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Three great annual solemnities of the Hebrew nation. Feast of the
Passover ; of Pentecost ; of Tabernacles. Benefits resulting from the appointment and observance of these festivals.
In some late discourses we showed not only the general fitness of the Hebrew Ritual, but the special utility of circumcision, the weekly sabbath, and the several kinds of sacrifices instituted by the Mosaic law.
But it may still be asked, was it worthy of infinite wisdom and goodness to impose upon the Israelites such a vast number of minute, burdensome, and apparently trivial regulations ? What reasonable or benevolent purpose could be answered by prohibiting and enjoining so many things, which in their own nature were neither good nor evil ? On supposition that sacrifices were expedient in those early ages, yet what necessity or reason could justify so great an abundance of them, or the injunction of so many little niceties in performing them? The general answer is-Divine wisdom descended to these numerous and exact regulations, for the great purpose of establishing a system of worship and manners directly opposed to, and strongly fortified against the prevailing and idolatrous superstitions of the antient heathens. It would be dishonorable to the Supreme Lawgiver to suppose, with some learned writers, that many of these prescriptions were the offspring of his mere will and sovereignty, or were intended to foster in the Jews a distant, unsocial, and hostile spirit to other nations, and an indiscriminate warfare against all their customs, however innocent and laudable. The object of Deity was to
close up every avenue to idolatry and its destructive retinue, by shutting out, or inspiring a vigilant fear and hatred of those things, which were usually connected with it, as its causes or effects, its symbols or instruments: To verify this remark, and still further to recommend the Hebrew worship, we will distinctly notice the great annual solemnities of this nation. Three yearly Festivals were instituted by their law, corresponding with the three delightfuland convenient seasons of spring, summer, and autumn. They were primarily intended as perpetual memorials of three distinguished national blessings, their deliverance from Egypt, the promulgation of their lawfrom Mount Sinai, and their entrance on the promised land. The reason and practice of all civilized nations, and of our own in particular, recommend solemn anniversary celebrations of great public events, as decent offerings and instruments both of piety and patriotism, as excellently adapted to keep alive through every age, the memory of divine fa. vors, and in this way to promote public knowledge, gratitude, and virtue. Accordingly, while the children of Israel were yet in Egypt, God appointed the feast of the Passover, which derives its name from his passing over or sparing the houses of the Israelites on that memorable night, when he destroyed all the first born of the Egyptians. As this awful scene gave rise to, and immediately preceded the glorious deliverance of the He. brews from bondage ; their sacred year was thenceforward made to begin with the month of this deliverance, which answered to our March; and their first passover began on the very night of their redemption, which nearly coincided with the vernal equinox. As the former harvest in the climate of Canaan commenced at this seasbn, a thankful oblation to God of a small portiou of the
first fruits was properly made a part of this festival. If you consider the wonderful nature and interesting consequences of the deliverance commemorated by this feast, and the solemn rites, which preceded and accompanied the celebration; you will readily admit and even admire its fitness and utility. This solemnity was analogous to our fourth of July; it celebrated the birth day of the Hebrew nation, the nativity of their independent freedom, of all their civil and sacred privileges; it commemorated that train of divine wonders, which accomplished, and that long series of blessings, which followed, this capital event. How needful and how forcible was this striking memorial to instruct and quicken a rude and untoward nation, to hold them fast to their great Deliverer and King, and to their high duty and destiny as his peculiar people! Besides the moral benefit, which the general design of this observance afforded, each part of it was a lively symbol or medium of some special instruction. What could more powerfully enforce the greatest caution and purity in their approaches to God, than the careful and solemn preparation enjoined upon them, previous to this sacred celebration ? What could more strongly remind them of their bitter servitude in Egypt, or of the grievous nature and fruits of sin, and that mourning for it which true repentance implies, than the bitter herbs, with which they were required to eat the passover ? Was not the hasty manner of preparing and eating it, with staves in their hands, and their bodies equipped for travelling, was not this a striking image of their hasty flight from Egyptian bondage, and of the sudden and surprising redemption, which Heaven had granted them ? Did not the unleavened bread, which they used at this feast, inculcate a temper of inward sim
plicity and truth, a heart free from the sour leaven of malice, hypocrisy, and wickedness ?* Was not the continuance of this solemnity for seven days, and the succession of rites, which pervaded the whole, admirably fitted to impress the moral import of it on the mind in very deep and durable characters? In addition to all these advantages of the Jewish passover, I cannot help thinking that many ceremonies of it were directly pointed against the reigning idolatry of surrounding nations, especially of the Egyptians, with whose superstitions the Jews were peculiarly infected. My sentiments on this head will be seen, and perhaps be confirmed by the following observations.
1. The Israelites were directed at this feast to sacrifice a male lamb. Now antient and learned writers, particularly Juvenal, Strabo, and Plutarch, assure us that the Egyptians esteemed sheep as sacred, and religiously abstained from using them either for food, or clothing, or sacrifice; and in particular that they worshipped the ram as a god, or at least as a symbol of divinity, especially of their principal deity. We are also assured by good authority, that they worshipped this creature at the time of the vernal equinox, when the sun enters the sign Aries. When therefore Jehovah directed his people at this season, on thier first passover, to sacrifice and eat this animal, and publicly to sprinkle his blood on the door posts of their houses, as a pledge of their security from that sword, which should destroy the Egyptian first born ; did he not hereby teach the Israelites to pour contempt on this idol of Egypt, in the very presence and in open defiance of its adorers ? Did he not signally triumph over this heathen god, by rendering his flesh and
I Cor. v. 7. &
blood more propitious to his destroyers, than his life could be to his worshippers ? And did he not instruct his people to renounce the idolatry of Egypt, at the same time that they escaped from its tyranny; and to regard every new celebration of this deliverance as a fresh call to abjure that idolatry ?
Another rule, prescribed for this feast, is that no part of the lamb shall be eaten raw. We are surprised at the prohibition of an act so unnatural and horrid, till we find from the best authorities, that raw flesh and palpitating limbs, torn from living animals, were used in some of the old heathen sacrifices and festivals, particularly in honor of the Egyptian god Osiris, and the Grecian Bacchus, who were the same idol under different
That no resemblance or memorial of so barbarous a superstition might ever debase the worship of Jehovah, he made this early and express provision against it. On the same ground probably he required the paschal lamb to be eaten privately, and entire, in opposition to the Bacchanalian feasts, in which the victim was publicly torn in pieces, carried about in pomp, and then devoured. The same general principle adds lustre and importance to several other minute circumstances, which would otherwise appear puerile and insignificant. Why, for instance, should the divine wisdom seriously forbid the lamb at the passover to be boiled in water, and command it to be roasted with fire? The most satisfactory reply is, that it was a favorite superstition or magical rite with the Egyptians and Syrians, and afterward with the Athenians, to boil their victims, and especially to seethe a kid or lamb in the milk of its dam. it not worthy of Deity to exterminate this foolish and idolatrous practice? Why also does the divine Law