Deuteronomy 16: 1-17: Passover, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Booths
1Observe the month of Abib by keeping the passover for the LORD your God, for in the month of Abib the LORD your God brought you out of Egypt by night. 2 You shall offer the passover sacrifice for the LORD your God, from the flock and the herd, at the place that the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You must not eat with it anything leavened. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread with it– the bread of affliction– because you came out of the land of Egypt in great haste, so that all the days of your life you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt. 4 No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory for seven days; and none of the meat of what you slaughter on the evening of the first day shall remain until morning. 5 You are not permitted to offer the passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you. 6 But at the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name, only there shall you offer the passover sacrifice, in the evening at sunset, the time of day when you departed from Egypt. 7 You shall cook it and eat it at the place that the LORD your God will choose; the next morning you may go back to your tents. 8 For six days you shall continue to eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a solemn assembly for the LORD your God, when you shall do no work.
9 You shall count seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. 10 Then you shall keep the festival of weeks for the LORD your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the LORD your God. 11 Rejoice before the LORD your God– you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are among you– at the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 12 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and diligently observe these statutes.
13 You shall keep the festival of booths for seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your wine press. 14 Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows resident in your towns. 15 Seven days you shall keep the festival for the LORD your God at the place that the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all your undertakings, and you shall surely celebrate.
16 Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose: at the festival of unleavened bread, at the festival of weeks, and at the festival of booths. They shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed; 17 all shall give as they are able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that he has given you.
One of the gifts of the congregation being located next to a Hindu temple is seeing the way their community orders their lives around the various festivals that come up throughout the year. Especially since we share some of our parking spaces with them we can see the way their community swells around festivals like Diwali. The festivals we celebrate as a Christian church may look very different from our neighbors but our community is also significantly larger around our high festivals of Christmas and Easter. The Jewish festivals of Passover, weeks and booths were intended to be ways in which the community gathered together to share their story, to share their prosperity and give thanks to their LORD for the bounty of the previous year and to pass on the faith from generation to generation. It is an extension of the sabbatical way of living where the people are not to work on the Sabbath day, to forgive debts in the Sabbath year and then also there are these three weeks within the year set apart from the working in the fields to celebrate their identity as the people of Israel.
The Passover celebration is originally outlined in Exodus 13 and it is a ritual enactment of the beginning of the exodus journey out of Egypt and into the wilderness, away from slavery and into the dangerous freedom of being the people of the LORD. The people are called to enter into the story themselves, and much as the emphasis throughout the book of Deuteronomy insists that it was not a previous generation that the LORD gave the law to or spoke to or performed wonders on behalf of, so now the people who celebrate the Passover become a part of the story with their ancestors who were once slaves in Egypt. They are a people redeemed by the action of the LORD, not by their own military muscle or economic might. They are to gather together around the tabernacle or temple of the LORD.
The festivals remind the people each year of who they are and where their abundance comes from. They in their ritual action hope to reduce the amnesia that will come when the people enter into the abundance of the Promised Land and forget the way the LORD was present with them in the journey. They are symbols of hope as Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro states when he says:
Our story is instead a vision that promises something better can always happen…True there is much sadness in our Jewish experience and the overall human experience. That is why you can’t have a Seder without salt water and maror. But you also can’t have a Seder without sweet charoset and freedom bread matza, without four cups of wine, and without the ultimate punch line-L’shana ha-ba-a b’Yershalayim (next year in Jerusalem). (Thompson, 2014, p. 133)
The festival of weeks and the festival of booths are agricultural festivals which celebrate the harvest of the grain and the completion of the work of the harvest of the year. They are times to bring together the blessings of the year and an annual reminder that the harvest is a blessing of God rather than primarily a result of their own hard work or practices. Again they are to set aside a week of rest and celebration as they bring the harvest in and celebrate with those who are the vulnerable in their communities. The stranger, the orphan, the Levite and the widow are all to be included in the celebration of the landowners along with their children and their slaves. Everyone is to have a time of celebration and an ending of labor. Everyone is to share in the festival and the eating and drinking.
The early community of Israel did not come together every Sabbath to worship in the central place and while there was practices that probably did take place within the home these festivals were also intended to be a major part of the community’s act of passing on the traditions and faith. Amazingly the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament as Christians sometimes refer to it) very rarely refer to the Passover, much less the other festivals. It seems probable that there were times where the celebrations were not widely practiced, and the narrative that runs from Judges through 2 Kings seems to be a narrative of amnesia with moments of remembrance. In the Christian calendar the festivals of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost also become festivals which enact central parts of the Christian story and serve as ritual reminders of the stories that Christians are a part of. Yet, as Christmas and Easter increasingly adopt a more secular tone in the United States there is the continued threat (and reality) of amnesia in the midst of our own prosperity.
Deuteronomy 16: 18-20: The Necessity of Justice
18 You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. 19 You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
21 You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the altar that you make for the LORD your God; 22 nor shall you set up a stone pillar– things that the LORD your God hates.
This is one of the places where the chapter break should be at a different place because verses twenty one and twenty two are more related to what comes at the beginning of chapter seventeen than what closes out chapter sixteen and I will address them in the next section.
From the very beginning of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1: 9-18) there has been an emphasis on the need for a fair legal system to ensure that justice is done. One of the constant cries of the prophets is the way that justice is not being done for the people and particularly those who are vulnerable. Even today in our modern legal system it is difficult for people with limited economic means to receive the same type of treatment as those with the financial resources to ensure the best legal representation. Among the ancient world the people of Israel were to be a community of justice that did not favor the powerful over the powerless and ensured that the vulnerable communities, the orphans, widows, and the foreigners in their midst would receive justice as well. Even though bribes were common practice in the ancient world those entrusted with judging on behalf of Israel are not to accept them. The judges become an extension of God’s justice and the judges who are called upon to be a part of God’s law being lived out in community are to be unwilling to accept a bribe just as the God of Israel it.