by David C. Grabbe
CGG Weekly, April 30, 2021
"God cares much more about our character than about our competencies. He cares much more about our works being good works—works done in holiness, in love for others—than about the sheer volume of works we accomplish."
Part One introduced the unique offering on the Feast of Weeks that had, as its centerpiece, two loaves. In Scripture, the number two signals a difference, often one with incomplete harmony or even outright opposition. The most curious aspect of these two loaves, though, is that they include leaven, used throughout Scripture as a symbol of corruption. How could such an ingredient be a part of a holy day offering?
The Old Covenant offerings and their minute specifications may seem foreign to our modern minds—perhaps even boring, perish the thought—but recall from Part One the observation that the sacrifices are like inspired parables. They are rich with spiritual instruction, but they require analysis to understand their purpose and meaning.
An oft-overlooked detail of the two leavened loaves is that they are a grain offering (Leviticus 23:16). The typical grain offering (Leviticus 2) is not given alone but in conjunction with the burnt offering, which we will consider first to understand the grain offering better.
The primary teaching of the burnt offering (outlined in Leviticus 1) is the wholehearted devotion of one's life to God. It is a substitutionary sacrifice, with the offerer putting his hand on the head of the sacrificial animal to show a transference, such that the animal would stand for the offerer. In the burnt offering, a life is not only given (in service and devotion to God), but it is entirely consumed (on the altar), with God as its object. The whole portion belongs to God; nothing remains for the offerer. The burnt offering encapsulates the first four commandments, those governing love toward God.
The grain offering has similarities but also contrasts. It is a bloodless offering, so it does not portray death. Instead, it is an offering of the fruit of the ground, which God gave to mankind (Genesis 1:29). Thus, it is an offering of what man is due in contrast to what God claims: life (see Genesis 9:3-6; Leviticus 17:10-14).
More specifically, the grain offering represents the fruit of one's labors concerning the fruit of the ground. While the primary ingredient is the grain itself, the offering also contains oil and frankincense, other examples of the fruit of the earth. There are varying levels of grain offerings, ranging from a basic offering of whole grains roasted in fire up to very finely ground flour (the most costly). Whatever its form (including those baked into cakes), labor is involved. In addition to the work of sowing, tending, harvesting, and preparing the grain, labor is involved in all the other ingredients of the meal offering: the harvesting of olives and pressing of oil (a symbol of God's abundance, including His Spirit), as well as in collecting and refining the frankincense (the pleasing aroma that comes out when heat is applied), and even gathering and filtering the salt (a seasoning and preservative).
The grain offering is not substitutionary like the burnt offering; that is, it does not symbolize an individual—either in life or death—but rather the product of the individual's labors from God's bounty. It, too, is an offering to God, but the priest burns only a "memorial portion" on the altar. God requires a portion, but the bulk of the offering is for human benefit (in the person of the priest). As with the burnt offering, nothing is reserved for the offerer. Thus, it pictures devotion to others, including service and generosity—giving humanity its due—with what God has provided (the fruit of the ground). In short, it encapsulates and enhances the last six commandments, those governing love toward fellow man.
Pentecost heavily underscores this meaning of generous devotion to others, as seen in the final verse of the instructions for this holy day: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 23:22). Without understanding the grain offering, this instruction might seem like a random statute tacked on to the holy day. However, it perfectly fits the grain offering, giving a clear example of human beings owing something to others and supporting their well-being.
The summary description of Pentecost in Exodus 23:16 ties the labor aspect with another element, "firstfruits": ". . . and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field" (emphasis added). Relatedly, Leviticus 23:17 calls the two leavened loaves "firstfruits," another significant symbol. We must exercise care, however, in interpreting this symbol, for it can refer to a substantial variety of things.
At their most basic level, the firstfruits are the early, abundant sample of a harvest, and they often signify not only the earliest part but also the best part. We should remember, though, that every harvest has firstfruits. Whether the crop is of barley, wheat, olives, olive oil, grapes, fruit, wine, or even honey, each has an early, abundant sample (see Numbers 18:12; Deuteronomy 18:4; II Chronicles 31:5; Nehemiah 10:35-37). The firstfruits do not mean that the harvest is complete, only that it has started—that some portion has reached maturation.
Even as there were multiple agricultural harvests that each had firstfruits, so the New Testament gives multiple named applications of firstfruits: God's Spirit (Romans 8:23); Abraham (implied; Romans 11:16); early converts in a given area (Romans 16:5; I Corinthians 16:15); the resurrected Christ (I Corinthians 15:20-23); those regenerated by God (James 1:18); and a portion of those redeemed by God (Revelation 14:4). Does the Pentecost grain offering correlate to any of these? We will look at a New Testament fulfillment of the two leavened loaves in future installments. For now, remember the essence of the grain-offering symbolism: It does not picture an individual or a people, but rather the service, devotion, and giving of what is due to mankind as an offering to God.