Festival Milestones of Israel’s History
“Three times in the year every male of yours should appear before Jehovah your God in the place that he will choose . . . , and none should appear before Jehovah empty-handed.”—DEUTERONOMY 16:16.
1. What can be said about the festival occasions in Bible times?
WHAT comes to mind when you think of a festival? Some festivals in ancient times were marked by overindulgence and immorality. The same is true of some modern-day festivals. But the festivals outlined in God’s Law to Israel were different. While they were joyful occasions, they could also be described as “holy conventions.”—Leviticus 23:2.
2. (a) What were Israelite males required to do three times a year? (b) As the word is used at Deuteronomy 16:16, what is a “festival”?
2 Faithful Israelite men—often accompanied by their families—found refreshing pleasure in traveling to Jerusalem, ‘the place Jehovah chose,’ and they generously contributed to three great festivals. (Deuteronomy 16:16) The book Old Testament Word Studies defines the Hebrew word translated “festival” at Deuteronomy 16:16 as an “occasion of great joy . . . on which some signal instances of God’s favour were celebrated with sacrificing and feasting.”a
The Value of the Great Festivals
3. What blessings did the three annual festivals bring to mind?
3 Since theirs was an agricultural society, the Israelites depended on God’s blessing in the form of rain. The three great festivals in the Mosaic Law coincided with the gathering of the barley harvest in early spring, the wheat harvest in late spring, and the rest of the harvest in late summer. These were occasions for great rejoicing and thankfulness to the Sustainer of the rain cycle and the Maker of the productive land. But the festivals involved much more.—Deuteronomy 11:11-14.
4. What historical event was celebrated by the first festival?
4 The first festival took place in the first month of the ancient Bible calendar, from Nisan 15 to 21, which corresponds to our late March or early April. It was called the Festival of Unfermented Cakes, and because it followed immediately after the Passover of Nisan 14, it was also called “the festival of the passover.” (Luke 2:41; Leviticus 23:5, 6) This festival reminded Israel of their deliverance from affliction in Egypt, the unfermented cakes being called “the bread of affliction.” (Deuteronomy 16:3) It reminded them that their flight from Egypt had been so hasty that there had been no time to add leaven to their dough and wait for it to rise. (Exodus 12:34) During this festival no leavened bread was to be found in an Israelite home. Any celebrant, including an alien resident, who ate leavened bread was to be punished by death.—Exodus 12:19.
5. What privilege may have been recalled by the second festival, and who were to be included in the rejoicing?
5 The second festival took place seven weeks (49 days) after Nisan 16 and fell on the 6th day of the third month, Sivan, corresponding to our late May. (Leviticus 23:15, 16) It was called the Festival of Weeks (in Jesus’ day, it was also called Pentecost, meaning “Fiftieth” in Greek), and it took place close to the same time of the year that Israel entered into the Law covenant at Mount Sinai. (Exodus 19:1, 2) During this festival faithful Israelites may have meditated on their privilege of being set apart as God’s holy nation. Their being God’s special people required obedience to God’s Law, such as the command to show loving care for disadvantaged ones so that these too could enjoy the festival.—Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 16:10-12.
6. Of what experience did the third festival remind God’s people?
6 The last of the three great annual festivals was called the Festival of Ingathering, or Festival of Booths. It took place in the seventh month, Tishri, or Ethanim, from the 15th to the 21st day, corresponding to our early October. (Leviticus 23:34) During this time, God’s people dwelt outside their homes or on their roofs in temporary shelters (booths) made from the branches and leaves of trees. This reminded them of their 40-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, when the nation had to learn to rely on God for their daily needs.—Leviticus 23:42, 43; Deuteronomy 8:15, 16.
7. How do we benefit from a review of festival celebrations in ancient Israel?
7 Let us review some festivals that proved to be milestones in the history of God’s ancient people. This should be encouraging to us today, since we too are invited to gather together regularly each week and three times a year in large assemblies and conventions.—Hebrews 10:24, 25.
In the Time of Davidic Kings
8. (a) What historic celebration was held in the days of King Solomon? (b) What grand climax of the antitypical Festival of Booths can we look forward to?
8 A historic celebration at the time of the Festival of Booths took place during the prosperous reign of King Solomon, David’s son. “A very great congregation” gathered from the extremities of the Promised Land for the Festival of Booths and the dedication of the temple. (2 Chronicles 7:8) When it was complete, King Solomon dismissed the celebrants, who “began to bless the king and to go to their homes, rejoicing and feeling merry of heart over all the goodness that Jehovah had performed for David his servant and for Israel his people.” (1 Kings 8:66) That was indeed a festival milestone. Today, God’s servants look forward to the grand climax of the antitypical Festival of Booths at the end of the Thousand Year Reign of the Greater Solomon, Jesus Christ. (Revelation 20:3, 7-10, 14, 15) At that time, people living in every corner of the earth, including resurrected ones and Armageddon survivors, will be united in the joyful worship of Jehovah God.—Zechariah 14:16.
9-11. (a) What led to a festival milestone in the days of King Hezekiah? (b) What example was set by many from the northern ten-tribe kingdom, and of what does it remind us today?
9 The next outstanding festival reported in the Bible came after the rule of wicked King Ahaz, who had closed the temple and led the kingdom of Judah into apostasy. Ahaz’s successor was good King Hezekiah. In the first year of his reign, at the age of 25, Hezekiah began a great program of restoration and reform. He immediately opened the temple and arranged for its repair. Then the king sent letters to Israelites living in the hostile ten-tribe kingdom of Israel in the north, inviting them to come and celebrate the Passover and the Festival of Unfermented Cakes. Many came, despite the ridicule of their fellowmen.—2 Chronicles 30:1, 10, 11, 18.
10 Was the festival a success? The Bible reports: “So the sons of Israel that were found in Jerusalem held the festival of the unfermented cakes seven days with great rejoicing; and the Levites and the priests were offering praise to Jehovah day by day with loud instruments.” (2 Chronicles 30:21) What a fine example those Israelites set for God’s people today, many of whom endure opposition and travel a long way to attend conventions!
11 For example, consider three “Godly Devotion” District Conventions held in Poland in 1989. Among the 166,518 in attendance were large groups from the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries where the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was banned at the time. “For some who attended these conventions,” reports the book Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom,b “it was the first time they had ever been at a large gathering of more than 15 or 20 of Jehovah’s people. Their hearts welled up with appreciation as they looked out at the tens of thousands in the stadiums, joined with them in prayer, and united their voices in songs of praise to Jehovah.”—Page 279.
12. What led up to the festival milestone in the reign of King Josiah?
12 After the death of Hezekiah, the Judeans again fell away to false worship under Kings Manasseh and Amon. Then came the reign of another good king, young Josiah, who acted courageously in restoring true worship. At the age of 25, Josiah ordered that the temple be repaired. (2 Chronicles 34:8) While the repair was being done, the Law written by Moses was found in the temple. King Josiah was deeply moved by what he read in God’s Law and arranged to have it read to all the people. (2 Chronicles 34:14, 30) Then, according to what was written, he organized a celebration of the Passover. The king also set a fine example by contributing generously toward the occasion. As a result, the Bible reports: “There had never been held a passover like it in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet.”—2 Chronicles 35:7, 17, 18.
13. Of what do the festival celebrations of Hezekiah and Josiah remind us today?
13 The reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah parallel the marvelous restoration of true worship that has occurred among true Christians since the enthronement of Jesus Christ in 1914. As was true especially with Josiah’s reforms, this modern-day restoration has been based on what is written in God’s Word. And, paralleling the days of Hezekiah and Josiah, the modern-day restoration has been marked by assemblies and conventions where thrilling explanations of Bible prophecy and timely applications of Bible principles have been featured. Adding to the joy of these instructive occasions has been the large number who got baptized. Like the repentant Israelites in the days of Hezekiah and Josiah, newly baptized ones have turned their backs on the wicked practices of Christendom and the rest of Satan’s world. In 1997 over 375,000 were baptized in symbol of their dedication to the holy God, Jehovah—an average of more than 1,000 per day.
After the Exile
14. What led up to a festival milestone in 537 B.C.E.?
14 After the death of Josiah, the nation again turned to degrading false worship. Eventually, in 607 B.C.E., Jehovah punished his people by bringing the Babylonian armies against Jerusalem. The city and its temple were destroyed, and the land was desolated. There followed 70 years of Jewish captivity in Babylon. Then God revived a repentant Jewish remnant, who returned to the Promised Land to restore true worship. They arrived at the ruined city of Jerusalem in the seventh month of the year 537 B.C.E. The first thing they did was to set up an altar to offer up regular daily sacrifices as outlined in the Law covenant. That was just in time for another historic celebration. “Then they held the festival of booths according to what is written.”—Ezra 3:1-4.
15. What work lay ahead for the restored remnant in 537 B.C.E., and how did a parallel situation exist in 1919?
15 A great work lay ahead of these returned exiles—the rebuilding of God’s temple and of Jerusalem with its walls. There was much opposition from jealous neighbors. When the temple was being built, it was a “day of small things.” (Zechariah 4:10) The situation paralleled the condition of faithful anointed Christians in 1919. In that memorable year, they were released from spiritual captivity to Babylon the Great, the world empire of false religion. They numbered only a few thousand and faced a hostile world. Would God’s enemies be able to stop the advancement of true worship? The answer to that question brings to mind the last two festival celebrations recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.
16. What was significant about a festival in 515 B.C.E.?
16 The temple was eventually rebuilt in the month of Adar 515 B.C.E., just in time for the Nisan spring festival. The Bible reports: “They went on to hold the festival of unfermented cakes seven days with rejoicing; for Jehovah caused them to rejoice, and he had turned the heart of the king of Assyria around toward them to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of the true God, the God of Israel.”—Ezra 6:22.
17, 18. (a) What festival milestone was reached in 455 B.C.E.? (b) How are we in a similar situation today?
17 Sixty years later, in 455 B.C.E., another milestone was reached. The Festival of Booths that year marked the completion of the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. The Bible reports: “All the congregation of those who had come back from the captivity made booths and took up dwelling in the booths; for the sons of Israel had not done that way from the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day, so that there came to be very great rejoicing.”—Nehemiah 8:17.
18 What a memorable restoration of God’s true worship in the face of fierce opposition! The situation today is similar. Despite waves of persecution and opposition, the grand work of preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom has reached to the ends of the earth, and God’s judgment messages have been sounded far and wide. (Matthew 24:14) The final sealing of the remaining ones of 144,000 anointed ones draws near. Over five million of their “other sheep” companions have been gathered from all the nations into “one flock” with the anointed remnant. (John 10:16; Revelation 7:3, 9, 10) What a wonderful fulfillment of the prophetic picture of the Festival of Booths! And this grand work of ingathering will continue into the new world when billions of resurrected ones will be invited to join in celebrating the antitypical Festival of Booths.—Zechariah 14:16-19.
In the First Century C.E.
19. What made the Festival of Booths in 32 C.E. outstanding?
19 Among the most outstanding festival celebrations recorded in the Bible were undoubtedly those attended by the Son of God, Jesus Christ. For example, consider Jesus’ attendance at the Festival of Booths (or, Tabernacles) in the year 32 C.E. He used that occasion to teach important truths and backed up his teaching by quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures. (John 7:2, 14, 37-39) A regular feature of this festival was the custom of lighting four great candelabras in an inner courtyard of the temple. This contributed to the enjoyment of festival activities that continued on into the night. Apparently, Jesus alluded to these great lights when he said: “I am the light of the world. He that follows me will by no means walk in darkness, but will possess the light of life.”—John 8:12.
20. Why was the Passover in 33 C.E. outstanding?
20 Then came the Passover and Festival of Unfermented Cakes of the significant year 33 C.E. On that Passover Day, Jesus was executed by his enemies and became the antitypical Passover Lamb, who died to take away “the sin of the world.” (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7) Three days later, on Nisan 16, God resurrected Jesus with an immortal spirit body. This coincided with the offering of the firstfruits of the barley harvest as prescribed by the Law. Thus, the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ became “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in death.”—1 Corinthians 15:20.
21. What happened at Pentecost in 33 C.E.?
21 A truly outstanding festival was Pentecost in 33 C.E. On this day many Jews and proselytes were gathered in Jerusalem, including about 120 of Jesus’ disciples. While the festival was in progress, the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ poured out God’s holy spirit upon the 120. (Acts 1:15; 2:1-4, 33) They were thereby anointed and became God’s new chosen nation through the new covenant mediated by Jesus Christ. During that festival the Jewish high priest offered to God two leavened loaves made from the firstfruits of the wheat harvest. (Leviticus 23:15-17) These leavened loaves picture the 144,000 imperfect humans whom Jesus ‘bought for God’ to serve as “a kingdom and priests . . . to rule as kings over the earth.” (Revelation 5:9, 10; 14:1, 3) The fact that these heavenly rulers come from two branches of sinful mankind, Jews and Gentiles, may also be typified by the two leavened loaves.
22. (a) Why do Christians not celebrate festivals of the Law covenant? (b) What will we consider in the next article?
22 When the new covenant came into operation at Pentecost 33 C.E., it meant that the old Law covenant had ceased to have value in God’s eyes. (2 Corinthians 3:14; Hebrews 9:15; 10:16) That does not mean that anointed Christians are without law. They come under the divine law taught by Jesus Christ and written on their hearts. (Galatians 6:2) Therefore, the three annual festivals, being part of the old Law covenant, are not celebrated by Christians. (Colossians 2:16, 17) Nevertheless, we can learn much from the attitude of pre-Christian servants of God toward their festivals and other meetings for worship. In our next article, we will consider examples that will no doubt motivate all to appreciate the need to be regular in attendance at Christian gatherings.
a See also Insight on the Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Volume 1, page 820, column 1, paragraphs 1 and 3, under “Festival.”
b Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
◻ What purpose did Israel’s three great festivals serve?
◻ What characterized the festivals of Hezekiah and Josiah’s day?
◻ What milestone was celebrated in 455 B.C.E., and why is it encouraging to us?
◻ What was significant about the Passover and Pentecost in 33 C.E.?
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A Festival Lesson for Us Today
All who would lastingly benefit from Jesus’ sin-atoning sacrifice must live in harmony with what is pictured by the Festival of Unfermented Cakes. This antitypical festival is the joyful celebration of anointed Christians over their deliverance from this wicked world and their release from the condemnation of sin through Jesus’ ransom. (Galatians 1:4; Colossians 1:13, 14) The literal festival lasted seven days—a number used in the Bible to symbolize spiritual completeness. The antitypical festival lasts for the complete duration of the anointed Christian congregation on earth and must be celebrated with “sincerity and truth.” That means being constantly on the watch for figurative leaven. Leaven is used in the Bible to picture corrupt teachings, hypocrisy, and badness. True worshipers of Jehovah must show a hatred of such leaven, not allowing it to corrupt their own lives and not allowing it to spoil the purity of the Christian congregation.—1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Matthew 16:6, 12.
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A sheaf of the new barley harvest was offered every year on Nisan 16, the day that Jesus was resurrected
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Jesus may have alluded to the festival lights when he called himself “the light of the world”