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B'Midbar/Numbers 18:13 The firstfruits of all that is in their land that they bring to the L-rd: it shall be for you;
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After confirming to Aharon, the Cohen Gadol, that the Levites have been given to him and his sons to stand alongside them and help them with the work of the sanctuary, provided always that the priests alone have access to the altar and the Holy Place,HaShem is in the middle of listing the gifts and offerings - given to Him by the people of Israel - that He is making over to the priests for their subsistence: their food and drink. Although HaShem makes it very clear that "You shall, however, have no territorial share among them or own any portion in their midst" (B'Midbar 18:20, NJPS), it is equally clear that the priests need to eat, to have food on their table, to be able to maintain their wives and children, so He is giving them His offerings as their provision: "I am your portion and your share among the Israelites" (ibid., NJPS). The priests, their families and their households, eat at the table of HaShem.
What are these firstfruits?Ibn Ezra replies that while "the Hebrew says merely 'the first of everything in their land'; the translations understand correctly that this refers to the first of everything that grows from the soil." The Bekhor Shor says, somewhat tersely, "this refers to the seven species of D'varim chapter 8," where the land of Israel is described as "a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey" (D'varim 8:8, NJPS). Gunther Plaut agrees that the biblical text makes no restrictions - firstfruits apply to everything, "but the actual practice was to offer only 'from the seven kinds', the fruit for which the land was famous: wheat, barley, wine, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, dates (including date honey)." The early rabbis report this is what happened in Second Temple times: "They do not bring firstfruits other than the seven kinds, not from dates of the hill country, not from fruits of the valley, and not from olives which are not of the choicest kind" (m. Bikkurim 1:3).
Firstfruits, however, are not tithes - as Nehemiah shows: "We will bring to the storerooms of the House of our G-d the first part of our dough, and our gifts of grain, and of the fruit of every tree, wine and oil for the priests, and the tithes of our land for the Levites -- the Levites who collect the tithe in all our towns subject to royal service" (Nehemiah 10:38, NJPS). Tithes are separated from the finished commodity when the work is complete, but before any of it is consumed. In that sense, the tithe is the first part of the product, but you cannot calculate the tithe until you know how much you have. The Mishnah says it is "grain, after the pile is smoothed off or stacked ... wine, after it has been skimmed ... oil, after it has dripped down into the trough" (m. Ma'aserot 1:6-7). Firstfruits, on the other hand, are "literally, 'the first ripe' of the crops in the field and orchard. Jacob Milgrom reports that "the term lehem bikkurim ('A man came from Baal-shalishah and he brought the man of G-d some bread of the first reaping ...', 2 Kings 4:24, NJPS) means bread made from first ripe grain."
RabbiHirsch draws the distinction between t'rumah [heave-offerings] and bikkurim [first-fruits], using the verbs with which the are associated: , they will give (B'Midbar 18:12), and , they will bring (v. 13). "The produce which is liable to the duty of giving t'rumah is already completely in Man's possession, belongs entirely to him. From that which he has taken to himself, before he enjoys is, he gives the first part to G-d. The produce which is liable to the duty of giving bikkurim is still standing in the field attached to the ground, but instead of bringing it home to himself, he brings the first part home to the Sanctuary to acknowledge that what ripens in Jewish fields is, in the first place 'bringings of the holy' as it is written, 'The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the L-RD your G-d' (Shemot 23:19, ESV). During Second Temple times, this was celebrated by elaborate processions, with music and song: an ox with its horns overlaid with gold, a flutist, being greeted by the priests and Levites and all the craftsmen of Jerusalem, before going up the the Temple and singing in the Temple courts (m. Bikkurim 3:2-9).
Clearly, the reason for bringing firstfruits to HaShem is that the Torah commands it. However, the fulfillment of this mitzvah results in blessing. Rabbi Akiva said, "The Torah has required to bring the omer of barley on Pesach, because it is the season of barley, so that the grain-harvest would be blessed on its account. It required bringing firstfruits on Shavuot, because it is the season of orchards, so that on its account the produce of fruit-bearing trees will be blessed. It required bringing the water offering at Sukkot, so that the rain would be blessed on its account" (t. Sukkah 3:18). Giving the first to HaShem, regardless of how much more may or may not follow, ensures that He is blessed and that by faith the rest of the harvest (or rain) will be blessed and follow in due course.
The followers of Yeshua are also firstfruits. Just as Yeshua Himself "has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20, ESV), not only the best but the first - "the first-born among many brethren" (Romans 8:29, NASB) - so that many may follow, so in turn G-d "of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures" (James 1:18, ESV). We have been chosen and called out from among mankind, so that even more may follow and the harvest field should bring forth a rich and bountiful harvest for Yeshua. But how is this supposed to work?
Yeshua challenged the disciples by asking them, "Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, then comes the harvest'?" (John 4:35, ESV). They were all men of the country; they could see the fields around them - they knew what harvest time looked like. But then Yeshua said, "Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest" (ibid.., ESV). You need to see the fields of the kingdom, He says, and recognise that people are already ripe and ready for harvest, for being brought into the kingdom of G-d. But the process is already under way, He adds, "Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together" (v. 46, ESV). He is speaking in the context of a Samaritan village where - it seems - practically the whole village is about to believe in Him; there was the harvest, right in front of the disciples' eyes.
Given the delegated authority and commission that we have as disciples of our Master, Yeshua, we are not only firstfruits ourselves, but are called to work with Him to bring in more firstfruits in every generation. We are the harvest workers in our days. Let's look at the context of the job and why it is important. Matthew reports that, "when He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest" (Matthew 9:36-38, ESV). Yeshua saw the people around Him in Second Temple Judea and the Galilee and recognised that they needed a shepherd, therefore He commissioned His immediate disciples not only to continue to work in the harvest field, but to pray for more workers. This is a matter of compassion and outreach: meeting people where they are and introducing them to Yeshua so that He may shepherd His flock.
Luke's recording of Yeshua's words and context is slightly different - "After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of Him, two by two, into every town and place where He Himself was about to go. And He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest" (Luke 10:1-2, ESV). We have the same words spoken, but the setting is now the sending of the disciples ahead of Yeshua, to go everywhere that He was about to go, preparing the way by proclaiming the kingdom, healing and sick and so on. They go, as His firstfruits, so that others in the villages might catch the vision and become firstfruits too, waiting to welcome Him in person. That too is exactly our calling: we go ahead of Yeshua to the places and people where He Himself is about to come, to prepare hearts and proclaim His arrival and demonstrate the presence of the kingdom of G-d before He gets there. We are heralds and ambassadors, sent out by Him to announce Him and prepare His way. We are to bring a harvest of firstfruits to Him so that He, in turn, may bring in the fullness of the harvest to lay before the Father.
We live in times when many of the folk around us are harassed and helpless, driven by the modern consumer culture into ever greater debt and stress, working longer hours just to keep up, with no real idea of where they are going or why. We have been commissioned by Yeshua Himself to work in His fields before He comes, to bring in the harvest of firstfruits and prepare the way for His return. To do that, we must needs pray for Yeshua to commission more workers to join us in the work of the kingdom and bring in His harvest. The days are getting short and His return is drawing ever closer. Let us sing and shout, rejoicing in our work, bringing our firstfruits up to the Lord of the harvest!
Further Study: Proverbs 3:9-10; Luke 9:1-6; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15
Application: Do you look around you and see stressed and anxious people almost everywhere you look, desperately hoping for some sense of meaning for their lives and a way to get off the hamster wheel that modern life has become? Ask the L-rd of the Harvest to send you into His harvest field to prepare a way for Him to come and bring in His harvest!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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