Should we observe the Levitical festivals?: A Seventh-day Adventist perspective - Part 1
What does the significance of feasts and festivals of the Old Testament hold for Christians today? How should Seventh-day Adventist theology, that recognizes the validity of the Seventh-day Sabbath, view the Levitical feasts?
Arguments in support of and against the observance of the feasts have been debated in church circles recently, including Adventist churches. Therefore, this issue must be addressed. This article proposes to take up this task in two parts. The first part will examine five arguments generally employed with respect to observing the feasts: (1) the pedagogical value of the typological interpretation of the feasts; (2) the usefulness of being reminded of the historical connection between Israel’s feasts and Christian proclamation; (3) the relationship of the feasts to the Sabbath; (4) the relationship of the Feast of the New Moon to the Sabbath; and (5) the potential for better Jewish-Christian relations. In dealing with each issue, I propose to examine the problems raised by the Christian observance of the feasts and then discuss the negative arguments that oppose such practice. The second part of the article will suggest “a proper way,” further directions to take, along with some practical applications for the life of the church.
Jewish festivals as a teaching tool
The biblical festivals were intricately linked to the sacrificial system. Indeed, the sacrifices were not mere rituals or cultural expressions of piety; they were central to the very meaning of the festivals. The Feast of Passover, for example, did not just require the slaughter and eating of a lamb (Exod. 12:3–10); in fact, the lamb gave Passover its fundamental meaning and raison d’être. The Passover was specifically designed as a reminder of the sacrifice of the lamb offered in the Exodus event: God’s passing over the blood of the slaughtered animal, thereby granting redemption (Exod. 12:13). This connection is so strong that Passover is actually identified with the lamb itself. Pesah (Passover) is the lamb (2 Chron. 30:15).
Not only Passover, but also all the other festivals revolved around sacrifices in connection to atonement. The biblical texts dealing with the feasts stipulate the sacrifice of a goat as a sin offering to make atonement for the people (Num. 28:15, 22, 30; 29:5, 11, 28). In the New Testament, the sacrifices point to the coming and function of Christ. Jesus is identified with the Passover lamb (John 1:36; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7), with the whole sacrificial system seen as the shadow of “things to come” (Heb. 10:1; cf. Col. 2:16, 17). The sacrifices convey a prophetic message concerning the process of salvation: God will come down and offer Himself as a sacrifice in order to atone for sin and redeem humanity.
The effect of Christ’s sacrifice is definitive and perpetual. In that sense, we have to understand the phrase “ ‘ “statute forever throughout your generations” ’ ” (Lev. 23:14, NKJV). The phrase “statute forever” does not mean a perpetual stipulation; otherwise this would mean that we still have to do all the sacrifices. Indeed, the same phrase “statute forever” is also used for the sacrifices (Lev. 3:17) and all the other rituals associated with the tabernacle: the ablutions (Exod. 30:21), the priestly garments (Exod.28:43), the lamps (Exod. 27:20, 21), etc. In other words, the use of the expression “forever” does not mean a perpetual obligation but should be understood within the context of the temple—that is, as long as the temple was standing. Now that the sacrifices are no longer possible because of the absence of the temple, and because prophecy contained within the sacrifices has been fulfilled in Christ, it follows that sacrifices and related rituals, such as Levitical festivals, are no longer mandatory. The type has met the Antitype. To engage in festivals with the idea that they are compulsory for our own salvation makes the Antitype, the Messiah, altogether irrelevant.
Also noted, the same expression “forever” is used for the covenant of the circumcision (Gen.17:13). Does this mean that circumcision continues as still valid today? If that were the case, this would then contradict the recommendation of the apostles in Acts 15. All these observations help us understand why the expression “forever” with respect to feasts does not support an everlasting requirement.
That argument aside, it is precisely this typological/prophetic function of the feasts that inspires those who support the keeping of the feasts. They argue that the observance of the feasts will help Christians gain a better and richer understanding of the plan of salvation. The profound meaning of the feasts was already attested to in the New Testament; they not only commemorated past events of salvation, especially the going out of Egypt and the miracles of Exodus, they also pointed to the cosmic and eschatological salvation. It is indeed significant that Jesus died and was resurrected during the time of Passover, which He not only celebrated, commemorating the Exodus, but also invested with fresh meaning, applying it to Himself (Matt. 26:17–30). Also meaningful is the event of the gift of the Spirit, associated with the proclamation of the gospel to the nations, taking place during Pentecost, the time of harvest. Basically, the spring festivals pointed to the first step of salvation: the first coming of Christ, His death, His resurrection, His enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the universal broadening of the covenant through the global proclamation of the gospel. The fall festivals pointed to the second step of salvation: the judgment in heaven and the proclamation of the three angels’ messages on earth, preparing for the cosmic salvation and the second coming of Christ (Rev. 14:6–13). As Richard Davidson notes, “[T]he first and last feasts of Israel’s cultic calendar seem tied to the inauguration and consummation of Israel’s salvation history respectively.” 1 The progression of the feasts in the yearly calendar, following the progression of the historical plan of salvation, has then been used as an argument in favor of the adoption of these festivals as a part of our religious life. But the pedagogical function of the feasts does not imply that these feasts are divine laws to be perpetually observed.
The main problem remains, however, as to whether those feasts should be observed by Christians today.
The historical connection
One function of the feasts was its application to the historical life of Israel in Canaan. When the temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from the land, they were obliged to create and develop new traditions for the observance of the feasts adapted to the situation of the exile, that is, without the temple and the sacrifices.2 Also, the fact that Jesus and His disciples observed the festivals and, later, early Christians (Jewish Christians) as well, even without sacrifices, suggests that it is not inconceivable for Christians to celebrate the festivals.
Yet, this example cannot be used as an argument to justify the Christian celebration of the feasts since Jesus and the early Christians kept not only the Jewish festivals but also other cultural and ceremonial practices, such as circumcision, the wearing of the tallith (prayer shawl), etc., practices that were not adopted by Gentile Christians on the basis of Acts 15. Furthermore, Christians, especially Seventh-day Adventists, do not have a historical festival tradition showing how to celebrate those festivals. How, then, will they celebrate the festivals? On what grounds will they justify one practice over another? Their claim to observe the festivals the biblical way stumbles on the fact that the biblical way requires the offering of sacrifices in the temple (Deut. 16:5). Without the support of a historical and cultural tradition, the keeping of the feasts is bound to generate tensions and dissensions in the church. Moreover, since no specific biblical law exists indicating how these laws should be observed outside of the temple, they will have to produce laws and traditions of their own. Ángel Rodríguez is right when he warns, “Those who promote the observance of the festivals have to create their own personal way of celebrating the feasts and in the process create human traditions that are not based on an explicit expression of God’s will.”3
The Sabbath and the festivals
The practice of festivals may even affect our theology of the Sabbath. The Bible clearly explains the essential difference between the feasts and the Sabbath. Festivals are not like the weekly Sabbath. Unlike the festivals, the Sabbath, as a sign, reminds us of the creation of the universe and is therefore eternal in its relevance. God gave the Sabbath at the end of the Creation week when there was no sin on earth and hence no sacrifice and no feasts. The Sabbath, unlike the festivals, was a part of the Ten Commandments and given to all of humanity. In fact, its origin predates the gift of the Torah to Israel on Sinai (Exod.16:23–28). Furthermore, Leviticus 23:3, 4, which lists the festivals along with the Sabbath, clearly suggests that an essential difference exists between the two categories of holy days. In Leviticus 23, the Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of the list (v. 3). Then the other holy days are listed under the designation “ ‘ “these are the feasts of the Lord” ’ ” (v. 4, NKJV), suggesting thereby that the Sabbath belongs to another category than the feasts. Although the Sabbath also implies sacrifices (Num. 28:9, 10), it is significant that the regular phrase “sin offering for atonement,” which always appears in relation to the festivals, is absent in reference to the Sabbath. This clear distinction suggests that the function of sacrifices in the context of the Sabbath is essentially different from their function in the context of the festivals. The Sabbath differs, not only from any other day of the week, but also from any feast day. It is noteworthy that this difference and even the superiority of the Sabbath over the festivals is systematically indicated in the liturgic reading of the Torah: we have more ‘alyot (ascents to the platform to read the Torah) on the day of Sabbath (seven) than on any festival day. To equate the Sabbath with the festivals is fundamentally wrong and affects the true meaning of Sabbath, ultimately compromising its mandatory character.
Realizing that the Sabbath differs from the festivals, and is even more important than them, will help us understand the nature of the connection between the two holy appointments. The fact that Leviticus 23 brings them together while marking the difference between them suggests, indeed, that the Sabbath is the crown, the climax of all festivals.
Paradoxically, this special connection between the Sabbath and the Levitical festivals brings out, in fact, a lesson about the relative value of the festivals versus the absolute value of the Sabbath. Instead of leading to the promotion of the observance of festivals, the study of the festivals should lead to a better understanding, appreciation, and experience of the Sabbath. For the Sabbath “is the foundation of all sacred time,”4 and thus contains and fulfills all the values and truths intimated by the festivals.
The Sabbath and the New Moon Festival
Within the festivals, the New Moon Festival occupies only a secondary place. Unlike other biblical holy days, the new moon never qualifies as a sacred day on which all labor is prohibited.5 During the period of the first temple, it was relegated to a “semi-festival” status, and its observance disappeared totally during the second temple period; thus, by the middle of the fourth century when the sages had established a permanent calendar, the proclamation of the new moon day was discontinued.6 Jewish tradition generally assigns a “minor” role to the New Moon Festival.7
Therefore, it is surprising that the New Moon Festival has received renewed attention, especially among Messianic Jews and even some Adventists. One justification for such observance is Isaiah 66:23 (NKJV), “ ‘It shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,’ says the Lord.” This text is used to suggest that the New Moon Festival will be observed in heaven along with the Sabbath. But the text does not speak so much about the observance of those two days, per se; rather, it emphasizes the continuity of worship, a characteristic of the new earth. For that purpose, the biblical author refers to the two extremities of time: “from . . . to.” What this verse actually says is that the worship continues as an activity of eternity—“from New Moon to New Moon” and “from Sabbath to Sabbath”; as if to say, from month to month, from week to week.
A second reason offered for the observance of the new moon feast is that the moon determines the Sabbath day. On the basis of biblical texts, such as Genesis 1:14 and Psalm 104:19, it is argued that the weekly Sabbath was originally tied to the lunar cycle. Indeed, both texts relate the moon to the seasons (mo‘adim). Since Leviticus 23 includes the Sabbath in the category of (“seasons,” “convocations”; see v. 2), and since the moon rules the seasons (Gen. 1:14), some conclude that the moon also rules the Sabbath. This argument raises a number of problems, including the following:
1. The meaning of the Hebrew word mo‘adim. This word relates to the verb y‘d with which it is also associated (Exod. 30:36; 2 Sam. 20:5). This verb means “to appoint” a time or a place (2 Sam. 20:5; Jer. 47:7). The word mo‘adim refers to “appointments,” “meetings,” or “convocations” in time or space. Now, not all the appointments (mo‘adim) are ruled by the moon. When Jeremiah 8:7 uses the word mo‘adim to refer to the migration times of the stork and other migratory birds, it does not imply that the migrations of the stork are governed by the moon, since the stork returns to Palestine regularly every spring. The word mo‘adim simply refers to a specific time or place appointed, either by humans (1 Sam. 20:35) or by God (Gen. 18:14), and could be weekly (1 Sam. 13:8), monthly, yearly (Gen. 17:21), or even prophetic (Dan. 12:7); and is not necessarily always dependent on the moon.
2. The idea that the Sabbath is dependent on the moon was in fact originally borrowed from the historical-critical presupposition of the Babylonian influence on the Bible. According to that view, the Sabbath was originally taken either from the Babylonian custom of the lunar days, evil/taboo days associated with lunar phases falling on days 7, 14, 19, 21, and 28 of the month, or from the monthly, full-moon day (shab/pattu). But this claim has no biblical support whatsoever and is no longer taken seriously by biblical scholars.8
3. The idea of the dependence of the Sabbath on the moon—placing the Sabbath on any day of the week, depending on the movements of the moon—goes against the testimony of history. First, it goes against the testimony of the Jews. Indeed, millions of Jews have kept the seventh-day Sabbath on Saturday for thousands of years, and this practice was never changed or lost by either the Julian or Gregorian calendar; the change only affected the number of the days and never the days of the week.9 The Jews still keep the same seventh-day Sabbath that was given at Creation, the same day that was commanded at Sinai and kept by Jesus and the apostles; that is, our Saturday. The claim that connects Sabbath to the moon and makes it fall on Tuesday, or any other moon-dependent day, is, indeed, a way of replacing the true Sabbath with another day, based on human speculation, just as human tradition replaced Sabbath with Sunday.
4. The argument that the day of the crucifixion of Jesus was Passover— that is, the 14th day from the new moon (Exod. 12:6; and, at the same time, the Sabbath day}—cannot be used to support the idea that the Sabbath depends on the moon. According to the testimony of the Gospels, Jesus was crucified on the preparation day (Friday) and not on Sabbath.
5. The fact that the function of the moon begins on the fourth day of Creation week (Gen. 1:14–19) makes it impossible to identify the Sabbath, coming three days later, as a moon day.
The Jewish-Christian relation
The Christian practice of the festivals may be counterproductive in regard to Jewish-Christian relations. Christians who engage in those festivals, adopting traditions that belong to another culture, will appear artificial and fake. They will also be offensive to Jews who will perceive in this endeavor a usurping intention in the line of supercessionism, 10 or a deceitful means to trap them into conversion. Christians, who imitate the Jews in the practice of the festivals, tend to do it in the context of a church liturgy, involving a whole community, as a public event. No need to say that this Christian adaptation of the Jewish custom totally misses the point and is shocking for the Jews, as traditionally those feasts were designed to be celebrated only at home, in the intimate circle of the family, and not in public. The Christian reproduction may, therefore, often become a caricature or a misrepresentation—at best, a pale imitation of the Jewish original. Instead of being a means of reaching out to the Jews, the Christian adaptations of the Jewish festivals may turn them away.
The marking of festivals may, on the other hand, draw Christians closer to the Jews, whom their tradition has taught them to despise. Indeed, anti-Semitism was the main motivation for the repudiation, not only of the Sabbath, but also of the feasts. It appears, then, that by marking the festivals, Christians could make a statement not only against the anti-Semitic voice of various groups but also, at the same time, produce a way of contextualization for reaching out to the Jews.
Yet, the situation is not this simple. As I have indicated earlier, the observance of festivals encounters serious theological, cultural, ethical, and practical problems that invite caution and serious reservations.
The second part of the article will suggest “a proper way,” further directions to take, along with some practical applications for the life of the church.
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1 Richard M. Davidson, “Sanctuary Typology,” in Symposium on Revelation–Book I, Daniel and Revelation Committee Series, vol. 6, ed. Frank B. Holbrook (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), 120.
2 See the Babylonian Talmud, Ber. 4:1, 7; 26b; 32b.
3 Ángel Rodríguez, Israelite Festivals and the Christian Church (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2005), 9.
4 Roy E. Gane, “Sabbath and Israelite Festivals,” Shabbat Shalom 50, no. 1 (2003): 28.
5 Ibid., 414.
6 The Oxford Dictionary of Jewish Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 591; Encyclopaedia Judaica,
corrected ed. (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1994), 12:1039.
7 Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 411.
8 Gerhard Hasel, “The Sabbath and the Pentateuch,” in The Sabbath in Scripture and History, ed. Kenneth A. Strand (Washington, DC : Review and Herald, 1982), 21; and id., “The Sabbath in the Prophetic and Historical Literature of the Old Testament,” in The Sabbath in Scripture and History, 45.
9 Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Gregorian calendar,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_calendar (accessed March 30, 2009).
10 On the meaning and dangers of supercessionism, the idea that the church has replaced, “superceded,” Israel, see ibid., 55–70; cf. id., The Mystery of Israel (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2004), 11–47.