Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
Everyone knows that the two most important holidays throughout the Christian world are Easter and Christmas. They have been called “the bookends of Christianity.” i But there is something odd about that. Neither of these days is found observed anywhere in the Bible. And if they were as important to the early church as they are today, you would think someone would have said something. Luke might have recorded somewhere in the book of Acts, “We stayed over at Troas through Christmas and then sailed across to Philippi.” Or maybe: “We hastened in order to be in Jerusalem for Easter.” But no, nothing like that is found in the Bible.
What we do find may be mildly surprising. We find holidays in the Bible, quite prominently, and in both Testaments. Not only that, but they are found observed by the church in the New Testament. Luke wrote, for example, “And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days” (Acts 20:6 KJV). Later, “For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost” (Acts 20:16). Before that he had told the Ephesians, “Farewell, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem: but I will return again unto you, if God will” (Acts 18:21). ii
Nowadays, these holidays are usually dismissed as being merely Jewish; but then we are left to wonder why the earliest Christians followed on in their observance. The days clearly have Jewish/historical roots and yet they were still observed faithfully in Christian churches known to be primarily Gentile. There has to be a reason for that.
But first, let me point out some minor issues that are commonly overlooked relative to the holidays of the Bible. For example, the days are not merely “Jewish holidays.” Consider this short passage from the law:
Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the appointed festivals of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my appointed festivals.
Note well, these are the Lord’s festivals, not “Jewish holidays.” Not only are these the Lord’s feasts, they are so designated by his name. They are “The appointed festivals of Jehovah.” iii
Then there is the Hebrew word that is here rendered “appointed festivals.” The word in Hebrew is moed, and it means literally “appointed times.” The NRSV is correct in rendering it “appointed festivals,” because moed is repeatedly used for festive occasions.
Apparently, these “appointments” were there right from the beginning. In the creation account God said: “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons [moed] and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14 NRSV). This could just as easily (and more consistently) have been rendered, “Let them be for signs, and for appointed times.”
What this suggests to me is that there were divine appointments, holy days, if you will, right from the beginning. And really, there is no reason to think there were not. If God had a plan, then it should not be surprising that he would have special times marked for special events right from the start.
Here is another example which has been somewhat obscured by the translations. Later in Genesis, God visits Abraham on what appears to be one of these appointed times. These encounters with God were rare and they may have occurred at a festival season. On this occasion, God startled Abraham and Sarah by promising them a son in their old age. Mind you, Abraham is 99 and Sarah nearly as old. Sarah couldn’t help herself, she laughed. When Sarah laughed, God replied:
Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time [the moed] I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.
God had already promised this along with the covenant promise: “My covenant will I establish with Isaac,” God said, “which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time [moed] in the next year” (Genesis 17:21).
So Isaac (his name means “laughter”) was to be born at the moed, and in the spring, thus at what would later be the Passover season. The expression, “time of life,” is suggestive of the season when things come alive, hence a spring festival. iv The serving of unleavened bread here and then a day or so later by Lot in Sodom v might even suggest that the Feast of Unleavened Bread is older than Moses, though I can’t imagine what significance it would have had. vi What it does suggest is that the thread we are following was already visible at this early date.
So God appears to Abraham at the time of the spring festival, and when he returns at the next spring festival, Abraham will have a son. Now we can follow the thread forward to the time of Moses.
Thanks to Charlton Heston as Moses, nearly everyone knows the story of the Exodus. But there are little things about that story that you may not have noticed. You know that God sent Moses to Pharaoh to say “Let my People go,” but hardly anyone takes notice of the reason Moses offered to Pharaoh.
“Let my people go,” demanded God, “that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness” (Exodus 5:1). Now this may be nothing but a ruse, an excuse, but it may also be that one of God’s very old festivals was approaching – one of his appointments with history.
Keep in mind that God is constant. He isn’t one way today and another way tomorrow. He spoke to Malachi and said, “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6). Later, James would describe God as “the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17).
It should come as no surprise, then, that God would have had his “appointed times,” if at all, right from the beginning. We know that there was a well developed system of law in effect prior to Moses.vii No one should be surprised, then, when Moses demands of Pharaoh: “Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.”
On this occasion, Moses does not call this an “appointed time,” but a chagag, a sacred celebration, but such celebrations are later seen to be annual and to fit a calendar. This one is pointed squarely at the 14th day of the first month of spring, even though it could not yet have been known as the Passover. Since Pharaoh would not let them go, this spring “festival with no name” was observed in the middle of Egypt, to the eternal dismay of the Egyptians, and became known as the Passover.
What I am suggesting is that the occasions when God acted in history commonly took place at a moed, an appointed time. As a result of God’s action, the day itself took on the meaning and even the name of the events. Thus, the festival Moses said they wanted to observe in the wilderness could have been on the 14th day of the first month. But that day was not the Passover before this time. It became the Passover because on that night God passed over the houses of the Israelites and took all the firstborn of the land of Egypt.
All these appointed times of God took on names and customs which were related to the important events in Israel’s history. They seem never to have imagined that there was any other meaning to these days. Jeremiah said that this would happen again. There will be another Exodus, so great that no one will remember the Exodus led by Moses:
“Therefore behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “that it shall no more be said, ‘The LORD lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but, ‘The LORD lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands where He had driven them.’ For I will bring them back into their land which I gave to their fathers”.
Traditional explanations say that the festivals came in with the old covenant and went out with the old covenant, that they were purely Jewish and only had application to the Jewish people. But there is good reason to question that. The feasts of the Lord are transcendent, and from the very beginning were pointed, not so much at Israel’s history, but at the very work and ministry of Jesus Christ in history. For after all, it was Christ who was with Israel from the very first day. viii For a time, the festivals took on an Israelite historical meaning, but it seems apparent that they were pointing toward something transcendent all along.
A Christian Passover?
The best place to pick up the thread is with the first of the holydays in the year, the Passover. There is a passage in one of Paul’s letters that long ago should have caused us to rethink this question. It was written to a Gentile church, and commentators tell us it was written during the Passover season. Paul is dealing with a serious problem in the church and in the process, he makes a connection to the Passover.
Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Conybeare and Howsen (1962), recognized authorities on Paul and his letters, acknowledge that this Christian church was observing Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. They had this to say about Paul’s letter:
In spite of the opinion of some eminent modern commentators, which is countenanced by Chrysostom [A.D. 407], we must adhere to the interpretation which considers these words as written at the Paschal season, and suggested by it. The words leaven, lump, Paschal Lamb, and feast all agree most naturally with this view. It has been objected, that St. Paul would not address the Corinthians as engaged in a feast which he, at Ephesus, was celebrating; because it would be over before his letter could reach them. Any one who has ever written a birthday letter to a friend in India, will see the weakness of this objection. It has also been urged that he could not address a mixed church of Jews and Gentiles as engaged in the celebration at a Jewish feast. Those who urge this objection must have forgotten that St. Paul addresses the Galatians (undoubtedly a mixed church) as if they had all been formerly idolaters (Gal. iv.8), and addresses the Romans sometimes as if they were all Jews (Rom. vii.1), sometimes as if they were Gentiles (Rom. xi.18). If we take ‘as ye are leavened’ in a metaphorical sense, it is scarcely consistent with the previous ‘cast out the old leaven;’ for the passage would then amount to saying, ‘Be free from leaven (metaphorically) as you are free from leaven (metaphorically);’ whereas on the other view, St. Paul says, ‘Be free from leaven (metaphorically) as you are free from leaven (literally).’ There seems to be no difficulty in supposing that the Gentile Christians joined with the Jewish Christians in celebrating the Paschal feast after the Jewish manner, at least to the extent of abstaining from leaven in the love-feasts. And we see that St. Paul still observed the ‘days of unleavened bread’ at this period of his life, from Acts xx:6. Also, from what follows, we perceive how naturally this greatest of Jewish feasts changed into the greatest of Christians festivals. ix
Throughout most of history, the Passover has been a Jewish festival dealing with a great event in Israel’s history that took place on this day. But here is a letter to a Gentile church, identifying the Passover with the sacrifice of Christ and urging them to keep the feast properly. I will have more to say about the Corinthian crisis later, but Paul presents us with a classic example of the transcendent nature of God’s appointments with history.
I think readers generally assume that the 14th day of the first month in the Jewish Calendar became important because that’s when Israel was delivered from Egypt. But what if Israel was delivered on this day because it was already one of the “appointed times” of God, one of the benchmarks of history, when he will act? When it comes to the sacrifice of Christ, that day did not become a Christian festival because Christ was crucified on that day. Christ died on that day because he was the Passover Lamb, and the Passover, one of God’s appointments with history, had come.
There is a thread that runs all the way through the Bible, and the thread is unbroken, not cut into bits and pieces. God has had a plan and has been working the plan from the start. His appointments with history mark places where we can pick up the thread, and those appointments are marked by festivals.
I know that some of these things may seem complicated and difficult. But maybe if we pick up the thread and follow it along, things will become clearer. The “Festivals of Jehovah” mark places where we can most easily find the thread.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians cited above, identified Jesus with the Passover lamb. But when we follow the thread back, we find it doesn’t end where we thought it might, with what we thought was the original Passover. It continues back further into the past. One pointer is a scripture familiar to every student of the New Testament – I think it may have been the first verse I ever memorized:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The thread from Paul’s “Christ our Passover” runs right through this passage and continues back, not merely to the Passover of the Exodus, but to an event long before Moses. It continues to Father Abraham and to the day when God decided to put him to the ultimate test. He called Abraham and gave him this command:
Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.
God only knows, and I choose my words carefully, what a crushing blow this was to Abraham. Abraham was a very old man who had no children. In the process of time, Sarah came to Abraham and offered her handmaid as a surrogate mother so they could have a child. They got the child, but that was their solution, not God’s. That child and his mother became nothing but trouble – then and now.
Then God promised him a son through Sarah, his wife, and a year after that promise, Isaac was born. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to go so long without children, and then to finally have a son. Abraham would have loved this boy like his own life. This command from God to sacrifice him had to be the most terrible moment of his life. x
Abraham rose up early in the morning on the fateful day and made his preparation. He saddled his animal, split the wood, took two of his servants and Isaac his son, and started toward the place. A careless reader might assume that Abraham had so much faith that he just did what God said without a second thought. He would be wrong. Abraham had plenty of second thoughts, and every one of them was fraught with pain. It took a movie, The Bible, and George C. Scott’s portrayal of Abraham, to make this more real to me. This was hard for Abraham. It was sheer agony, but Abraham followed through.
It was a three day journey to the mountain, and they were surely the hardest three days of Abraham’s life. He instructed his servants to wait while he and Isaac went forward to worship. He had Isaac carry the wood for the fire, and brought along a fire starter and knife. As they walked, Isaac asked, “My father, we have the fire and the knife and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
This must have cut Abraham to the heart, but he replied, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” And they walked on. That short phrase, “God will provide himself a lamb,” echoes down through history to this day. Christians write songs that apply that very phrase to Jesus Christ, whom Paul identifies as “our Passover.”
So, they came to the place and Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. Then came the moment of truth. He bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar on the wood. He took the knife in hand to slay his son. This had to be one of the greatest movie scenes of all time, especially if you knew what it meant. Abraham reaches out to take the knife in his hand, with that beautiful boy bound and laid out on the wood, and prepares to actually do the deed. It was only at this last moment that an angel spoke to him and stopped him.
And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son.
Why would God do a thing like this? Why would he put Abraham through it? I think I finally begin to understand. We can identify with Abraham easier than we can with God. Abraham was a man. Theologians haven’t helped, presenting us with an impassible God who cannot be touched. xi What we learn in Abraham is what Jesus really meant when he said to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” This is not a gift lightly given, nor is it a gift without cost.
God allowed Abraham to play the role of the Father who makes the greatest sacrifice, his son, his only son. It was a great honor to Abraham, though he may not have seen it that way. His agony was that of a man whose faith was so strong that he would do it, but whose pain was so great that he would have taken his own life rather than that of his son.
This was much more than a test of Abraham’s faith. This is one segment of the thread that runs all through history, one significant moment of the plan of God laid out before the foundation of the world. And down through history, the Israelites offered animals again and again as substitutes for their own lives.
Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said “By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son; blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice”.
In the words, “Your son, your only son,” we hear the echo of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And that “only begotten Son” was our Passover.
I can only believe that this day, the date of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, was one of God’s appointments with history. Surely, it is a day to remember in the history of every man of faith. This may have been the day, generations later, when the Israelites killed a lamb, struck its blood on the doorposts of their houses, and ate the Passover lamb, while the firstborn in all of Egypt were dying. It may have been the very day when Israel was delivered from the bondage of Egypt, just as Christians are delivered from the bondage of sin by the blood of our Passover Lamb.
And this may have been the very day, generations later, when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was pierced in the side and bled and died, while in the Temple, the Passover lambs were being slain. The thread we are following is very long and sometimes faint, but it is there.
In the next chapter, the thread will lead us to Egypt and the fateful days before the first Passover.
(An excerpt from The Thread: God’s Appointments with History)
i. “The two biggest holidays in the church year are Easter and Christmas – the bookends of Christianity. Both are preceded by a special time that prepares us to worship Christ in a deeper way. Lent moves us toward identifying with Jesus’ sacrifice. Advent gets us ready for a birthday celebration.” (Group magazine, November-December 2005, page 50.) ↩
ii. This verse is missing in some ancient manuscripts, but at the very least, it represents an ancient tradition of the first Christians. It may have been a marginal note that found its way into the text, but if so, it was very early and is highly suggestive that this was indeed Paul’s reason for haste. ↩
iii. Jehovah: Most versions of the Bible use the small caps LORD to represent the Hebrew name of God, YHWH. There are numerous variations of pronunciation due to the fact that there are no vowels in Hebrew, and the Jewish people strenuously avoid speaking the divine name. One variant is “Jehovah,” which uses the vowel points of Adonai, Lord, and was probably intended to be pronounced, Yehovah. The Y becomes J in Germanic languages, as in German and English. Most scholarly sources use Yahweh, but I prefer the more familiar, “Jehovah.” There are some passages in the Bible that become startlingly clearer when the reader recognizes the name that is behind the word, “LORD.” ↩
iv. “The LORD said, ‘I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him” (Genesis 18:10 RSV). ↩
v. Genesis 19:3. ↩
vi. On the other hand, no sacrifice to God was to be offered with leaven, which was considered a kind of corruption, as sourdough bread (Exodus 34:25). It may be that one does not serve sourdough bread to divine beings. Leaven would come to be seen as a symbol of sin – at least during the Days of Unleavened Bread. ↩
vii. “Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5). This does not merely suggest that Abraham was a moral man, but that he lived according to a known system of law. ↩
viii. “Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). ↩
ix. “The Life and Epistles of Paul” by Conybeare and Howsen, 1962, Page 389. ↩
x. I once heard Angel Martinez, an influential Baptist evangelist preach that this event took place on the 10th day of the first month, when the Passover lamb was later chosen (Exodus 12:3). I think his vision of this was based on the three day journey to the place of sacrifice. He also made a connection to the day of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the decision of the leadership to kill him. I mention this only to point out that some Christian preachers see the thread of Jesus’ sacrifice leading back to the Passover and beyond. ↩
xi. Impassible: “incapable of suffering or of experiencing pain.” I can understand why theologians described God as “impassible,” but I think they are missing something very important. Jesus said it to Nicodemus, cited above: “God so loved the world.” This does not describe an emotionless God, one who cannot be touched with a feeling of our infirmities. He who has seen Jesus has seen the Father, and Jesus was not “impassible.” He was moved with compassion, and he suffered pain for us. In Abraham, we are asked to see the meaning of “God so loved the world.” ↩