Reflection on Deuteronomy 26:1-11 & Matthew 9: 35-39,

“Israel’s Harvest Festivals,” by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken, for The Village Harvest Festival

The people of Israel were aware of their dependence on God for their daily bread with an acuteness that is unfamiliar to us I think.  The Israelites were dependent on the moisture laden winds off the Mediterranean bringing them sufficient rain during the winter to soak into the soil in which grain and grapes were grown. Times of drought were also times of famine.  Modern Israel overcomes this problem by drip irrigating using water from the Jordan River, and by using desalinated brackish water pumped up from aquifers, and re-using treated waste water.  Such technologies were not available to the Israelites of Biblical times, of course, although primitive gravity-fed irrigation channels were used in some places. 

The Israelites came to believe that if God was pleased with them God would send them rain.  If God was displeased with them he would withhold the rain.  This theology is most clearly spelt out in Deuteronomy, where we read: “If you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in his ways… The LORD will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings,” (Deut. 28:9, 12).  In contrast, should the Israelites not diligently observe God’s commandments and decrees, “The sky over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you iron. The LORD will change the rain of your land into powder, and only dust shall come down upon you from the sky until you are destroyed,” (Deut. 28:23-24).  The chapter goes onto describe a host of other disasters that could befall the Israelite people as punishment for disobedience, including having their grain, grape and olive harvest decimated by locust plagues and other insect infestations, or destroyed by mildew and plant diseases.  Starvation was a threat never very far away.  Isaiah speaks of the Israelites rejoicing “as with joy at the harvest” (Isaiah 9:3).  It was indeed a joyful time when the harvest had been brought in because now you and your family would have sufficient food to survive another year.

God had to be thanked for the harvest, of course, so Israel held three great harvest festivals in his honour; Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Booths.  When the first Zionists from Europe settled in Palestine they were struck by how closely aligned the timing of the Jewish festivals are to the timing of the harvests in Israel.  Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread were originally separate festivals.  Passover predates Israel’s time in Egypt.  It originated among nomadic shepherds (like Abraham) who in spring slaughtered a yearling lamb or goat in honour of the god to whom they attributed the fertility of their flock. Having made a burnt offering of the god’s portion of the carcass, they roasted over a spit, and feasted on, the rest.  This explains why the Children of Israel, who proved to be a non-compliant people, followed without question the bizarre instructions Moses gave them about choosing a yearling of their flock on the tenth day of the month, slaughtering it on the fourteenth, and painting its blood on their door posts and lintel.  When Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt in the days of Joseph, they ceased being nomadic sheep herders and became sheep farmers, but clearly they passed on their celebratory traditions to subsequent generations.  The Israelites obeyed Moses in this instance because he wasn’t asking them to do something totally new.  Scholars believe that the Days of Unleavened Bread was originally a Canaanite grain harvest festival adopted and adapted by the Israelites.  By the time of Jesus, Passover and Unleavened Bread had been amalgamated into one eight-days-long celebration, so that these two terms had become interchangeable.

The seven weeks between Unleavened Bread and Pentecost (the period of time we are currently in) was the time when reaping the barley crop was completed and the early summer wheat crop was harvested.  On the Sunday during the Days of Unleavened Bread, and fifty days later on Pentecost, grain from the first sheaves to be harvested was to be brought as an offering and given to the priests.  Originally these offerings would be brought to local hill top shrines and given to the local priests.  From the days of Josiah, who destroyed all the local shrines, the first fruits offerings had to be brought to the temple.  Later in the year, at the Festival of Booths, offerings of fruit would be made, typically offerings of grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. Booths was a camping out festival.  The Israelites were to construct temporary shelters and dwell in them for the seven days of the festival.  The shelters would be decorated with the fruits of the autumn season.  While the primary purpose of Israel’s festivals was to honour God, they were also a good excuse for a good time.  In New Testament times, the rabbis said you hadn’t experienced real joy until you had kept the Festival of Booths in Jerusalem.  Besides thanking God for the current year’s autumnal produce, Booths focused on the harvests to come.  The temple water ceremony during Booths was an acted prayer for rain.

Today’s lection from Deuteronomy contains the liturgy for the offering of first fruits, and is obviously the oldest such liturgy in existence.  The book of Deuteronomy is supposedly Moses’ last instructions to the Israelites before he dies and they cross the Jordan River into the land of Promise, a land of agricultural abundance as expressed in the idiom, “a land of milk and honey”.  However, Deuteronomy presupposes the existence of a monarchy and of a centralised temple cult, which didn’t come into existence until the 10th century BCE, from three to five centuries after the proposed dates for the Moses led exodus of Israel out of Egypt.  Many scholars think Deuteronomy was actually written in the 7th century during the reign of Josiah, although some put it even later, during the Babylonian captivity or the Persian period.  What is apparent from today’s reading is that by the time this passage was written, the Hebrew festivals were no longer just harvest festivals.  They had become celebrations of milestones in the story of Israel’s redemption from Egypt.  Passover focused on freedom from Egyptian bondage, Pentecost on the law given at Sinai, and Booths on God’s provision during Israel’s wilderness wanderings.

So the worshipper bringing his first fruits offering was required to rehearse the salient points of the Exodus story – his ancestor Jacob, who had been a refugee in Aram and hence a wandering Aramean, had gone down into Egypt with his family at a time of famine.  The family grew large and became enslaved by the Egyptians.  God heard their prayers and saw their afflictions and after rescuing them brought them to a productive land.  After the religious ceremony the worshipper and his household was to provide a feast for those without land; that is members of the priestly tribe of Levi and resident aliens (for example, refugees).  Even the very poor were to be included in the celebration.

The Mosaic Law had endeavoured to avoid generational poverty by legislating that family land was to be held in perpetuity.  If the current patriarch of the family had to sell the family farm, for instance in order to buy food at highly inflated prices during a prolonged famine, he wasn’t selling the land but a leasehold until the next jubilee year, when the land was to be returned to him or his heir.  To avoid crippling debt, loans were to be forgiven every seven years, and interest wasn’t to be charged on loans to fellow Israelites.  Such an aspirational economic system was clearly not enforceable, and was long gone by the time of Jesus. While there were peasant families who owned and farmed small plots of land, most of the land belonged to a small number of very wealthy, urban-based elite families, who rented their land to tenant farmers.   In pre-industrial agrarian societies most of the wealth generated by peasant farmers ended up in the cities. 

Wealth was extracted from the peasants first via taxes.  In the days of Jesus, Rome demanded taxes from the provinces in order to sustain the Roman government, the Roman army and to build infrastructure such as roads and aqueducts.  Vassal kings, like Herod Antipas, extracted resources from their subjects to build palaces, new cities and monuments dedicated to Caesar, as well as money to sustain their own privileged lives.  Peasant farmers had to pay the annual temple tax for the members of their households, and tithes for the upkeep of the clergy, of which there were about 20,000 priests and Levites. Tithes were based on actual production but taxes were not.  In years when the harvest was poor because of drought or pestilence, farmers still had to meet the assessed amount. To pay their taxes, farmers were often forced to take out loans at staggering amounts of interest offered by money-lending merchants and absentee landlords, in spite of the Torah forbidding usury.  Many would lose their tenancies and become truly impoverished as day labourers.  So when Jesus looked at the crowds of Galileans who came to hear him and be healed by him, he had good reason to see them as harassed and helpless, and they had good reason to hope that he was the Messiah to deliver them from Roman and Herodian oppression.

God began a new creation with Jesus at the moment of his resurrection. A new world order that promises both spiritual and physical abundance for all.  A time “when the one who ploughs shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows seed,” (Amos 9:13). However, as long as we in rich nations exploit the labour of people in poor countries, the kingdom of God will remain far off. As long as people in our communities have insufficient income to support their families, the kingdom of God will remain far off. As long as a few people are incredibly rich and many people are incredibly poor, the kingdom of God will remain far off. Just as it took a lot of hands to bring in the barley and wheat harvests in ancient Israel, so Jesus seeks many labourers to work for justice and peace in his fields today.  He says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few”.  It was a popular saying of his, calling us to action. Jesus’ resurrection should be transformative for us, and we should be transformative for others.  We should not only bring good news, we should be good news.