THE INTERMEDIATE FESTIVAL
The Biblical Celebration
Lev 23:22, Deut 26:1-11
The Mishnaic Celebration
The festival and the New Covenant
1. The first of all the fruit of the ground
2. Before the altar of the Lord
3. Worship and Thanksgiving
The few discussions concerning the sevenfold annual festivals of Leviticus chapter 23 that I’ve either been able to glance at or have read (see my list of references in the Introduction), have singularly ignored what I’ve chosen to label the ‘Intermediate Festival’. There may be commentaries out there who’ve included this festival within their framework of the discussion but I simply don’t know of any.
This presents a major problem to those commentators in trying to interpret the other festivals in the light of Jesus Christ, and the usual outcome is that ‘The Festival of Trumpets’ (the first of the last three) is widely interpreted to make it fit in with just about anything and everything that could possibly be happening or that will happen.
But, when we correctly understand the legislation and fulfilment of this festival, Trumpets is fairly easily interpreted and needs very little depth of exposition and it also represents an event which still lies in the future. That the Church is living at a time inbetween the first four and the last three festivals means that commentators must face upto the festival in which they live or else their interpretation of the remaining festivals will be misguided and, sometimes, erroneous.
It would seem that the reason for the Intermediate Festival’s omission in Leviticus chapter 23 was because it couldn’t be tied down to a specific day or easily defined time period (the seven days of both Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles) but refers to an indeterminable length of time.
The Biblical Celebration
Lev 23:22, Deut 26:1-11
In the midst of Leviticus chapter 23 is a verse that appears to be an interjection into the chronology of the seven annual festivals that has little or no relevance to the overall thrust of the passage. It reads (Lev 23:22)
‘And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God’
There are at least two other parallel passages in the Torah (Lev 19:9-10, Deut 24:19-22) which emphasise the obligation of the Israelites to provide for the poorer members of the society but the verse in the context of Leviticus chapter 23 where it occurs does seem out of place.
However, Lev 23:22 serves not only as a reminder but also as a pointer to what I’ve chosen to call ‘The Intermediate Festival’ of Deut 26:1-11 that concerned the obligation of each Israelite to offer to God the first fruits of the harvest reaped. This is why, presumably, we find it placed in the midst of the seven festivals between the fourth (Pentecost) and fifth (Trumpets) when the wheat, fig, pomegranate and grape harvests would be completed and the olive harvest begun.
We’ve already seen that the first four of the seven festivals had relevance to and fulfilment in the first coming of Jesus Christ and we will go on to see the relevance of the final three as referring to His return and to the consummation of the Father’s plan to unite all things once again under His sovereignty and control. But, for now, the Church live in the days of the Intermediate Festival, looking back to what has already taken place and straining forward to what will soon come into being.
The ordinance of Deut 26:1-11 is quite straightforward and, instead of summarising the Scriptures here, the reader should turn to the passage to understand what the Law commanded the Israelites.
Admittedly, no specific time for the ceremony is recorded but two things should be realised. Firstly, different locations within Israel could yield the same harvest at quite widely diverging times of the year. The heights of the central mountain range or of the Golan would mean that crops would be significantly longer in ripening than those in the lower and generally more temperate coastal plains.
Secondly, the harvest of the main crop took place from the time slightly before Pentecost (with that of barley) to a time slightly after the festival of Tabernacles (with that of the olive).
The festival was therefore tied in to try and include the produce of all that the nation was likely to grow during the agricultural year.
From these two considerations it can be seen that the ceremony would not originally have been fixed to a specific date but that the time period between Pentecost and festival of Tabernacles would have been the ideal occasion for the process outlined in the Law.
Therefore an indefinite and rather flexible date for the procession of the first fruits into Jerusalem to be presented before the Lord is necessary to be able to encompass all the Israelites in whichever part of the land that they occupied.
To add some substance to the Biblical narrative, the Mishnaic celebration is described in the next section though it must be realised that at certain points the Pharisaic interpretation adds to or takes away from the Scriptural command. We’ll then go on to look at the relevance of the festival in the light of the work of Christ.
The Mishnaic Celebration
Bikkurim chapters 1-3
Between Pentecost and the festival of Tabernacles, on any day that fell between these two festivals, the farmers of Israel came to Jerusalem to bring their first fruits to YHWH (Bikkurim 1:6). This took place up until the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70AD. They were also allowed to bring first fruits between the festival of Tabernacles and the festival of Dedication (25 Chislev = the first half of December) but they weren’t then allowed to recite the avowal (Deut 26:5-10).
First fruits were forbidden to be brought to Jerusalem before Pentecost (Bikkurim 1:3). It wasn’t just the first ripe wheat that was brought, but farmers came with an entire basket of all their first fruits (3:1,3,8) from the seven kinds (listed as wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and date/date honey in 1:3) even though Deut 26:2 doesn’t limit the description of first fruits to these. If they lived a long way from Jerusalem, the first fruits were dried so that they wouldn’t be rotten on arrival and therefore an offering that was of no real value to the Lord (3:3).
The farmers spent the night before they were to arrive at Jerusalem in the open places of the town ‘of the Maamad’ (these were probably a number of towns appointed outside Jerusalem where those offering first fruits would congregate, anticipating the following day’s procession up to the Temple) and early in the morning they were wakened by one of the officers saying (3:2)
‘Arise ye and let us go up to Zion unto the Lord our God’
Then began the procession up to Jerusalem.
An ox went before them with its horns overlaid with gold and a wreath of olive leaves on its head. Flautists also went before them (3:3) and, as they went their way, they recited Ps 122:1 which begins with the line
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’
Messengers were sent ahead of them to announce their arrival. When the farmers came into the city, they sang Ps 122:2-9 and were greeted by the rulers, prefects and treasurers of the Temple. The craftsmen of Jerusalem greeted them also by saying (3:3)
‘Brethren, men of xxxxx, ye are welcome!’
Each farmer took his own basket of first fruits and, with the flute being played before them, marched up to the Temple mount - even Agrippa the king is reputed to have joined in the processions, carrying his own basket of first fruits. As the procession reached the Temple court, the Levites responded by singing Ps 30:1 (3:4)
‘I will exalt Thee, O Lord, for Thou hast set me up and not made mine enemies to triumph over me’
After reciting Deut 26:3, the farmer took the basket down from his shoulder and held it by the rim. The priest put his hand beneath it and waved it before the Lord. The farmer then continued reciting Deut 26:5-10 until the end and then he left the basket by the side of the altar, bowed himself with his face to the ground and went his way (3:6).
This entire season of bringing the first fruits of the ground could not begin until the two wheat-flour loaves were offered to God on the Day of Pentecost (1:3,6,10) and, though the Biblical celebration envisages a constant stream of Israelites to the Temple at Jerusalem, the Mishnah’s instructions make it appear as if, practically, the ‘procession’ took place on a specific day inbetween Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles, though this may not be the correct interpretation.
The festival and the New Covenant
1. The first of all the fruit of the ground
‘...you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground which you harvest from your land...’
Limited to a geographical area, the label ‘first fruit’ is used of believers in the New Covenant. In Rom 16:5, Epaenetus is said to be the first convert (or, ‘first fruit’) in Asia while, in I Cor 16:15, the household of Stephanas were said to be the first that committed their lives to Christ. Both were therefore the guarantee of a greater harvest of believers in their respective areas (as previously discussed on the page ‘The Festival of First Fruits’ under ‘First Fruit Principles’ and ‘Pentecost’ under ‘First Fruits’).
James 1:18 (not RSV) speaks of the early Church as being the guarantee of the final great harvest of all believers at the return of the Lord when the new creation is wholly and completely brought in through the resurrection of the dead (see my notes on the Feast of Tabernacles under section 5).
Just as the Israelites were to bring the first of all the types of produce to the Lord, so Jesus commanded that the Gospel be preached to all types of men (Mtw 24:14, 28:19, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:47) so that, at the final harvest, men from every culture and nation may be found represented before God - in a passage that speaks of the final days when Jesus returns to earth to set up a visible Kingdom, we read (Rev 5:9) that
‘Thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation’
and (Rev 7:9) that there was
‘...a great multitude...from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues...’
Because this first fruit festival occurs repeatedly between the first four fulfilled festivals and the last three still to be wholly fulfilled, we know that it must refer to the days in which we live when the objective of the Church is to reach all tribes, nations and tongues with the message of the Gospel (Mtw 24:14). Each new convert is a first fruit to God, an offering that’s the guarantee of the final harvest and a life that prophetically gives thanks to God for the ultimate solution to the ultimate problem, won on Calvary but awaiting its final expression in the resurrection of all believers.
As previously seen, according to the Pharisees there were seven types of ‘fruit’ that were to be brought as a first fruit offering (see above). Perhaps we may see in these certain types of today’s believers who are the first fruits of the final harvest still to come:
The grapes represent the Charismatics because after church services they congregate together to fellowship in bunches.
The figs represent the evangelicals because they have a dire effect on the people they share the gospel with.
The wheat represents the selfish christians who are always wanting their daily bread but who forget about the needs of others.
The pomegranates represent the shepherding movement who cram as many believers as possible together but who refuse to divide and grow.
The olive oil represents the ecumenicists because they want to smooth all things out in order for there to be no friction between different denominations.
The barley represents the worldly christians who find themselves intoxicated with worthless pursuits.
The dates represent the traditionalists because they run their lives by memorial days and the observance of a religious calendar.
Well, you didn’t think I was actually going to be serious in this listing, did you?!
2. Before the altar of the Lord
‘Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand [which contained the first fruits] and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God...and you shall set [the basket of first fruits] down before the Lord your God...’
The first fruit of all the produce of the land was to be brought before the Lord and set down at the place where the OT sacrifice took place.
The way of a disciple is the way of sacrifice. Jesus gave believers the example in that He laid down His life before God in order that each of them might benefit by the sacrificial offering of Himself on the cross (Heb 9:12-14,26, 10:10-12). The cross is the eternal altar where the eternal God laid down His life as a sacrifice on behalf of all mankind.
So, too, must believers lay their lives down at the foot of the cross. It’s not sufficient to live in this world according to the teachings and principles of Jesus if they’ve failed to come to the cross and pledge their allegiance to the Lamb on the basis of Calvary’s work. It’s only ever by the way of the cross that Jesus expects a follower’s obedience (Phil 2:8-11).
In the Celtic church (indeed, in many other churches of differing cultures) it was considered that there was two types of martyrdom - red and white. Red martyrdom was when a disciple lost their life for the sake of the gospel, it being called ‘red’ because of the life-blood that was shed in death. White martyrdom, on the other hand, spoke of a life that, while it remained on earth, had sacrificed its own pleasure and will in order to do the Father’s. Although life still existed, it was given over to God and the desire of one’s own will was denied wherever and whenever it was noticed to be elevating itself over that of the Father’s. A white martyr was one who, today, we would say had ‘died to self’ (that is, died to their own way of doing things).
The Gospels and other NT writings frequently refer to this ‘white’ martyrdom (for example, see Luke 14:26-27, 14:33, Mtw 10:39, Rom 12:1, 1:1 [and repeated verses where Paul calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ], Luke 14:11, Mtw 16:24-25, Gal 5:24). Of course, white martyrdom is not the easy way as it involves suffering (I Peter 4:1-2) but it is the only way.
This works out practically in a believer’s attitudes and actions towards others. If they’re willing to lay their lives down at the foot of the cross to do God’s will regardless of self-consequence, they must be prepared to lay their lives down for the sake of the brethren, those who have been (re-) created in His image (Acts 2:44-45, Rom 14:21, 15:1, I Cor 10:24, Phil 2:4). Their devotion to God is very practical in that it finds expression in self-sacrifice for those around them who are equally the Lord’s disciples.
Hence, the commandment of Lev 23:22 talks about the care of the poorer sections of Israelite society by not reaping to the very border of one’s field that they might be allowed some provision. This is seen to be a denial of one’s own desire that would seek after the most abundant reaping of the harvest possible and an active bestowal of produce in order that others that are less well-off might prosper.
Not only, then, does the Lord desire men from all different types of cultures to be saved (see above), but He also expects those first fruits of the new creation to lay themselves down as a willing sacrifice before Him.
3. Worship and Thanksgiving
Sacrifice in the OT speaks of death. Each offering started out as being alive and, through it being offered to God, it ended up dead. NT sacrifice is the same in that a death must occur which, as we have seen, is a dying to self (a dying to an individual’s own will and purpose) but there must also be life after death. Just as Christ died on behalf of others, so now He lives on the believers’ behalf through the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit.
The first fruits (the believers of the new creation) that are laid down at the feet of the Lord at the place of sacrifice, far from solely being dead, are alive (Rom 12:1). While believers die to their own will, they live to God’s, and this is represented in two attitudes that are commanded the Israelite in Deut 26:1-11 - that is, worship and thanksgiving.
‘And you shall...worship before the Lord your God’
For a more detailed background to underpin the definition of 'Worship' here used, see my notes on 'Praise and Worship'
Worship is not singing choruses whether they be fast or slow. It’s not the word used to describe when the Church comes together on a Sunday morning. Neither is it Scripture reading, communion, prayer or any other religious activity that we commonly label ‘worship’.
Worship, in the Biblical sense of the word, cannot take place until there is a revelation of the nature and character of God, until God chooses to make known to individuals or groups some aspect about Himself. From there, the ones who are recipients of that revelation must recognise and accept that spiritual insight and react to it in worship, expressed both in obedience and service (the Hebrew and Greek word [Strongs numbers 7812 and 4352 respectively] both literally mean ‘to fall on one’s face before’ as a reaction to the person who stands before them. This prostration acknowledges the sovereignty of the greater one and is a demonstration that the worshipper will both obey and serve the will of the other).
There’s a threefold process that we see in the lives of many individuals in Scripture and which is hinted at above - Revelation/Acknowledgement of Sovereignty/Worship (Obedience). From the Scriptures, we can observe a few examples.
In Joshua 5:13-15, God revealed Himself as the Commander-in-chief of the Lord’s army shortly before Joshua was to lead the people to march round the city at the command of YHWH. Because Joshua recognised this, he fell on his face and worshipped - he acknowledged God’s sovereignty and offered his life to obey and serve the word of command.
In Gen 17:1-3, God revealed Himself to Abram as El Shaddai, Abram recognised and acknowledged that truth and reacted to that revelation in worship (‘Abram fell on his face’).
A similar series of events takes place in the NT in Mtw 14:22-33 where the disciples received a revelation of who Jesus was and cried out
‘Truly, You are the Son of God’
worshipping Him. Jesus was revealed as the Son of the Living God by His sovereignty over nature by the Holy Spirit, it was recognised by the disciples through that declaration of who He was and they reacted to it by worshipping Him.
In the early days of Jesus’ life (Mtw 2:2,9-11), the magi were led or drawn to Jesus by means of a star (see also John 6:65). When they saw Him, they recognised the One that had been revealed to them and reacted by falling down and worshipping Him.
Finally, in John 9:35-38, Jesus had already healed the blind man but he didn’t know who’d done it (when he’d opened his eyes, Jesus had withdrawn). But Jesus revealed Himself as the Son of man (a title expressing His humanity as found in Daniel 7:13) - the man recognised it (‘Lord, I believe’ - ‘Lord’ being the acknowledgement of Jesus’ sovereignty) and reacted in worship.
It cannot be overstressed that revelation is of primary importance in order for worship to be a possibility. Worship is always a reaction to revelation that has been received and acknowledged in the life of an individual or a nation - it doesn’t operate independently of such a move of God.
That’s why the church notice board that reads
‘Worship Service - 10.30am’
is such a false and misleading label. It’s not our actions of meeting together and attempting to do something that is pleasing to God that’s ‘Worship’, but our receiving a revelation from God and then setting our wills to react positively to that revelation and obey it.
In Deut 26:1-11 we see this same threefold process (Revelation/Acknowledgement of Sovereignty/Worship and Obedience). There is, primarily, a revelation to individuals but also to Israel as a nation that God is the Redeemer who brought them out of slavery and a recognition of this by those who offered first fruits (Deut 26:5-9). It’s only after this takes place that the individual ‘worships’ (Deut 26:10).
Very early on in Israel’s experience, this revelation was ‘lost’ or, rather, it failed to be recognised (Judges 2:7-13). Even though God had done great and mighty acts, there arose a generation who neither knew who God was nor His works. They had no first hand experience for themselves, so He remained as ‘the God of our fathers’ and not ‘our God’.
The New Covenant, in this respect, is no different. Believers need a revelation of the character of God in and through the cross before they can ever respond to God in worship, with lives offered to Him in obedience and service.
This revelation needed is of God as Redeemer in Christ who’s brought individuals out of their life of bondage and into the promised land of freedom from slavery by the blood of the cross (Gal 5:1). Their recognition of this and their reaction to this will be evident in their obedience to and service of God.
In a previous section we saw how the first fruits were laid down before the Lord and how this represented a follower’s life being laid down as a willing sacrifice. This represents a death to self, but the positive aspect to this is a life of obedience and service to Jesus - death on the one hand, but life on the other.
Rightly, therefore, Paul talks about laying one’s life down before God as a ‘living sacrifice’ (Rom 12:1), a phrase which speaks both of life and death.
‘...you shall rejoice in all the good the Lord your God has given to you and your house, you and the Levite and the sojourner who is among you’
This Intermediate Festival was a time when the Israelite was commanded to be joyful before the Lord because of all He’d given to the nation. The thought must therefore go beyond the immediate context of the harvest (of which the offered first fruits were a part) and extend to the works of God that He’d performed both individually and corporately.
The remembrance of the Exodus would be at the forefront of the mind seeing as the declaration had just been made concerning it (Deut 26:5-9). Not only was God to be remembered as the Redeemer (see the previous section on ‘worship’) but He was to be thanked for His great redemptive work - both for who He is (worship) and what He’d done (thanksgiving).
Again, the parallel is with Christ’s work on the cross. The disciple’s one reason to rejoice, despite all that may go wrong around them, is in the cross through which they’ve become the first fruit of God’s new creation.
Of course, God continues to move in them, through them and around them once they’ve become a ‘living sacrifice’ and the believer extends their thanksgiving to encompass this also - but, primarily, their rejoicing is to be centred in the cross and that work alone for, should all else fail and give no ground for joy, it’s worth rejoicing in repeatedly.
The Intermediate festival is indicative of the Church age in which all believers live, where they’re the ‘First Fruits’ of God’s new creation who lay their lives down before God to serve Him as He shows them Himself, through the revelation that’s given to them.
By rejecting the possibility of receiving fresh revelation from God (that is, revelation that’s not anti-Biblical and which, indeed, is, for the majority of times, revelation that has been given to believers in former generations), the Church stagnates and can’t worship and bring thanksgiving to God as He intends.
The entire christian life is based upon a direct and continued revelation of God to individuals. Therefore Jesus pointed out to Peter that it would be upon the revelation of who He is that His Church would be built (Mtw 16:15-18).