Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me. You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. None shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall keep the Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God. (Exodus 23:14–17, ESV)

As I read this passage this morning I began to wonder, why did God want all the males of Israel to appear before him three times a year?  Why appear at all and if they did need to appear before the Lord, why three times?  Would one have done just as well?  What is wrong with two?  What is the purpose for appearing “before the Lord God?”

We actually get a hint at the answer in the verse which precedes these:

“Pay attention to all that I have said to you, and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard on your lips.” (Exodus 23:13, ESV)

This verse is sandwiched between God’s instructions concerning the Sabbath, both a weekly Sabbath where the people and their animals were supposed to rest, and a seven year Sabbath in which the land was supposed to rest.

The biblical writers often wrote in patterns in which the most important thing that they say is in the middle of the passage.  Here we have instructions concerning the Sabbath, followed by vs. 13, followed by instructions concerning the three times all the males were to appear before God each year.  We can see then, that Moses was emphasizing verse 13, this is the point that he really does not want the Israelites to miss:  [if we may paraphrase] “In all of your comings and goings as you live out your lives in the land that I promised you, do not even mention the names of other gods!”  This is a reiteration of the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods before Me.

It’s verse 13 that helps us understand why God wanted the males of Israel to appear before him at all.  Remember that at this time there were no [or very few] written Scriptures at all and so faith in the Lord was passed on by teaching and word of mouth.  A man could not get up and pull a scroll from its place and read the book of Genesis.  In such a situation, it became all the more important to remind the people that they were God’s people and to remind them of God’s care and provision for them.  Thus the Israelite males were to appear before God to celebrate three feasts during the year: A feast which was in memory of what God had done at bringing them out of Egypt; a feast in which the first fruits of the coming year were celebrated; and a feast at the end of the year when all crops had been gathered in.  All of these feasts would remind Israel who was responsible for them and who gave them crops and the blessings of life.

Why three and not two or four?   We do not know; perhaps it was enough to continuously call the people back to remembrance of the Lord and not so much that it became a burden to perform.

What is the point of this passage for we who sit so far away from it both temporally and culturally?  Don’t. Forget. The Lord!  In our coming and going and in the business of life it is necessary for we forgetful humans to go back again and again into communion with the Lord so that we do not fall into idolatry which we are certainly prone to do.  Fortunately for us we have both the written Word of God and the indwelling Holy Spirit to help us.

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