10 “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, 11 but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.
12 “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.
13 “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.
14 “Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me. 15 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. 16 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. 17 Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God.
18 “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of my feast remain until the morning.
19 “The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.
“You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. – Exodus 23:10-19 ESV
The next two laws continue God’s focus on truth and justice. While they appear to be dealing with the required Sabbath observances, there is more to these two commands than cessation from work or allowing the land to “rest” in the seventh year. The point behind these commands is love as expressed in concern for others.
God’s Sabbath laws were designed to provide physical rest, but they were also intended to minister to the needs of the less fortunate. In the case of the Sabbath year, God decreed that each seventh year, the people were to rest from their cultivation and care of the fields and orchards.
“Plant and harvest your crops for six years, but let the land be renewed and lie uncultivated during the seventh year.” – Exodus 23:10-11 NLT
These two laws anticipated the Israelite’s pending occupation of the land of Canaan. Seven years after they arrived in the land and took possession of it, they would be expected to enact this command. For six years they would labor and tend the land, but in the seventh year, they would take a God-ordained break so that the land could be renewed and restored.
But there was another point to this command. God wanted His people to care for the poor and needy among them.
“…let the poor among you harvest whatever grows on its own. Leave the rest for wild animals to eat. The same applies to your vineyards and olive groves.” – Exodus 23:11 NLT
For six years, God would meet the needs of His people and provide plenty of food to sustain them through the seventh year. This would echo His establishment of the Sabbath day.
“Look, I’m going to rain down food from heaven for you. Each day the people can go out and pick up as much food as they need for that day. I will test them in this to see whether or not they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they will gather food, and when they prepare it, there will be twice as much as usual.” – Exodus 16:4-5 NLT
“Eat this food today, for today is a Sabbath day dedicated to the Lord. There will be no food on the ground today. You may gather the food for six days, but the seventh day is the Sabbath. There will be no food on the ground that day.” – Exodus 16:25-26 NLT
The Sabbath year was to mirror the Sabbath day. God wanted His people to believe in His divine providence. He was their provider and sustainer. He would care for all their needs. And when the people finally settled in the land of Canaan, they would have to be reminded that everything they possessed had been given to them by God.
“I gave you land you had not worked on, and I gave you towns you did not build—the towns where you are now living. I gave you vineyards and olive groves for food, though you did not plant them.” – Joshua 24:13 NLT
So, if God had graciously provided for all their needs, they were to reciprocate by sharing God’s bounty with the less fortunate among them, including the wild animals. God’s blessings were to be shared, not hoarded. By allowing their fields and vineyards to go uncultivated, they would experience no diminishment in crop yield. In fact, God would miraculously produce a bumper harvest that would meet the needs of all – without their help. God would step in and bless His creation for the benefit of all His creatures. And the Israelites were expected to participate in this gracious act of benevolence by simply resting and relying upon God’s goodness.
And God applied the same principle to the Sabbath day.
“You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but on the seventh day you must stop working. This gives your ox and your donkey a chance to rest. It also allows your slaves and the foreigners living among you to be refreshed.” – Exodus 23:12 NLT
Notice the emphasis on others. God wanted His people to share His concern for all creation. He knew that they would be tempted to view their status as His chosen people as a badge of honor and look down on others with an air of superiority. But their designation as His treasured possession did not give them to right to treat others with contempt. They had an obligation to use their status as God’s people as a means to reflect His character through their actions. Their unique relationship with Yahweh was meant to benefit all those around them, including their livestock.
God ends this section with a warning: “Pay close attention to all my instructions. You must not call on the name of any other gods. Do not even speak their names” (Exodus 23:13 NLT). This was a call to obedience and obeisance. God wanted their adherence to His commands as well as their unwavering devotion to His Lordship over their lives. He was looking for total commitment, not half-hearted compliance. This was about more than a list of rules to keep. It was about faithfulness and choosing to live in a way that reflected God’s character and demonstrated His glory.
The next commandments have to do with the annual feasts and festivals that God would establish for His people. Once again, these annual events were intended to take place once the Israelites took possession of the land of Canaan. But God had let Pharaoh know that these festivals were the whole reason He was demanding the release of His people.
“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go so they may hold a festival in my honor in the wilderness.” – Exodus 5:1 NLT
Moses replied, “We will all go—young and old, our sons and daughters, and our flocks and herds. We must all join together in celebrating a festival to the Lord.” – Exodus 10:9 NLT
With their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites began a pilgrimage to the promised land, and the three festivals outlined in this chapter were intended to be pilgrim feasts. The first came in the spring: The Feast of Unleavened Bread. This feast was directly tied to the Feast of Passover, and both pointed back to that eventful night in Egypt when God protected His people from the judgment of the death angel (Exodus 12).
God had established the Feast of Unleavened Bread as a perpetual ordinance designed to recall His divine deliverance of them from their captivity in Egypt.
“This is a day to remember forever—the day you left Egypt, the place of your slavery. Today the Lord has brought you out by the power of his mighty hand. (Remember, eat no food containing yeast.) On this day in early spring, in the month of Abib, you have been set free. You must celebrate this event in this month each year after the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites. (He swore to your ancestors that he would give you this land—a land flowing with milk and honey.) For seven days the bread you eat must be made without yeast. Then on the seventh day, celebrate a feast to the Lord. Eat bread without yeast during those seven days. In fact, there must be no yeast bread or any yeast at all found within the borders of your land during this time.” – Exodus 13:3-7 NLT
This feast was intended to be a liberation celebration. And two months later, it was to be followed by a second feast: The Feast of the Harvest. This particular festival was designed to show gratitude to God for all His provision. Also known as the Feast of Firstfruits, this annual event was a way for the Israelites to return thanks to God for His gracious providence over their lives.
Seven months after Passover, the Israelites were to celebrate a third feast: The Feast of Ingathering. This festival took place in the autumn after all the crops had been harvested and safely stored. During this week-long event, the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters as a reminder of their years wandering in the wilderness. That is why this festival is also referred to as the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles.
“You must observe this festival to the Lord for seven days every year. This is a permanent law for you, and it must be observed in the appointed month from generation to generation. For seven days you must live outside in little shelters. All native-born Israelites must live in shelters. This will remind each new generation of Israelites that I made their ancestors live in shelters when I rescued them from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 23:41-43 NLT
The commemoration of these annual feasts or festivals also required blood sacrifices. There was a cost to keeping these ordinances. Numbers 29 records that, during the Feast of Ingathering, the Israelites were required to make sacrifices for eight consecutive days, and the number of animals offered up was substantial. There were also grain offerings, liquid offerings, burnt offerings, and sin offerings. And according to Exodus 23, there were strict requirements as to how these offerings were to be made. God was very specific. And while these laws might sound strange to our modern ears, they were designed to illustrate the reality of sin and man’s need for redemption. Even the prohibition against boiling “a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) was meant as a protection for God’s people. It’s likely that this was a practice among the Canaanites and part of their idolatrous worship. But it also conveys a powerful contrast concerning life and death. To boil a goat in its mother’s milk would be to use the source of life to bring about death. It would be an inappropriate and unacceptable sacrifice.
God was meticulous in the giving of His commands. He would not allow His people to adopt or adapt pagan practices as part of their worship of Him. Whether it was the Sabbath observances or the annual feasts, the laws God ordained were binding and not up for debate or alteration. God’s will must be done in God’s way. No compromise. No cutting corners.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.