekly Sabbath celebration. The Jubilee Year, celebrated every 50 years, freed slaves and canceled debts. Each of the New Moons constituted a minor festival—it included feasting, rest from work, and extra sacrifices. While the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee may never have actually been practiced, the New Moon celebrations continued throughout Israel’s history.
The Levitical Feasts
The most well-known feasts of Israel are those described in Lev 23. The three pilgrimage feasts—the Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles—demanded that every male Israelite travel to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.
Paschal Feasts. The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread are closely related and ran consecutively (Lev 23:4–8). The Feast of Weeks followed seven weeks later, and connected the Passover of the exodus with the bounty of the conquest.
Passover Feast. The Passover was established in Exod 12 prior to the Sinai covenant. It is technically non-Levitical, but Levitical statues expanded regulations for the Passover.
Of all the feasts of Israel, the Passover is the clearest example of God’s election and grace. The Passover celebrated God’s divine grace and deliverance of the faithful. By “passing over” the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, God allowed Israelite firstborns to live (Exod 12:21–31). Kline suggests that the emphasis of Passover is not on the passing of God over the Israelites but on His “covering” the Israelites through the blood on the doorpost. This interpretation makes the Passover an atonement feast like the Day of Atonement, and may be contradicted by passages such as Exod 12:12–13 (Kline, “Feast of Cover-Over,” 498–500).
The exodus account was read during the Passover. Passover excluded foreigners and hired help, but circumcised resident aliens could participate (Exod 12:45–49).
Passover was originally celebrated on the 14th day of Abib, but postexilic celebrations shifted it to Nisan. Initially celebrated within households, the establishment of the temple demanded a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Deut 16:5–7). The feast was austere, and demanded a specific menu and procedure:
• Lamb from the sacrifice was main course. It was to be roasted by fire and completely consumed (Exod 12:7–10). The lamb was to be treated carefully, and could not have any broken bones (Num 9:12).
• Bitter herbs were served, signifying the bitterness of the Israelite’s struggles in Egypt.
• Only unleavened bread could be used. Initially, this was caused by the inability to wait for the bread to rise (Exod 12:39). Later, the absence of leaven represented purity from sin.
• Participants in the Passover feast were to be fully dressed for travel, anticipating God’s deliverance (Exod 12:11).
The Passover meal was later expanded to include:
• Spring greens dipped into a cup of salt water, representing the passage through the Red Sea (salt water) and entrance into the land (spring greens).
• Roasted eggs to commemorate a peace offering for the temple.
• Charoset, chopped apples, and nuts. It was visually similar to the mortar the Hebrew slaves used to build bricks for the Egyptians.
The Passover traditionally included wine. After the destruction of the temple, a roasted, meatless lamb’s shank was presented on a plate rather than lamb meat. This was a reminder that the temple—where the sacrifice would have been performed—was gone (Zimmerman, Celebrating Biblical Feasts, 66).
Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Feast of Unleavened Bread was a week-long remembrance that consecrated the coming season. It may be considered an extension of the Passover feast rather than an independent holiday. The biblical texts intertwine the two feasts, with the Passover celebrated on the first day of the feast—the 14th of Abib—and the Feast of Unleavened Bread celebrated on the following day—the 15th of Abib (Exod 13:3–10; Lev 23:4–8). The Feast of Unleavened Bread continued for seven days and required daily offerings. It concluded with a convocation and rest from laborious activity (Lev 23:8).
The feast demanded a rejection of leavened bread from the Israelites’ meals, households, and storage places (Deut 16:4)
While the Feast of Unleavened Bread is not a pilgrimage feast, it was often celebrated in Jerusalem, since Passover’s pilgrimage would have already occurred. This feast likely included the waving of the first fruits, signaling the dedication of the coming growing season (Exod 34:26; Lev 23:10–14).
Feast of Weeks (Pentecost). The Feast of Weeks, alternatively called the Feast of Harvest or Pentecost, celebrated the grain harvest and the renewal of the covenant. It is named for the seven weeks separating it from the Passover celebration. The Feast of Weeks celebrated the entrance into the Land of Promise and the bounty of that land (Lev 23:10).
The Feast of Weeks was marked by the offering of the firstfruits of the grain harvest. In contrast to the Passover feast, this grain offering explicitly included leaven (Lev 23:17). Meat offerings of bulls, a ram, and seven lambs were also required (Num 28:27). Deuteronomy indicates that the Feast of Weeks was to be celebrated at the temple once it had been established (Deut 16:11). This makes Feast of Weeks one of pilgrimage feasts. The date of the feast is “from the day after the Sabbath” (Lev 23:15 ESV). It generally falls around the sixth of Sivan.
The Book of Jubilees indicates that the Feast of Weeks included a covenant-renewal ceremony. Thus, the festival may have (at one time) been called the Feast of Oaths (שְׁבֻעוֹת, shevu'oth) rather than the Feast of Weeks (שָׁבֻעוֹת, shavu'oth). The ceremony reflects the renewal of the covenant prior to the entry into the land (Deuteronomy) and after the conquest of the land (Josh 24). In addition to covenant renewal, the Feast of Weeks included the reading of the book of Ruth. This reflects the harvest that provided for Ruth and Naomi, and Ruth’s acceptance into the community of God.
Fall Feasts. Three feasts occurred in the month of Tishri:
1. The Feast of Trumpets called for repentance.
2. The Day of Atonement sought redemption.
3. The Feast of Tabernacles, a pilgrimage feast, remembered the fulfillment of the redemption from Egypt (Glaser, Fall Feasts of Israel, 16).
Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah). The Feast of Trumpets occurred on the first day of the agricultural year and signaled a call for repentance. Leviticus says that it should be announced with the blast of trumpets and be treated as a holy convocation. A food offering was included in the celebrations alongside the prohibition against work (Lev 23:23–25). The meat offerings of the feast were the same as those of the Feast of Weeks, but with only one bull (Num 29:2).
The Feast of Trumpets marked the beginning of a new agricultural year. It was unusual in that the trumpet, likely the shofar, would announce the feast and assemble the people (Jones, “Trumpets, Feast of,” NBD). This feast dedicated the new agricultural year to God for His provision. Psalm 81 may allude to the Feast of Trumpets (Psa 81:3) in the context of the deliverance from Egypt. The psalm ends with a call for repentance, reminding the people to call upon the Lord as those in Egypt did (Psa 81:11–16).
Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement was the most holy of the feasts—the one time each year when the high priest could approach the mercy seat to make atonement for the nation’s sins. It occurred on the tenth day of Tishri, and was treated as a Sabbath (Lev 16:29). The Day of Atonement, described in detail in Lev 16, contained precise procedures and sacrifices:
• The high priest had to be properly bathed and attired for the ceremony (Lev 16:4).
• A bull was offered as a sin offering for the high priest and his household. Since the high priest made intercession for the nation, this purification was particularly important. Purification for the high priest is repeated four times: Lev 16:6, 11, 17, and 24.
• Two goats were placed at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. One was sacrificed as a sin offering and one would be the scapegoat sent to Azazel (Lev 16:7–10). A sin offering for the people was offered at least three times: Lev 16:10, 17, 24.
• After the offering of the bull, a censer of fire and incense was presented in the holy place. The blood of the bull was then sprinkled upon the Mercy Seat of the Ark (Lev 16:12–14).
• The goat for the sin offering was sacrificed and its blood sprinkled upon the Mercy Seat to make atonement for the holy place (Lev 16:15–16). The blood from both the bull and the goat was then spread on the horns of the altar seven times (Lev 16:18–19).
• The high priest touched the scapegoat and confessed national sins over the animal. It was then set loose into the wilderness (Lev 16:21–22).
• The high priest changed to normal priestly robes, bathed, and then offered burnt offerings for both himself and the people. The fat of the sin offering was burnt. The remains of the sin offerings were removed from the camp and burned (Lev 16:27–28).
• The individual(s) who led the scapegoat to the wilderness washed their clothes and bathed before returning to camp (Lev 16:26).
There were 15 sacrifices total (three sin offerings and 12 burnt offerings) and the scapegoat.
The peoples’ impurity demanded the purification of the tabernacle and the altar. Sin and purification were the focus of the day’s events (Rooker, Leviticus, 211–13). The Day of Atonement was the only fast day commanded in the Mosaic Law (“Day of Atonement,” Eerdmans).
Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles commemorates the period of the wilderness wanderings directly following the emancipation from Egypt. It lasted seven days, beginning on the 15th of Tishri. It is also called the Feast of the Ingathering, since it gathered the people together after the harvesting season and was the final pilgrim feast of Israel.
The feast opened and closed with convocations of the peoples. There were daily sacrifices. The final day of the feast may have had the same rules against working as the Feast of Unleavened Bread (MacRae, “Meaning and Evolution of the Feast of Tabernacles,” 258). The remembrance of the wilderness wandering was considered an occasion of joy, connected to God’s saving work on Israel’s behalf. A large number of sacrifices were offered during the week’s celebration (Num 29:12–38).
Feasts of the Exilic and Intertestamental Periods
Besides the Mosaic Feasts, the most well-known Israelite feasts are introduced in the books of Esther and the Maccabees. The earlier feasts relate to the exodus directly or through their association with the Sinai covenant. The later feasts are each associated with a distinct saving act.
Feast of Purim. Purim—the Feast of Lots—was an exilic-era feast celebrating the Jewish deliverance from Haman’s plan to massacre them. Gerleman suggested that Purim is an exilic equivalent to the Passover. While this is not commonly accepted, Purim did celebrate salvation (Schellekens, “Accession Days and Holidays,” 117).
Purim was characterized by celebration, not sacrifice. The feast occurred on the 14th and 15th day of Adar. It was a feast of excess, with the 13th of Adar was a day of fasting. The book of Esther was read in commemoration of Purim—typically on the night before.
Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah). The Feast of Dedication—also called the Feast of Lights or Hanukkah—commemorated the cleansing of the temple. It had been defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes IV, but the Maccabees restored it in 164 BC. The name, “Feast of Lights,” comes from a legend: when the altar was rededicated, there was only oil enough for one day. The lamps miraculously remained lit for eight days. For this reason, Hanukkah was celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of KisLev. Its festivities were similar to those for the Feast of Tabernacles (2 Macc 10:6).
Nicanor. The defeat of the general Nicanor was celebrated on the 13th of Adar (1 Macc 7:49). Since this was the day before Purim, it was a day of fasting. Nicanor’s death was remembered on Purim.
Feasts in the New Testament
Both Passover and Pentecost are practiced by early Christians—Christ was crucified at the Passover, and the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples on Pentecost (Acts 2). The Christian community usually reinterpreted these feasts as signs of Christ’s saving works. The Bible ends with the anticipation of one final feast: the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9).
Bokser, Baruch M. “Unleavened Bread and Passover, Feasts of.” Pages 755–64 in Anchor Bible Dictionary 6. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Easton, Michael. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. Oak Harbor, Wash.: Logos Research Systems, 1996.
Elwell, W. A. and B. J. Beitzel, eds. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988.
Glaser, Mitch and Zhava Glaser. Fall Feasts of Israel. Chicago: Moody, 1987.
Hui, Timothy K. “Purpose of Israel’s Annual Feasts.” Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (1990): 143–54.
Kline, Meredith G. “Feast of Cover-Over.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37/4 (1994): 497–510.
Longman, Tremper III. Song of Songs. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001.
MacRae, George. “The Meaning and Evolution of the Feast of Tabernacles.” Catholic Bible Quarterly, 22/3 (1960): 251–76.
Myers, A. C., ed. Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1987.
Rigsby, Richard O. “First Fruits.” Pages 796–97 in Anchor Bible Dictionary 2. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Rooker, Michael. Leviticus. New American Commentary 3. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001.
Schellekens, Jona. “Accession Days and Holidays: the Origins of the Jewish Festival of Purim.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 128/1 (2009): 115–34.
VanderKam, James C. “Weeks, Festival of.” Pages 895–97 in Anchor Bible Dictionary 6. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Wood, D. R. W. and I. H. Marshall, eds. New Bible Dictionary. 3d ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Zimmerman, Martha. Celebrating Biblical Feasts. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1981.
JOHN T. SWANN
FEASTS AND FESTIVALS OF ISRAEL, CRITICAL ISSUES Surveys issues related to celebrations established by God for His people to remember, to rejoice and rest, and to reorient.
Dating and Composition of the Pentateuch
People’s view on the dating of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) affects their interpretation of the establishment, development, and practice of feasts and festivals in ancient Israel. Two specific issues related to the date include:
1. Whether the commands and instructions regarding the feasts were given in the Mosaic period, and whether people followed those commands in the Mosaic period.
2. Whether the differing proper names of the feasts indicate later development of the feasts.
Views regarding the dating and composition of the Pentateuch fall into two main camps (Wenham, Leviticus, 8–13):
1. The traditional view is that Moses himself compiled the material of the Pentateuch, and that others may or may not have put these books in their final form. This view corresponds to an early date for the writing of the Pentateuch.
2. The standard critical view is that the Pentateuch is a compilation of works from many authors that was assembled and edited after the exile. Those who adhere to this view reason that Israel’s religion evolved from simple and flexible to legalistic ritualism in the postexilic period.
The influence of these two views can be seen in how interpreters explain the lack of references to actual feast celebrations in the Pentateuch. For example, source-critical scholars view the lack of references as indication that the feasts were a later insertion into the Pentateuch (Wenham, Leviticus, 11). In contrast, those who hold to the traditional view may instead argue, based on passages such as Neh 8, that the lack of recorded observance reflects the Israelites’ lack of faithfulness in obeying God’s commands, rather than reflecting a later date.
The Sabbath as Foundational
The weekly celebration of the Sabbath, which is included in the lists of appointed feasts in Lev 23:1–44, was an integral part of each of the seven feasts. Sabbath, which was characterized by both rest and by God’s people gathering together, commemorated God’s rest following creation and His finished work of redemption (Hui, “The Purpose,” 148–49). According to Levine, the observance of a Sabbath was a departure from the system of lunar months prevalent in the ancient Near East (Levine, Leviticus, 261).
Keil argues that the sabbatical principle and the number seven “pervaded the whole festival cycle from beginning to end as the basis and principle on which it was constructed” (Keil, Manual, 470). Because of this dependence on the Sabbath, the cycle of the feasts and all the feasts themselves were ultimately connected to God’s work of creation and redemption. Many of the feasts included specific injunctions to refrain from work (e.g., Lev 23:8). Noting that many of the feast days would not have fallen on Sabbath days, Hui argues that “the significance of the sabbatical rest went beyond the general commemoration of the Lord’s repose from His completed work of creation the world to the specific commemoration of His completed work of redeeming the nation Israel” (Hui, “The Purpose,” 150).
Feasts in the Psalms
Israel’s feasts and festivals formed the context for many psalms. For example, Psalm 114 was most likely a liturgical text chanted during the Passover (Rowley, Worship, 137). Mowinckel argues that the psalms that speak of God making Himself known to His people (e.g., Pss 50; 65; 67; 76) were related to the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the harvest and Yahweh’s “ ‘appearing’ … and being personally present in the midst of his chosen people” (Mowinckel, Psalms, 94).
Relation to Surrounding Cultures
The similarity between the Israelites’ feasts and festivals and those celebrated by surrounding cultures led to the suggestion that the Israelites borrowed their feasts and festivals from the practices of other nations. For example, Eisenberg believes that the Feast of Tabernacles was taken from the Canaanites, who celebrated a joyous feast at the end of the grape harvest—one comparable to that described in Judg 9:27 (Eisenberg, Jewish Traditions, 227). Harrison similarly suggests that the offerings of firstfruits are attested from Mesopotamian, Hittite, south Arabic, and Aegean sources (Harrison, Introduction, 601).
In contrast, Stuart argues that the mere fact that the feasts coincided with agricultural times does not necessitate that they were borrowed from Canaanite agricultural festivals (Stuart, Exodus, 534). He argues that the Israelites’ feasts and festivals were unique in that they were “covenant worship festivals rather than mere celebrations of national history or harvest festivals” (Stuart, Exodus, 534). Polish similarly argues that the Israelites’ Scripture provides such a stark contrast to the myths of their neighboring ancient Near Eastern cultures that it would be hard to prove that their feasts were borrowed from their neighbors (Polish, “Judaism,” 40).
Gender Distinctions in the Observance of Festivals and Feasts
While the biblical texts concerning the Israelite feasts and festivals do not prohibit women from attending the pilgrimage feasts, they only explicitly command the men to attend (Exod 23:17). Keil and Delitzsche argue that the “command … to make a pilgrimage to the sanctuary, was restricted to male members of the nation, probably to those above 20 years of age, who had been included in the census” (Keil & Delitzsch, Exodus, 149). Stuart points out that the men were commanded to come as representatives of their families (Stuart, Exodus, 534).
However, it appears that by the New Testament period, women did participate in pilgrimage feasts (Luke 2:4). The Babylonian Talmud provides further evidence of this: “It once happened (that a man said to his sons: I will sacrifice the Passover-offering with whichever of you goes up first to Jerusalem) and his daughters showed themselves zealous, and the sons indolent” (Ilan, Jewish Women, 179–80). Rabbinic sources also mention a balcony above the Women’s Court in the temple that was used during the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles (Ilan, Jewish Women, 180).
Feasts and Festivals in the Postexilic and Intertestamental Period. The Babylonian destruction of the Jerusalem temple and deportation of the people of Judah introduced changes in the way the Israelites participated in their feasts and festivals. The opening words of Psa 137 demonstrate that worship continued during the exile but in modified form (Kraus, Worship in Israel, 229–31). Kraus notes that, since the temple and the sacrificial system were necessary for the celebration of many of the feasts, the observance of the Sabbath rose in importance (Kraus, Worship in Israel, 87–88, 229–30). Other developments include:
• In the postexilic community, the renewal of the covenant became associated with the Feast of Weeks, and the Passover continued to hold prominence (Kraus, Worship in Israel, 59, 235).
• Eisenberg suggests that Rosh Hashanah may first been a harvest festival that became characterized as a day of judgment in the postexilic and rabbinical times (Eisenberg, The JPS Guide, 185).
• The Festival of Weeks or Pentecost became a celebration of the renewal of God’s covenant (Peterson, Acts, 130).
The scattering of the people of Israel during the exile also affected the Israelite calendar. The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, who were responsible for announcing and disseminating the times of the new moon to the nation, struggled to reach the most distant communities of the Diaspora following the exile. The Israelites of the Diaspora consequently added extra days to their calendar to prevent any failure to celebrate on the prescribed day. It wasn’t until AD 360 that Hillel II finally established a fixed Jewish calendar (Eisenberg, The JPS Guide, 160).
Feasts and Festivals in the New Testament Period. The Israelites continued to celebrate their prescribed feasts and festivals into the New Testament period. However, many early Christians began to see the feasts in a more figurative and spiritual sense, as they considered Jesus’ reinterpretation of the feasts (Peterson, Acts, 130) and as they looked forward to their future fulfillment. Many of the major feasts and celebrations of Judaism were accepted into the Christian calendar in the first century, although they were not always celebrated in the same way or on the same date (Buchanan, Worship, 292). For example:
• In the New Testament, Jesus emphasized the significance of the Sabbath by stating that He is lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). Longman explains that the religious leaders had made the Sabbath a burden, but “the Sabbath was not made to be a burden, but rather the occasion for the enjoyment and improvement of Christ’s followers” (Longman, Immanuel, 175).
• The Gospels link the Passover and Christ’s crucifixion, since the Passover was celebrated at the same time as Christ’s crucifixion (Matt 26:2; Mark 14:1–16; Luke 22; John 18:39; 19:14). According to Longman, Mark connects Christ to the Passover (Longman, Immanuel, 112–15). In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul identifies Jesus as our Passover lamb.
• According to Harrison, “The concept of first fruits was … employed of the earliest converts as the first fruits of the Spirit (Rom. 8:23); of the Jews as precursors of the Christian church (Rom. 11:16); of individual believers (Rom. 16:5); of Christ as the first fruits of resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20); of believers born again by the word of truth (Jas 1:18); and of the group which had been redeemed as first fruits (Rev. 14:4)” (Harrison, Leviticus, 220).
• Acts 2 describes the celebration of Pentecost (the Feast of Weeks), which Peter connects with the last days, when God will pour out His Spirit (Joel 2:28–32). Longman points out that Moses’ prayer in Num 11:29 was fully answered on the day of Pentecost (Longman, Immanuel, 195).
• The book of Hebrews emphasizes the connections between Christ’s crucifixion and the Day of Atonement (Longman, Immanuel, 111, 201–07). The Day of Atonement prefigured the crucifixion, with Christ accomplishing for all time what the priests could not. As Wenham explains, “The first Good Friday was the definitive day of atonement” for Christians, so that all believers could now enter God’s presence at any time (Wenham, Leviticus, 237).
Future Prophetic Expectations of the Feast of Tabernacles
The reference to the Feast of Tabernacles in Zech 14:16–19 may point to future prophetic expectations of fulfillment. Gregory offers two possible reasons for a future celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Gregory, Longing for God, 210–11):
1. The Feast of Tabernacles became synonymous with God’s redemption of His people and is expressed as a type of a new exodus (Isa 43:14–21; 63:11–13; 64:1–3; Jer 23:7–8). God’s final victory will be over evil, and God’s people, who once had to live in the “wilderness,” will now live in God’s promised land forever.
2. The Feast of Tabernacles’ harvest theme, and harvest characteristics of the plentiful irrigation of Zech 4:8, indicates that the harvest of nations can be understood as the future fulfillment of the feast (Gregory, Longing for God, 211).
Keil argues that Zech 14:16–19 mentions the Feast of Tabernacles because of “its historical allusion as a feast of thanksgiving for the gracious protection of Israel in its wanderings through the desert, and its introduction into the promised land with its abundance of glorious blessings, whereby it foreshadowed the blessedness to be enjoyed in the kingdom of God” (Keil, Minor Prophets, 412).
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