Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Jesus, Hosea, and Justice as Healing

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Thanks to my good friend, Nick Melton, for inviting me to share a message on justice with the college ministry at Auburn UMC. 

Matthew 9:9-13

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

I’d like to start with a story. A slightly embarrassing story that comes from my illustrious elementary school playground football career. I think I was in 3rd grade, maybe 4th. We were outside playing football during PE. It was 2 hand touch of course. It was all boys – except for one girl – Sally. Sally was the tom-boy in our class. A sweet girl, but kind of rough around the edges, sometimes a tad mean. Definitely tougher and bigger than me. So, there we were on the fields of glory, the boys and Sally, and my team is receiving a kickoff. It comes to me. I field it perfectly and take off down the field behind our expertly planned blocking scheme. It was basically like the KICK-SIX play. Epic. I sprint past the other team and there’s nothing but wide open field in front of me. Touchdown… almost. Sally. Somehow Sally had caught up to me. Not enough to tackle me but close enough to trip me. I go flying, and break my arm on the landing. My first broken bone; broken by a girl. Of course I sobbed and the everyone was mad at Sally, game over. I share that story to ask this question: what does justice look like in this story? Is justice having a flag thrown by the ref? Sally being ejected? Maybe I should’ve gotten to break her arm? Or maybe my family should have sued the school or my PE teacher? Maybe it could have been a class action lawsuit against people who take cheap shots on the playground? Or even better, maybe we should have pushed for a law to put playground bone breakers and dream crushers behind bars?!?! Are any of those things justice? What is justice really about? Keep those questions in mind as we explore this story from Matthew’s gospel.

This is a story you’ve probably heard before: the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. It seems simple enough, but there is so much to unpack in this brief encounter. What makes it so interesting and complex is in verse 13, towards the end of the passage, when Jesus tells the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, no sacrifice.’” Jesus is actually quoting the Old Testament prophet Hosea. So not only do we need to explore the dynamics between Jesus, Pharisees, and tax collectors, but we also need to know something about Hosea, his life, and his prophetic message. So, we’ll start the New Testament part and then do a crash course on Hosea. Here we go:

Tax collectors. Everyday Jewish folk despised these guys. They were also Jewish but they cooperated with the oppressive, “gentile” regime of Rome. For as long as they did that, they were considered impure according to Jewish law and socially excluded from Jewish life. Some or most were also corrupt (remember Zacchaeus?). Taking their own slice of the outrageously high taxes they collected. These were not the kind of people any self-respecting Jewish rabbi would want as his disciples. They had sold their souls. No one wanted them. They were sinners under God’s judgment.

Not only does Jesus say, “Hey, you, condemned impure tax collector, come be my disciple!!”, but then he goes to eat with a whole crowd of them. Along with other “sinners,” which probably meant prostitutes. More impure, unclean, condemned folks under God’s judgment who were “justly” excluded from Jewish life according to THE LAW. Not only is Jesus hanging out with them, making himself unclean, but he’s eating with them! Having a meal with someone meant so much more back then. It was perceived by some, the Pharisees, as passive acceptance of these people’s sinful, unclean lifestyles. It showed a profound disregard for “the law” in order to welcome and show compassion and mercy towards those who were excluded. Jesus would not only eat with “these kind” of people; he called them to be his closest followers and take up his mission. This is outrageous.

Which brings us to the folks who were outraged: the Pharisees. These guys – and they were only men – were the strictest sect of Jewish folk in their day. They studied the law of Moses like no one else and made it their life goal to make themselves “righteous” before the law. They were very very serious about not breaking the law. They created more and more laws to keep themselves from breaking the laws. This is a very small group of highly educated, highly respected, probably wealthy men who held positions of power over most everyday Jewish folk. When they see Jesus go to eat with Matthew and his sinner buddies, they are incensed by Jesus’ disregard for the law they love so dearly.

But before we go into Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and dive into Hosea, let’s step back just a little and explore the context of this passage in Matthew’s gospel. We’re in chapter 9. Back a few chapters, in Matthew 5-7, we find Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount; the Beatitudes, the Lord’s prayer, several instances where Jesus re-interprets Moses’ law. At the end of the sermon, people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority – not like the other teachers of the law, ie the Pharisees. In a key verse, Matthew 5:17, Jesus teaches that he and God’s kingdom are the fulfillment of the law. He will show them what the law of Moses was all about in the first place. Then, a few verses later in Matthew 5:20, Jesus makes a somewhat confusing claim about the law of Moses and our “righteousness”, our justice, according to the law. He says, “Unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Interesting, because Jesus seems to be disregarding the law in our passage by eating with sinners and calling them to be disciples. If Jesus has come to fulfill the law, to fulfill justice, and if Jesus’ disciples are called to be even more righteous, more just, than Pharisees, then how do we make sense of what Jesus is doing in our passage?

To answer that question, we need to dive into the Old Testament, to the prophet Hosea. When Jesus responds in Matthew 9:12-13 to the Pharisees’ indignation against his seemingly unlawful behavior, Jesus commands them to study Hosea. He quotes Hosea 6:6, arguably THE key passage in Hosea’s message. Here’s the full verse: “I [God] desire mercy, not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, instead of burnt offerings.” By quoting this one verse from Hosea, Jesus is telling the Pharisees to remember the whole message of Hosea. So, who is this guy?

Hosea. A prophet. Sent to proclaim God’s truth to the northern kingdom of Israel before it was attacked, defeated, and scattered by the Assyrian empire. After this defeat and Hosea’ death, his message became popular in the southern kingdom of Judah when that kingdom found itself in a similar position with the Babylonian empire. Babylon would eventually attack and defeat Judah, destroying Jerusalem and the temple, and sending what was left of God’s people people into exile. So, the socio-political context of Hosea’s message is one of impending doom. Foreign armies are threatening. The kings of Israel are increasingly corrupt, foolish, and trying to make deals with other foreign powers as last ditch efforts to save themselves. They have turned from God, worshiped idols, forgotten God’s law, and are generally relying on their own strength. Of course, during this time, they have continued to “follow” their religious rituals. Sacrifices and offerings are still being given at the temple where God is “worshiped.” But the people have forgotten God and are exploiting the poor, there is rampant inequality, injustice, farmers are losing their land, the king/temple is centralizing wealth and power. They are ignoring God, but still going through the motions of religious piety, as if they cared, as if God would have to intervene and save them as long as they “followed the rules” of sacrifices and offerings which they assume will “justify” their actions.

God calls Hosea into this unjust, idolatrous society on the brink of collapse to proclaim a message of God’s judgment, of anger, but also of profound, unending, steadfast love, and – one day – of restoration, redemption, reconciliation. You may remember that Hosea is the prophet God calls to marry a woman, Gomer, a woman who he knows will be unfaithful to him. Some say she was a prostitute. In any case, they had 3 kids together, but then she is unfaithful to Hosea with other lovers. When this infidelity is uncovered, she leaves him or is sent away by Hosea. This was in accordance with the law of Moses. But then God calls Hosea to go take her back, to renew his love for her. Why does God put Hosea through all of this? Because God wants Hosea to feel, to KNOW, in the pit of his stomach, the immense pain that God feels for his people Israel. Hosea proclaims God’s unfathomable love like no other prophet because he felt the betrayal, the rejection, the broken promises, the fleeting commitments, the disappointments of the one who had promised to love him and him alone. God wanted Hosea to KNOW this – not abstractly, not as a nice concept – but to know it in his bones because this is how God loves God’s people. This is how God feels about our idolatry and injustice.

So, what does this verse, Hosea 6:6 mean? Through Hosea, God is pleading with Israel to see the empty hypocrisy of their ways. God wants THEM, not their sacrifices. God wants their hearts, their minds, their bodies – all of them. God wants to bless them, to see them flourish, to see them enjoy and steward God’s creation, to love each other, to love God, to seek the good of their neighbors, of widows, of orphans, of strangers, of the poor.

Hosea 6:6 is setup as a parallelism. Two statements which mirror each other. Mercy – not sacrifice; knowledge of God – not burnt offerings. Mercy is in parallel with “knowledge of God.” Sacrifice is in parallel with burnt offerings. The two things in these pairs are inseparable and we can’t understand one without the other. The people of Israel say they know God, but they have abandoned love of God and neighbor, they show no mercy, they live unjustly – and this shows they do not KNOW God. The Hebrew verb translated here as “knowledge” has a very rich meaning. It means so much more than head knowledge. Its not an abstract, conceptual knowledge ABOUT God; it’s a full bodied, emotional, passionate, deep kind of knowing that permeates thoughts and actions. The same Hebrew verb is used in the scripture, “Adam KNEW his wife Eve and she bore a son” and we all know what that means! SEX! Let me tell you: sex is not about an abstract, conceptual knowledge. Its mutual love and affection; it’s a shared commitment. When I say I know my wife, I don’t just mean that I know her birthdate, social security number, and address; my knowing of her and my love for her and with her are inseparable. THIS is what God wants from God’s people. The kind of deep knowing, in partnership, in friendship, that is lived out in the way we care for each other and structure our society. When Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, he is bringing this whole drama, this love story between God and Israel, back into the light for the Pharisees to see with fresh eyes.

So, when we left Matthew a few minutes ago, we were left with the question of how to understand what Jesus was doing eating with sinners and tax collectors and welcoming them into God’s kingdom – disregarding the law. Especially in light of his teaching that God’s kingdom FULFILLS the law and that our righteousness, our justice, in relation to the law must EXCEED that of the Pharisees. It’s seems contradictory.

But the contradiction fades when we understand justice the way Jesus did, the way Hosea did. The Pharisees were confused and outraged because they studied the law to justify themselves, to insulate themselves from “sinners”, to exclude, to protect themselves and their power over others, to set themselves up as the ones to be imitated and respected, as the ones to enforce the laws on others and punish them for their disobedience. But Jesus takes them back to the deep, prophetic well of Hosea, to reveal God’s heart, the heart of justice: mercy, compassion, steadfast love and faithfulness, solidarity, co-suffering, sacrificial service, healing, restoration, wholeness, hospitality, peace, reconciliation, LOVE. When Jesus teaches that our justice and righteousness must exceed the Pharisees, he means that we can’t be content with mere obedience to law, as good as that may be. Rather, we are called and empowered to seek the restorative, redemptive intent of the law through concrete acts of mercy which lead to restoration, healing, and wholeness on personal, communal, and societal levels.

The immediate context of Matthew 8 and 9 bears out this re-orientation of justice towards restoration and healing through acts of mercy. There are 9 stories of Jesus healing folks or exorcising demons in these chapters. All these acts of mercy are demonstrations of God’s kingdom. Jesus has come to welcome the sinners, the excluded, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, into a pursuit of justice and righteousness, of healing and wholeness, in God’s kingdom. Jesus comes as a physician, a healer. The end of Matthew 9 describes Jesus as a shepherd who has compassion, ie mercy, on the crowds, the sheep who are harassed and helpless, as he heals, restores, and brings wholeness.

Now, do you think the Pharisees listened to this teaching? No, of course not! What’s crazy is that Jesus REPEATS this exact verse from Hosea to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:7 after they get all upset about his disciples picking grain to eat on the Sabbath day, which was “breaking the law” of not working on the Sabbath. They still didn’t get it. Then, this same idea comes up in Matthew 23 where Jesus is EXCORIATING the Pharisees about their hypocrisy. Matthew 23:23 says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” In other words, I’m glad you’re so concerned about following every iota of the law that you make the effort to measure a tenth of your kitchen spices to obey the laws about tithing, but you don’t love people, you don’t care about the real needs of real people. You miss the forest for the trees. I like your commitment to obeying the law, but not if you’re going to miss the whole point of the law in the first place.

But the biblical evidence in Matthew for this deeper understanding of justice and righteousness founded in mercy doesn’t stop there. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats to describe the final judgement before God, the ultimate act of justice. What will be God’s criteria for justice and righteousness? Strict obedience to the law? Ceremonial purity? No. It’s mercy. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner. Acts of mercy alongside “the least of these my brothers and sisters” will be the evidence of our entrance into God’s kingdom. Justice as mere obedience to law apart from mercy leads to separation from God. It leads to death.

Is this simply works-based salvation? No, its not. Are we not saved by grace through faith? Yes, we are. God’s love for us has not, does not, and will never depend on our actions. We are saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and nothing else. Our works of mercy, of pursuing justice, wholeness, peace, and the common good for all do not EARN our salvation. They are our joyful response to the love of God we experience deep in our hearts. How can we do nothing when we look at our world, our communities, our neighbors, our own lives and see the profound suffering, brokenness, pain, discrimination, hate, and apathy that surround us and invade our lives? God’s creation is moaning, all of us, earth, wind, sky, plants, animals, the entire universe is groaning for the promised restoration of God. And God longs to restore us as well. Hosea captured this longing in probably one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture:

Therefore I [the Lord] am now going to allure her [my people Israel]; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of [trouble] a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ I will remove the names of the [idols] from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked. In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will [KNOW] the Lord. “In that day I will respond,” declares the Lord— “I will respond to the skies, and they will respond to the earth, and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. I will plant her [my people Israel] for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’

Behold the heart of our God, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, longing for our redemption, for our love, for the wholeness, healing, flourishing of not just “God’s people” but for all people, all creation.

The problem is that we don’t want this. Not really, not actually. If we do, our lives don’t show it. The way of the Pharisees is too easy, too enticing, too safe, too comfortable, and we settle for it far too often.

So, back to my playground football broken arm story. What does justice look like? Is it throwing a flag, a lawsuit, a national ban on playground football? No, justice looks like a healed arm, back on the football field, with my friend Sally, playing and enjoying God’s good gifts, full of life. That’s a process. My bones had to be re-set, put in a cast for protection so they could heal. Then my muscles had to regain their strength. It involves forgiveness. Repairing relationships. And trusting each other again.

Now, I get this is a kind of a trivial analogy. It was a simple fracture that healed easily. But I share it to call our attention to the many fractures in our lives and our world today. These are not “simple”. They are what doctors call “compound fractures”. The ones where bones have torn through muscles and skin and are sticking out, exposed to infection, rot, and decay. We are probably aware of these compound fractures – human trafficking, racial injustice and white supremacy, grinding, dehumanizing poverty, war, genocide, sexism and misogyny, hunger, global migration, wealth inequality, discriminatory laws and law enforcement, environmental destruction, the desecration of life in so many myriad of ways.

What do we do? Jesus calls to be even more righteous, more just, than the Pharisees. God longs for our restoration. Do we care? Are our own hearts broken by these compound fractures that break God’s heart? Are we, like the Pharisees, busying ourselves studying the Bible, being “good” people, reading theology, winning arguments against atheists or other “heretics”, just so we can protect ourselves, insulate ourselves, justify ourselves, and stay out of the “messiness” of things like politics and economics? Have we bought into the Pharisaical notion of justice that excuses us from any responsibility to seek the common good so we can sit around in the pews and wait for God to snatch us up into heaven?

Mercy calls us to respond in concrete ways to seek the healing and wholeness of our hurting neighbors. Who are they? What are their stories? Too often, “doing justice” is limited to changing laws and policies, to understanding “issues”. Please hear me out: this is not bad. We need to work for more just laws and policies and for people to understand the issues deeply and thoroughly. But its not enough, justice doesn’t end there and its not where I think I should begin my pursuit of justice. As a person who doesn’t experience much injustice, my first step of mercy is to listen, to serve, to lament, and feel the weight of suffering caused by the brokenness of our world. One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, says it this way: “We cannot love issues, but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal with issues.” And deal with them we must.

As we love people who are hurting, God graciously opens our eyes to our own brokenness, and how our brokenness and the brokenness of those we love are interconnected, one and the same. Ultimately, seeking justice will cost us – those who like me enjoy the privileges that others do not. Our hearts will be broken, our lives will change, repentance will not be easy. But this is what God desires: mercy, not sacrifice. We must come to see that Jesus, and he alone, is Lord and Healer – not us. Doing justice cannot be our attempt to fix or save others as if we had no need of a healer. Another favorite author of mine, Claudio Oliver, captures this conviction:

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer… when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda. God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed.

It may not sound like it, but this is very, very good news. We are not called to save the world by seeking justice and righteousness. As the prophet Micah said, we are called to walk humbly with God – all of us broken folks together – as we do justice and love mercy.

God desires mercy, not sacrifice. A Christian pursuit of justice must be oriented towards the healing, restoration, and wholeness of all people – ourselves included. It begins with concrete acts of mercy. The question is: Do we care? Have our hearts been broken by the pain and suffering of our world? Or do we hide behind our privilege refusing to care, refusing to listen? May we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Break our hearts for what breaks yours, O God, our Healer.

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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.