Forgiveness and Festivals

Exodus 23

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
March 2017

We have been studying OT case law in the Book of Exodus for some time.  Last week, we looked at three topics that seemed completely unrelated.  Today, we will be looking at three topics as well.  The topics are enemies, the Sabbath and festivals.  Last week, we looked at FOOD and FAIRNESS.  Don’t eat roadkill.  Don’t take bribes.  Don’t deny justice to people.  Don’t oppress the poor and foreigners.  Today, we will be looking at FORGIVENESS and FESTIVALS.

We looked at what God says about justice, specifically criminal justice. There is a lot in that section about integrity and honesty, honesty of judges, honesty of witnesses.  Today, we are going to look at a different topic that has nothing to do with the witness stand.  It deals with how you treat people you do not like.  They may be your next-door neighbors or some people you work with.  The setting is not the courtroom by the side of the road.

“If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. 5 If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it. (Exodus 23:4-5)

Lessons on Forgiveness

This is only two verses.  These verses are extremely practical and relevant to our own day.  It applies today just as much as it did four thousand years ago, even if your enemy does not even own a donkey or an ox. What practical lessons do these verses say to us today?

One, we all have enemies.

The Bible is realistic.   We can pretend that we don’t have any enemies but we all know some people who we do not like or get along with.  They are rude and obnoxious.  They may mistreat us.  They may have done terrible things to us at one point.  They may have even complained to other people about us.  We may work with these people or live next to these people.

They may be in our own family.  They may go to our own church.  There is such a thing as a “sandpaper Christian” that always seems to get under our skin and drive us crazy.  The first thing clear from this verse is that we all have enemies.

Two, bad things happen to people.

Bad things happen to our enemies.  Some of you are thinking that you would never be that lucky.  The reality is that bad things happen to people.  They happen to good people and bad people.  I would love to say that godly Christians do not suffer.  Some preachers do but the Bible does not teach this.  Christians suffer and the wicked suffer.

In this passage, something bad happens to one of your enemies.  It is an accident.  One of their animals wanders off.  It was more than just a pet.  Their income was tied into that animal.  It was an agricultural.  The question that this section addresses is how we respond to it.  Many of us are glad.  We are happy when bad things happen to people we do not like.

We might see our enemy’s animal escaping and think ourself that it is not our problem.  He’s a jerk. He got what’s coming to him.  He deserves it.  It serves him right.  Our enemy may have wronged us.  We may be angry or bitter.  We may hold a grudge against him.

We may be critical of him for being irresponsible enough to let his animal escape.  Many would just blame him for this problem, instead of feeling sorry for him.  The Bible deals with this situation.

Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the LORD see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him. (Proverbs 24:17-18 ESV)

Do we do that?  The NIV says not to “gloat” in this situation.  What most of us would do is to keep walking and do nothing.  We might even pretend that we didn’t see anything.  Those are natural responses to someone that we do not like or has even done bad things to us.  God tells us to do something completely different.  He calls us to act not naturally but supernaturally.

Three, God calls us to do something radical

We are to help our enemy.  We are not just to be polite and civil to him.  We are to help him, not in words but in deeds.  These deeds are tangible.  You can see them.  This sounds very much like the NT.  It sounds like James.  Faith without works is dead.

We are not commanded to like our enemy.  That would be an impossible command but we are commanded to love our enemies and do good to them. How was the person to show it in Exodus 23? He was to show it in two ways.  If you find his possessions, return them to him (23:4).  If he needs your help, help him (23:5). Don’t walk by him and just laugh.  Help him out. There is a good example of this in the movie War Room.

Let’s look at these two points.  The first law says that if you find your enemy’s animal wandering away, take it back to him. “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it (23:4). You are not just to inform your enemy that his animals wandered away.  You are to go the extra mile and bring them back.  You are to go out of your way to return them (23:4).

There was another way God says that you are to help your enemy.  If you walk by your enemy and see he is struggling with one of his animals and needs some help, offer to help him.  If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it (23:5).

Donkeys often carried heavy loads.  If the load gets too heavy, it can fall down.  God says that we are to help this poor animal, even if it is the animal of our enemy.  We are to show compassion.  We are to show compassion to our neighbor and to this poor animal who is struggling because of this big load on his back.

This is an interesting law.  Man did not impose this law.  God did.  There’s nothing like this in Ancient Near Eastern law.  This is unique.  It is different.  It is also unnatural to help someone one that you can’t stand.  It is easy to love a friend.  It is hard to love an enemy.  It goes against the grain.  It sounds like the Sermon on the Mount.  Most of us think that loving our enemies is a NT teaching.

Jesus said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  It is but it is also an OT teaching.  It was in the OT long before the Sermon on the Mount.  The OT teaches that we are to love our enemies.  Most people do not know this.

Proverbs 25:21-22 says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (NIV).  We are to heap kindness upon our enemies.  Paul quotes this passage in Romans 12.  Galatians 5:10 says, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (NIV)

In Exodus we have seen that were are to love the poor.  We are to love foreigners.  We are to love immigrants. We are to love our neighbor.  We are to show compassion to the animals that have heavy burdens on top of them and cannot even stand up.

We are also to love our enemy.  All of that is in the law.  In fact, the so-called “Golden Rule” to do unto others as you would have them do to you comes right out of the OT.  It also did not start with the Sermon on the Mount.  The Law of Moses taught that.  If this same thing happened to you, if your animal escaped, you would want someone to return it to you. Jesus takes this law in the OT and expands it.  He develops it.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matthew 5:43-46 NIV)

The Sabbath Principle

“For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, 11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.

12 “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.13 “Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.

Now this is interesting.  We learned about the Sabbath in the Fourth Commandment but that was a weekly Sabbath.  You work six days and rest on the seventh day.  This passage mentions not just a weekly Sabbath but a yearly Sabbath.  There are two Sabbaths, one annual and one weekly.

Jews were to rest on the seventh day and on the seventh year.  There is a weekly Sabbath in the OT and there is a yearly Sabbath in the OT.  You sow your fields for six years but rest them on the seventh year.  It is a strange law.  No other country in the world has ever had a law like it.

When we think of the Sabbath today, we think of a day of rest (six days on and one day off) but it was much more than that.  Every six days, the Jews were to rest.  Every seven years they were to rest. After seven yearly rests of the land, there was another yearly Sabbath rest every fifty years called “The Year of Jubilee.”  That is not mentioned here but it is mentioned in Leviticus.

Many things happened during the yearly Sabbath. There was rest for the land.  There was rest for the people and animals which had to work the land. Slaves were released every seven years (21:2).  Slaves worked for six years and were free on the seventh year.  There was provision for the poor during this time. They could get food (23:11). They could eat the crops, not just the corners of the land to glean.  All debts were cancelled every seven years. No more calls from creditors.

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. (Deuteronomy 15:1-3 NIV)

The Sabbath was a big deal in the OT. This yearly Sabbath observance was not optional.  God warned that if the Jews did not do this, there would be serious consequences. God took this whole concept of rest seriously.

‘If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, 28 then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over… I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins.

34 Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. 35 All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it. (Leviticus 26:27-28, 33-35)

That is exactly what happened.  The Jews stopped observing this Sabbath.  They stopped for hundreds of years.  They stopped observing it for five hundred years (four hundred and ninety years to be exact).  Finally, God judged them.  He gave them seventy years of captivity in Babylon.  He said to them “You owe me seventy years.”  God forced the land to have a seventy-year period of rest.  II Chronicles 36:21 says that during the Babylonian Captivity the land enjoyed its Sabbath rests.

Modern Application

Many Christians today are big on keeping the Sabbath today.  Some try to keep it on Saturday and some try to keep it on Sunday but I do not know anyone who even tries to keep the yearly Sabbath. In fact, it is not even possible in our day to keep it.  If you decide not to work on the seventh year, you will need to find another job.

Many people have gardens.  Some have tried planting their garden for six out of seven years but that is not the same thing.  If they do not have food to eat, they just go to the grocery store.  We do not have an agrarian economy today. Most of us are not farmers.  How does the yearly Sabbath even apply to us today?

We are not under the Law today but there are some principles that are still true today.  This law mandated rest.  Everyone was to rest (human body, slaves, animals, even the soil).  Life is more than work.  Even the land needs a rest or it is overused and stripped it of all of its nutrients.  Today, we solve this problem by crop rotation.

This law mandated worship.  One day was set apart from all of the other seven as special and holy to God.  That is still true today. This law required planning to store ahead for the future.  It required discipline.  It required compassion to the poor.  It required obedience.  God still punishes disobedience today.

This required obedience to a strange law.  It raises this question. Do we obey God even when we do not understand?  It required a lot of faith.  This law was a test of faith not to farm for a whole year.  Do you trust God to provide food for you for that year?  What are we going to eat on the seventh year? Here will the food come from?  What about food shortages?

Pilgrim Festivals

Next, we come to three major festivals that were part of the annual Jewish calendar.  In Judaism, there are major and minor holidays.  These are considered major holidays.  They were not only holidays. They were pilgrimages.

Every person was to travel to Jerusalem for a national celebration, stay there for a week and then come home (Exodus 23:14-19) and were to do it, not once a year but three times a year.  Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me. (23:14). We are told that again in Exodus 23:17.  Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord.[1]

What are the three feasts?  It is the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Chag haMatzot) in 23:15.  It follows Passover and lasts seven days.  Jews cannot have any leaven in their house for seven days because leaven is symbolic of sin.  Every Israelite had to say “I am a sinner, I have offended a holy God” in this first feast.  This year, it is observed April 12-18.  It is observed in the month the Jews came out of Egypt (23:15)

The second one is “the Festival of Harvest” (23:16).  It is also called the “feast of weeks” or “Pentecost.”  It is important to both Jews and Christians.  It commemorates the giving of the Law in the OT and the arrival of the Holy Spirit in the NT.  The church began on Pentecost.  It began on a Jewish festival. It is observed this year from May 31 to June 1.

The third one is “The Festival of Ingathering” (23:16).  It is also called the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (Sukkot).  It commemorates the Jews wandering in the wilderness for forty years and God sustaining them.  It occurs October 5-11 this year.

Modern Application

How does this all apply to Christians today?  We do not make any pilgrimages three times a year.  Many would love to travel to the Holy Land but it is not required.  There is no command for us to do this.  There are some days on the Christian calendar like Christmas and Easter.  Some churches observe Lent but these holidays are all voluntary.  There is no command to observe them like there was for these three holidays.  We observe them because we want to.

Principles of Worship

There are many principles of worship that come right out of this passage.  It is good to set aside one day for worship.  God does not just want us to follow rules.  He wants us to worship Him and he wants us to worship him corporately with other believers, not just on our own.

God also wants us to have times of celebration.  These feasts were times of celebration.  There was a lot of eating at these feasts three times a year.  We should have special services like conferences besides the regular worship service.

These feasts were centered on God. They were not secular holidays.  They were religious festivals.  Notice what the verse says.  Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival TO ME. (23:17)

We also see the importance of giving in worship.  God says, “No one is to appear before me empty-handed” (23:15).  When we come to God we must bring Him something.  They brought Him animals to sacrifice or the first fruits of their crops. We can bring financial resources, as well as our worship.

We also see that there are limits to worship.  There is some worship that God does not accept.  We see that in Exodus 23:19. It is a strange verse.

The first of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God. “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. (NHEB) That is strange.  What in the world is that talking about?

A kid does not refer to an eight year old but to a young goat.  In the context of worship, God says, “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”  Apparently, that was a pagan worship practice that was done in that day.  It was a Canaanite fertility practice.  God said not to do it.

Modern Judaism read this verse differently.  Modern Jews do not mixing milk and meat, because of this verse.  They believe it is wrong to eat a cheeseburger.  That is not what this verse is saying at all.  It is more of a pro-life statement.  A young goat is to be nourished in its mother’s milk and not boiled in it.

The source of life should never become the cause of death.  That shows contempt for the parent-child relationship.  “You shall not put a mother and her son in the same pot.”  The point is that some worship practices God found revolting in the ancient world and still does today.

This festival was not limited to males, like a men’s conference.  Entire families traveled to the feasts (Deuteronomy 16:9-11).

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