In the Old Testament, Israel found herself surrounded by monarchies and empires with powerful rulers and highly stratified societies, and she eventually sought to emulate that kind of system. Such political economies were filled with bureaucrats, professional soldiers, priestly classes, and—down at the bottom of the social pyramid—peasants. The peasants, of course, were expected to provide food for everyone.

Yet Israel was called to become a countercultural community that embodied God’s character and participated in God’s missional purposes—through faithful obedience to God’s just and righteous law. But this would require the formation of a just community made up of just persons. Where do such just communities and individuals come from? How can people gain and grow in the virtue of justice?

To address this question, the Book of Deuteronomy offers a breathtaking vision of what it means to become just—particularly in class-segregated contexts like those that dominated the ancient world and many societies today. Yet its answer is a surprising one: just discipleship begins at a feast.

In Deuteronomy 14:22–27, we read God’s explicit instructions for tithing: Israelite households must bring the first fruits of their harvest and the firstborn of their livestock to the sanctuary. Why? So that they might feast on them together before the Lord.

The explicit goal of this feast was that the Israelites would “learn to fear Yahweh” always (Deut. 14:23, author’s translation). But how did the tithe feast teach the fear of God? The passage makes no mention of teaching, reading, or instruction. Instead, it entails a learning by doing or to be more precise, a learning by eating, emphasizing the repetitive and bodily nature of the meal. In this way, feasting is seen as a formative practice that cultivates the virtuous character and disposition God requires of his covenant partners.

Every citizen in the ancient world would have been prepared for the powerful to demand they bring tithe-taxes to the central sanctuary (Deut. 14:22), but they would not have been prepared for these tithe-taxes to be returned to them in the form of a community-wide festival (Deut. 14:23)! In the ancient world, feasts—like tithes—were tools the elite used to consolidate power. They served to display the ruler’s power, put attendees in his debt, and even gather tribute. Far from fostering justice, big meals might well have been tools for the powerful to enact injustice.

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Deuteronomy’s feast, by contrast, invites Israel to encounter a divine king who generously gives back to his people a tax which belongs to him by rights and calls them to a party of royal proportions—a joyful festival hosted and presided over by Yahweh alone.

Yahweh’s innovative tithe funded a formative feast that, quite literally, invited God’s people to taste, see, and smell the generosity of their divine king. That’s why the text highlights the feast’s lavish portions—10 percent of a household’s total crop harvest and the firstborn of all their herds—and offers a mouthwatering description of the menu: grain, new wine, olive oil, cattle, sheep, wine, “strong drink,” and the twice-repeated catchall, “whatever your heart desires” (Deut. 14:26).

But the feast served another purpose: to foster a virtuous disposition of generous mutuality with one’s fellow Israelites and solidarity toward the marginalized in their midst.

In ancient Near Eastern festivals, where you sat at the feast, what you wore, when you entered, and what portions of food you received solidified where you belonged within a complex social hierarchy. Since such feasts were often used to generate social stratification rather than solve it, God called Israel to reform and reorient existing feast practices—to simultaneously collaborate and subvert existing political and economic practices on offer in the broader culture.

Yahweh’s tax-tithe program invited and welcomed people from every level of the social stratosphere to attend the nation’s most over-the-top and extravagant destination festival of the year. The entire household was commanded to celebrate at the feast together as equals: “You shall eat there before Yahweh your God and you will rejoice, you and your household” (Deut. 14:26, author’s translation).

This emphasis on feasting by household is morally significant.

In the ancient world, a household included both extended family and non-relatives—including marginalized groups like Levites, orphans and widows, hired workers, debt servants, dependent strangers, and others who became attached to them as fictive kin (see Deut. 12:7–12; 16:11, 14; 26:11). The dining table was meant for families, for, as Georg Braulik puts it, “to be able to eat together, one must be kin or one becomes kin.” At the table, marginalized people received far more than food, drink, and a break from work: They had the unique chance to become family.

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But the tithe feast also served as a reminder of the Israelites’ interdependence on one another in the economic ecosystem that determined their livelihood.

Large feasts required a great deal of work—including planting, harvesting, storing, and preparing the food—which the entire household and village would have been engaged in for months beforehand. So, while the tithe meal was hosted by the divine king, the people would experience it as a highly participatory potluck to which everyone contributed. Yahweh is the ultimate provider of the ingredients for the feast, but the meal is the result of the collective labor of the households celebrating it.

There’s also something surprising about Deuteronomy’s prescription of indulgent feasting as a morally formative practice for economic justice—elsewhere, the book evokes a deep suspicion of indulgent eating (see Deut. 8:1–20). In fact, throughout the Bible, the enjoyment of economic prosperity is often bound up together with warnings about greed, idolatrous self-aggrandizement, and the neglect or outright oppression of one’s impoverished neighbors.

Yet Deuteronomy’s solution to this danger is not fasting but feasting . Instead of seeking to squash selfish economic desire through deprivation, the book instructs Israelites to reorient their desires toward God and neighbor through an indulgent, joyful celebration. The only safe way to pursue and experience economic abundance, Deuteronomy suggests, is in the context of a community that ensures all eat their fill together (14:29), including the vulnerable among them.

At Yahweh’s table, just generosity flows through communal ties, and the shared cup of wine and passed plate are meant to solidify existing relationships and create new ones that transcend social divides.

Just formation begins at the feast, but it doesn’t stay there. Learning to fear Yahweh through feasting was part and parcel of developing the individual and corporate virtue of justice meant to help the Israelites obey the just legislation outlined elsewhere in the book. This included commands for debt forgiveness, liberation of enslaved people, and a triennial tithe—which required they sacrifice a tenth of their harvest every three years to fund a social safety net for the vulnerable among them (see Deut. 14:28–15:18).

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Such laws depended on the Israelites possessing the economic virtues of generosity and solidarity, which they were meant to acquire through the joyful, indulgent feast together in Yahweh’s presence. In a world where both political systems and communal feasts could contribute to injustice, Israel’s feasts served as a central practice that enabled the people of God to become just.

Deuteronomy demonstrates God’s ultimate desire to create a community characterized by just laws and made up of just people. At the feast, the Israelites learned to fear Yahweh by joyfully fostering a habituated disposition toward him as the generous king who is present among his people, and by a disposition of generous solidarity toward the vulnerable.

But how can this lesson serve as God’s address to us today? How might these texts inspire us to learn how to pursue just discipleship in our own communities that face economic injustice and segregation? What might it look like for our churches to pursue a justice inspired by Deuteronomy’s feasts, both corporately in the context of our social structures and individually in terms of our moral character?

In line with Deuteronomy’s vision of the feast, everyone can find ways to practice greater proximity with the economically poor and marginalized among us. We can resist racial and economic segregation in our social spaces—not least by changing where and how we work, play, worship, or educate our children. We can develop rich partnerships with churches and organizations embedded in poor communities. We can look for ways to feast with God’s people across the lines that so often separate us in our society.

As in Deuteronomy, so also today: Seeking to create just structures and foster just character are two sides of the same coin.

The good news is that the path to such just discipleship is paved with joy. We become just disciples by learning the fear of Yahweh through practices of communal celebration and solidarity before God and alongside all our neighbors. Communities and people who pursue just discipleship will inevitably find themselves engaged in the hard work of seeking just politics, both within the church and beyond.

Of course, when it comes to building solidarity and seeking justice in community, food is almost always involved. As activist Ed Loring put it, “justice is important, but supper is essential.” Let us all likewise find ourselves feasting on the road to justice. For until we learn to feast in fear of the Lord—to eat in ways that cultivate a just and generous character that knows how to give and receive in community—we will fail to join God in bringing justice to victory.

Michael J. Rhodes is an Old Testament lecturer at Carey Baptist College and author of Just Discipleship: Biblical Justice in an Unjust World.