The Gospel According to Hauerwas

From Al Mohler’s recent interview with Stanley Hauerwas (click for transcript):

Mohler:            Well, again, looking at your writings, and even preparing for this conversation, and feeling the weight of your critique at many points and just very catalytic thoughts, I came back to another question, and that is, for Stanley Hauerwas, what is the gospel? What is the good news that is at the center of the Christian faith? Because I think I could hypothesize several answers, but I would just love to hear you to respond to that. What is the gospel?

Hauerwas:       That through Jesus Christ, very God and very man, we Gentiles have been made part of the promise to Israel that we will be witnesses to God’s good care of God’s creation through the creation of a people who once were no people that the world can see there is an alternative to our violence. There is an alternative to our deceptions. There is an alternative to our unfaithfulness to one another though the creation of something called church. That’s salvation.

 

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hesed

And now they keep on sinning

and make a cast image for themselves,
idols of silver made according to their understanding,
all of them the work of artisans…

Yet I have been the Lord your God
ever since the land of Egypt;
you know no God but me,
and besides me there is no saviour.
It was I who fed you in the wilderness,
in the land of drought.
When I fed them, they were satisfied;
they were satisfied, and their heart was proud;
therefore they forgot me.
So I will become like a lion to them,
like a leopard I will lurk beside the way.
I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,
and will tear open the covering of their heart;
there I will devour them like a lion,
as a wild animal would mangle them.

I will destroy you, O Israel;   who can help you?

hesed

‘Come, let us return to the Lord;

for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him. 

Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;   

his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.’

hesed

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,

I have killed them by the words of my mouth,

and my judgement goes forth as the light.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.

hesed

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not execute my fierce anger;

I will not again destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and no mortal,

the Holy One in your midst,

and I will not come in wrath.

They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

I AM Peace

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Over the past several weeks we’ve been exploring the lives of some major “peeps” in God’s story: Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. We’ve seen a lot and hopefully we’ve learned a few things too, but there is still so much to see, so much we’ve had to skip over for another day.

This morning we’re taking a little leap forward in the story; over the Exodus, through the journey in the wilderness, and just past the entrance into the promised land. We come to an in between time, like twilight, a time of transition that looks more like a stalemate, like a truck stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels but not moving forward, no traction, sinking deeper. A time of “is this what it’s supposed to be like God because I thought I heard something about a promised land, milk and honey, wide, spacious, freedom, security? Are we back in Egypt? Did we go the wrong way?” This is the “period of the judges”: after Moses, after Joshua, and now Israel is asking: “Who’s our leader? Where’s God? Are the promises still true?”

Enter the judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah & Barak, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jepthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and – last, but certainly not least – Samson. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Today we only have time for one: Gideon. Actually, we only have time for the first episode in Gideon’s story, but we’ll hear a little more about him next week. For now, let’s listen to God’s “recruitment” of Gideon:

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 On Thursday I got a very excited email from pastor Jason. It was a message forwarded from the Vineyard Church USA office with 6:8’s OFFICIAL, signed letter of adoption into the Vineyard Church USA! We’re now “Vineyard” approved and you can even find our church on the Vineyard USA online church locator! While we’ve been a Vineyard church for a while now, it feels good to be official. One of the Vineyard’s core values, and ours as well, is living in light of of God’s Kingdom: “a dynamic reality that is the future reign of God breaking into the present through the life and ministry of Jesus [in the power of the Holy Spirit].”[2]

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We say that the Kingdom is “now-but-not-yet”; it has arrived but it’s still arriving. You might even say it’s an in between time, like twilight, a time of transition from the “now” to the “not yet” that looks more like a stalemate. The “not-yet” of the Kingdom seems to be much louder and more real than the “now.” It’s easier to imagine God’s Kingdom way off in the future, up in the clouds, but right now, in this mess? When we look around at our lives and our world, it seems like we’re in a truck stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels but not moving forward, no traction, sinking deeper.

Watch the news and you’ll probably hear about Syria: 100k dead, 4.2 million internally displaced, 1.7 million refugees. You heard about the royal baby, but probably didn’t hear of the 13 children born that same day, and every day since, to Syrian refugees in a Jordanian camp where over 120k people eke out a life in the desert. The future doesn’t seem much brighter; I saw an article on Friday about the expected 50% increase in global violence due to climate change. It hit home for me because I have friends in Liberia who suffered through 14yrs of civil war where the rising price of rice bred anxiety, fear, and manipulation; leading them to war. When food prices spike due to shortages caused by irregular climates or the need for more “bio-fuel”, i.e. corn ethanol, to “combat” climate change, my friends in Liberia are once again put at risk.

But all of that’s on the other side of the world, right? Surely things are better back home? The AP released a study this week reporting that 4/5 – 80% – of American adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”[3] Last week I heard that the Philadelphia public schools re-hired 290 of the nearly 4000 employees they laid off at the beginning of the summer due to hundreds of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls.

And that’s just what makes the news. We all know there’s more. This “not yet” of the Kingdom hits even closer to home; it’s right here in the seats this morning. It’s here because we brought it here, it’s inside us; we can’t avoid it. The turmoil we see outside is just a mirror of the pain, fear, uncertainty, bitterness, and anger that we feel inside. Maybe you feel it, maybe you’re ignoring it, or hiding from it, or just completely oblivious. At some point though we all experience the not-yet: the incompleteness and inadequacy; the lack and the lies. Where are we going? Where is the Promised Land, the Kingdom? Where are we?

Slide7

We’ve arrived at “the period of the judges.” Much like us, the nation of Israel is in a tough place. Judges 2 spells out the situation clearly: God delivered Israel from Egypt and gave them the Promised Land, God was faithful to the covenant and expected the same from Israel. Israel was unfaithful, they abandoned God, worshipped the gods of people living in the Promised Land, and so God gave them over to be ruled by these foreigners. When Israel cried out to God, a judge – a deliverer, a savior, a mini-Moses – was raised up and God would be with the judge, who would set the people free and bring peace and rest to the land. Then the judge would die and the people would abandon God once more… and the cycle would begin all over again. Stuck in the mud, wheels spinning.

But each time the cycle repeated, things got a little worse. The first judge, Othniel, turns out ok; the last judge, Samson, is another story. He’s driven by lust and demands to be married to a foreigner, an idol-worshiper. He goes down in a flame of glory fighting a personal battle that does little for the people of Israel. Then the story gets even worse. The last few chapters of Judges end with a civil war between the tribes of Israel; anarchy takes over. The last verse of the book sums it up: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”[4] It sounds eerily similar to Adam and Eve in the garden, with the serpent whispering, “Did God really say… What seems right to you Eve? Adam?”

Slide8

This is the story we jump into when we find Gideon hiding in the wine press threshing out wheat in Judges 6. Israel has turned from God once again and has done “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” – idolatry of some sort.[5] As a result, God gives them over to the Midianites who plunder their land. “Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian” reads verse 6 and so they cry out to God. God hears and sends a prophet to chastise them for their unfaithfulness. In verse 10, God speaks an ominous word through the prophet: “But you [Israel] have not given heed to my voice.” You’re not listening, you’re deaf.

Enter Gideon! Things have gotten so bad that God needs to send a special messenger – an angel – in addition to a prophet just to get through to these people. So the angel appears to Gideon and says “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior”! Gideon looks up, rolls his eyes, “puh-lease… have you been living in a wine press? Don’t you see what’s happening? And you say God is with us?” Now, when most people in the Bible encounter an angel, they have a different reaction: shock, awe, silence. Gideon, he’s totally oblivious. Just like the prophet said, he’s deaf to God’s voice. He responds in bitterness, arrogance even: “What has God done for us lately? You’re wrong dude – God’s not here. It’s us and the Midianites. We’re on our own.”

Now, I’m pretty sure you can be forgiven for not realizing that you’re speaking to an angel… but look at what happens in verse 14: “Then THE LORD turned to him and said…”[6] This is God speaking directly to Gideon, completely ignoring his “Why is all this happening?”, and telling him “Go! Deliver Israel. I’m sending you. Vamoose!” Surely Gideon catches on, right? Wrong. He just has more questions, more excuses, more doubts. Gideon has ignored God’s voice through the prophet; otherwise he would know why Israel was facing so much distress.  Gideon doesn’t hear God’s voice through the angel either; he can’t imagine how God could be with him. Gideon doesn’t even hear God; he’d rather hide out in a wine press than get involved in some rescue mission with this strange man who just showed up out of the blue.

First, Gideon responds in arrogance and bitterness. Then, he gives excuses and doubts. The fact that God is still in the conversation at this point is testament enough to God’s patience and grace. In verse 16, God responds: “But I will be with you.” It’s a direct quote of Exodus 3:12, when God re-assured Moses at the burning bush. It triggers something in Gideon’s memory, the ice is beginning to melt in his brain. He’s curious now because this person – he still doesn’t realize who he’s talking to – also just assured him of total victory over Midian. He’s interested, so he asks: “How bout you give me a sign to back up this claim you’re making?” He’s timid, cautious, taking it slow, playing it safe. He politely tells God: “Hey bro, wait right here just a sec while I go cook something up for us. Just chill.” The Creator of the universe says, perhaps biting his tongue, “Ok, sure Gideon, I’ll wait.”

Preparing a meal for a stranger was an expected act of hospitality that Gideon follows in hopes that he can maybe get a little more info on the identity of this person who claims that God is with him and that he’ll defeat Midian. Of course, God hasn’t come to chit chat. As ridiculous and slightly humorous the situation may be at this point, it’s no laughing matter to be deaf to God’s voice. Israel, God’s chosen, beloved people are “greatly impoverished” and crying out for relief from the calamity they’ve brought on themselves. God is longing to bring them peace, but Gideon wants to have an interview. When the food is brought out, the angel takes over. No more wasting time. He immediately instructs Gideon to place the food on a rock and pour out the broth. Gideon says, “Well, wait just a minute. I prepared this fine meal for us to enjoy together and don’t you know food is kinda tight right now so why would I just waste it?” Gideon doesn’t say that, although that’s what we would expect from him at this point. He doesn’t question, doesn’t doubt, no excuses – he just follows direction. Then, as we like to say, God SHOWS UP.

Slide9

Gideon got the sign he was looking for and a little extra too. All of a sudden the mighty warrior is on his knees, crying out to God: Oh LORD GOD, help me, have mercy, spare my life. God hasn’t come to kill Gideon; He’s come to bring peace: “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.”[7] When Gideon finally sees, when he finally hears God’s voice, what does he do? He worships: “Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord, and called it, The Lord is peace.” The Lord is peace. Finally, some good news.

Slide10

God answers Gideon’s “why?” with “Go!” It’s not that God doesn’t care – why would God still be involved with a guy like Gideon if God didn’t care deeply? God does care about our “why’s”; God hears; God listens. God didn’t answer Gideon’s question, but I think God does something even better: God calls Gideon out of hiding to join God in the work of peace. Gideon wants justice but God calls him to be a judge. Not the answer we expect.

God answers Gideon’s “but how?” with “I AM”! Gideon protests, “How can I save Israel?” God says, “YOU CAN’T! But I can and I will. You’re asking the wrong questions Gideon. This isn’t just about you and your family and your personal peace. It’s about me and my people, my promise, my Kingdom. You’re included but the victory is mine.” Apparently, Gideon knew of how God delivered Israel from Egypt through Moses, but he obviously forgot the song Moses sang after that deliverance: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”[8] Gideon wants the credentials, the status, the power but all God can offer is God’s self. Isn’t that enough?

God answers Gideon’s uncertainty and ambivalence with “I’ll wait.” God is willing to wait with us through our bitterness, our arrogance, and our anger. God is willing to bear our insecurity and our doubts, all the times we fail to hear God’s voice, even when we’re talking face to face. God waits because God “cannot help but be gracious.”[9] There’s a time for waiting, but there’s also a time for action.  Gideon wants to interrogate but God interrupts. Is it time for us to be quiet so God can move us towards peace?

Slide11

God answers Gideon’s fear with “Peace.” This word that’s translated as “peace” is the Hebrew word shalom. It’s not the kind of I-got-a-peaceful-easy-feeling kind of peace. It’s so much bigger, deeper, and longer lasting than that. Shalom is 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 every created thing. It is what community looks like when God is at the center of every heart, every relationship, and every system. It’s what God desires for all people and all creation from the very center of our broken hearts to the broken schools in Philadelphia, throughout the broken homes in our country, and straight across our aching world groaning in the pains of childbirth for its renewal. Gideon wants this peace and God says “I AM PEACE.” Will we join in Gideon’s worship?

Gideon had to encounter and submit himself to, and worship the God who is Peace before he could join God’s work for Israel’s peace, for his own peace. I think, down deep, we all want this peace, this community of love being worked out in justice, healed hearts, shalom – the “now” of the Kingdom. But we’re all a little like Gideon; hard of hearing, wanting to be cautious and have all our questions answered so we don’t have to take any risks. But God is the same today as God was with Gideon. God can wait with us, can take our questions, our complaints, our anger, and then tell us the same thing Gideon heard: “Shalom to you.” What will we do? We want peace but are we willing to worship the God who is peace with our whole selves, not just this morning, but every day, in every moment?

Now you may say, “Well, God came to Gideon and spoke to him and showed him a miraculous sign. I’d worship God too if God would do that for me! Gideon had it easy.” You’re right. As far as I know, God hasn’t called out fire from any rocks around here… not yet at least. I haven’t heard of any angels coming down lately either. Of course, why would God send an angel when God has already come to us as a living, breathing human being who walked and talked, who died and rose again? Why would God call fire from a rock when God descended like tongues of fire as the Holy Spirit was poured out over all flesh? God has come. God is here.

And, you know, God realizes we’re forgetful, so Jesus gave us a sign, a way to remember what God is up to.

Slide12

He took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. He took wine, gave thanks, and poured it. He said, “This is my body. This is my blood. DO THIS IN REMEMBERANCE OF ME.” Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez describes the celebration of communion as “a memorial of Christ which presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of his life – a total giving to others. It is a thanksgiving for the love of God which is revealed in these events.”[10] In this sign, we see, and feel, and taste the truth of Paul’s words in Ephesians:

Slide13

You may be asking God “Why?” this morning? Maybe you’re not even on speaking terms. You may be giving God excuses, delay tactics, avoidance measures. You may have all kinds of questions about who God is and who you are and what God is doing in the world and in you. You may just be completely oblivious. I don’t have all the answers for your questions or all the solutions to bring shalom to the world. But, if I’ve learned anything from Gideon this morning, it’s this: the first step, the foundational step towards shalom is to worship the God is who Shalom. I can’t answer you’re why, but I can answer you’re where: right here in front of you in this broken bread and this poured out juice, in the God you meet here, the God who has set this table and welcomed us all; right here in the community that gathers around this table. God has called us beloved children, has offered all of God’s self, can we be quiet and hear God’s voice today? Can we be still and worship the God who is Peace?


[1] Judges 6:11-24, NRSV.

[4] Judges 21:25.

[5] Judges 6:1.

[6] Judges 6:14.

[7] Judges 6:23.

[8] Exodus 15:2.

[9] J. Clinton McCann, Interpretation: Judges (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002), 63.

[10] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 148.

[11] Ephesians 2:13-20.

The God Who Gathers the Outcasts

Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast,
who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,
and refrains from doing any evil.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.

Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

Isaiah 56:1-8

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.