Deuteronomy 16:16-17 says, "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. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you" (emphasis added throughout).
Let's notice what this passage is saying and what it is not saying. First of all, it states that all males must attend these festivals. Does this forbid or preclude their family members from attending? Certainly not! (See Deuteronomy 12:12, 18; 14:26; 15:20).
Furthermore, only three festivals are mentioned in this passage. Yet Leviticus 23 clearly states that there are seven festivals that are holy convocations, to be proclaimed in their seasons (Leviticus 23:4).
Finally, God commanded Israel to give an offering in accordance with the blessings that He had given to them. This approach to giving in accordance with God's blessings is one that the Church has emphasized over the years.
While this passage supports Holy Day observance and giving to God as He has blessed us, questions have arisen regarding the Holy Day offerings. How often should these offerings be given? Should there be only three offerings during the year and only at the three times indicated?
Ancient Israel, being an agrarian society, primarily used agricultural products for their offerings: "'When any one of you brings an offering to the Lord , you shall bring your offering of the livestock—of the herd and of the flock'" (Leviticus 1:2). Although Feastgoers could exchange their Festival tithes from farm products to money (Deuteronomy 14:25), they also brought sacrificial offerings to God, some of which were enjoyed during festival meals.
It is a mistake to equate modern customs with ancient practices and customs. Today, offerings are understood in monetary terms. But we should not envisage in Deuteronomy 16 a modern setting of offering baskets being passed around the congregation during services for the collection of monetary offerings. Israelites would have brought their animal offerings to be given to the priests at these times.
Of course, this would not have been done during services but at some time during the festival or perhaps even before the festival began, depending upon their arrival. The command to not appear "empty-handed" refers to coming prepared to give offerings during these three times a year when the males were commanded to appear before the Lord. The passage does not address the specifics of when or how often the offerings were to be presented.
The primary focus in Deuteronomy 16 is the pilgrimage to a central location (Jerusalem, later on) for the festivals that occur at three times in the year: Unleavened Bread (which would include Passover, since it is the day immediately before), Pentecost and Tabernacles (which would also include the Last Great Day, since it is the day immediately after Tabernacles). Failure to mention specifically Passover, Trumpets, Atonement and the Last Great Day does not mean they are not festivals nor does it negate the commanded convocations on the Holy Days.
In Deuteronomy 16:16, the Hebrew word for "times" (pa'am) is defined as "a stroke... a foot, a hoof-beat... a footstep" (Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon). This same word is used for festival attendance in Exodus 23:17, "three times" (pa'am). But in Exodus 23:14, in the same context of God's feasts, a different Hebrew word for "times" (regal) is defined as "a foot, a leg... three times (feet, paces)" (ibid.). Therefore "three times" here emphasizes the number of foot pilgrimages, not the number of freewill offerings.
As The Expositor's Bible Commentary mentions about "the three times" of Feast attendance in Exodus 23:17, "This section deals with the three great annual pilgrimage feasts: the Feast of Unleavened Bread at the beginning of the barley harvest in the spring, commemorating the Exodus; the Feast of Harvest (also called the Feast of Weeks in Ex. 34:22) at the end of the spring harvest of grain, commemorating the giving of the law; and the Feast of Ingathering of the summer crops of olives and grapes in early autumn, commemorating the wilderness wanderings."
So, there would have been one pilgrimage for the Days of Unleavened Bread (including the Passover). There would have been one pilgrimage for the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost). And, for practical reasons, there would have been one pilgrimage for Tabernacles (and the Last Great Day). Interim travel and return would have been impractical, given that there are only eight days between Trumpets and Atonement and four days between Atonement and Tabernacles.
Could some Israelites have included Trumpets and Atonement along with Tabernacles (and the Last Great Day)? Possibly some would have done so, though for obvious reasons God did not require that Israelites make this pilgrimage two weeks prior to Tabernacles. However, these two festivals were still Holy Days and would have been observed as annual Sabbaths in the local communities.
Let us now ask this question: Were Israelites forbidden from including Trumpets and Atonement along with Tabernacles if they wished to do so and financially could afford to do so? Of course not. God stipulated the three major festival times when they were required to attend, but that did not mean they could not include Trumpets and Atonement if they wished to do so.
Are Only Three Offerings Allowed?
Therefore, the primary focus of the three "times" in Deuteronomy 16 has to do with the commanded frequency of attendance of the festivals at a central location. It may seem that the frequency of giving offerings is also implied in the context. This would seem to be a logical conclusion, as it is unlikely that the Israelites would have apportioned their agricultural offerings at different times during the festivals.
However, there is nothing in the context that would have prevented them from doing so. The context simply says that they should come prepared to give an offering at these three festivals. It does not address precisely how or when the offerings were given.
The primary question that is raised regarding the offerings is whether or not only three offerings should be given during the year. Are there just three offerings and no more? If it is assumed that this passage limits the Holy Day offerings to only three, then we must also conclude that only males may attend these festivals. Also, we must conclude that these three are the only festivals that we may attend.
These conclusions are not logical, and they are not implied in the context. God's laws are rehearsed and sometimes supplemented in the book of Deuteronomy, as they were given to the second generation of Israel . Deuteronomy 16:16 should not be taken as a limiting passage. It does not limit festival attendance only to males. It does not limit festival attendance to only the three festivals specifically mentioned. Nor does it limit the number of times in which offerings may be given to God. All of these details are covered in the books previous to Deuteronomy, such as Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.
It is interesting that at times the people of Judah remained after a festival was over, observing additional days (see 2 Chronicles 30:13-23; Nehemiah 8:2-13). Deuteronomy 16 does not prevent God's people from observing additional days. Nor does it limit giving offerings to God on just three days.
God gave all of the necessary specifics in order to keep His Holy Days in a manner that is pleasing in His sight. However, some details are not explicitly commanded, leaving it to the leadership to establish practices consistent with biblical principles.
Today, administrative decisions have been made for various aspects concerning the Holy Days—the Festival site locations, number of church services, collection and handling of offerings and many other Festival matters.
Due to the absence of a specific frequency for the Holy Day offerings, it is the duty of the Church leadership to make administrative decisions appropriate for our contemporary culture, in accordance with biblical principles. We today give monetary offerings rather than agricultural ones. Giving those offerings on specific Holy Days is not forbidden in the Bible, and doing so is consistent with the principle of giving an offering to God during His festivals in accordance with the blessings He has given to us during the year.
Regardless of the number of times one gives festival offerings (seven or three times), this does not necessarily affect the total annual amount given. Many figure the total amount they wish to give for a year and divide it by seven. Others use different methods, but normally the total amount given to God based on the blessings He has given to us is not altered by differing methods.
In conclusion, the United Church of God, an International Association, believes that its practice of taking up Holy Day offerings on all seven Holy Days of the year is consistent with and permitted by the principles enunciated in Deuteronomy 16. Therefore, that is what we practice. UN