Holy Land, Holy God
Take a drive through the countryside in the next few weeks and you may just hear the beautiful strains of God-inspired music. It is the music of the harvest. Tall stalks of golden wheat sway gently in the wind, then fall to the steady chop and hum of the harvesters. Rows of heavy-laden fruit trees yield their produce to the ground with a gentle thud, or into large baskets through the bustling work of the reapers.
Our fast-paced urban lifestyle shouts its own sound, the steady drumbeat of industry, the rat-a-tat-tat and high-pitched tones of our frenetic civilization. But God created the world with a more graceful rhythm, a sonorous seasonal melody that soothes the soul and reminds us of His providence. Harvest time is an opportunity for us to reflect on these things.
The biblical feasts clearly illustrated this reality to the people of Israel. We see it in all seven festivals, but especially in the final one, the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). This is the culmination of calendar events in the sacred year (see Leviticus 23). Whereas the holiday had much to do with remembering our deliverance from bondage in Egypt, Sukkot is also about the land and the harvest. That is why God first called this festival Hag ha Asif, which means the festival (or feast) of ingathering” (Exodus 23:16).
The Feast of Ingathering was the final harvest of the season. That harvest included wheat along with a whole variety of fruits: figs, grapes, pomegranates, dates—all the produce that the land typically yielded at this time. It was a time of great joy and celebration as the people saw the goodness of God’s provision.
All ancient civilizations developed festivals associated with the agricultural cycles of the lands in which they lived. These festivals expressed the theological convictions, beliefs and even superstitions of their respective cultures.
The nations surrounding Israel used their agricultural festivals to express polytheism, pagan rituals and sexual perversions. Ba’al worship in ancient Canaan included elaborate fertility rites utilizing prostitution and human sacrifice to appease the supposed local deities and to ensure future harvests. Pagan cultures confused the creation with the Creator, and worshiped those things that were made rather than worshiping their Maker (Romans 1:25)
The God of Israel wanted His people to have a proper understanding of the times and seasons of life. He wanted them to know that He is the God of all creation. God did not want Israel to be tempted by the perverted rituals of her pagan neighbors. He instructed Israel to worship Him in truth through godly and sanctified festivals. That is why the festivals of Israel provide such stark contrast to the dark rituals that her neighbors practiced during those same agricultural cycles. The tendency to worship the creation rather than the Creator is still at work in this world. While some concerns of the environmental movement are based upon a proper and healthy respect for the world we live in, the movement fails to connect the sacredness of the creation to the holiness of the Creator. Such a divorce often leads to neo-pagan ideology, an exaltation of the creation over the Creator. We see aspects of this growing religious trend in our society. The rise of the Wiccan religion, more commonly known as witchcraft, is a deification of creation that results in the same kind of paganism Israel contended with so long ago.
God, in His wisdom, gave Israel festivals to teach them the true nature of His relationship to His creation. God is the original and ultimate environmentalist. A proper respect for the Creator produces a proper respect for creation. This is just as true today as in Bible times.
The Psalmist wrote, “The Heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Paul said that “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…” (Romans 1:20). The biblical feasts in general, and particularly the Feast of Ingathering, impart God’s truth as seen in the agricultural cycles.
Further, the Feast of Ingathering established a link between the people of Israel and the land of Israel. God promised that the people of Israel would exist forever. Yet, in the same breath He warned that the land of Israel would not necessarily be continually possessed by the people of Israel: “And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you” (Leviticus 18:28).
Nevertheless, God’s promise concerning the land was inviolate. Though the people of Israel may be dispersed to the four corners of the earth, God promised that He would return them to the promised land (Deuteronomy 30:3). The Feast of Ingathering serves as an eternal reminder of that promise. Wherever the people of Israel might be dispersed, this festival speaks to them of their true homeland by pointing out, every year, what was occurring in the land that God had sworn to give their ancestors. The Holy Land was inscribed upon the hearts of the Jewish people through the Holy Days that God gave to them.
This may provide some perspective on the conflicts in the Middle East. They are not purely political in nature. There are underlying spiritual elements, rooted in the Scriptures, rooted in God’s promises to His people. Though many in Israel are not so conscious of the connection, it remains true.
Finally, the Feast of Ingathering was intended to produce thanksgiving toward God, who had provided the harvest. The pagan religions tried to appease their so-called gods as a means to an end—an abundant harvest, health, fertility, etc. In contrast, the God of Israel was not a means to an end. He was the end. He was to be worshiped. It was the good pleasure of the Creator to provide rain in its season and a harvest in its season. His provision inspired thankfulness in the hearts of the Jewish people, not vice versa. Thankful worship was the end, not the means. As the Westminster shorter catechism declares, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
The Feast of Ingathering showed how God’s provision was to help Israel fulfill her ultimate purpose of glorifying God. This very festival is the foundation of our modern day American celebration of Thanksgiving. The pilgrims knew the Bible, they knew about the Feast of Ingathering and so they adapted their own feast for their new land into a thanksgiving celebration.
What about us? When we see God’s glory reflected in creation, do we cultivate a proper concern for our environment? When we pause to hear the rhythms of the created order, do our hearts swell with thankfulness to God for His sovereign grace? Do we rejoice in His promises? It is wonderful to be able to celebrate the festivals that God gave. It is one more way to remember that our gracious God provides, and that “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter, Ilana is a recent graduate of Biola. His son, Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife, Shaina, have one daughter, Nora, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.