We are Church, We are Agents of Shalom

Over the past several weeks [in the spring semester of 2013], I participated in a creative group exercise along with two of my classmates: Clesha Staten and Edward Williams. We imagined ourselves as a church and dreamed about our life together in this community. Through much discussion, we identified our church as “agents of shalom” and described this identity in relation to the four marks of the church specified by the Nicene-Constantinople Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.[1] We also defined our church’s mission and described the context in which our mission would be pursued. We crystallized this discussion about our corporate identity as agents of shalom into the following statement:

As agents of shalom, we are one because the shalom we seek is the very presence and action of the one and same Spirit of God who empowers us to speak and act in order to bring God’s vision to its fullness as we endeavor to ensure a welcome place at the table for all. We are holy because the Spirit has set us apart to share the good news, peace and love of God in communities suffering from the fractures of personal and structural sin.  We are called to live by example the grace, righteousness, and justice of the Triune God. We are catholic because we recognize that the same Spirit who lives and moves in us is also present and active in other churches and throughout all creation.  The operation of the Spirit within and through every agent of shalom unifies us in purpose without diminishing the diversity of each agent as a unique creation. Finally, our church is apostolic because we continue Jesus’ prophetic ministry of liberation by proclaiming, celebrating, and actualizing the message of shalom to all those who are oppressed by sin, sickness, disease, and the political, economic and social systemic evils. We walk with the same Spirit of God who was sent forth as ruah before creation, who anointed the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and who is present today and for all days to come to orient and empower creation towards the consummation of shalom in the reign of God.

The mission of our church is to be agents of shalom: the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with its environment. It is a comprehensive reality of peace founded on the active presence of Triune love being worked out in justice. Agents are people who actively pursue the purposes of the one by whom they are sent. Because we are sent by the God who is communion, we are sent to pursue shalom as a community of love, forgiveness, and grace, which is extended to the oppressed and marginalized members of our community. This may require us to actively and non-violently resist systems of evil that oppress and marginalize. At the same time, our church is called by the life-giving Spirit to be agents of personal healing, deliverance, and restoration towards all people in our community.

Our church is called to contexts where the extreme suffering caused by a prolonged loss of shalom is being ignored or denied. These are the places “outside the gate” inhabited by people who have been silenced, forgotten, and deemed unworthy, unnecessary, and uninteresting by the powers and principalities of anti-shalom. We desire to join the Spirit’s work in and through the people with whom we live in these places so that a true, contextual shalom might be realized within our diverse community. As a local embodiment of shalom develops, we will remain open to being led by the Spirit to bring forth shalom in new contexts while remaining steadfast in our commitment to our current community.

This statement expresses an ecclesiology: a way of understanding the theological, historical, and eschatological nature of the origin, identity, and purpose of “a community that understands itself to be called into being by God through faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”[2] However, the ecclesiology expressed in this group statement differs remarkably from the implicit ecclesiology I have experienced through church participation in the past. In this essay, I hope to progress from a critique of the church I have experienced towards a more faithful, holistic understanding of church by contrasting the marks, mission, and context of my embedded ecclesiology with this new understanding of church as agents of shalom.

The unity of the church as agents of shalom is founded on the presence and action of the God whose unity-in-diversity is hospitably opened towards the other. In opposition to this Triune unity, my past experience in culturally, racially, and socio-economically homogenous churches reveals a unity defined by uniformity. This kind of unity ignores “the Spirit’s unifying power [which] enables the integrity of each one amidst the many” and therefore does not participate in the “unity of the Spirit that includes reconciliation and healing in the same Spirit.”[3] The church is to be one because the salvation of the Triune God which it proclaims is an ever-expanding communion amidst the diversity of creation.

A similar discrepancy arises in my past experience of holiness in church and the holiness which characterizes agents of shalom. While past church experience defined holiness as an individual goal of maintaining purity, those who pursue shalom identify holiness as “the authentic presence and activity of the Spirit of God directed toward the eschatological kingdom.”[4] This holiness is neither a possession of the church nor of an individual church member. Rather, the church is being made holy so that its “relationship of righteousness and justice with God… [will extend] far beyond the church itself” into the lives of those “on the margins of society.”[5] Holiness is put on display when the church’s presence and activity in the world matches the church’s inner reality of its participation in the life of Trinity.

As a member of primarily congregational or independent churches, my understanding of the church’s catholicity was very weak. Instead of being instructed to discern and partner with the Spirit’s work in other churches and throughout creation, my experience of church taught me to be suspicious of other churches and to devalue the life of non-human creation. However, agents of shalom recognize catholicity by affirming the Spirit’s power to inspire indigenous expressions of faith in Christ, which preserve the uniqueness of created life and culture.[6] However, contextualization was given little significance in my previous experience of church and therefore my church’s traditional theology – with a little room for disagreement – was the true understanding for all people in all times and places.

My past church experience held a very narrow understanding of apostolicity. The majority of churches I have participated in were representatives of the Free Church tradition where “the New Testament and early church [have] a normative significance.”[7] Therefore, apostolicity was implicitly defined as believing and teaching “sound doctrine” in line with a specific, literal interpretation of Scripture. In opposition to this narrow, disembodied expression of apostolicity, the church as agents of shalom seeks to embody authentically “the apostolic message and witness… in [its] ecclesial life and faith as directed toward the impending kingdom of God.”[8] Apostolicity is a sign of the whole person and ministry of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers which requires full, embodied participation by the Holy Spirit in the mission of Jesus.

In the past, the primary mission of the church I knew was understood as the fulfillment of Jesus’ last words to his followers as recorded by the gospel of Matthew: “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them.”[9] The interpretation of this command led to a mission defined primarily in terms of kerygma – “the proclamation of the Gospel” – which was sometimes supported by acts of leitourgia – “prayer and praise, the waters of baptism and the bread of the supper.”[10] I agree with Gabriel Fackre that this kind of church may be “valid” but it “is not yet a faithful Church” because it does not include a healthy practice of diakonia ­– “a serving of the neighbor in need” – and koinonia – “a sharing and caring life together.”[11] While some of the churches I have experienced in the past have incorporated a practice of diakonia and koinonia in very meaningful ways, the expression of church with which I am most familiar is dominated by its kerygma with leitourgia in a secondary, supporting role.

In contrast to the identity and mission of the church in my past, the church as agents of shalom provides a more holistic and faithful ecclesiology. At the heart of this ecclesiology is the belief that the church’s “existence is not ‘for itself,’ but rather ‘for others.’”[12] More specifically, this church exists for the pursuit of shalom and therefore “outside of the action of the Spirit which leads the universe and history towards its fullness in Christ, [this church] is nothing.”[13] According to Avery Dulles, this vision of church would be categorized as the “servant” model in which the church takes up the diakonia of Christ and “seeks to serve the world by fostering the brotherhood [sic] of all men [sic].”[14] However, this diaconal model is incomplete if it excludes kerygma, leitourgia, and koinonia.

Therefore, agents of shalom take up the message of Jesus and proclaim the hope of God’s now-but-not-yet reign to all people. At the same time, this kerygma includes a “prophetic denunciation of every dehumanizing situation, which is contrary to fellowship, justice, and liberty.”[15] Agents of shalom also gather to celebrate the good news they proclaim through the act of worship, specifically the sharing of the Eucharistic meal around the Lord’s table. However, this practice of leitourgia “presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of [Jesus’] life” and therefore leads the church towards concrete action “against exploitation and alienation and for a society of solidarity and justice.”[16] Finally, shalom is a reality bound up in koinonia because it is the presence of the God whose life as communion is the divine source and model of koinonia. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom seeks a koinonia “where everyone is welcome [as] a sign of the coming feast of God’s mended creation.”[17]

As it pursues its mission through a practice of koinonia, leitourgia, kerygma, and diaconia, the church as agents of shalom must be careful not to confuse its ecclesial life and work towards shalom with the reality of shalom itself. Shalom does not belong to any church because it is the very presence and action of the Triune God in the world which God created. The church as agents of shalom remembers its call to service which “consists in its dedication to the transformation of the world into the Kingdom” of shalom.[18]

The church as agents of shalom seeks to embody and enact its mission in contexts where the destruction of shalom due to the violence of personal and structural sin is being ignored and forgotten. My past experience of church has always assumed a privileged position in society. Even though I was raised in a community where the evils of poverty and racism interlocked in a system of death, I participated in a church whose identity and mission were so affected by social privilege that the fact of this reality, especially the role of this church in its creation and maintenance, was almost entirely ignored. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom must go beyond simply locating itself in a place of anti-shalom. It must make intentional, sustained efforts towards solidarity with all in its community and join in the struggle against alienation and violence because “to know God is to work for justice.”[19] Therefore, the church should simultaneously learn to listen to the needs of its community and to discern its unique strengths and its inherent goodness. The church should also be prepared to criticize its own participation in the evils which perpetuate the destruction of shalom. With this humble posture, a true, contextual foretaste of shalom can come to life.

[1] William C. Placher, ed., “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 223.

[2] Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Ecclesiology,” Lecture, Systematic Theology and Ethics: Reign of God THLE 521, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, April 2, 2013.

[3] Amos Yong, “The Marks of the Church: A Pentecostal Re-Reading,” Evangelical Review Of Theology 26, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 50, 54.

[4] Yong, 54.

[5] Letty M. Russell, “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 245.

[6] Yong, 61.

[7] Franklin H. Littell, “The Historical Free Church Defined,” Brethren Life and Thought 50, no. 3-4 (June 1, 2005): 59.

[8] Yong, 66.

[9] Mt. 28:19, 20, NRSV.

[10] Gabriel Facrke, The Christian Story: A Narrative Interpretation of Basic Christian Doctrine, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 156, 157.

[11] Fackre, 158, 159, 161.

[12] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 147.

[13] Gutiérrez, 147.

[14] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 92.

[15] Gutiérrez, 152.

[16] Gutiérrez., 150.

[17] Letty M. Russell, “Hot-House Ecclesiology: A Feminist Interpretation of the Church,” Ecumenical Review 53 (January 2001): 51.

[18] Dulles, 100.

[19] Gutiérrez, 156.

Just Give Up: Brief Thoughts on Christian Community from Philippians 2:5-11

5Y’all have this way of thinking, feeling, and acting in and among yourselves which also [is the way of thinking, feeling, and acting] in Christ Jesus, 6who – while existing as essentially God – he himself considered equality to God [as] not something to be grasped, 7BUT [RATHER] he became powerless, taking the essence of a slave, being born in the likeness of humanity; and, being found in appearance as a man, 8he took the lowest place and experienced humiliation [by] becoming obedient to the point of death – the DEATH of the cross; 9Therefore also God exalted him as high as God could imagine, and graciously grants to him the name above all names, 10in order that at the name of Jesus every knee of heaven, and of earth, and of under the earth should bend, 11and every tongue should agree that the Lord [is] Jesus Christ to the glory of Father God.

Philippians 2:5-11, personal translation (I wouldn’t quote this if I were you)

 

Last Wednesday, a man in Tampa, FL got stuck in an elevator at an assisted living home along with an elderly woman. She told him that she couldn’t stand for long periods of time. What did he do? He got down on all fours and offered his back as her chair and she sat for 30 minutes while the elevator was repaired! A picture was taken and, of course, it went viral over social media. A random act of kindness. Doing a good deed. Serving others. Is this the kind of thing Paul is asking us to consider in this passage?

Sort of. Now, don’t get me wrong. This was a very kind, considerate act. He had to really sacrifice something. He literally had to “humble himself” and take a lower position!

But afterwards he walked away more or less the same person – maybe just a bit more famous. And I’m sure he got to know this lady a little bit. But now that it’s over, the chances are slim that they’ll stay in touch. Life will continue virtually the same as it was.

Now imagine: how would this story be different if this man was her grandson and, instead of living at an assisted living home, she lived at home with him and his family? Instead of offering his back as a chair on a stuck elevator, he just takes care of her – keeping her healthy, enjoying time with her, cooking for her, cleaning up after her – day after day. What if this was not just a once-and-done random act of kindness from one stranger to another but was rather a story of everyday service simply overflowing from a deep, caring relationship based in mutual trust and submission? Would it still go viral?

Imitating Christ rarely does. Igiveupkitty

You see, Jesus didn’t just show up for a photo-op. Jesus was God, God’s equal, the same stuff as God. But Jesus became human, he became powerless, emptying himself of the divine status that would keep him from fully relating to weak, fragile people like you and me. That’s just not what a god was supposed to do. He wanted to be like us, to speak to us, to break bread with us, hold our hands, and wash our feet. And He didn’t come to be one of our powerful friends-in-high-places. No, He was like the lowest among us as our servant; like people we usually ignore – the gas station clerk, the migrant laborer, the man selling flowers at the traffic light. Jesus, God’s equal, became like us so he could know us and share in our struggles and give his life to save us.

If we want to be a Christian faith community, this is the story we must tell with our lives together. Whose struggle are you sharing? What does each of us need to give up to get down in the mud and muck of life with one another? Are we willing to trust each other, to commit to serving one another? You won’t go viral. No one may even notice. It will probably be slow and boring. What matters is that we think, act, feel, and pattern our lives together in the downward way of Christ. God will see us. One day God will raise us up.

Sabbath People

Our sermon this morning was on keeping the Sabbath and I’ve been thinking about it all day. In the fall of 2012, I led a small group at our church through a book by Lynne Baab on keeping Sabbath – and then proceeded to keep the Sabbath ZERO times. Sabbath is hard.

There’s also a book on the Sabbath by Walter Brueggemann I would really like to read (oh, also the one by Abraham Joshua Heschel) called Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. It was released in January so I haven’t had time for it, but since its Brueggemann I know its worth reading. The title connects to the thoughts I’ve been having today on the Sabbath.

During the sermon, our pastor described the Sabbath as a law that brings freedom; a kind of protective cage that gives us space to rest and be replenished emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It made sense to me, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Is Sabbath just a matter of regularly marking off space in our lives for rest? Surely that would be a good thing but, as the title of Brueggemann’s book suggests, Sabbath runs deeper than “discipline”.

Sabbath is about identity.

We see this clear as day in the Deuteronomic version of the Sabbath command:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day (Deut. 5:12, 15).

The Sabbath command is directly linked to Israel’s memory of how God liberated them and thereby transformed their identity from oppressed slaves to God’s covenant community. 1 Peter 2 brings this identity forward and applies it to an early Christian community: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” God’s Sabbath-people that is.

Sabbath-keeping cannot be merely a discipline that we apply to ourselves externally – as if it were something that existed outside of us that we could grasp. Sabbath is who we are – not just something we do.

This is what makes Sabbath so hard for me (and maybe you too). If it were just something I could do, I doubt I would have much trouble with it. I struggle to keep Sabbath because Sabbath means letting God be God and recognizing that I, ultimately, do not and cannot sustain my own life. Sabbath is realizing that only God can save me and set me free for new creation life.

It’s a change in identity.

This change happens in two dimensions. We’ve seen the first already. Sabbath is being set free from the sin that keeps us enslaved to evil and death. There is no rest in Egypt; we are commanded to produce (or consume?) more and more with less and less. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God is leading all creation out of this restless, suffocating slavery in Egypt. We’re headed to the promised land. God’s liberation is for a purpose: to create – or re-create – covenanted community.

We’re freed from the forces of sin and evil but we’re freed for covenanted community. This takes us back to Sabbath’s first appearance in the Bible: creation. Sabbath was, first and foremost, something that God did which is perfectly reflected in God’s being. God’s created the world and then God stopped and rested and thereby named (created) the Sabbath. God kept Sabbath because God wanted to enjoy communion with creation, to take a stroll as it were through this new home. Being-Sabbath means being a creature, specifically one created in the image of the triune God who exists as a personal community of Parent, Christ, and Spirit. Our promised land is the new creation, the reign of God, in which humanity fulfills its original vocation: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

Sabbath people are liberated slaves who cultivate and sustain flourishing community with God and all creation.

Yes, Sabbath is something we do and maybe that’s where we have to begin. Lord knows we need help stopping and resting. As we do that, let’s not forget that Sabbath-keeping is not just a “discipline” that we can choose to practice – it’s who we are.

 

 

Wendell Berry on Real Hope for Our Communities, Our Land, Our World

I dare say that if you claim to care about the health and sustainability of our environment and our local communities, you should take the time to watch this interview with Wendell Berry – even if you’re already familiar with his work. We’ll all be better off if we pay more attention to his wisdom.

BILL MOYERS: The grace of the world, take that a little further for me.

WENDELL BERRY: I meant it in the religious sense. The people of, people of religious faith know that the world is, is maintained every day by the same force that created it. It’s an article of my faith and belief, that all creatures live by breathing God’s breath and participating in his spirit. And this means that the whole thing is holy. The whole shooting match. There are no sacred and unsacred places, there are only sacred and desecrated places. So finally I see those gouges in the surface mine country as desecrations, not just as land abuse. Not just as…as human oppression. But as desecration. As blasphemy.

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.