Like the Festival of Passover & Unleavened Bread (#194-197), the Harvest Festival or the Festival of Weeks also went through several modifications from the earliest period of Israel’s cultic practices to the Aaronid-led cult of the post-exilic period. Once again, it is the Pentateuch’s various sources which bear witness to these developments, or in our case, these contradictions.
Our two earliest witnesses, E and J (see list of festivals by sources here), merely mention that the Harvest Festival, or Festival of Weeks, was a pilgrimage festival that took place, on the one hand on the day that one went out to reap the first grain (E), and on the other hand 7 weeks later (J). It is thought that the Yahwist text evidences Deuteronomic reworking, since it was the Deuteronomist who delayed the Harvest Festival 7 weeks and renamed it the Festival of Weeks.
The 7th century BCE Deuteronomist makes several innovations to the older Elohist tradition of celebrating the Harvest Festival, all of which inevitably lead to the creation of contradictions when these once separate traditions were redacted together in the 5th century BCE. Let’s look at these one by one.
- The Deuteronomist’s abolition of all local Yahwistic altars and sanctuaries and the centralization of one Altar in Jerusalem (#137-138) changed the dynamics of the Harvest pilgrimage festival. Instead of a pilgrimage to a local altar to present Yahweh with firstfruits offerings during the time of reaping, the centralization of the cult in Jerusalem demanded a longer pilgrimage and during a pressing time, the reaping of the first crops. To solve this problem, created by the centralization of the cult itself, the Deuteronomist delayed the pilgrimage festival 7 weeks until after both barely and wheat crops were reaped: “From when the sickle begins to be in the standing grain you shall begin to count 7 weeks” (Deut 16:9).
- This in and of itself necessitated a name change: from the Harvest Festival to the Festival of Weeks. No longer was the firstfruits celebrated.
- This also changed the dynamics of what was being offered to Yahweh. In the older Elohist tradition, Yahweh received “the firstfruits of your produce that you have sown in the field” (Ex 23:16). Indeed no Israelite was allowed to eat the harvested grain until Yahweh received his due; thus the reason why this rite was done on the first day of harvest. Yet, now delayed for 7 weeks, what the Deuteronomist’s Yahweh commanded were not the firstfruits, but “the payment of your donated contribution” (Deut 16:10) after the harvest of the season was complete—a sort of tithe.
Bernard Levinson, in his book Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation discusses in detail how the Deuteronomist gets away with consciously altering, and even contradicting the very words of Yahweh himself, at least as they were presented in the Deuteronomist’s own source, the Elohist text. Later religious innovations, such as the Deuteronomist’s centralization of the cult and abolition of the Harvest Festival, are achieved by presenting the innovation as a retelling of the already received authoritative tradition, in this case the Elohist text. In other words, the Deuteronomist presents Moses as if he is simply renarrating the commandments that Yahweh gave at Sinai, but in actuality, the Deuteronomist’s Moses is presenting new laws which actually contradict and subvert the Yahweh of the Elohist tradition, while nonetheless presenting these new laws as the words of Yahweh according to the older Elohist tradition. In Levinson’s words:
Later innovative traditions present their innovation on prior textual authoritative traditions thereby subverting the previous authoritative tradition while nevertheless claiming the innovation as the ‘real’ authoritative tradition.
The last development of the, now, Festival of Weeks comes with the Priestly source, and like the Priestly Festival of Unleavened Bread, we have two versions, an earlier one (Leviticus 23) and a later modified version (Numbers 28). There are several disagreements, however, that the Priestly writer, and the Priestly writer’s Yahweh, have with the Deuteronomist and the Deuteronomist’s Yahweh!
- The Priestly tradition in Leviticus 23 preserves both the earlier Elohist tradition of offering the firstfruits up to Yahweh when they are reaped and the later Festival of Weeks sacrificial offering 7 weeks later. However, instead of offering to Yahweh the firstfruits on the day of their reaping, the Priestly writer amends this to the day after the next Sabbath following the first reaping (Lev 23:9-11).
- Apparently the Priestly writer also does away with this being a pilgrimage festival or hag. Scholars have remarked that it is not identified as a hag in this source and that furthermore the people are commanded to present their firstfruits rather than to present themselves with their offering!
- Finally, the Priestly writer, and his Yahweh, also modify the Deuteronomist, and his Yahweh, in respect to the counting of the 7 weeks. In the Deuteronomic tradition, as well as in J, the counting of the 7 weeks begins on the day the sickle first starts to reap the crop. Keeping an emphasis on holiness, the Priestly writer, and his Yahweh, command that the counting commence on the following Sabbath, from Sabbath to Sabbath. The day after the 7th Sabbath, the 50th day or Pentecost, is additionally declared a holy convocation.
Lastly, there are 3 contradictions between the 2 Priestly sources, Leviticus 23 (H) and Numbers 28 (P).
- Numbers 28 makes no mention of a firstfruits offering on the day of reaping or the day after the next Sabbath, as the Leviticus tradition does.
- The number of sacrificial animals are different: in Leviticus we have 1 bull, 2 rams, and 7 lambs, while in the tradition preserved in Numbers it is 2 bulls, 1 ram, and 7 lambs.
- Leviticus 23 mentions an additional peace-offering of 2 lambs. This was traditionally food for the Aaronid priests. Numbers omits it.
As in the case of the different traditions preserving the Festival of Unleavened Bread and Passover, so too here, when these different traditions are stitched together to form the narrative of the Torah in its present order (E-J-H-P-D), Yahweh is thus depicted as commanding several contradictions and about-faces.
For example, at Sinai Yahweh is presented as commanding the Harvest Festival as a pilgrimage to local altars on the day the sickle begins to harvest the first grain (E), but just a few months later, still at Sinai, and after the Golden Calf affair (#157), he now commands the Festival of Weeks as a pilgrimage festival 7 weeks later (J). Approximately 1 year later, or in the course of a year, Yahweh now commands the Harvest festival of firstfruits to be celebrated on the day after the Sabbath, and not the day the sickle reaps its first grain; he also declares it no longer a pilgrimage festival, and commands a whole host of sacrifices not mentioned earlier (H). Yet during the course of the next year Yahweh will alter these sacrificial decrees (P), and finally, 40 years later on the plains of Moab, Yahweh will declare the Festival of Weeks once more a pilgrimage festival but now to Jerusalem only, and he will also declare different offerings, and no harvest festival offering again. Likewise, he reneges his earlier alteration and states again that the 7 weeks are to be number from the day the sickle hits the crop, not the day after the Sabbath.
And this is nothing more than the result of carefully reading the text! That is why I’ve been adamant about stating that people who claim divine authorship for these texts or a unified message and theology are just not being honest to the texts, their authors, and the historical circumstances that produced them. Indeed, we would have to infer that they are ignorant of the texts. And frankly that is the sway of an authoritative interpretive tradition. It becomes more authoritative than the very texts it purports to interpret!