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Sunday school lesson for the week of May 13, 2018
By Dr. Hal Brady
Spring Quarter: Acknowledging God
Unit 3: Give Praise to God
Lesson Scripture: Leviticus 2:14; 23:9-14, 22
- Describe the firstfruits offering and its purpose.
- Relate the firstfruits concept to the Christian faith.
Cultures have different ways and traditions of marking time. In addition to marking calendar days, such as January 1, the beginning of the New Year, cultures also mark time of seasons. Some cultures have only two seasons: rain and dry. Then there are those of us who experience four seasons – spring is the season of new life, with Easter at its heart as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
The writer of today’s lesson states that for the ancient Israelites, the first and seventh months were particularly important. As agrarian people, their existence was closely tied to their crops. Consequently, their major celebrations revolved around gratitude to God for what he had done for them in the past and how he was sustaining them in the present. The lesson before us focuses on one such celebration.
In the lesson background, we are informed that the Jews ultimately ended up with two calendars. The religious calendar began with the month of “abib,” the first Hebrew month (March-April), later called “Nisan” (Exodus 13:4; Esther 3:7).
On the civil calendar, the month called “Ethanim” (pronounced Eth-uh-nim) starts six months after the beginning of the religious New Year (I Kings 8:2). “Rosh Hashanah” begins the civil New Year.
However, most important on either calendar were the three annual pilgrimage events: The Feast of Unleavened Bread (combined with Passover), celebrated in March or April; the Festival of Harvest, celebrated in May or June; and the Festival of Ingathering (also called Tabernacles or Booths), celebrated in September or October (Exodus 23:14-17). According to the writer of the lesson, the first and third of these are week-long observances. Between them is the singh-day Festival of Harvest, which is also called the Festival of Weeks or the day 2 firstfruits (Exodus 23:16a; 34:22a; Numbers 28:26-31; Deuteronomy 16:9-12). This is the subject of today’s lesson.
The Festival of Weeks designates the seven weeks of grain harvest. On day 50, the concluding day of the harvest, the Israelites celebrated Pentecost, a later designation that reflects the number 50.
The term “weeks,” while used as a title for the special festival day on which the firstfruits of what harvest were presented to the Lord, actually refers to the entire period of the grain harvest – about seven weeks in all. This entire period was one of special sanctity in which Israel was called to recognize that their presence in the land was a gift. God had acted powerfully to create a people and settle them in the promised land. Thus, the land really belonged to God, and he allowed the people to dwell there by his gracious provision. The festival is also known as the Day of Firstfruits (Numbers 28:26; Exodus 23:16).
However, as today’s lesson opens, the people were not there yet. The setting of today’s text is, rather, the encampment at Mount Sinai, where the Lord gave his law to Moses for the people (Leviticus 27:34).
Preparing Firstfruits (Leviticus 2:14)
The writer of the lesson reminds us that there are many kinds of firstfruits that can be offered to the Lord. The offering described here, however, is a “grain offering.” We are told that grains cannot be ground into flour suitable for baking until the moisture is removed; thus, the need for the grain’s being roasted in the fire.
Offering Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:9-14)
On leaving Egypt under God’s guidance and protection, the Israelites need instructions on how to live in the land that God is going to give them. Since it is God’s land, it must be cared for according to God’s priorities and instructions.
God says in verse 10, “When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest,” bringing to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. Note that to bring a sheaf of the first grain of the harvest is not an option or guideline, but a requirement. As we are informed, the very first portion of the crop to be harvested is known as the firstfruits. It is the part that the farmer is most excited about because it serves as a sort of down payment of the full crop to come.
At any rate, it is decreed that “a sheaf of the first grain you harvest” is to be brought to the Lord to be consecrated by the priest in a ceremony of waving or elevating it before the Lord. A sheaf is a small bundle or armful of barley. And of that portion only a small amount is offered directly to God by being burned up. The larger portion of it goes to the priests to be eaten (Leviticus 2:1-3).
The Aaronic priests depend on the offerings of the people for their livelihood. The reason being is that their devotion to working in the tabernacle prevents them from reaping a regular harvest like everyone else (Numbers 18:8-24). However, providing for the priests is not the primary reason for the firstfruits offering. The primary reason is that the Israelites take time to recognize that it is God who is blessing them by his grace; they have not earned it (Deuteronomy 9:5-6). These Israelites must never forget that it is God who is the source of all they will enjoy in the promised land. There is no other source, and this includes fictitious fertility gods such as Baal.
Next, the writer of the lesson asked a strategic question, “What portion of the people’s harvest is to constitute the firstfruits offering? The writer suggests that a specific proportion is not mentioned at this point perhaps because the very nature of a firstfruits offering must be calculated. It could only be celebrated after the entire crop is harvested.
But even so, passages such as Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:21-29; 2 Chronicles 31:5; and Nehemiah 10:35-37, 12:44 seem to point out a tithe (10 percent) is intended. However, God does not want the people to give a set portion legalistically, as if making a mortgage payment. God wants the people to give their fruit part in faith trusting that there will be plenty left to meet “my need and the needs of my family.”
Upon receiving the firstfruits offering, the priest elevates it above his head to make clear that it is dedicated to God. The people making the offering believe that God’s blessing will result (Proverbs 3:9,10; Ezekiel 44:30).
Now, the firstfruits offering is accompanied by a burnt offering of a year-old lamb without defect (v.12), a grain offering of approximately four quarts of fine flour mixed with oil (v.13) and a drink offering of approximately one quart of wine (v.13).
At this point, some understanding of Israel’s offering here will be helpful. “Offering a lamb without defect” is a way of saying to God that the worshipper is giving his/her best to God, not just the best of the flock, but the best of himself/herself. Burnt offerings are unique in that they are turned completely into smoke. Consequently, they are not cooked for human consumption, but burned up so that the smoke ascends to God. And though God sometimes acknowledges the pleasing aroma of offerings (v.13), he does not need the food (Psalm 50:12,13).
To mix the grain offering with the finest flour and olive oil constitutes still another aspect of this firstfruits offering. As mentioned previously, grains cannot be ground into flour suitable for baking until the moisture is removed; thus the need for the grain’s being roasted in the fire.
The drink offering signifies a joyous occasion and is mentioned in Exodus 29:38-42. However, this is the first time this offering is mentioned in Leviticus. Incidentally, an “ephah” is a measure container larger than a standard, and a “hin” is a liquid measure.
As the writer asserts, these offerings are about what Israel needs: the people need to keep God first by returning to him the first of the blessings that they have received from him. They owe their abundance to their gracious heavenly provider. And should they forget, they will begin to drift from the life God has called them to live.
Verse 14 points out that the Israelites are not to eat any of the produce of the promised land until the firstfruits offering is given to God. Otherwise, it would indicate that the food is theirs to do with as they please. But since the intended purpose of the offering is to focus on God as the provider, it is essential that the Israelites properly acknowledge God prior to any indulging of themselves. The people were to focus first on God, not themselves.
At this point, I want to add a footnote to this section. Scholars are divided concerning the meaning of the phrase, “on the day after the Sabbath” in verse 11. Some scholars connect the Festival of Unleavened Bread and the day of firstfruits. There scholars related the Sabbath here to Passover, a look to the past.
Other scholars point out that this is the first Sabbath of the actual harvest. Under this proposal, the day of firstfruits is a different observance than the Festival of Weeks. To them, this Sabbath is selected to the future, not the past. uffice it to say, it’s the meaning and significance of the day of firstfruits that is more important than the day of its observance.
Sharing Blessings (Leviticus 23:22)
God does not graciously give to the Israelites so they can hoard their gifts and selfishly focus on themselves. The firsfruits offering is one of God’s reminders of this, and the 22nd
verse of our scripture lesson is another reminder.
The writer of the lesson points out that sharing takes various forms for the Israelites. One form centers in this 22nd
verse, where God requires his people to underharvest their fields intentionally. The reason is, that they must leave a portion of the harvest in the field for the poor and the alien.
The two dangers that might keep the Israelites from following God’s direction here would be famine and/or hoarding. Some Israelites might just harvest all their fields, as a safeguard for their personal future. But God would disapprove of this action. He wants his people to share unselfishly. Therefore, he requires those who have been blessed to leave behind some of their blessings for the benefit of others.
So God promises to bless those who share with the needy as he commands (Deuteronomy 24:19). Thus, the Israelites confront a choice. They can do the safe thing by harvesting every square inch of their fields, or they can obey God, trusting him to provide for their needs. Life, as God’s people, has always been and will always be a faith trip daily trusting God.
In John 12:8, Jesus reminds us that the poor will always be among us. Consequently, we will always have multiple opportunities to assist them. The critical challenge is to do this in a manner that builds a sense of dignity and not dependency for those receiving this assistance.
Whatever else can be said about the firstfruits concept should be deeply meaningful to Christians. Christ himself is designated as “firstfruits” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). And as a result of Christ’s redeeming work, we “have the firstfruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23). Therefore, we ourselves have become “a kind of firstfruits” (James 1:18). That means, our witness is to center on representing the newness of life we have in Christ in terms of our living, forgiving and giving.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- How can we apply the firstfruits principle today?
- In what ways would our lives change were we to live as a firstfruit of God’s new creation?