Published on December 10th, 2014 | by Seth Campbell3
First Christmas: The When (Part 1)
Last week, I began a series on the First Christmas. I kicked it off by discussing the cultural significance of the shepherds’ presence at the birth of Christ. If you missed it, get caught up here or a lot of this won’t make sense. In this article, I want to discuss the significance of the time, events, and location surrounding the First Christmas, because I believe that God is very intentionally doing something that we may have missed. While reading, contemplate the verse “[W]hen the appropriate time had come, God sent his Son…” (Galatians 4:4, International Standard Version)
Let’s examine the calendar that God set up for the Hebrews to live by. The Jewish religious calendar that God established is based on agriculture. God’s holidays are marked by feasts because they coincide with harvests. God instituted among the Israelites a religious calendar that follows the agricultural calendar which follows the rains, the sowing, and the reaping. The rainy season starts around beginning of November. It’s the first rain since April and this is what begins the agricultural year. When early rains come, they soften the clay soil and after about 4 to 6 weeks of rain, they pray, the farmers wait for the fields to dry so they can be plowed. Plowing usually occurs in December. Then the seeds are planted, ideally, somewhere near the middle of December. The early rains taper off from mid-December to mid-January, so the farmers get their seed in the ground before the late rains come. The late rains last from mid-January through February into March and that’s when the harvest arrives. In late March (sometimes mid-March, sometimes early April), barley, the first crop, ripens and can be seen breaking through the ground. This initial ripening becomes the basis for the religious calendar.
Think about the Jewish holidays in the Bible (Leviticus 23). The first holiday God instituted was Passover. Passover comes right as the barley begins to come to a head. Headed barley is what marks the beginning of the Passover month. The second holiday is Unleavened Bread. This is the holiday where the people pray for their growing grains asking for God to give them bread (or life) out of the ground. The third is First Fruits. This is when they would bring the first barley heads to God saying, “This is all I have. If the grasshoppers or hailstorms come, I’ll lose the rest, but I’ll give You what I have.” All these are associated with the barley harvest.
Then, in June, around our time of harvest, comes the wheat harvest. The holiday connected with the wheat harvest is Shavuot, better known as Pentecost (literally meaning 50 days). This is when the wheat is reaped, but also when God gave Moses the 10 Commandments. So, Shavuot is a celebration of both the wheat and the giving of the Law, ofTorah. This gives even greater significance to Jesus’ teaching that “[m]an shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” (Matthew 4:4).
Let’s pause here and think about some New Testament implications for each of these feasts. First, what happened to Jesus on Passover? He was killed. What happened to Jesus on the Feast of Unleavened Bread? He was buried. What happened to Jesus on the Feast of First Fruits? He was raised out of the ground. Think about that for a moment. Passover is always on a set day, the 14th day of the first month. Unleavened bread is on the next Sabbath (Saturday) after Passover and could potentially be more than a week away. The Sunday after Unleavened bread is First Fruits. These three holidays only happen back to back every 9 years. Personally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every God-honoring Jew in the world was praying for life to come out of the ground on the day that Jesus was buried. Could it be that Paul understood this connection when he called Jesus the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20)?
I’ve written quite a bit about the Shavuot connections with Jesus and the New Testament on my personal blog and you can catch those here, but there’s one thing I want to draw out because it connects to the greater point I’m making in this article. The requirements for most all these feasts are given a number of different places in the Old Testament. However, Leviticus 23 is the most exhaustive and when it comes to Shavuot, includes a command that none of the others versions do. With regard to Shavuot, God gives Moses the specifics of the celebration (sacrifice, time of year, etc.) and all of that matches the other accounts. But, there is a somewhat strange requirement included in Leviticus 23:22.
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”
This is God’s welfare system. We know that it was adhered to by faithful Jews like Boaz and we know that the poor like Ruth took advantage. It was not a disgrace to be poor and go and cut the corners of the field. There’s no loss of dignity, but you have to do the work, so it isn’t a handout. Also notice that the verse doesn’t include a requirement for how much of the corner you had to leave. So, you could look out across the fields and know who was being obedient and generous and who was just being obedient. God gave these generosity and welfare system requirements along with the requirements for Shavuot because they need to be enacted during the time when everyone was harvesting.
The next two festivals, Rosh Hashanah, the announcement that judgement was coming, and Yom Kippur, judgement day, aren’t related to a harvest don’t yet have a New Testament fulfillment in Christ but will in the future.
The seventh and final Biblical feast, Sukkot (sometimes spelled Sukkoth) also known as the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles), is a garden harvest holiday in the fall. A garden, or gan (GAHN) in Hebrew, usually produces grapes, figs, dates, or olives. A gan is different from a field. It’s a terraced plot built into the hillsides. Trees or bushes usually grow in gardens (ganim, pl.) as opposed to the grains that grow in the fields. In the gan, grapes and olives are harvested in the fall. This usually happens in late September or early October. Many don’t believe this festival has a Christological connection like the previous four and group it in with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Personally, I believe that this festivals connections with the New Testament and in the life of Christ are clear.
As I mentioned in my first post, Bethlehem is in a very unique geographical location. To the west, toward the shephelah, lie the gardens or ganim. To the east, toward the Dead Sea, lie the green pastures for the shepherds. In between the two is a very narrow strip about 4 to 5 miles wide on top of the ridge. This is where the fields are and this is where Bethlehem sits.
Along this ridge, the moment the harvest begins (late June or early July), the shepherds make their way back towards the fields and wait for an opportunity to let their sheep in. The farmers allow the flock to come in because the flocks eat everything that’s left over and leave deposits, both of which bless the farmer, and the nomadic shepherd gets a place to live for a few months without traveling, so he’s blessed too.
This became an issue for the rabbis. They knew the commandment God gave for them to not cut the corners of their fields. The rabbis said that they couldn’t let the sheep in the fields before the poor had an opportunity to glean. So they determined that two sabbaths was an appropriate amount of time to wait before the sheep could come into the fields. This is actually affirmed in the New Testament, but only the KJV retains the language. Luke 6:1 says, “And it came to pass on the second sabbath after the first…” This is when the Pharisees give Jesus a hard time for crushing grain in his hands on the Sabbath. And now we know exactly what time of year it was.
But what does all this have to do with Christmas? In my next post, I’ll attempt to show you.