Festivals in the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 16) by Laura Quick

What festivals took place in ancient Israel? How can we learn about these festivals, and did they develop over time?

Like all ancient peoples, the Israelites and Judaeans celebrated festivals, many of which are still celebrated today. These festivals are prescribed by the various legal texts found in the Hebrew Bible. Deut 16 describes three pilgrimage festivals: Pesach and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Deut 1-8); Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks (Deut 9-12); and Sukkot or the Feast of Booths (Deut 13-17). These festivals are also described in other parts of the Hebrew Bible (Exod 12; Exod 13; Exod 23:14-19; Exod 34:18-26; Lev 23; Num 9:1-14; Num 28-29). However, the texts do not agree concerning how the festivals are to be celebrated. Many scholars believe that there are three distinct legal codes found in the Hebrew Bible, which stem from different periods in Israelite and Judaean history and therefore reflect different developments in the nature of the religion and its practices. In particular, the book of Deuteronomy seems to stem from a time when the nature of worship was undergoing a radical revision. According to the books of Kings and Chronicles, before King Josiah centralized worship in the Jerusalem temple in the seventh century BCE, there had been no united festival celebration since the time of Samuel (2Kgs 23:22; 2Chr 35:18). Instead, the various festivals were celebrated either in local sanctuaries or in the home. Exod 12:7, Exod 12:23, for example, prescribes daubing the blood of the Pesach sacrifice on to the doorposts of the “houses in which they eat it,” suggesting that this festival was celebrated at home. But a central part of King Josiah’s religious reform was to unite all worship and sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple, on the basis of the provisions of a “book of the law” that he had found (2Kgs 22:8). Scholars have long connected this “book of the law” with the book of Deuteronomy, since the centralization of worship in “the place where the Lord your God will choose” (i.e., Jerusalem) is one of the characteristic requirements of the book. Consequently, festivals which had originally been celebrated either in local sanctuaries or in households had to be reinterpreted as pilgrimage festivals. Deut 16 makes a number of interpretive decisions in order to reform the ways in which these festivals were celebrated.

It is likely that the three pilgrimage festivals of Deut 16 began as agricultural festivals connected with seasonal harvests. These originally pastoral harvest festivals are revised in Deut 16. To begin with, the prescriptions for the celebration of the festivals are much shorter, with a minimum of detail. Pesach and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which seem to be separate festivals in Lev 23:5-6; Num 28:16-17, are combined in Deuteronomy. All of the festivals are pilgrimage festivals—three times a year, Israelites must travel to the Jerusalem temple in order to celebrate these feasts. Instead of relating the festivals to the harvest, the festivals are connected to the redemption of Israel from slavery. Pesach is related to the sacrifice made by the Israelites on the night before the exodus. The Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorates that the Israelites had to bake unleavened bread in their rush to leave Egypt. The memory of slavery is invoked to motivate the celebration of the Feast of Weeks (Deut 16:12). In this way, Deut 16 is able to reinterpret older traditions according to the new theological agenda of centralized worship in the Jerusalem temple.

This process of reinterpretation continued in biblical tradition and beyond. Unlike the other two festivals, Deut 16 does not tie the Feast of Booths to Israel’s redemption from slavery, although the later text of Lev 23:39-43 continues the process of reinterpretation by connecting the festival to the sojourn in the desert. In later Jewish tradition, the Feast of Weeks is connected to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. In order to celebrate these festivals, the differences in the biblical descriptions of them must be harmonized, a process that began in the biblical period. In Exod 12:3-5, Exod 12:21, the Pesach sacrifice is lamb; whereas in Deut 16:2, it is both lamb and bovine. This is harmonized in the book of Chronicles, where bovines are sacrificed in a separate ceremony from the lamb sacrifice, as “sacred offerings” (2Chr 35:7-13). By looking at the reinterpretation of the biblical festivals across different texts in the Hebrew Bible, we can see how different religious practices were understood and transformed over time.

Laura Quick, "Festivals in the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 16)", n.p. [cited 9 Dec 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/festivals-in-the-hebrew-bible--deuteronomy-16

Contributors

quick-laura

Laura Quick
Assistant Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies, Princeton University

Laura Quick is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies at Princeton University, where she specializes in the Hebrew Bible and related literature. She is interested in the production, consumption, and transformation of sacred texts by religious communities in the ancient world, which is the topic of her recent book, Deuteronomy 28 and the Aramaic Curse Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). She is currently working on projects looking at scribal culture in ancient Israel and Judah and at the body as an agent in the communication of social and sexual identities.

The Hebrew Bible describes a variety of festivals, many of which are still celebrated today.

Did you know…?

  • Deut 16 describes three pilgrimage festivals: Pesach and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Deut 1-8); Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks (Deut 9-12); and Sukkot or the Feast of Booths (Deut 13-17).
  • The three pilgrimage festivals of Deut 16 likely began as agricultural festivals connected with seasonal harvests.
  • Overtime, the three pilgrimage festivals were reinterpreted to fit changing theological agendas.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A book found in the Temple during Josiah's reign, which many scholars link to the book of Deuteronomy.

related to a cow or ox

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Relating to spiritual guidance or oversight of a church community.

literally “pass over,” a biblical pilgrimage festival celebrated in the spring.

a journey, usually with religious significance

a site with religious significance

Literally "Weeks," a biblical pilgrimage festival celebrated in the spring, seven weeks after Passover.

a temporary stay

Literally "Booths," one of the biblical pilgrimage festivals, celebrated in the fall.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

made without a leavening agent, such as yeast or baking powder

Deut 16

The Passover Reviewed
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 Eg ... View more

Deut 1-8

Events at Horeb Recalled
1These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan—in the wilderness, on the plain opposite Suph, between Paran and ... View more

Deut 9-12

The Consequences of Rebelling against God
1Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan today, to go in and dispossess nations larger and mightier than you ... View more

Deut 13-17

1 If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents,2and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and t ... View more

Exod 12

The First Passover Instituted
1The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the fir ... View more

Exod 13

1The Lord said to Moses:2Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.T ... View more

Exod 23:14-19

The Annual Festivals
14Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me.15You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you sh ... View more

Exod 34:18-26

18You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; fo ... View more

Lev 23

Appointed Festivals
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the appointed festivals of the Lord that you shal ... View more

Num 9:1-14

The Passover at Sinai
1The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, s ... View more

Num 28-29

Daily Offerings
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Command the Israelites, and say to them: My offering, the food for my offerings by fire, my pleasing odor, you ... View more

2Kgs 23:22

22No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah;

2Chr 35:18

18No passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; none of the kings of Israel had kept such a passover as was kept by Josiah, ... View more

Exod 12:7

7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.

Exod 12:23

23For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door ... View more

2Kgs 22:8

8The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he r ... View more

Deut 16

The Passover Reviewed
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 Eg ... View more

Deut 16

The Passover Reviewed
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 Eg ... View more

Deut 16

The Passover Reviewed
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 Eg ... View more

Lev 23:5-6

5In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord,6and on the fifteenth day of the same month ... View more

Num 28:16-17

Offerings at Passover
16On the fourteenth day of the first month there shall be a passover offering to the Lord.17And on the fifteenth day of this month is a fe ... View more

Deut 16:12

12Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and diligently observe these statutes.

Deut 16

The Passover Reviewed
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 Eg ... View more

Deut 16

The Passover Reviewed
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 Eg ... View more

Lev 23:39-43

39Now, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the festival of the Lord, lasting seven days; a ... View more

Exod 12:3-5

3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.4If a household is too ... View more

Exod 12:21

21Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb.

Deut 16:2

2You 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.

2Chr 35:7-13

7Then Josiah contributed to the people, as passover offerings for all that were present, lambs and kids from the flock to the number of thirty thousand, and thr ... View more

Deut 16

The Passover Reviewed
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 Eg ... View more

Deut 1-8

Events at Horeb Recalled
1These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan—in the wilderness, on the plain opposite Suph, between Paran and ... View more

Deut 9-12

The Consequences of Rebelling against God
1Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan today, to go in and dispossess nations larger and mightier than you ... View more

Deut 13-17

1 If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents,2and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and t ... View more

Deut 16

The Passover Reviewed
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 Eg ... View more

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