Food in the Bible: Exodus 23:14-19

Exodus 23:14-19 Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the festival 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.

No one shall appear before me empty-handed.

You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labour, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labour. 17Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.

You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of my festival remain until the morning.

The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.

You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Setting aside the weirdo who made sure to cook a baby goat in the milk from its own mother for a second, let’s consider the appointed festivals. This passage appoints three main festivals that the Israelites should celebrate. The feast of unleavened bread, or Passover, commemorated their liberation from slavery in Egypt. This was a springtime feast. The feast of first fruits celebrates the first of the harvest, around August sometime I would guess. The feast of ingathering would then be some time in October when the growing season ended.

I could look up more information on these festivals and their meaning in Jewish ritual religion, but you can use Google as well as I can. What I’m more interested in is how in tune to nature and agriculture the rhythms of these festivals are. They occur at natural times when you would celebrate the first harvest, the end of the growing season and the first planting. If those are already good occasions to celebrate (and they are) why not include God in them? It’s easy for us to miss how close to the land, natural rhythms and agriculture the readers and writers of the Bible were because our lives are so far removed from that connection.

It is often mentioned that the first fruits and sacrifices were to be the best of the harvest and best of the livestock. I’ve often heard this used to say that we shouldn’t hold anything back from God, but give our very best. What we seem to miss is a more agrarian reading. What does it mean for a farmer to give a lamb without blemish or choicest fruits? Since the discovery of evolutionary biology, we know that this is a crazy sacrifice. This means giving up the very best genetics in your herd or crop. Farmers have practiced breeding and seed-saving for centuries and they know how important it is to select the best genetics to save.

By asking for the “choicest first fruits,” God is not trying to keep the farmer down. Instead God reminds us that we are not the authors and creators of those choicest genes. We can trust the Creator of those genetics to continue to provide. Just as in the Sabbath commands, we are reminded that it does not all depend on us.

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