I received the following question:

I would like some clarification regarding how Israel kept the festivals in relation to when their harvest was.  The festival called the Wave Sheaf Offering (Lev. 23:9-14) was to be done on the first Sunday after the beginning of the spring harvest. This in my mind creates a dilemma. During harvest time there is a great need to have many hands working in the field to collect the harvest.  At the same time every adult male had to bring an offering to the temple during the time of the festivals (Deut. 16:16-17).  I had always pictured the festivals as taking place at the time of the harvest, as the Wave Sheaf Offering suggests.  Are these actually harvest festivals?  What is the timing of the harvest in relation to the festivals?

Thanks for another great question.

Leviticus 23:9-14. And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 10. “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. 11. He shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. 12. And you shall offer on that day, when you wave the sheaf, a male lamb of the first year, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the LORD. 13. Its grain offering shall be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to the LORD, for a sweet aroma; and its drink offering shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin. 14. You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day that you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.

Deuteronomy 16:16-17. “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. 17. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you.

I think your difficulty is in your statement that “every adult male had to bring an offering to the temple during the time of the festivals.” This is not strictly true. As it says in the Deuteronomy passage, the festivals they were to appear before the LORD at were three: Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Tabernacles. The festivals they were not required to appear before the LORD at were Trumpets, Atonement, and…Firstfruits, or Wave Sheaf, as you like to call it. (Note: Passover, the seventh feast, was back-to-back with Unleavened Bread, so they were actually to appear before the LORD for both.) So there was no necessity for the males to appear before the LORD at the beginning of harvest when the Wave Sheaf Offering was offered.

Passover was at a set time every year. Harvest, of course, is not, but would vary depending upon the year. The year Christ died on the cross, Firstfruits was during Unleavened Bread week. Firstfruits was the offering of the very earliest of the crops, the very first that could be harvested. Nothing much would be lost by the people beginning harvest several days after the very earliest crops came in. In Acts 20, Firstfruits was 12 days after Unleavened Bread, which means the crops came in quite a bit later that year, and so there would be no conflict.

It is also important not to confound the Feast of Firstfruits with Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks. This feast is explained in Leviticus 23:15-17.

15. ‘And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. 16. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the LORD. 17. You shall bring from your dwellings two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firstfruits to the LORD.

So there was a firstfruits offering at Pentecost as well. Things are a little harder to piece together there. It may be these firstfruits were saved from the harvest. It is certainly possible to set aside firstfruits to use them later after the harvest, while of course it is entirely impossible to present firstfruits before any of the harvest comes in. It could also be that this firstfruits was based on the later crops, like it was in Egypt.

Exodus 9:31. Now the flax and the barley were struck, for the barley was in the head and the flax was in bud. 32. But the wheat and the spelt were not struck, for they are late crops.

So perhaps the Feast of Firstfruits had to do with flax and barley, and the firstfruits at Weeks had to do with wheat and spelt. I am not a farmer in that part of the world, so it is hard for me to say if this is reasonable or not. It seems chancey to me, since Weeks HAS to be 50 days after Firstfruits, and one cannot “force” crops to come in when one wishes. But at any rate, to note about Weeks is that, though it is one of the times they were to appear before the LORD, it is definitely after the harvest, or at least the harvest of the early grains. Also of note is that Weeks is a single day festival only. The other festivals that required an appearance at Jerusalem were eight-day festivals. Pentecost would have been a short festival, and a short trip for anyone who was coming to it from anywhere in the land. Even if it came around harvest time, it would not have been that big an interruption.

No, Israel’s festivals were not harvest festivals. Only one of these was a harvest festival, and that was the Feast of Tabernacles. This is set forth in Leviticus 23:39.

39. Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep the feast of the LORD for seven days; on the first day there shall be a sabbath-rest, and on the eighth day a sabbath-rest.

This festival is months after Firstfruits and Weeks are completed. The work of harvesting for the year is done, and this festival then takes place. This was the harvest festival, therefore.

Thanks again for the great question. Keep studying the Word!