The Three Pilgrimage Feasts

Continuing through “The Book of the Law V1.0” we find these new instructions for our Israelite ancestors: 

“Three times in the year you shall keep these Pilgrimage Feasts to me:”  

• You shall keep the Pilgrimage Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. 

• None shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall keep the Pilgrimage Feast of Harvest, of the first-fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. 

• You shall keep the Pilgrimage Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor.  

“Three times in the year shall all your males appear before YHWH Elohim.” (Exodus 23:14-17

The Torah itself never tells us specifically where these Pilgrimage Feasts will eventually send us, that location is only known using the cryptic phrase “the place that YHWH your God will choose to put His Name”.  Clearly, this eventually becomes Jerusalem, but Jerusalem isn’t captured until King David’s reign, and there’s no Temple built until there until Solomon is king.  

Since YHWH’s Name is literally spelled out on the High Priest’s forehead and nowhere else, we’ll just say that wherever the High Priest is, that’s the place Hebrews migrate towards three times per year.  We, as believers in Messiah, have the perfect High Priest, so there’s no valid reason beyond our own stubbornness, to assume that these Holy Feasts are any less relevant or applicable to us than they were to our ancestors. Since we claim that our bodies, especially as built together by Yah’s hands, are a Temple filled with the Holy Spirit–it is especially inexcusable to dismiss these commandments as irrelevant, too hard, or impossible to honor—no matter where we are physically exiled at present. To the Israelites around Sinai, the latter two of these three Feasts is more like a hopeful prophecy–and that is no different for us today. 

So far, in the narrative from the first Pesach up until this point at Mt. Sinai, our people have only been told about one pilgrimage feast (a chag, with a guttural CH, in Hebrew), “Chag Matza” (The Feast of Unleavened Bread).  And what a chag that was!  A pilgrimage out of Egypt, ending right here at this very mountain.  

The second pilgrimage feast, a new one for Israel, is called “The Pilgrimage Feast of Harvest”, in Hebrew “Chag Qatzir”.  Eventually this becomes known as “Shavuot”, and those details are filled in with the directions given in Leviticus 23.  Unlike Matza, which has already been wildly successful, the people don’t yet realize that they are in the midst of the original first Shavuot—and the terms “Feast of Weeks”, or “Feast of Oaths”, or “Feast of Sabbaths”—however you would translate the word Shavuot–would certainly be confusing and out of context to them at this point.  The anticipation, however, of a harvest festival, which implies fruitful abundance, which implies a land of their very own, was meant to be an exciting and motivating idea.  Like the laws making Egyptian-style slavery immoral and illegal, these laws were also projecting Yah’s goodness as Israel inched closer to agreeing to the terms written in The Book of the Law. 

The connection which will eventually become obvious to them, once they actually get settled in their own land, is that the fruit that they will bring as an offering is not just the fruit of the earth.  Throughout scripture an abundant harvest is an allegorical parallel with the more valuable fruits of the Spirit.  His pilgrimage feasts use food as symbols of our spiritual state, and as the first fruits of the harvest are carried from every end of the land to the central place of worship, it’s a clear message to the nations that Yah is the God of abundance and is worthy of worship. 

Most of the Abrahamic faith traditions have disconnected themselves from agriculture completely, which makes it easy to dismiss these celebrations as old-fashioned, done-away-with, or irrelevant for modern day city dwellers.  Even while in exile from the promised land, as is our current state, it’s spiritually lazy to throw up our hands and claim we can’t honor the more crucial elements of these appointed times. Simply by intentionally counting our blessings, pressing into His Word, and praying for abundant fruit we honor the spirit of the law.  This Shavuot series of 50 days is also traditionally called the “Counting of the Omer” in Judaism.  The term is based on both the counting of the “omers” of Manna that had fallen in the wilderness, but is then later connected to the fruit of the land once the manna stops early in the Book of Joshua. 

Finally, “The Pilgrimage Feast of Ingathering”, in Hebrew “Chag Aseeph”.  Eventually this celebration becomes known as Sukkot, or in Greek, “Tabernacles”, or in English “Booths”. Like the Feast of Harvest, this Feast is intrinsically connected to the agricultural production for the season.  Practically speaking, the two are nothing alike, as “Harvest” is a 50-day long trickle of the first-fruits of each crop, brought in as a limited offering of thanksgiving, while “Ingathering” is a major undertaking at the end of the entire season. “Ingathering” becomes an entire week of what amounts to hundreds of thousands of farmers camping together (each in their own temporary shelter, aka a ‘Sukkah’) enjoying fully the fruits of one another’s labors.  More importantly, Israel as a whole collectively recognizes Yah as the creator and source of all life, and the sole provider of all of Israel.  At this point in Exodus 21, there is no “tabernacle” yet, and the various tribes don’t get their assigned places around the campground until early in the Book of Numbers. This is why the term “Sukkot” isn’t used here in this original context.  All three of these chags become reminders of events that occur in the lives of these very Israelites camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and their experiences thus far have been limited. 

In several follow up verses in the remaining books of Torah, we also learn that the Feast of Ingathering becomes the focal event of the entire tithing system which is centered around the seven-year land-rest cycle.  At the end of the first and second year’s harvest (around the time of the Autumn Equinox) 10% of everything harvested is brought to the central location—and essentially its all consumed right there, at the biggest annual party Israel throws. (Compare that to Matzah, where you humbly sit as a family eating crackers inside your house.)  At the end of the the third year’s harvest of that same seven-year cycle, the same amount of food is brought in, but it’s all used to make sure the food banks for widows and orphans are fully stocked. The fourth and fifth years are just like the first and second—party, party, party—and the sixth is the same as the third—refilling the food banks again. However, the sixth year is extra special.  Just like the lesson of the Manna, the harvest of that sixth year is three times as abundant as every proceeding year—so the poor and needy are more than taken care of until the third year of the following cycle comes back around. On the seventh year, no farming whatsoever is to take place. No planting. No harvest. However, the “Pilgrimage Feast of Ingathering”, what will become known as “Sukkot” continues unhindered.  In that seventh year, all of the men (at minimum) still congregate for one reason—simply to read the Torah together for 8 straight days!

The names of these Chags as given here in Exodus, remind us that the Torah was given to Israel in contextual bite-sized pieces—just like He gives it to us today.  Even with a canonized Bible, all of us still go through spurts of spiritual growth–if we’ll simply listen and obey the words He’s given us.  

Yah meets us where we are, and never expects more from a believer than they can handle–but He does expect at least that much.  

We need to remember that principle as we are called to meet others where they are. “You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt,” is a phrase alluded to three times right here in the early core of The Book of The Law.  

Every single command is multi-purpose, but the highest purpose of Israel is to be a blessing to the nations by projecting Yah’s name accurately to those who are watching—both friend and foe. These three Feasts illustrate the pattern of how Yah works in our lives—starting with seeds of promise that grow to overflowing abundance—with Yah completely sovereign over the sun, the rain, and the process.  

Like a seed, the list of appointed times also continues to grow as the narrative of our Israelite ancestors continues. “Yom Teruah”, known as the Day of Shouting, or the Feast of Trumpets (which is not related to agriculture, nor is it specifically a pilgrimage feast) isn’t mentioned here in Exodus because it’s origin is the “Sin of the Golden Calf” where the Ten Debar are smashed to pieces.  That event has yet to happen.  Likewise, “Ha Yom HaKippurim”, “The Day of The Atonements” occurs as Yah’s merciful response to that whole idolatrous nightmare. When the Torah is finally complete, Israel will have the seven perfect appointed times, including the three Pilgrimage Feasts listed here in the initial Book of the Law that Moses is writing down.  

Any additional celebrations mankind chooses to add to these seven may be fun and even fruitful to a degree, but they are not Holy. This doesn’t mean that they are sinful, they just aren’t Holy. Yah ties His Holy name only to these seven appointed times, all of which He designed to during occur during spring and summer—ending just as fall begins. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanza, Hanukkah, both western and Chinese New Year, Purim, and Marti Gras—all of these are jammed into the winter off season and completely disconnected from Yah’s season of new life, growth, and harvest. If we choose to celebrate those, or even our own birthdays, we’d just better make sure they aren’t stealing the glory from the seven Holy times Yah as mandated—even if we aren’t farmers. 

How truly amazing that Yah has invited us to take part in these ancient celebrations. How truly sad that our own human traditions have re-branded, rescheduled, or simply replaced Yah’s divine appointments with us. In the Gospels, Messiah himself honors these days, and boldly teaches the heart of what they mean to his brother Israelites, yet most do not have eyes to see nor ears to hear.  Shavuot, this central Feast of the seven, the heart of the annual cycle as well as the heart of the harvest, is our pre-scheduled opportunity to dig into the Torah, Yah’s Holy instructions, and recommit ourselves to His ways, rather than simply continuing to stumble forward blindly in our own. “We will be known by our fruits”, Messiah says, and Shavuot is where He begins to sees “the first fruits of our labor.” 

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