Category Archives: Feasts

Jubilee is Salvation (Leviticus 25:9-10)

The second thing I noticed (Read What Shall We Eat? for the first) in re-reading Leviticus 25 is that the Jubilee is explicitly connected to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This is the pinnacle of the sacrificial system to which Jesus’ death and resurrection has often been compared. While I don’t think that the sacrificial system is the only lens through which Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was or should be understood, it certainly is an important one both in Scripture and in the Christian tradition. So, what does it mean then that the Jubilee is supposed to be initiated by a shofar blast on the Day of Atonement?

If you just google Yom Kippur and Jubilee you will quickly find a lot of nonsense about the rapture happening on Yom Kippur in the year of Jubilee. That is not what this post is about. This is about the connection between the social practices found in the Jubilary code and its association with the cultic religious ritual of Yom Kippur. I would like to explore a series of questions concerning this connection: What is the role of the shofar and its connections to both religious and social contexts? What is the religious significance of Yom Kippur? Why is it connected to the Jubilee (or conversely why do we disconnect them)? Finally, what does this connection tell us about the nature of salvation in terms of Jubilee?

When was the shofar used?
The shofar was used in different contexts, but primarily announced full religious holidays. This was also the case with the Jubilee which was connected to the religious festivals that marked the Jewish calendar.

The sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah announced the jubilee year, and the sound of the shofar on Yom Kippur proclaimed the actual release of financial encumbrances. (from Wikipedia)

It is interesting to note that the shofar was also used as a call to arms when Israel went to war. The most famous instance of this use of the shofar is certainly from the book of Joshua when the blast of the shofar horn brought down the walls of the city of Jericho. M. Douglas Meeks describes the significance of that event in his book God The Economist.

The blowing of the Jubilee horn (shofar) in the story of Joshua is the symbol of what brings down the rotten economy of Jericho. (89)

The theology of war in the Hebrew Bible was that the battle always belonged to YHWH. Often battles were won through some sort of trickery which sometimes avoided bloodshed and often avoided the Israelites committing violence (e.g. Gideon in Judges 7). When Israel ignored YHWH and tried to fight their own battles their efforts were typically thwarted. This is not to excuse the violence in the Hebrew Bible that is clear and difficult to understand, particularly when commanded by God.

My point is that there is a theological thread throughout the Hebrew Bible that says YHWH will fight the battles for Israel. In this context the blast of the shofar that brought down the walls of Jericho could certainly be interpreted as proclaiming liberation from economic domination and oppression and the institution of a new economy. It is also important, as we will see shortly, that there was not the clear distinction between sacred and secular that we try to draw today. Thus, the shofar as a sacred instrument proclaimed Jubilee both in the temple and on the battlefield.

What does Yom Kippur mean?
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the culmination of the Jewish year. In the Hebrew Bible this was the ritual when the High Priest placed his hands symbolically on the head of a goat designating it “Azazel”. This transferred the sins of the people to the goat which was then driven out into the wilderness. This is where the term “scapegoat” comes from. Through this ritual the entire community was purified, their sins atoned for. In other words, this was a chance for the community to start from scratch in their relationship to YHWH. It was also an opportunity for repentance as the community recognized their sins and brokenness. There was now new possibility for living a new way.

What has the Jubilee to do with Yom Kippur?
According to Jubilee USA the practical connection between the Jewish calendar and the year of Jubilee worked like this:

From Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year, slaves would not return home but would not work either. The fields would not return to their hereditary owners, but the owners would eat, drink and rejoice with their crowns upon their heads. Then, when Yom Kippur arrived, the slaves would return home and the fields would revert to their hereditary owners.

So, there is very explicit connection between the practice of Jubilee (theoretically at least) and the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. The Jubilee is announced at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, but this is only the beginning. It’s also interesting to point out that the Jewish new year begins in Autumn at the end of the harvest. The new year begins when the possibilities of the earth have been exhausted for that year and we turn to look toward the possibilities of next season. In light of the previous post which talked about the divinely abundant harvest promised prior to the Jubilee, this moment of turning from an incredible provision beyond expectations to the year of liberation ahead is heightened that much more.

The culmination of the Jubilary practices coincides with the culmination of the religious calendar on Yom Kippur when the Jubilee is proclaimed in its fullness and fulfilled completely. Jubilee is a process. It does not occur all at once. It is first declared and the enacted. This is the way many understand the nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. This new order or economy is first proclaimed and embodied by Jesus, but we are now in the process of enacting the fullness of that declaration with the promise that it will someday be complete.

What has the Jubilee to do with Atonement?
So, the very practical social ethic of the Jubilee has been intimately linked to the religious calendar of the Jewish people. This is to be expected from a worldview that did not distinguish the sacred from the secular. The practice of the Jubilee is the enacting of the divine economy within the community and is therefore inextricably linked to Israel’s relationship to YHWH maintained through the temple practices and rituals including Yom Kippur.

The Jubilee, or “Year of the Lord’s favor”, is picked up by Isaiah (61:1-3) and later Jesus (Lk 4:19) and made central to the identity of God’s people in both testaments. Further, Jesus’ work on the cross has been understood in relationship to the sacrificial system in Israel. He is called the “Lamb of God” by John the Baptist (Jn 1:29) and later in another John’s vision in Revelation (Rev 5:6-8; 7:10). So, Jesus identifies his mission with the Jubilee and the Jubilee is intertwined with the sacrificial system by which we have tried to understand the cross. Therefore whatever we want to say about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it must include this understanding that the proclamation of new beginnings on Yom Kippur is also the declaration of the radical new economy of the Jubilee. Salvation is Jubilee and vice versa.

The Meal and the Gift (Exodus 18:12; 24:11;33:11)

Exodus 18:12 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt-offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.

Exodus 24:11 But God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

I forget who said it and no longer have a university library at my disposal to find out, but supposedly encounters with the divine throughout cultures and religions across the world occur primarily through the vehicles of the meal and the gift. I would be interested to read more on this from a biblical and comparative religions perspective, if anyone knows a good book on the subject. I do remember two particular examples from my Old Testament class of shared divine meals both of which occur in Exodus.

In the first example the meal shared with God is a family event. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro has traveled to visit him, because Moses sent away his wife, Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, and her two sons. Jethro’s curiosity about the God of Moses was piqued by their accounts of the escape from Egypt. Perhaps he was also concerned by his daughter and her sons being sent away. He travels with them to visit Moses and is told everything that God had done for them. Jethro proclaims that YHWH must be greater than all the other gods and then makes a burnt offering to YHWH. Aaron and all the the elders of Israel then join them to eat bread and possibly the meat from the offering in a feast. This little participial clause at the end of this story says that this took place “in the presence of God.”

In the next chapter there is an ambiguous exchange concerning Moses going up to Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. YHWH first speaks to Moses offering a covenant for the Israelites to be his people and that YHWH will “come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you” (19:9). Then YHWH gives some provisions for this encounter, “Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death” (19:12) Then the people are to come out to meet YHWH and presumably hear him speak. YHWH descends and Moses goes up to meet him where YHWH tells Moses again to warn the people not to force their way through to see him and that “even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them” (19:22). Moses seems a little taken aback when he replies that the people can’t approach because YHWH already told him not to let them. Then YHWH tells him to bring up Aaron up with him.

The next example occurs after four chapters of instructions concerning commandments governing all aspects of the community’s life including annual festivals, sabbath observance when the people confirm this covenant. The people respond that they will obey everything the Lord commands. After some offerings confirming this “Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel” (24:9-10). As if the reader should expect these men to be struck down, since they apparently went up unannounced the text says, “But God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel” and then adds, “also they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (24:11)

After a later incident involving a golden calf, Moses erects the Tent of Meeting where it says, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (33:11). Later in the same chapter Moses asks YHWH to reveal his glory and although YHWH agrees he cautions, “But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (33:20). So, which is it? Does YHWH allow people to freely eat meals in his presence and speak face to face as happened with Moses, Jethro, Aaron, the elders and others or does YHWH prohibit such close contact remaining set apart, transcendent and other from his followers?

There seems to be a tension between YHWH wanting to come near and be known and this restriction against full contact. IMany scholars think that there is more than one tradition being held in tension within the text. The priestly tradition which wrote the first creation account and viewed God as transcendent would want to be sure that a proper distance is maintained between God and the people. The Yahwist writer, who most often uses the term YHWH for God (the Hebrew text substitutes the word “Adonai” and is translated LORD with small caps in the biblical text), responsible for the second creation account typically pictures God in much more earthy and relational terms.

The Christian tradition chooses to hold the transcendence and immanence of God in continuing dynamic tension. What I find interesting is that we find this tension within the biblical narrative itself, even within a few verses. People often think of the God in the Old Testament as distant and angry, but here we have two examples of God sharing a divine meal. It’s not as if the rules about who gets to be in the presence of God are very clear. At times only Moses is allowed to go up the mountain and see God. Moses encounters God face to face in the Tent of Meeting, but is not allowed to see his face a few verses later. God commands Moses to bring Aaron up to the mountain to see him, but seems unperturbed later by a large unannounced group of elders who eat and drink in his presence.

The shared meal in itself is a gift, in the case of YHWH it is a gift of presence. Likewise, when we share meals with others it is also a gift of our presence and perhaps there is space made for the divine when we break bread. This is also perhaps why rules about table fellowship became so important. If sharing meals is a sacred act and the way that God sometimes reveal God’s self, then it is not something to be taken lightly and maybe not to be shared with just anyone, particularly sinners and unclean people. The God that joins Moses for a family get together with Jethro is the same God that motivated Jesus to eat with sinners and gluttons, opening up once again the meal to be a sacred space where we can encounter the divine and each other in a simple and necessary act.

Fasting and Feasting Part 2

I finally got around to fasting for Lent a week late. I’m giving up all my podcasts and blogs save one. This is my primary source of information and news so it’s a big deal. Hopefully this will free up more time for reading, blogging and spending quality time with my family. So, in this season of fasting there is also feasting. We abstain from one thing in order to open up other worlds we have been ignoring. The last post I had rambled on without addressing this passage from Matthew 9:14-15,

14 Then the disciples of John came to him saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

It is clear from other texts that Jesus accused the Pharisees of gaudy religious practices that were hollow. Their fasting was perhaps a way of showing how much more religious they were than others. It set them apart as people who were really serious about their faith, and therefore put down those who did not practice their faith in a similar manner. Hmmm… I’ve met some of these people in my life. They have missed the point of fasting entirely.

Jesus puts this back in its proper context. What is fasting for? Because fasting is related to feasting, it doesn’t make sense for Jesus’ disciples to fast while Jesus is with them. They will mourn and fast when he is crucified, but what a waste to fast at a wedding party. How would the wedding party feel if you abstained from eating or drinking at their wedding? This puts you at the center. Your conviction or religious practice is put ahead of right relationships with people. Refusing to feast at a wedding is an insult to the celebration taking place.

Feasting celebrates the abundance of life and the goodness of creation. Fasting acknowledges the brokenness of the world and the distance between the present world and the coming kingdom. The two always go together, but confusing their proper roles and places misunderstands their nature and purpose.

Jesus is present to us now through the Spirit, therefore the Eucharist is a feast, a celebration of the abundance of God’s love and mercy. Yet, in this season of Lent we recognize the brokenness of ourselves and the world we live in. Fasting reminds us of the brokenness other’s experience daily that we so easily ignore.

Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

Fasting and Feasting

“There is a season for pancakes and abstaining from pancakes.” I believe that is in Ecclesiastes, but I’m not sure. Lent is a season of the church calendar that is intimately connected with food. If I had more time, I would research why we eat pancakes for Shrove (Fat) Tuesday and the origins of Mardi Gras. I don’t so I will reflect simply on the relationship of fasting and feasting in this season. The passage that comes to mind is Matthew 9:14-15,

14 Then the disciples of John came to him saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

What is the relationship of fasting and feasting? Usually Fat Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras) is seen as the last chance to gorge yourself before the season of Lent when you must live a more austere and holy life. This has always seemed like a bad way to think about the purpose of feasting in relation to fasting. The Apostle Paul would certainly quote himself saying, “Should we go on sinning so that grace may increase? No way Jose!” (author’s paraphrase of Romans 6:1-2).

In Matthew’s gospel we catch a glimpse of how these two relate to one another. First let’s consider each one separately and then look at how they are connected. Feasts are prevalent in the Hebrew Bible. They celebrate the seasons of life, momentous occasions and YHWH’s decisive acting in history on behalf of YHWH’s people (Passover). Feasts acknowledged the abundance of life and the goodness of YHWH. These were celebrations of all that was right with the world. YHWH’s creation was indeed good.

As we all know this is not the whole story. Fasting is a reminder that everything is not right with the world. We are governed more by our lusts and base desires than any of us would care to admit. It is difficult, particularly for the affluent, to go without. Abstaining from things that are good in and of themselves and things that are necessary for our sustenance is a reminder of all that we have and those who do not.

The truth is feasting and fasting are never far from each other. The Passover is perhaps the clearest example of this. This feast recalls the oppression and injustice of slavery in Egypt. The seder meal celebrated for Passover begins, “When we were slaves in Egypt.” The remembrance of this past history identifies each generation with a dark time in Israel’s journey. At the very same time, the Passover celebrates YHWH’s action on behalf of the oppressed to liberate them spiritually, physically and economically.

And I haven’t even gotten to the passage from Matthew… We’ll save that for Part 2.