The old covenant included a wide variety of religious rituals and duties. There were special garments, special incense, special offerings, special utensils and special times. Each of these had significance in Israel’s worship. In some cases we are not sure why the ritual had to be performed in a particular way. In other cases the Bible tells us the meaning of the symbolism. Let us look at the annual festivals to see what they pictured.
1. The Passover sacrifice was commanded when Israel was in Egypt. What were the Israelites told to do? Exodus 12:3-11. Were they told why they should select a lamb on the 10th rather than the 11th? Verse 3. Was a young goat just as acceptable as a lamb? Verse 5. Was the significance of bitter herbs explained? Verse 8.
2. Why were they to put blood around the door? Verses 12-13, 23. Why was hyssop (not some other plant) used for the blood? Verse 22. Was this to be done every year? Verses 14, 24-25. Since the original purpose did not apply in later years, why was this to be repeated? Verses 26-27.
Comment: Scripture tells us the overall purpose of the ritual, but it does not comment on all the details. We are not told the symbolism of twilight, roasting, eating, not breaking bones or burning leftovers. Commentators offer various ideas, some of them good and some rather farfetched. These ideas may be right, but they cannot be proven, since the Bible does not tell us. For most details, we cannot be dogmatic.
The overall symbolic picture given to the Israelites for the Passover is this: God passed over the Israelites when he killed the Egyptian firstborn. The entire ritual—lamb, herbs, bread—was a memorial of escape from death. It was also a memorial of escape from Egypt: “Celebrate the Passover of the Lord your God, because…he brought you out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 16:1, 6). Were the Israelites told that the lamb pictured a future sacrifice and a spiritual escape from death and slavery? No, the only sure word they had about the Passover is that it looked backward to the Exodus, to a physical rescue.
3. Right after the Passover, came the week of unleavened bread. When was leaven to be removed? Exodus 12:15. What reason is given for this festival? Exodus 12:17; 13:8. Historically, why was their bread unleavened? Exodus 12:34, 39. Why was the bread unleavened in the yearly festival? Deuteronomy 16:3. What symbolism was given to the other rituals that were part of this festival? Numbers 28:17-25.
Comment: This festival included several rituals. Everyone was to 1) remove leaven, 2) not have or eat any leaven for seven days, and 3) not work on the first and last days. Every day, the priests were to 4) sacrifice two bulls, a ram and seven lambs, 5) give 10 grain offerings mixed with oil and 6) kill a goat as a sin offering.
All of these were part of the festival—but which had symbolic significance? Why two bulls and not three? Why only one ram? Why seven days? We are not told. All we know for sure is this: 1) the goat was offered to make atonement for the people, 2) the unleavened bread was a reminder of their haste in leaving Egypt and 3) the entire festival was a memorial of the Exodus.
4. The festival was connected not only with the Exodus, but also the yearly harvest. What additional ritual was done during the spring festival? Leviticus 23:9-11. When was it done? Verse 11. What three offerings were the priests to make? Verses 12-13. How did all the people participate in the ritual? Verse 14. Were the symbols explained?
5. Fifty days later, another harvest festival was conducted. How was it celebrated? Exodus 23:16; 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:10-11. What unusual grain offering characterized this festival? Leviticus 23:17. How many bulls, rams and lambs were offered? Verse 18. What additional ritual was done? Verses 19-20.
Comment: Again, we are told many ritual details, but not many meanings. We are not told the significance of 50 days or the variety of sacrifices. This was the only time in the year that leaven was used in an offering. We might speculate on the meaning, but we do not have any proof.
6. Several months later came the last set of festivals. What was done on the first day of the seventh month? Leviticus 23:24-25. What was the unusual feature, and what meaning was given to it?
Comment: This festival was given no historical meaning, no agricultural significance and no future meaning. It was revealed simply as a day for blowing trumpets. But trumpets were blown on every new moon and festival (Numbers 10:10). They were used both for war and for celebration. We are not told which meaning was significant for this festival. And we do not know if the monthly trumpet blasts had the same symbolism.
7. Ten days later, what did the people do? Leviticus 23:27-32. What was the purpose of this day? Verse 28; Leviticus 16:30. Was its meaning historical, agricultural, prophetic or religious? What unusual rituals characterized this day? Leviticus 16:2-28.
Comment: The Torah says that this day is effective in providing atonement for the people. It does not say that a more effective atonement would be needed in the future. But atonement was made on other festivals, too. Why was this day so different as to require fasting? Why was one goat released alive—was it for the same reason that animals were released alive in a few other rituals? Why were the bull and goat burned outside the camp, not on the altar? Why did the man who burned them have to be cleansed? These are areas for speculation, not dogmatism.
8. What agricultural significance did the next festival have? Exodus 23:17; Leviticus 23:39; Deuteronomy 16:13. What unusual rituals did the people do for this festival? Leviticus 23:40-42. How many bulls were sacrificed each day? Numbers 29:13, 17, 20, 23, 26, 29, 32. Why this unique sequence? What was the primary symbolism of this festival? Leviticus 23:43.
9. On the eighth day, what were the people to do? Leviticus 23:36, 39. What did the priests do? Numbers 29:35-38. Was anything unique about this day?
Comment: Nothing unusual happened on the eighth day, so it is difficult to prove any symbolic meaning to it. It just came right after Tabernacles.
Summary of festival details
- Passover pictured escape from death and slavery, memorializing the Exodus.
- Unleavened Bread was a reminder of the Exodus.
- The wavesheaf was not assigned a symbolism.
- Pentecost was not assigned a symbolism.
- Trumpets memorialized trumpet-blowing.
- Atonement focused on atoning for sin.
- Tabernacles was a reminder of the Exodus.
- The eighth day was not assigned a symbolism.
The Old Testament shows us that the most common theme for the annual festivals is the Exodus. That was the defining event in the nation’s history, the time when the Israelites became one nation under God.
But if an ancient Israelite looked at all the annual festivals, as well as the rules about washings, offerings and various other rituals, it would be difficult to see a unified theme. Let’s now look at the New Testament.
10. Did Jesus come to fulfill the Torah and the Prophets, the entire Old Testament? Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:44; John 5:39. Was the old covenant a shadow of things fulfilled in Christ? Hebrews 10:1-9. Were the annual festivals also a shadow of Christ? Colossians 2:16-17.
Comment: After Jesus Christ came, was crucified and resurrected, it became easier to find ways in which old covenant rituals pictured certain aspects of his work. He was the lamb without blemish, killed without any bones being broken, so that we might escape slavery and death. He was the firstfruit who rose toward God on the day after the Sabbath. He was the lamb who made atonement for our sins, who allows us to enter the heavenly Holy Place. But there are many festival details of uncertain significance.
Moreover, Jesus is much more than what the festivals could picture—he is our Rock, our Light, our Shelter, the fulfillment of the snake lifted up high (Numbers 21:8-9). He is our bread, our water of life, the water of washing, the captain of our salvation. He fulfilled the bull sacrifices, the dove sacrifices, the daily grain offerings and the priestly garments. He is everything the old covenant pictured and much more.
It was difficult enough to understand the Old Testament prophecies about the Savior-Messiah. It was harder to get a clear picture of the Savior from the enormous variety of old covenant rituals. The festivals were only a small part of the picture, so it is harder still to get a picture from the festivals alone.
The New Testament says they are a shadow of Christ. But how much detail can a shadow reveal? Can we see the character of a person from the shadow alone? Can we describe what a person looks like from a silhouette? Only in a very limited way.
It is clear that the Passover was fulfilled by Jesus Christ (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7). But commentators differ as to how Christ fulfills many of the details. Most of the ideas are speculative, not proven, because the Bible does not assign any particular meaning to most of the rituals.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 1998 and updated in 2014. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
The festivals were shadows of Christ—but new moons were, too (Colossians 2:16-17). Ritual washings and grain offerings were shadows of Christ, too, each in a different way, each in a fragmentary way.
When we look back, we can see how a few aspects of the festivals pictured Christ. But we also see many details of uncertain significance. Even after Christ has come, the festivals are only a shadowy representation of Christ. They require detailed explanation because they are not clear in themselves.
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Chumney, Edward. The Seven Festivals of the Messiah. Destiny Image, Shippensburg, Pa. 1994.
Glaser, Mitch and Zhava. The Fall Feasts of Israel. Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Ill. 1987.
Howard, Kevin, and Marvin Rosenthal. The Feasts of the Lord. Zion’s Hope, Orlando, Fla. 1997.
Kasdan, Barney. God’s Appointed Times. Lederer Messianic Publications, Baltimore, Md. 1993.
Rosen, Ceil and Moishe. Christ in the Passover: Why Is This Night Different? Moody, Chicago, Ill. 1978.