B'Midbar/Numbers 18:12 All the fat of new oil and all the fat of new wine and grain - their first that they give to the L-rd - I give them to you.
The repeated word , here translated literally 'fat', but by many versions as 'best', describes the first gift portion of their produce that the people bring toHaShem for the priests: "All the best of the new oil, wine, and grain -- the choice parts that they present to the L-RD -- I give to you" (B'Midbar 18:12, JPS). It is not the Bikkurim first-fruits offering that is brought at the beginning of the harvest, and neither is it the formal tithe that the Levites give to the priests out of the portion that they receive from the people; this is the offering covered in D'varim: "This then shall be the priests' due from the people: ... You shall also give him the first fruits of your new grain and wine and oil, and the first shearing of your sheep" (D'varim 18:3-4, JPS). It has no specific size or amount, such as as a tithe, it is simply a gift given from harvest and sacrifices. The Mishnah suggests that "one fortieth is generous, one fiftieth average and one sixtieth niggardly" (m. Terumah 4:3). Rashi describes it as the "great t'rumah", the great offering.
In this verse,Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew "all fat" to Aramaic , "all good", while in verses 29, 30 and 32, Onkelos switches explicitly to , 'best', because - Drazin and Wagner point out - the context is clearer. Sa'adia Ga'on, Ibn Ezra and the Radak all support this, pointing to the use of in B'resheet 45:18, D'varim 32:14, Psalm 81:17 and Psalm 147:14. This seems to counter the opinion of the early Sages. The Mishnah tells us that "T'rumah may not be given from one kind for another kind, and if one does so, the t'rumah is not valid ... Rabbi Judah says: At all times it must be given only from the very best" (m. Terumot 2:4). This is confirmed in the Talmud: "We have learnt elsewhere: We must not separate [t'rumah from] one kind of grain for another, and if one does so separate, his t'rumah is no t'rumah. Whence is this proved? Rabbi Ammi reported in the name of Rabbi Jannai, (another version is: Rabbi Ammi reported in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish): [Scripture says]: 'All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain' (B'Midbar 18:12). The Torah thus said: Give the best for this and the best for that" (b. Bechorot 53b).
RabbiHirsch combines the questions of quantity and quality: "There is no fixed quantity - the duty would be fulfilled by a single grain for the whole heap of grain. But it corresponds to the idea which this duty is to represent that this one grain should come from the very best of the heap. One cannot take the offering collectively from different kinds of produce, but must give it separately from each kind. Each kind is a separate gift from G-d, from which a distinct offering is required for the priest."
Looking from a different angle, Jacob Milgrom suggests that the word , instead of 'first' has the idea of "first processed" in the context of these particular items. He points out that "grain, wine and oil, as well as fruit syrup, leaven, dough and wool (drawing also from Vayikra 2:11-12, B'Midbar 5:20-21, and D'varim 18:4) are clearly processed and not products in their natural state." Grinding, fermenting, pressing, kneading and other operations have been carried out to render the raw product ready for human consumption - when this is complete, then the offering is due. Milgrom also explains that "priestly terminology distinguishes them from bikkurim," which in turn he sees as "first ripe". This introduces a level of intentionality or deliberation into the process. A first-fruit is exactly that: the first cherry, strawberry, date or handful of ripe grain. It is not selected or chosen, it is the first. Provided it is unblemished, it is the offering, regardless of its quality. The growers of pepper in the Far East have known from antiquity that the later fruit, picked from higher up on the vine and naturally dried in the sun, has the stronger and better flavour than the first low-hanging fruit which is picked and dried quickly to meet demand. Waiting until the crop is fully ripened, harvested and processed allows the best quality to be intentionally selected and given to the priest as an offering to the L-rd.
Look how G-d provides for those He has called out to serve Him. He commanded that there should be a regular stream of supply for the priests as they served G-d and the people, ministering in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, to mediate the sacrifices and offerings to the L-rd and teach the people about His ways. These gifts were not to be just the leftovers, or even the first box or crate of produce harvested, but the first quality, that would keep well and provide nourishment and nutrients over a period of time, between harvests and in times of supply stress.
Fifteen hundred or so years on, we have Peter's first letter, written perhaps in the fifties or sixties of the Common Era. Although scholars disagree over exactly who Peter was addressing - whether he originally had in mind just believers in Messiah among the smaller Diaspora Jewish community, or the wider and growing ecclesia, the church family, of believing Jews and Gentiles in the geographic area of the Jewish Diaspora - he tells them that "you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to G-d through Yeshua the Messiah" (1 Peter 2:5, NASB). He then applies the words that G-d first spoke to the Israelites gathered at Mt. Sinai only two months out of Egypt, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for G-d's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (v. 9, NASB). G-d's people, the believers in Messiah Yeshua, occupy a position of priesthood: they are the ones sharing the Good News about Yeshua and the kingdom of G-d around the Roman empire. Paul tells them that, "the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:14, NASB), looking perhaps to Yeshua's words to the seventy disciples that He sent out in pairs ahead of Him in the Galil: "Stay in that same house, eating and drinking what they offer, for a worker deserves his wages - don't move about from house to house" (Luke 10:7, CJB). It was an honour to have a man of G-d staying in your house, using it as a base for ministry and you would naturally feed him - and his team, as necessary - with as good and tasty food as you could afford.
Now let's run forward another two thousand years and ask the question about what happens today. How does G-d provide for those who are His - who are serving Him in a complex, modern and technological world? In some rural areas the matrons of the chapel still fight over who is going to offer the preacher lunch after the Sunday morning service, particularly if they are a visitor. A minister may find a box of half a dozen eggs and a bag of home-grown tomatoes waiting anonymously for him at the end of a meeting. These are ways of blessing a servant who has laboured in the word to bring a message of encouragement to the people, and reflect the Israelite tradition of giving gifts to the priests. But most of us have jobs and earn regular salaries; even missionaries these days are employed by their mission agency so that they are covered by insurance and have their pension and tax liabilities addressed. Income is generated by sending out regular newsletters, by post and email, with pre-paid envelopes and little 'Donate' buttons to encourage the recipients to help support the work of an individual or an organisation. Texts, emails and facebook can relay news, reports and requests for prayer and funding back from the mission field - whether that is a third-world context, a deprived inner city area or a beach mission - within seconds. Recipients can be urged to donate right now, by text message or by card, in convenient and painless ways. Fundraisers have learned that if they don't get the reader to donate now, before their attention span expires and they switch to something else, they probably won't get it at all. Little and often, catching people on the run works best.
But where is G-d in this? Where is the intentional selection of the best? The deliberate and considered giving of quality and value to a priest (or someone effectively functioning in that role, be they a teacher, counsellor or mediator) out of a response of gratitude to the L-rd for relationship, service or even duty. Can those who have been called by G-d into a position of service and dependence still expect Him to provide for them over the long-haul, between the harvests as it were? I believe that we can and should; both those who give and those who receive should be intentional, should seek the L-rd for their needs and their giving, honouring the L-rd, the giver and the receiver to show that the kingdom of G-d still works according to its original design!
Further Study: Psalm 147:12-19; Galatians 6:7-10; Isaiah 61:1-7
Are you a quick and impulsive giver, responding when your button is pushed or
your conscience triggered, or are you a deliberate, relational and thoughtful
giver? If you receive, do you work for lots of little nibbles - lamenting
their off-hand nature - or do you trust the L-rd for long-term steady
provision? Take stock of the economy of the kingdom working in your life and
be more intentional about giving and receiving today.
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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© Jonathan Allen, 2016
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.