First Fridays: Leviticus 23

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘These are the festivals of the LORD which you shall celebrate at their proper time with a sacred assembly.’”

So begins the Old Testament reading for today. Following this introduction, the reading continues with God pronouncing the major feasts that would make up the Jewish calendar: The Sabbath, the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Offering of First Fruits, Festival of Weeks, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Tabernacles. It may seem that this list of Jewish festivals may not appear to be particularly relevant to the modern Christian. After all, we don’t celebrate these feasts; so why did this passage and others like it make its way into our lectionary? What can we take away from them?

One reason why these readings are important to us is the historical background which they provide us about our ancestors in faith and the religious culture into which our Lord was born. The present is shaped by the past, so learning about the lived experience of those who preceded us and how they kept their traditions alive gives us a blueprint for doing the same today. For example, that the Festival of Weeks is a celebration commemorating the wheat harvest in Israel does not seem to be of utmost importance to the modern Christian. However, knowing that the Festival of Weeks was also known as Pentecost because it fell 50 days after Passover, in the same way as the Christian Pentecost follows 50 days after Easter, and that apart from being a harvest celebration, it commemorates the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, allows us to enter into the liturgical importance of this festival. Understanding the relationship between the giving of the law at Sinai, and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost allows us to see the gradual fulfillment of salvation history and the slow unveiling of God’s love throughout time.

But for this post, I don’t want to talk about the rich theological insights a close study of each of these festivals would give us. There are others who have done a much better job than I could. Interested readers could do no better than to check out the Berit Olam commentaries published by The Liturgical Press. Rather, I want to focus on the general theme present throughout the entire narrative, (which in the reading is presented in a redacted form.) That is, the elements of time and space, and how they are ordered to the worship of God. If you look at Leviticus 23:1-44, there are several phrases that you would find repeated multiple times. “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the Israelites,” “The appointed festivals” or “sacred assemblies,” “Do no regular work,” and “lasting ordinance for generations to come” and “Wherever you live.” I want to concentrate on these repeated phrases as revelatory of the kind of relationship God wants the children of Israel to have with Him and with each other. Finally, after looking at these, I want to address the seemingly out of place verse of Leviticus 23:22 which I think is central to the passage.

To begin, it should be noted that Leviticus 23 begins a new “section” in the book of Leviticus. The previous “section” dealt with the conduct of the priests, and now we have seemed to move on from that to norms of general conduct for all the Israelites. How fascinating that the first directive God gives to His people is a calendar! Even before the seemingly paramount sections on rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience (Leviticus 26), God gives very specific instructions for when to celebrate liturgical feasts. Furthermore, the passage makes it clear that this is a divine command. “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the Israelites,” is repeated several times, reiterating how the giving of the calendar of feasts comes from God Himself. In fact, the chapter ends with God saying, “I am the Lord your God,” using the divine “I am” with which he first identified Himself to Moses to underline the sacred nature of the festivals just commanded. Furthermore, the repetition of “lasting ordinance for generations to come” and “wherever you live” reflect the universality of these commands. These commands hold true, not just for the small group being spoken to, but for all of God’s people, wherever and whenever they are.

It is because of this that we hear repeated the command to do “no regular work” (in other translations, servile or laborious work). Is this command given because God disapproved of the work they Israelites did? Of course not. God commands that sacred days be days of rest as a reminder that these are not normal “work days.” They are days that we rededicate ourselves to the work of the Lord, that is, prayer. Just as God “rested” on the seventh day after the work of creation, we rest after our participation in that unfolding work of creation to remind ourselves of what that work is ordered to – God.

And that is what I think this passage reveals the most about God and about ourselves. Our work is ordered to our rest, which is itself ordered towards our relationship with God. As human beings, we are transcendent creatures. We have limited needs like any other animal; we eat until we aren’t hungry anymore, we sleep until we aren’t tired anymore, we seek shelter from the elements, and all the other basic necessities. But we also have unlimited transcendent desires. We have a desire for beauty, for companionship, for wholeness, for infinite joy. That is, we have a desire for God. God led the Israelites out of Egypt and he gave them the calendar of feasts not to satisfy their basic animal needs, but their transcendent human needs. God gave the Israelites a calendar of feasts and directions of how to celebrate them even before He finished leading Israel into the Holy Land because it was given to them for the purpose of worship, and so their time in the land and their use of it must be ordered to that purpose.

Do we find this to be the reality in our lives today? Do we order our time and our space to that reality? How often do we find our work encroaching into our time with God? How often are we tempted to skip prayer or even just healthy social activities in order to get work done because we think that is what is expected of us? Could you imagine what kind of a society we would be if our calendars were arranged around preserving the sacredness of the day of rest? Imagine if employers arranged work schedules in a way that not only provided employees with sufficient “days of rest” but also such that they could participate with dignity in community activities (both religious and other healthy communal gatherings.)

It is to that point which I think the, seemingly out of place, verse of Leviticus 22:23 is ordered. “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’” This is the “gleaning law” of ancient Israel, which essentially stated that those who owned and worked farmland ought not be so exacting in their harvest that those without land wouldn’t be able to find food should they glean from the field. In a passage about liturgical feasts, why would this command be placed in the exact middle? It’s true, the Festival of Weeks is a harvest festival and so making a point about harvesting is not completely out of place here, but it still seems a little strange.

However, reflecting on the idea that our time and resources are ultimately ordered to the service of God, we might find religious significance in the gleaning law. In some sense, the gleaning law made it possible for the poor to participate in the festival. It ensured that there would be food available after the harvest for those who begged in order to fulfill their basic needs. The poor would not have to worry if taking time off from their job for the festival would impact their ability to fill their needs. Just as a farmer has a right to collect the fruit of his labor from his field but not be so exacting that there is none left for others, an employer has a right to his employees time (for a fair wage of course,) but not to be so exacting in his demands that an employee does not have time or energy left for religious and community oriented activities in a respite from “regular work.”

As a reflection, we might ask ourselves, do we keep the “gleaning law” in our own lives? Do we ensure that every day we have several periods of time protected from the encroachment of our daily demands, our regular and laborious work? Do we use that time to concentrate not on our basic animal needs, but our transcendent human needs? What “mini-festivals” do we have planned in our day in which our focus is on prayer to God and charity towards our neighbor? Is our time away from the office ordered towards these higher things, or is it only a brief respite to prepare for the next day on the job? Essentially, do we work to live, or are we living to work? With these thoughts in mind, thanks be to our God, who takes care of our needs so that we can use this time on Earth to grow closer to Him!


Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857, oil on canvas