Foreigners in the Old Testatment: An Exegesis of Joshua 10:1-15 [Part 3]

Introduction

1 As soon as Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem, heard how Joshua had captured Ai and had devoted it to destruction,doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, 2 he feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were warriors. 3 So Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem sent to Hoham king of Hebron, to Piram king of Jarmuth, to Japhia king of Lachish, and to Debir king of Eglon, saying, 4 “Come up to me and help me, and let us strike Gibeon. For it has made peace with Joshua and with the people of Israel.” 5 Then the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, gathered their forces and went up with all their armies and encamped against Gibeon and made war against it.

6 And the men of Gibeon sent to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, saying, “Do not relax your hand from your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us and help us, for all the kings of the Amorites who dwell in the hill country are gathered against us.” 7 So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the people of war with him, and all the mighty men of valor. 8 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you.” 9 So Joshua came upon them suddenly, having marched up all night from Gilgal. 10 And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who struck them with a great blow at Gibeon and chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon and struck them as far as Azekah and Makkedah. 11 And as they fled before Israel, while they were going down the ascent of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword.

12 At that time Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,

“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,

and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”

13  And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,

until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.

Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. 14 There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel.

15 So Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal.

In this pericope, Joshua is proven to be a faithful and powerful leader of Israel as he honors the peace treaty he had been tricked into signing with the Gibeonites. Yahweh affirms – and even submits to – his great leadership as he defeats the Amorite kings attacking the city of Gibeon.

Historical Context

The suzerain-vassal treaty was an alliance between two political leaders or groups that spanned a significant power differential. At its core, it was an oath made in the presence of state deities who guaranteed the fulfillment of the treaty with the promise of divine punishment for the offending party.[1] It created a master-servant relationship, where the master was obligated to provide protection. One important implication from this relationship was the vassal’s assumption of the suzerain’s enemies as its own.[2]

For nearly all Ancient Near Eastern societies, wars were “waged in an atmosphere of religion, as though the battlefields were temples.”[3] Before battle, kings were known to visit the temple of the deity for prayer to seek oracles and give sacrifices; doing all they could to gain divine assurance of victory.[4] During battle, a special relationship existed between the deity and the king’s weapons, which were seen as gifts from the deity placed in the king’s hands.[5] National gods were fully present during battle and fought for the king in such a way that the king’s actions were seen as “pale reflections” of the deity’s endeavors.[6]

Literary Context

This account of Israel’s battle to defend the city of Gibeon against the attack of Amorite kings is the third and final great victory after those at the cities of Jericho and Ai, which are “paradigmatic for all victories over the peoples of the land.”[7] In the two previous battles, Joshua is presented as an inconsistent leader. He diligently obeys Yahweh at Jericho and achieves great success. Then he charges headlong into Ai without consulting Yahweh and suffers an embarrassing defeat that leaves him in despair. After removing Achan’s sin, Joshua heeds Yahweh’s battle advice and routs the city of Ai. After this great victory, Joshua holds a covenant renewal ceremony to show his renewed faith and commitment to Yahweh.

However, Joshua stumbles again when he fails to consult Yahweh and is tricked into signing a peace treaty with the Gibeonites – a city of Hivites who were marked for destruction. After signing the treaty, the Gibeonites are attacked by Amorite kings and cry out to Joshua, who leads Israel’s army to complete victory with Yahweh’s assistance. After the battle at Gibeon, Joshua is seen developing new leaders with the same encouraging words Yahweh spoke to him. He completes a swift and comprehensive conquest of the land and follows Yahweh’s commands spoken to Moses.

Structure and Movement

This pericope is a narrative account of Israel’s defeat under Joshua of an alliance of five Amorite kings who had attacked Gibeon – Israel’s new vassal city. The plot is moved forward by the communication of five messages: (1) King Adoni-zedek’s hearing of Joshua’s great victories over Jericho and Ai and Gibeon’s peace treaty with Israel, (2) the king’s message to four allied Amorite kings ordering an attack on Gibeon, (3) the Gibeonites’ plea to Joshua for help, (4) Yahweh’s words of affirmation and assurance of victory to Joshua, and (5) Joshua’s poetic speech to Yahweh. The story is introduced by King Adoni-zedek’s fear of Gibeon and its alliance with Israel. The action escalates as the Amorite alliance gathers and attacks Gibeon. The main conflict arrives with the Gibeonites’ desperate cry to Joshua for help and rescue. The narrative climaxes when Joshua responds with boldness and immediacy and sets out to defend Gibeon with Yahweh’s encouragement and promise of victory.  The action is subdued as the Amorites come to their expected end – utter defeat and destruction at the hands of Israel and Yahweh. However, just as the story comes to an end, the narrator surprises the reader with an incredible detail: Yahweh heard Joshua’s request to the sun and moon and obeyed his direction. The reader is left with a sense of awe as Joshua returns to the Israelite camp at Gilgal.

Detailed Analysis

The pericope begins by introducing a crisis of leadership in the king of Jerusalem’s concern over his own city in light of Joshua’s violence against Jericho, Ai, and their kings. The king becomes “greatly frightened” at the idea of a Gibeon-Israel alliance. He acts out immediately to defend his territory by gathering an alliance of four Amorite kings to his south. According to suzerain-vassal conventions, Gibeon had become an enemy of the Amorites because Israel was their enemy. Two other Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, had already been defeated by Israel. The text condenses the actions of the Amorite kings as they gather, go up, and attack Gibeon in order to bring the reader to the real conflict: will Joshua uphold the peace treaty he had been tricked into signing?

The repeated, desperate appeals of Gibeonites’ create suspense. They exaggerate the extent of the attack by claiming that “all the kings of the Amorites” were attacking them. Joshua is now in the spotlight. Following the conquest narrative up to this point, the reader is not sure how Joshua will respond. The text moves immediately to his response, which comes immediately with no prior consultation of Yahweh. Joshua boldly decides to set out from the Israelite base at Gilgal with “all the fighting force with him, all the mighty warriors.” He does not send a mere expeditionary force; he commits the full military might of the nation in defense of the Gibeonites in order to honor the peace treaty between them.

While some of the tension is resolved with Joshua’s response, even more suspense is directed towards Yahweh’s response to Joshua’s unilateral decision. However, the text quickly resolves this tension by citing Yahweh’s approval. With renewed confidence, Joshua marches through the night to mount a surprise attack. The text goes out of its way to describe the extent of defeat and destruction of the Amorite armies by the Israelites. Yahweh is involved at every location of the battle providing support and resorting to a greater magnitude of lethal force than the Israelites.

An apparent insertion to the original narrative is found in verses 12-14. This insertion serves as a startling surprise as it reveals Joshua’s commands spoken to Yahweh, with all Israel listening, to stop the sun in order to prolong the day. Yahweh’s response to Joshua is so unexpected the narrator must repeat it: the sun was stopped – Yahweh had heard Joshua’s voice and had obeyed him.

Synthesis

In the final great battle recorded in Israel’s conquest narrative, Joshua’s leadership faces a final test after achieving equal measures of success and failure at Jericho and Ai. His leadership had once again failed him during his initial experience with the Gibeonites, which resulted in a binding peace treaty with a people Yahweh had marked for destruction. When Gibeon is threatened, Joshua’s bold and immediate response proves that he is a powerful and decisive leader who commands the armies of Israel to victory with Yahweh at his side. In this battle, Yahweh does not simply fight for Israel; the God of Israel hears Joshua’s voice and follows his lead. When even Yahweh follows this man, how could anyone in Israel ever question his leadership? He moves on from this victory as a faithful and successful leader who completes the conquest and leads Israel into the Promised Land.

Reflection on behalf of Undocumented Immigrants

In this passage, Joshua’s identity as a mighty leader in battle and a faithful servant of Yahweh is thoroughly established. The doubts that had arisen from his past leadership blunders were completely erased. He would forever be known as the last faithful patriarch and worthy successor of the mighty prophet Moses. This victory was a life-altering moment for Joshua – even Yahweh recognized this and chose to follow his lead.

With the gravity of this story in mind, it is important to remember the circumstances that led to this event: Joshua was honoring a treaty he had been tricked into signing. It was illegitimate and it allowed the Gibeonites to “illegally” occupy a piece of the land promised to Israel. In choosing to uphold the obligations of the peace treaty, Joshua ignores the devious nature of the circumstances which led to Israel’s relationship with Gibeon and instead chooses to honor, maintain, and protect the relationship they have established.

A note on the nature of this relationship is pertinent. As stated previously, it was common for the vassal in a suzerain-vassal relationship to be considered as a servant to the suzerain. From a contemporary perspective, the Gibeonites’ status as Israel’s laborers may seem abhorrent, but the text does not hold this view. The Gibeonites were being treated as they and the broader society of the time would have expected. Therefore, Joshua’s actions on the Gibeonites behalf should not be viewed as maintaining an oppressive or tyrannical rule over them.

As the church of the United States considers its posture towards those who illegally inhabit its nation, it would be wise to learn from the example of Joshua. The “illegitimate” residents of the US are under attack from a great alliance of powerful interests. Like Joshua, the church must overlook the “illegality” of immigration and consider how it might honor and protect those who are now making their home in its midst. Joshua’s example calls the church to immediate, bold, and decisive action to protect the lives of undocumented immigrants, especially the most weak and vulnerable among them. As the church moves out on this mission with the full force of its witness, it, like Joshua, will be encouraged to find Yahweh at its side – throwing its enemies into a panic and fighting for shared victory.


[1] Michael L. Barre, “Treaties in the ANE,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6, ed. Freedman (NYC: Doubleday, 1992), 654.

[2] Barre, 655.

[3] Gwilym H. Jones, “The Concept of Holy War,” in The World of Ancient Israel: Sociological, Anthropological and Political Perspectives, ed. Clements (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 299.

[4] Jones, 300.

[5] Jones, 300.

[6] Jones, 300.

[7] L.D. Hawk, “Book of Joshua,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Historical Books, ed. Arnold et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 563.

Foreigners in the Old Testatment: Undocumented Immigrant Farmworkers [Part 2]

With every plate of food or trip to the grocery store, a contemporary issue of extreme injustice towards the other hides just out of sight. The other in this case is the undocumented farmworker that has picked the vegetable or processed the meat that is so readily available for mass consumption and enjoyment. While all undocumented farmworkers face serious issues of injustice, the plight of undocumented women working on farms or in meat processing facilities is much more desperate than men working in those same positions. The level of injustice faced by these women is simply outrageous. In this section, multiple issues of injustice facing undocumented female farmworkers will be presented in further detail. This discussion will be followed by an exploration of five texts drawn from the Old Testament Historical Books that highlights how they address similar issues of injustice towards the other.

In the United States, approximately six out of ten agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants. In addition, approximately 4 million undocumented women are currently living in the US.[1] While most Americans benefit from their labors every day, they remain invisible. As women, they are especially vulnerable due to a lack of formal education and the common need of providing for dependent children.[2] While undocumented workers are protected by many US labor laws, enforcement of these laws is severely weak. If there were enforcement, women would still probably not report many of abuses they suffer out of fear of deportation or losing their job.[3] Their lives and labor are simply disposable goods in service to dehumanizing global economic systems that enrich the few at the expense of the many.[4]

The injustices committed towards undocumented women begin well before they enter the United States. Once they do arrive, they are likely to face many more challenges. Wage theft is a recurring issue. When it occurs, undocumented workers have no one to hear their appeals; complaining to employers usually results in the loss of their jobs.[5] In addition to wage theft, federal minimum wage laws are often circumvented by paying workers based on the amount of food picked or prepared. Other times an employer will simply pay below the federal minimum wage.[6]

The health and safety of undocumented workers is often overlooked and workers routinely put their lives at risk. For vegetable and fruit pickers, highly toxic chemicals used as pesticides and herbicides are the causes of chronic illness and infant deformities.[7] Workers in meat processing facilities fare no better. Machines operate at dangerous speeds that cause debilitating injuries. Workers face humiliation or severe punishments when they cannot keep pace. The conditions inside meat plants are usually very cold and wet and workers become sick after long hours with inadequate clothing.[8]

Finally, undocumented female farmworkers face a constant threat of sexual violence. One study conducted among California grape workers found that at least 80% of women had experienced sexual violence on the job.[9] When attacked, undocumented women have no way to protect themselves. They often do not know their rights or to whom they should report these crimes. Many women are deterred from reporting violent crimes against them because they could be deported. They are seen as the perfect victims and abuse is rampant.[10]

In tracing the theme of the foreigner through the Old Testament text, several accounts in Israel’s story speak to the injustice endured by undocumented female farmworkers. The first is Israel’s dealings with the people of Gibeon in Joshua 10. As Canaanites, these people lived on land that Yahweh had given to the Israelites. According to Yahweh’s command, they were to be destroyed or at least driven out. The Gibeonites were fully aware of their fate and of Yahweh’s liberating action on Israel’s behalf. This knowledge motivated them to trick Joshua and the elders into signing a peace treaty. When the ruse was uncovered, Joshua made them laborers. However, when the city of Gibeon was attacked by other foreign kings, the Gibeonites cried out for help and Joshua came swiftly to their aid – even though their peace treaty was signed in an act of deceit. Moreover, Yahweh had commanded Israel to drive these people out, but Israel rescued the people instead. Israel’s defeat of the Gibeonites’ enemies was no typical military battle – it was miraculous. As in other battles, Yahweh fought for Israel by confusing their enemies and raining down hailstones. However, in this battle, Joshua cried out to Yahweh to stop the sun in order to prolong the daylight. The sun obeyed and Israel routed the foreign kings who had attacked the Gibeonites.

Undocumented women working on farms across the US are much like the Gibeonites. They are driven from their home countries by their fear and their will to escape crushing poverty.[11] This drive is so strong that they are willing to enter the US illegally in the same way that the Gibeonites were willing to deceive Israel. Both undocumented female farmworkers and the Gibeonites illegitimately occupy land that “rightfully belongs” to others. However, there is a shocking difference between the response of Israel, and Yahweh, and that of the US. When undocumented farm workers cry out for stolen wages, babies deformed from chemicals, and constant sexual abuse, who hears their cries? The response of the US government and citizenry is weak at best and non-existent at worst. Israel honored the illegitimate peace treaty with the Gibeonites and, with Yahweh’s miraculous help, rescued them from their enemies. Undocumented farm workers, especially women, are also under attack; they are desperate for US consumers, churches, and political leaders to look beyond their undocumented status and honor their lives and work.

Under Joshua’s leadership, Israel follows Yahweh’s command to designate cities of refuge. These cities protected those who killed another without the intent to kill from being killed out of revenge.  By Yahweh’s command in Numbers 35:9-15, this right of sanctuary was extended to both Israelites and resident or transient foreigners. Yahweh’s concern for protecting the lives of all by breaking cycles of violence calls the people of God to stand up for the rights of undocumented farm workers. While some labor laws do extend to undocumented workers, there is often little enforcement. Female farm workers do not speak out when their rights are continually abused because of the imminent threat of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. They are too desperate and too vulnerable to risk losing their jobs by complaining to their employers.[12] They need a voice that holds US government and law enforcement agencies accountable for the protection of their basic human rights.

The story of injustice against undocumented farm workers finds another connection to the plight of the foreigner in ancient Israel in the list of returned exiles found in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7. The list ends with an account of three families of priests who “sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but it was not found there.”[13] As a result, these priests were deemed unclean and not allowed to serve. They were also denied their only source of provision – the holy food given as offerings by the people. Undocumented farm workers experience very similar treatment. All too often, their wages are stolen by their employers through a myriad of tricks and schemes. Like these “undocumented” priests, they are cast out from society and deprived of the dignity that comes from earning an honest pay. Interestingly, while the Israelite people rejected these families as priests, they had no difficulty accepting the labor of these families during the reconstruction of Jerusalem’s wall. Undocumented farm workers in the US share a similar fate: while nearly every US citizen relies on the work of undocumented people to fill their plates, few are willing to allow undocumented workers a fair share in the fruit of their labor.

Throughout the Old Testament story, the foreigner is often portrayed in a very negative light. However, one story shatters the negative cast of the foreigner and provides hope for undocumented workers, especially women, who are battered by waves of injustice and hate. Ruth, the Moabite woman who refused to leave her mother-in-law Naomi’s side, is blessed by Israel and in return she becomes a great blessing to the nation. Upon her return with Naomi to Israel, she gleans in the field because she and Naomi have no land of their own. She finds favor in the eyes of Boaz, who protects her from the young men in other fields who might “bother” her – a familiar reality for millions of undocumented women working in the fields today. Ruth is forced to depend on the laws of Israel for her continued survival and Naomi’s redemption. Upon making her case to Boaz, he is faithful to fulfill the role of kinsman redeemer on Ruth and Naomi’s behalf. Like Ruth, the undocumented women laboring on farms across the country simply desire to provide for themselves and their families. Like her, they are willing to give up all they know and endure the treacherous journey to the US – a leap of faith that is fueled by their hope for a better future. Once they arrive, their stories do not usually end in the blessing Ruth experienced. Instead of welcome and hospitality, they find distrust, hatred, and abuse because they have no kinsman redeemer. Where is the Boaz of the church today? Like Ruth, undocumented farm workers can be a blessing – if only the church would take them in and love them as their own.


[1] Mary Bauer and Monica Ramirez, “Injustice on Our Plates” (Report, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010), 4.

[2] Bauer and Ramirez, 22.

[3] Bauer and Ramirez, 24.

[4] Bauer and Ramirez, 22.

[5] Bauer and Ramirezm 25.

[6] Bauer and Ramirez, 26.

[7] Bauer and Ramirez, 30-31.

[8] Bauer and Ramirez, 33-35.

[9] Bauer and Ramirez, 46.

[10] Bauer and Ramirez, 42.

[11] Bauer and Ramirez, 7.

[12] Bauer and Ramirez, 42.

[13] Ezra 2:62, Neh. 7:64

Foreigners in the Old Testatment: Tracing the Foreigner from Joshua to Esther [Part 1]

Summary of the Foreigner in Joshua, Samuel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther

            In the book of Joshua, foreigners are overwhelmingly portrayed as obstacles to the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to Israel as inhabitants of the land of Canaan. In the first eleven chapters, the text presents multiple battles and wars between Joshua and the inhabitants of the land. These people and their cities were to be utterly destroyed. As a result, the inhabitants of the land were afraid of Israel. Joshua provides a good summary of Israel’s attitude towards the foreigner in 11:20: “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated.” Joshua exhibits this attitude in chapter 10 when he personally executes five foreign kings before Israel.

The tone of Joshua’s message about the foreigner undergoes a change in the last twelve chapters. As it turns out, the inhabitants were not utterly destroyed and many Israelite tribes have foreigners living among them. In Joshua 11:18-20, Joshua warns Israel about intermarrying the “survivors of these nations left here among you” and calls them “a snare and a trap for [Israel], a scourge on your sides, and thorns in your eyes.” Israel is no longer called to utterly destroy the inhabitants of the land; they are now to drive them out. This task proved difficult due to the Canaanite military advancements, which made the Israelites afraid. While Joshua encourages Israel to drive out the foreigners, their presence in the land seems inevitable as the book comes to a close.

Two stories about foreigners do not conform to the pervasive enemy characterization that is presented throughout the book: Rahab and the Gibeonites. Interestingly, the characters in both of these stories fear the Israelites because they have heard of Yahweh’s mighty acts against the Egyptians and the Amelekites. They also believe that Yahweh has given the land of Canaan to the Israelites. However, these characters choose to respond to the Israelites in very different ways. Rahab lies to her own people in order to deal kindly with the Israelites and she is saved. The Gibeonites lie to the Israelites in order to save their own people. While they do become Israel’s laborers, they are also rescued by Israel from enemy attack. In both cases, the foreigners are not presented as enemies.

Like Joshua, the most common characterization of the foreigner in Samuel is that of Israel’s enemy. The Philistines attack Israel throughout the reigns of King Saul and King David. At most times, the Israelites are very afraid of them. At other times, the Philistines are afraid of Israel and of Yahweh’s presence in the ark. Other foreign kings are presented as ruthless and cruel. King Nahash of the Ammonites gouged out the eyes of his enemies and oppressed Israel. Even though Saul defeats him, Samuel later references his brutality as one of the motivating factors for the people’s desire for a king. The Amelekites are also presented as enemies and the Lord even commands Saul to devote them to destruction for their prior opposition towards Israel. Throughout Samuel, Israel’s enemies are referred to as “sinners” and “uncircumcised” and the Lord hands them over to Israel.

However, foreigner kings in Samuel are not just enemies – they are also political allies. King Achish of Gath, a Philistine city, becomes both a friend and ally of David. David goes to king as he flees from Saul and asks for a homestead. The king grants his request and soon after David is serving as the king’s mercenary. King Achish is not David’s only foreign political ally. He also sought the aid of the king of Moab, a former enemy routed by King Saul, to protect his parents from Saul’s wrath. Upon his defeat of the Jebusites in Jerusalem, David receives tribute from the King Hiram of Tyre – establishing an important alliance that would become very beneficial to the building of the temple in Jerusalem under King Solomon.

Samuel also tells the stories of three foreigners who came to David’s aid as he fled from Absalom. The first is Ittai the Gittite, who was placed in charge of one-third of David’s fighting men – which included several foreigners – after refusing to leave David’s side.  Second is Hushai the Archite. David sends him back to Absalom’s court to serve as his adviser and as a spy for David. Hushai’s counsel to Absalom saves David’s life. Finally, as David crosses the Jordan on his flight from Jerusalem, he is met by a group of three foreigners – Barzillai the Gileadite chief among them – that refresh him and his men with ample provisions. On his way back to Jerusalem after Absalom’s death, he meets again with Barzillai who escorts him across the Jordan. Barzillai is presented as a wealthy, powerful, and kind man.

Samuel also presents the foreigner as more righteous than Israel. The stories of Uriah the Hittite and Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the Hivite, are the best examples of righteous foreigners. Both of these characters were treated unjustly at the hands of King David. Uriah, who was unaware of all that David had done and would do, refused David’s pleas for him to sleep with his wife while the ark of the Lord and his fellow soldiers were still at battle. His refusal and subsequent arranged murder led the prophet Nathan to speak out against the king and call him to repentance. Rizpah, who was very much aware of the king’s injustice, cried out and mourned over the bodies of her sons that were left to rot in disgrace. The king is forced to hear her cries and give her sons an honorable burial. The Lord proves Rizpah’s righteousness by ending Israel’s famine after David buries her sons.

The text begins in Ezra by presenting King Cyrus of Persia as a sort of redeemer for Israel. He is obedient to the stirring of the Lord in his spirit and showers Israel with his blessings. He ends the captivity of Israel and seeks to restore the worship of Yahweh at the temple in Jerusalem. King Artaxerxes, a successor to Cyrus, is shown to be forgetful, slightly gullible, and overly concerned with maintaining his power in his letter of response to those who were opposing the temple construction. King Artaxerxes reappears in Nehemiah as gracious and understanding of Nehemiah’s concern for Jerusalem. He grants Nehemiah’s requests for a royal endorsement in order to guarantee safe passage and building supplies. King Darius is portrayed as a restorer of justice for the Israelites as he re-instates temple construction based on the decree of King Cyrus. Like Cyrus, he lends his full support to the construction of the temple and even asks for sacrifices and prayers to be offered at the temple on his behalf. Overall, the foreign kings of Persia enjoy a highly favorable image in the Ezra-Nehemiah text.

The people of the land, including the foreign governors and officials, foreign women, and foreign merchants, are presented as those who oppose reconstruction and cause the newly returned exiles to turn from God. They are first identified as adversaries, even though they seem eager to help with temple reconstruction since they worship Yahweh as well. However, their opposition is solidified when the leaders of Israel want no company with them and reject their offer to help. As a result, the people of the land go to great lengths to prevent the successful completion of the temple. In Nehemiah, two governors of the land – Sanballat and Tobiah – along with Geshem the Arab, quickly emerge as staunch opponents of wall construction. They make several attempts, some extremely hostile, to stop wall construction. However, the text reveals that Tobiah was well respected among many Israelite leaders, including the priest Eliashib, and due to marriages between his daughters and returned exiles. Both Ezra and Nehemiah express a deep sense of disgust over marriages with foreign women and force the Israelites to break off these marriages. Nehemiah also shows anger against foreign merchants selling on the Sabbath. He characterizes these foreign women and merchants as a pollution that must be removed from Israel’s presence.

A final group of foreigners is seen in the genealogy of Ezra and Nehemiah. Six hundred fifty-two people were allowed to return from exile even though they could not prove their Israelite family heritage. Three families of priests were also held in suspicion after their failure to find sufficient proof of their lineage. These priests were excluded, declared unclean, and prohibited from priestly practice until another priest could consult Urim and Thummim.

In Esther, the text presents the prominent foreign characters very negatively, while two supporting characters are seen in a positive light. King Ahasuerus is a main character and is shown to be exploitative, weak, self-centered, aloof, and easily persuaded by others. While he is shown respect throughout the story, the other characters – both foreign and Israelite – successfully manipulate and control his actions. Haman also figures prominently in the story and is presented as the angry enemy of the Jews, who resents them for their strange laws and wants them cruelly annihilated. He is motivated by jealousy and self-importance and is ultimately shown to be foolish and shameful. The foreign Queen Vashti plays a supporting role in the story as she refuses to be paraded for the king’s guests. Her blatant disobedience of authority strikes fear into the kings officials. Although she is punished by the king, her behavior is never viewed negatively by the text. The king’s eunuch Hathach appears to be friendly to Esther and serves obediently as her communicator with Mordecai. Finally, the text seems to imply that the foreign inhabitants of King Ahasuerus’ kingdom were not very happy with the Israelites. The text records that several thousand people hated the Israelites and were killed by them. Eventually, the foreign inhabitants come to fear the Israelites because of the great power held by Mordecai. The text attributes foreigners in Esther with very few redeeming qualities. The primary message of the text communicates a sense of distrust and hatred of foreigners that results in their destruction by the triumphant Israelites.

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.