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B'Midbar/Numbers 28:26 And on the day of the firstfruits, when you bring the new grain offering to the L-rd, on your weeks, it shall be a holy calling for you; you shall not do any work of service.
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Our text contains three very long Hebrew words. The first is , "the firstfruits"; the second is , "when you bring"; the third, , "in your weeks". By contrast, the festival that it describes is often very short: frequently misunderstood and rarely celebrated as it should be. Both the Torah itself and the development of Judaism show the character of the festival evolving over time. Church history too shows that the festival, despite a recent resurgence of interest has fared little better in the Christian world. What is the day of firstfruits about and how do we bring a new grain offering to the L-rd today?
Firstfruits, or as it called there, , Hag HaKatziyr, the Feast of the Harvest, makes its first appearance in the initial tranche of laws that were given to Moshe and the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai immediately following the Ten Words: "You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread -- eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you -- at the set time in the month of Aviv, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed; and the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field" (Shemot 23:15-16, NJPS). Here it is clearly one of the three pilgrimage festivals - "Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the L-RD" (v. 17, NJPS) - when Israel is to pay attendance upon HaShem, but has no specific date or length. Neither is it linked, at this stage, to any particular crop of agricultural activity other than "the harvest".
A second appearance with a second name is found during Moshe's second forty-day session with HaShem on Mt. Sinai, after the sin of the Calf.HaShem says, "Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In ploughing time and in harvest you shall rest. You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year's end" (Shemot 34:21-22, NJPS). Here the festival is named as , Hag Shavu'ot, the Feast of Weeks, and we are told that it is linked to the firstfruits of the wheat harvest. Wheat is the second, slower growing, cereal harvest of the ancient world; barley is the first and has its own firstfruits day celebrated during the week of Matzah.
Here, the third name for the day is , Yom HaBikkurim, the day of firstfruits, when HaShem commands the people to bring a grain offering of new grain, the first of the new year's crop of wheat. " new grain" is echoed in Vayikra 23:16, "then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the L-RD" (NJPS). On this day, fifty days - or seven weeks plus one day - after the early firstfruits, the people are to bring from their settlements, "two loaves of bread as an elevation offering; each shall be made of two-tenths of a measure of choice flour, baked after leavening, as first fruits to the L-RD" (Vayikra 23:17, NJPS). This bread is waved as an elevation offering before HaShem, but none of it may go on the altar as it leavened bread, made with yeast: "No meal offering that you offer to the L-RD shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the L-RD. You may bring them to the L-RD as an offering of choice products; but they shall not be offered up on the altar for a pleasing odour" (2:11-12, NJPS).
Lastly, the day is given a fourth name by the rabbis: Z'man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai. This is based on the verses, "On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai" (Shemot 19:1, NJPS), and "On the third day the L-RD will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai" (v. 11, NJPS), which equates closely to the end of the fifty day counting of the Omer/sheaf - fifty days since Israel left Egypt.
There is a disagreement between some of the Jewish commentators about the purpose of this feast. OvadiahSforno says that it is "on account of your weeks - because of ... ', the weeks appointed for harvest' (Jeremiah 5.24, NJPS)), which I kept for you." Rabbi Pelkovitz expands this to, "You shall bring this offering of two loaves in recognition of G-d's blessing granted to you during these seven weeks which brought you to this harvest." Rabbi Hirsch, on the other hand, says that it is, "on the completion of your weeks, after you have counted, not the weeks of the ripening of the harvests, but your weeks, your maturing, your becoming spiritually and morally ripe for the reception and carriers of the Divine Torah, from the receipt of freedom and independence; and then again you are called away from the work of serving the world and invited to the service of G-d, to His Sanctuary."
We can see, therefore, a change in focus and meaning of the festival of Shavu'ot over time. Commenting on how it is presented here in B'Midbar chapters 28-29, the priestly calendar, Thomas Dozeman points out that "the Feast of Weeks is an agricultural festival that is not fixed in the priestly calendar. Calculations for determining its date are not even given here."1 Its position in the Torah alone implies a later time (by 40 years!) than Vayikra chapter 23. We can see that Vayikra 23:9-22 emphasises the role of lay Israelites - bringing the first fruits, offering the sacrifice, determining the date (by counting); B'Midbar 28:26-31, on the other hand, emphasises sacrifices by the priests. In spite of the earlier insistence that it was a pilgrimage feast, Jacob Milgrom suggests, "it is significant that the festival is not called hag in the priestly texts, implying that pilgrimage to the sanctuary was nor necessary (nor could it be expected in the midst of the grain harvest). This may account for its absence from the festival list in Ezekiel 45:21-25, which is concerned solely with temple celebrations."
Another change is from an agricultural focus to a theological focus, from bring an offering of bread to remembering the giving of the Torah, the heavenly food by which man must live. This change was substantially under way by Second Temple times, emphasising Moshe's comment that HaShem fed the people with manna in the wilderness so that "He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the L-RD" (D'varim 8:3, ESV), echoed by Yeshua in response to His first temptation. Today, Shavu'ot is something of a clandestine festival within Judaism. Without a temple, the offering of the two loaves of bread made with the first grain of the wheat harvest is impossible. Although there is a night of study, tikkun leyl Shavu'ot, the festival is commemorated only with some changes in the synagogue liturgy and the celebration of a Shabbat day - there is no home liturgy or practice save the eating of dairy foods.
Among the followers of Yeshua, while we celebrate the outpouring of the Ruach on Shavu'ot morning, centuries of non-practice have taught us not to expect anything dramatic or supernatural to happen. Without the gradual crescendo of counting the days of the Omer, there is no anticipation of the festival and - bar minor changes in liturgy and special readings - the day passes like most others. Even in pentecostal circles, the role of the Spirit seems to be limited to the gifts of tongues and prophecy - admittedly the particular manifestations of the Spirit shown on that Shavu'ot - with little imagination to sense the larger fire and empowering of the Spirit who turned the world upside with His radical claim that Yeshua rather than Caesar is L-rd! As disciples today, we are surrounded by the clamour of many little caesars and the power of the state trying - and in many cases, succeeding - to coerce our adherence to its dogmatic and ungodly positions.
Like the multitude hearing the Shavu'ot praises of G-d in their own language, we need to ask the question, what then should we do? Perhaps we should be revisiting the agricultural roots of the feast and - without actually doing agriculture as such - consider what our firstfruits offering might be. Where is our offering of new grain - what might that look like today? Hirsch's point about our ripeness and maturity is well made; we need to become much more serious about our discipleship and the process of being conformed to the image of Yeshua. Then from the new things that G-d will do as others catch the vision and join us in the active and persistent propagation of His kingdom, we can bring an offering of ourselves and others - precious and devoted souls waved before Him as an elevation offering - to acknowledge His sovereignty over our lives. Look about you and see what G-d is doing today, then ask Him how you can join in and bring glory to Him!
1. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 825.
Further Study: Isaiah 43:19-21; Matthew 13:51-52; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15
Application: Are you keeping your eyes open for the signs of new kingdom life around you? Ask the Head Gardner to point out the new shoots and fresh growth that He wants you to help nurture. Then roll up your sleeves and get stuck in for there is always plenty of work to do in the garden!
Buy your own copy of the Drash Book for Numbers/B'Midbar now at Amazon US or Amazon UK.
© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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