The Grain Offering and the Holiness of Work

The grain offering is one of the many ritual practices of the nation of Israel that are presented in the Pentateuch. The bulk of Pentateuchal discussion about the grain offering is found in Leviticus 2 and Numbers 15, while an assortment of other texts scattered throughout the law sections of the Pentateuch also discuss this topic. The grain offering was composed of wheat or barley – the staple food of the Israelite people after settling in Canaan – and is given both independently and as a supplement to burnt animal offerings. It was given as an act of worship by God’s people and His priests, but also served other ceremonial purposes. For the Bible students, the disjointed and seemingly piecemeal presentation of the grain offering in the Pentateuch will challenge them to think in an entirely different mode.  For the Church, the practice of the grain offering reveals an intimate connection between the physical, everyday life of work and the worship of God. The purpose of this paper is to survey the content, various contexts, and certain ceremonial features of the grain offering as it is presented in the Old Testament Pentateuch. The paper will then discuss the importance of the grain offering for students of the Bible and the Church today.

The grain offering was composed of wheat or barley that could be presented raw or cooked. The primary Biblical source for the grain offering’s content is Leviticus 2. A few clarifying points about the prohibition of leaven are made in Leviticus 6:14-18 and a much shorter description of the offering’s contents is found in Numbers 15. If given raw, the offering required the choice, inner kernel of sifted wheat – the semolina. Semolina was nearly twice as expensive as barley flour and of much higher quality than common wheat flour. A normal Israelite family would probably not have much of it on hand.[1] The cooked grain offering also required wheat semolina and allowed for three methods of preparation:  baking in an oven, toasting on a griddle, or frying in a pan. The Leviticus 2 text ends with the prescription of a first-fruits grain offering. In this case, the offering was picked from new ears of grain, lightly roasted, and possibly crushed.[2]  Milgrom holds that the grain referred to here was barley instead of wheat due to historical practices of roasting barley as well as the structure and placement of this prescription within the chapter.[3] The amount of grain to be offered varied depending on the context. No amount is specified for the offering described in Leviticus 2, while exact amounts of both grain and oil are given for the supplemental grain offerings found in Numbers 15 based on the size of the burnt offering being supplemented.

There were several requirements and prohibitions for the contents of a grain offering. First, Leviticus 2 and 6:14-18 strictly prohibit the use of leaven in any grain offering that was burnt on the altar in whole or in part. The fermentation process caused by leaven was seen as a source of decay, corruption or death.[4] Others associated fermentation with life and its inclusion in an offering that is sacrificed to God would blur the lines between life and death.[5] Second, oil is required in every presentation of the offering, except for two special cases discussed below. This was most likely olive oil.[6] It was mixed in or added to raw offerings and was used in various stages of the preparation process for cooked offerings. Third, frankincense was required for the raw grain offering and the first-fruits barley offering according to the Leviticus 2 account. Interestingly, frankincense is not required for the cooked grain offerings prescribed in the very same chapter. It is also not required in the supplemental grain offerings of Numbers 15, 28, and 29. Fourth, honey, like leaven, was prohibited by the Leviticus 2 account for all grain offerings burnt on the altar in whole or in part. Most commentators agree that the Leviticus writer was referring to fruit honey and not bee honey because fruit honey involved a fermentation process.[7] Finally, there is an emphatic requirement to include salt in all offerings, which is referred to as the “salt of the covenant.” [8] Since salt was the best preservative available in the Ancient Near East, Milgrom argues that it symbolized the long-lasting character of God’s covenant with Israel.[9]

Three special cases of the grain offering found in the Pentateuch defy the general rules discussed above. First, a poor Israelite could bring an offering of semolina instead of an animal to be offered as atonement for unintentional sin. This is known as the graduated purification offering.[10] The ritual for this offering, recorded in Leviticus 5, explicitly removes the oil and frankincense requirement found in Leviticus 2 for raw grain offerings. Second, the suspected adulteress ritual found in Numbers 5 requires that the husband present a grain offering of raw barley flour.  The oil and frankincense requirements are also explicitly removed in this account. Finally, the well-being offering ritual of Leviticus 3 and its further instructions in 7:11-18 along with the Feast of Weeks ritual in Leviticus 23 both allow for the presentation of leavened bread as a grain offering. This bread is never offered on the altar, but is rather shared during a meal or given to the priests for consumption.

The various contexts in which the grain offering was given can be divided into two main categories: independent and supplemental.  The primary ritual instructions for the independent grain offering are found in Leviticus 2, while Numbers 15, 28, and 29 specify the bulk of the supplemental grain offerings. Within each of these categories, three sub-categories help to clarify the context: spontaneous, conditional, and scheduled.

The raw and cooked grain offerings described in Leviticus 2, except for the mandatory offering of first-fruits in verses 14-16, were given in an independent and spontaneous context. In this way, an Israelite man or woman would voluntarily give a portion of their wheat harvest from the land that God had given them.[11] Grain offerings were also given on an independent and conditional basis. Two examples of this context are found in the graduated purification offering, which was required only when certain unintentional sins were brought to remembrance, and in the ritual testing of a suspected adulteress in Numbers 5. Finally, independent grain offerings were also scheduled according to the agricultural seasons. This is the case for the offering of new grain at the Feast of Weeks as well as for the offering of first-fruits. The first-fruits offering is described in Leviticus 2:14-16, Leviticus 23:9-14, and Deuteronomy 26:1-11. Another first-fruits type offering is described in Numbers 15:17-21 where an offering of the first loaf of bread made from the first batch of dough was required. Sakenfeld suggests that this modification to the first-fruits offering allowed those living in the city or outside the farms to participate.[12]

In addition to its independent context, the grain offering was also given as a supplement in a wide variety of contexts. In every case, the grain offering supplements an animal burnt offering. Two offerings illustrate the supplemental, spontaneous context. First, the well-being offering of Leviticus 3 and 7 was given voluntarily and required three types of unleavened bread – loaves, cakes, and wafers – along with leavened bread loaves. Second, a raw grain offering also supplemented the freewill offering defined in Numbers 15. The grain offerings were also presented in a large number of conditional contexts. These included the priestly ordination service,[13] the ceremony marking the end of a Nazirite vow,[14] the Levite cleansing ritual,[15] the leper cleansing ritual,[16] and the atonement sacrifice for the unintentional sin of a congregation.[17] The supplemental grain offering was also specified in various scheduled contexts: the daily sacrifices of the high priest in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 6 and the daily, Sabbatical, and monthly sacrifices of the general public in Numbers 28. The various feasts and festival days set forth in Numbers 28 and 29, which are also found in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16, also included supplemental grain offerings.

Three ceremonial features of the grain offering need to be addressed. First, the Leviticus 2 text, along with other references in Leviticus and Numbers, mentions the burning of a “token portion” of the grain offering, which has caused much disagreement among Biblical scholars. A second key ceremonial feature is the grain offering’s role as an essential economic and ritualistic provision for the priests and Levites. The final ceremonial feature to be discussed is the claim that the grain offering also functioned as a ritualistic provision for the poor.

In Leviticus 2:2, 9, and 16, the priest receiving an independent grain offering is instructed to remove and burn its ’azkārāṯāh on the altar. This instruction was repeated in Leviticus 6:15. Practically, the ’azkārāṯāh represented a handful of the offering’s contents. If the grain offering was, all of its required frankincense was included in the ’azkārāṯāh. However, much debate has surrounded the meaning of this word. Milgrom translates it as the “token portion.” He associates ’azkārāṯāh  with zēker, meaning “remembrance,” and claims, on his belief that the whole offering was burnt in times past, that this portion is a “token” representative of the whole – calling the worshipper to remember that all of the offering should actually be consumed.[18] Ross suggests that, while the concept of a “token” portion may be a key element in its understanding, the definition of ’azkārāṯāh as a “memorial” should not be thrown out entirely. As a “memorial,” it reminded the worshippers to live according to the covenant – “as if all they had truly came from the Lord” – and it reminded God to honor His blessings for those who kept His covenant. [19]

In addition to the independent offerings in Leviticus 2, the ’azkārāṯāh is also burnt when an offering of semolina is used as the poor person’s purification offering in Leviticus 5 and when the barley flour offering is given during the suspected adulteress ritual of Numbers 5. A final reference to a related word, lə’azkārāh, is found in Leviticus 24:7 and refers only to the frankincense that is placed on top of the bread of the presence in the most holy, inner sanctum of the tabernacle. Whatever its exact meaning and purpose, Willis suggests that the text reveals the importance of this practice by characterizing it as an “offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord.”[20]

Interestingly, the Numbers 15 account of freewill offerings and the Numbers 28 account of scheduled offerings do not mention the burning of the supplemental grain offering’s token portion. In fact, these texts fail to provide any detail about the fate of the grain offering after it is presented to the priest. Milgrom assumes that the entire grain offering is burnt on the altar along with the animal offering it accompanies.[21] However, Numbers 18:9 seems to indicate that all grain offerings belonged to the priests and were to be “reserved from the fire.” This debate introduces the second ceremonial feature of the grain offering that will now be addressed: what is the grain offering’s role as an economic and ritualistic provision for the priests and Levites?

The Leviticus 2 account of the grain offering clearly states that only a token portion of the grain offering – both raw and cooked – should be burnt and that the rest “shall be for Aaron and his sons.”[22] Milgrom is quick to observe that none of the other offering rituals in Leviticus 1-5 mention priestly distribution. He explains that extra clarity was needed for the grain offering since it was usually burnt entirely.[23] More specifics are provided in Leviticus 7:9-10 where a differentiation is made between how raw and cooked offerings are divided: all cooked grain offerings belong to the priest who is officiating at the sacrifice, and the raw offerings were to be shared amongst all the priests and their male family members. Since the Leviticus 2 text assigns both raw and cooked offerings to “Aaron and his sons,” there seems to be a contradiction with these specific instructions. However, no contradiction exists because Leviticus 2 is addressed to the lay person who does not need to know these priestly details; they need to know only that the offering belongs to the priests.[24] The distinction is made for a practical purpose: a raw grain offering could easily be stored in a central location where all the priests could share, but a cooked offering was better if eaten the same day.[25] Milgrom sees this distinction of priestly provision arising from the historical development of numerous local sanctuaries, each of which being administered by a single priest, into the single, centralized Temple, which housed a large number of priests.[26] This distinction is not made in the provisional rules specified by Numbers 18, which state that all grain offerings belong to Aaron and his sons. Since one of the main concerns of the Numbers 18 text is the general support and compensation of the priests and Levites, it does not need to concern itself with the specifics of distribution. The important issue is that the priests’ and Levites’ daily need for food is provided for by the offerings of the people since they are not given their own allotment of land.[27]

In addition to being dependent on the people for their material well-being, the priests and Levites were also dependent on the people for carrying out their own ritual duties. The ordination of priests and cleansing of Levites for service in the tabernacle required both a supplemental grain offering of semolina and loaves of bread. Further, the high priest’s daily offering also consisted of grain.[28] Where did all of this grain come from? Numbers 7 records a list of offerings brought to the Tabernacle by the chiefs of Israel’s twelve tribes beginning on the day Moses completed the Tabernacle consecration. These large offerings included significant amounts of grain that served as a deposit for the priestly supply. These supplies would be continually replenished as the people brought their daily, Sabbatical, monthly, festal, and voluntary offerings. The priests and Levites were totally dependent on these offerings to fulfill both their daily needs and their ritualistic roles.

The final ceremonial aspect of the grain offering to be discussed is the claim by some that it functioned as a ritualistic provision for the poor. Many ancient voices have supported the idea that the grain offering of Leviticus 2 served as the poor person’s surrogate for a burnt offering. In this way, the poor were given an opportunity to participate in a ritual system that relied heavily on the ownership of animals. Among the supporters of this idea, rabbinic tradition holds the grain offering as equal to all others according to the example of the graduated purification offering found in Leviticus 5, where the text is clear that a poor person could present an offering of semolina if an animal could not be afforded. Philo, a Jewish philosopher from the time of Christ, reasoned that since God does not rejoice in sacrifices but in “the will to love Him and in men that practice holiness,” the grain offering should be regarded the same as more expensive offerings. Finally, evidence from ancient Mesopotamian religious practice reveals the grain offering as the definitive offering of the poor.[29]

Milgrom disagrees with most modern commentators and presents further evidence for this claim based on the placement of the grain offering’s ritual instructions immediately following the burnt offering ritual in Leviticus as well as the etymology of the Hebrew term for the grain offering as a “gift” or “tribute” with a propitiatory emphasis.[30] Others refute this claim by highlighting its use as a supplement to the burnt offerings,[31] by suggesting different literary sources for the burnt offering ritual (Lev. 1) and the grain offering ritual (Lev. 2), and by the lack of textual evidence that connects it to atonement for sin and impurity.[32] While the grain offering’s function as a substitute for the burnt offering may be debated, the Leviticus text clearly designates both offerings as “most holy” offerings that were a “pleasing odor to the Lord.”[33]

The grain offering was an essential part of ritual life for God’s chosen nation of Israel. It was simple, but, as the discussion thus far has shown, it came in different forms, at many different times, and for many different reasons – most of which are not clear to the beginning Bible student or even the seasoned Biblical scholar. The difficulties faced when studying the grain offering are common to most studies of the of Old Testament law as it is presented in the Pentateuch, especially Leviticus. Mary Douglas sheds light on the core difficulty faced by the modern thinker when dealing with the priestly law texts: “Instead of explaining why an instruction has been given, or even what it means, it adds another similar instruction, and another and another… Instead of argument, there is analogy.”[34] Ever since the Enlightenment, rational thought has reigned as the supreme mode of thinking in the Western world. However, the priestly writers of Leviticus did not think rationally; as Mary Douglas reveals, they thought analogically. Herein lies the importance of the grain offering for Bible students today: the study of the grain offering greatly expands the minds of students by forcing them to think in an entirely different mode. By exercising their capacity for analogical thought, students are given new eyes to see the beautiful patterns of symbolic practice embedded in the text that will remain hidden to those dominated by the rational mode of thinking. Instead of being confused and frustrated by what seem like random idiosyncrasies and piecemeal instructions, students will see the priestly writer’s attempts to imaginatively embody the holiness God required of His people.[35]

The grain offering is also a very important topic for the Church today. In the practice of the grain offering, God demonstrates His abundant grace by accepting the common work of human labor as a “most holy” offering.[36] It is important to remember that the large majority of grain offerings would have been prepared at a home by the common people – not the priests at the Tabernacle or Temple.[37] The modern-day Church is prone to divide life into sacred and secular spaces. In this dichotomy, God is worshiped in the sacred space and human work is relegated to the secular. However, the grain offering reveals a more holistic view of life by including the secular work of sowing, harvesting, sifting, and baking as an essential component of sacred worship.[38] The Church should be encouraged by this radical display of grace to offer itself anew to the God who regards its everyday tasks as “a pleasing aroma.”[39]

The grain offering was a vital practice in the complex ritual life of the Israelite people. This paper has surveyed its basic contents and the many contexts in which it was given. It has discussed three important ceremonial features that provide greater insight into its practice. The grain offering’s analogical presentation was shown to be very important for developing the minds of Bible students. For the Church, the grain offering presents a holistic view of life founded on the grace of God where secular work is accepted as sacred worship. In conclusion, there is much more that needs to be known about the grain offering and the many subtleties of its practice. How did the Israelite people understand this offering in relation to others? How did it develop or change over time? What image or pattern of holiness is being embodied in its practice? These questions, along with many others, should be researched further to bring the Church to a fuller understanding of the rich and dynamic worship of a holy God who still dwells in its midst.

[1] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible vol. 3, (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 179.

[2] Timothy M. Willis, Leviticus, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), 16.

[3] Milgrom, 192.

[4] Lloyd R. Bailey Leviticus-Numbers, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. R. Scott Nash (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2005), 53.

[5] Willis, 16.

[6] Milgrom, 180.

[7] Frank A. Gorman Jr., Divine Presence and Community: A Commentary on the Book of Leviticus. International Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 29.

[8] Lev. 2:13.

[9] Milgrom, 191.

[10] Milgrom, 307.

[11] John W. Kleinig, Leviticus, Concordia Commentary, ed. Dean O. Wenthe (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2003), 75.

[12] Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Journeying with God: A Commentary on the Book of Numbers. International Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 94.

[13] Exodus 29:1-3; Lev. 6:19-23.

[14] Num. 6:13-20.

[15] Num. 8:5-13.

[16] Lev. 14:10-32.

[17] Num. 15:22-26.

[18] Milgrom, 182-183.

[19] Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 106-107.

[20] Willis, 13.

[21] Milgrom, 182.

[22] Lev. 2:3, 10.

[23] Milgrom, 182.

[24] Nobuyoshi Kiuchi, Leviticus. Apollos Old Testament Commentary, eds. David W. Baker and Gordon J. Wenham, vol. 3 (Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2007), 130.

[25] Kleinig, 168.

[26] Milgrom, 412.

[27] Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20, The Anchor Bible vol. 4A (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 435.

[28] Milgrom, 398.

[29] Milgrom, 195-196.

[30] Milgrom, 196.

[31] Ross, 99.

[32] Bailey, 52.

[33] Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; Lev. 2:3, 10.

[34] Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 18.

[35] Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 84.

[36] Willis, 19.

[37] Kleinig, 75.

[38] Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, The Bible Speaks Today, ed. J.A. Motyer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 54.

[39] Lev. 2:3.


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