Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Levitical Sacrifices: The Grain (Meal) Offering

In this post, we'll look at the grain, or meal, offering discussed in Leviticus 2, 6:14-23, and 22:21-22. Again, I recommend reading these passages before diving into this post!

How was the offering performed? What was offered?

The Hebrew term for the grain offering, “minha” or “minchah” (Strong’s 4503, meaning literally “gift,” “tribute,” or “offering”),  is actually a general term that is used throughout the Old Testament, sometimes in reference specifically to the grain offering, occasionally serving as a general term for a sacrifice, and often used to describe tribute or a present (for example, Jacob’s present to Esau when he returned to his homeland in Genesis 32:13).

The grain offering was commanded to be offered twice daily along with the burnt offering and drink offering, once in the morning and once at twilight (Exodus 29:39-41). There were several different options when giving a grain offering, seemingly more dependent on personal preference than on wealth, status, or occasion. These options included unbaked flour, unleavened cakes or wafers baked in the oven, in an uncovered pan, or in a covered pan. 

Specific grain offerings were required for the offering at the Feast of the Firstfruits, or the wavesheaf offering (see Leviticus 23:10, Numbers 15:17-21), and at the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost (Leviticus 23:20). 

In every case excepting Pentecost and the “grain offering of jealousy” (Numbers 5:11-26), the ingredients of the offering were the same (flour, oil, frankincense, and salt), and the forbidden ingredients were the same (leaven and honey). Let's look at these required and forbidden ingredients in more detail.
  •  Flour (ground grain): grain, or meal, was the substance of life for much of history. Making bread was a daily task for the women prior to leaving Egypt, but it appears their supplies of flour ran quite low after the Exodus. God provided manna for them daily, but this was not what they were told to offer—they were told to offer grain, from their own dwindling stock and store. At this point, it is possible that grain was more precious to the Israelites than livestock.
  •  Oil (probably olive oil): serves as a sort of preservative in bread, in a way. Oil prevents bread from drying out (think French baguettes after sitting out for a day—no oil). It was not commonly used in bread-making, however, as most bread was made with water as the liquid instead of oil. Oil was an expensive commodity, likely especially in the wilderness years, when the Israelites would not have had a consistent source of olive oil to purchase or harvest.
  • Frankincense: one of the most precious perfumes, known for a rich, sweet scent that was brought out by fire. It was commonly used as an incense, as it was in this case.
  • Honey: a commonly used sweetener that did not do well in heat. If subjected to fire, honey was known to spoil and ferment.
  • Salt: an expensive, but commonly used, preservative. Was used to keep food from spoiling so quickly, as well as to season it.
  • Leaven: used to expand dough prior to baking it through the process of fermentation. The Israelites likely kneaded bits of old dough into the new dough to leaven it. This process was not allowed during the Days of Unleavened Bread starting at the time of the Exodus.

Notably, the one time that leaven was allowed to be incorporated in a grain offering was in the offerings of the firstfruits on Pentecost (which were wave offerings, and were not burnt on the bronze altar – see Leviticus 2:12, 7:13, 23:15-21).

When the offering was given, mixed or drizzled with oil, it first needed to be divided into two parts: the “memorial portion,” which was usually only a small portion (a handful of the offering of flour, for example), was burned on the bronze altar, along with the frankincense and salt. This portion was the “sweet aroma” to God. The remainder of the offering was given to the priests as their portion (Leviticus 2:10; 6:16,18; 7:9-10).

What did the offering mean to the Israelites?

“It is most holy of the offerings to the Lord made by fire,” proclaims Leviticus 2:3. The Israelites would have understood is holiness differently than we do today, however. As discussed in the burnt offering section, the whole nation of Israel was holy to God, as long as they kept His law and maintained their ritual cleanliness. The priests and Levites were set aside as a special subset of God’s holy people, however. They were set aside by God for a specific purpose—the maintenance of His Tabernacle/Temple, sacrifices and offerings, and helping the lay-people to understand and keep the law. This offering focused not only on God, but also on the priest as the mediator, who offered the grain offering and was commanded to keep the majority of it for his own consumption (and that of the other priests). Therefore, in giving the grain offering, the people not only sought to please God, but to give to others.

As was previously mentioned, grain was a staple of life in OT times, but during the wilderness years, the children of Israel likely had very little access to grain. Along with the grain offering is discussed the offering of the firstfruits, which would be offered when they “came into the land” that God was giving them (Leviticus 23:10). But the offering wasn’t postponed until such a time as they had field of their own. It would have been an offering given in faith that God would indeed bring them into this Promised Land and they would indeed grow their own crops and make their own bread again—but for now, they would have to depend on manna from God. Dependence on God seems to be the theme of this offering from the beginning.

When they did come into the Promised Land and begin giving grain offerings of their own fields, the theme of dependence continued. The Promised Land may have had a more favorable climate then than it does today, but even so, a farmer must take his planting and his harvest year by year and day by day. As the apostle James wrote, “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain” (James 5:7). They depended on God to help their crops produce, and then offered to Him the fruit of their labor. They had to do their part in manual labor, and God had to do His part in blessing the land. The fruit of that joint effort had to go to God first, then to the priests (the mediators between the people and God), and then to the farmer and his family.

When was it performed in the Bible?

The first recorded grain offering was the offering given along with a burnt offering on the bronze altar at the dedication of the newly built Tabernacle (Exodus 40:29, Numbers 7). Grain offerings were offered in combination with burnt offerings and peace offerings at the consecration of the priestly ministry (Leviticus 9:4,17),  the dedication and cleansing of the Levites (Numbers 8:8), and the dedication of Samuel as a servant of the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 1:24).

As previously discussed, they were an important part of the festivals, including the Feast of Firstfruits and Pentecost, but also at each of the other Feasts (Leviticus 23:37, Numbers 28:16-29:39), as well as new moons and Sabbaths (Numbers 28:9-14).

Grain offerings were offered in combination with sin offerings and burnt offerings in the ritual cleansing of healed lepers (Leviticus 14:19-21), and in combination with burnt offerings, sin offerings, peace offerings, and drink offerings at the fulfillment of the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:15).
The “grain offering of jealousy” offered by a husband when he believed his wife to have been unfaithful was a very special case (Numbers 5:11-28). The man who brought this offering to the priest was not allowed to put any oil or frankincense on it because it was “an offering for remembering, for bringing iniquity to remembrance” (Numbers 5:15). Why was a grain offering used? Why was an offering given at all, until after her sin or lack of sin was known? I cannot tell, but there is a purpose for everything God does.

Upon entering the Promised Land, grain offerings became a required part of each burnt offering and peace offering (Numbers 15:1-21).

What lessons can we learn from this offering today? What symbolism does it contain?

The ingredients of the grain offering are deeply symbolic.

  • Flour: The grain, ground finely into an even powder, represents Christ, whose body was bruised and broken for us (Psalm 22:14-15). The fineness of the flour may represent his evenness of character, according to Jukes (The Law of the Offerings by Andrew Jukes). Jesus described Himself as “the bread of life” (John 6:32-35, 48-51), and advised His disciples on the night of the Passover to “take, eat” of the unleavened bread, symbolizing His body (Matthew 26:26).
  • Oil: Oil is a common symbol in the Bible, representing the Holy Spirit and power (Acts 10:38, Matthew 25:1-13, Luke 4:18).
  • Frankincense: Incense in the Bible usually represents the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5:8). Here, it may be more completely understood in contrast with the other sweet ingredient which was forbidden: honey. As was noted previously, fire (which typically signifies trials in the Bible, compare 1 Peter 4:12), has a very different effect on these two ingredients. For frankincense, fire makes the sweetness even sweeter, whereas for honey, the extreme heat of fire can spoil and ruin its chemical makeup. The contrast between the two displays firstly the attitude of Christ when He went through the fiery trials of His life and of His crucifixion, and secondly the attitude during trials that we should strive to have. Honey could represent a person whose attitude is corrupted and becomes selfish and ungodly during the heat of trials.
  • Salt: Salt is symbolic of faithfulness and God’s enduring covenant promises (Ezekiel 43:24, Mark 9:49, 2 Chronicles 13:5), whereas its foil, leaven, is representative of hypocrisy, malice, and wickedness—on the whole, covenant-breaking (1 Corinthians 5:7-8, Luke 12:1).

The leavened “wave loaves” of the Pentecost grain offering provide clear symbolism: they represent the members of the Church, the firstfruits of God, with our human nature and tendency toward sin, despite having God’s holy Spirit and desiring to obey Him. All of our offerings to God, all of our self-sacrifices, are mixed with sin, since we are human and imperfect. Thankfully, He has made allowance for our imperfections (Romans 7:14-20).

Like the burnt offering, the entire grain offering is completely consumed; however, unlike the burnt offering, not all of it is consumed by burning on the altar. God is given a “memorial portion” first, and then the remainder is given to the priests. We discussed the burnt offering’s focus on God as being representative of the “first and great commandment,” loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength. The shift of focus in the grain offering from God to the human priests may help us understand the underlying lesson of the offering. The self-sacrifice is still complete, but now is not only sacrifice to God, but through God to serve our fellow man. If the burnt offering is the first and great commandment, then the grain offering is the second which is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

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