The Grain Offering Leviticus 2:1-16


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Leviticus 2:1-16

We considered, last time, the regulations of the first of the animal sacrifices, the burnt offering. But it is not the remaining three animal sacrifices that come next, but the grain offering, the minḥah. One reason why it comes second, apparently, is that it was, like the burnt offering, a versatile form of worship, useful for various purposes. It also often accompanied the burnt offering, and perhaps regularly accompanied the burnt offering, that is, the worshipper brought both at the same time. [Sklar, 95]

In this chapter we will read of the various forms of the grain offering, each differing from the other in the method of its preparation. It was made of wheat (perhaps of barley), olive oil was mixed with the dough or smeared on it, and a spice was added to enhance the aroma when cooked on the altar. It could be uncooked dough, or cooked on a griddle, in a pan, or in the oven. Some of the dough or bread was burned on the altar, but the rest was eaten by the priests in the sanctuary. Since some of the dough was to be burned on the altar, it could not have leaven or yeast in it and had to be salted. [Levine, 9]

Text Comment

v.1       The word translated “anyone” is nephesh, the term we encounter in Genesis 2 when we read that when God breathed into the man he became a nephesh, a living creature. Animals are called nephesh in the OT. One implication of the use of the term here is that anyone, male or female, could bring this sacrifice or, for that matter, any sacrifice. [Ross, 101-102] General principles applying to all sacrifices, or for that matter particular sacrifices, other sacrifices than the one being described, are scattered here and there among the various liturgies without it ever being said that what was true of this particular sacrifice happened to be true of all the sacrifices. You have to, as it were, collect all of these regulations before you know how the sacrifices or offerings were to be made.  For example, we learn later in this chapter of the use of salt; but salt was used for other sacrifices than this one, though its use is not specifically mentioned.

The term minḥah did not originally mean specifically grain offering. Both Cain and Abel’s offerings in Genesis 4, one that of an animal and the other of the produce of the field, are called minḥah. But it came in time to refer to grain offerings as opposed to animal sacrifices and so its meaning here. Whether the term translated here “fine flour”   refers to the kind of grain or how finely the flour was milled, as with the burnt offering, so with the grain, the worshipper was to bring his or her best.

The amount of grain to be brought is not specified here, but elsewhere we read of it being a tenth of an ephah (Ex. 29:40; Lev. 5:11). But no one knows for sure how much that was and estimations or guesses vary considerably. Vv. 1-3 describe an uncooked grain offering.

v.2       The word translated in the ESV “memorial portion” is variously understood. The idea, however, is clear. Only a part of the whole sacrifice, probably a relatively small part, was actually burnt on the altar, cooked on the altar in some cases; that part served as a token or representation of the whole. The offering itself was a form of remembrance of God’s goodness and grace. [Hartley, 30]

The amount of oil is not specified, but where it is it is always a quarter of a hin (Ex. 29:40; Num. 15:4), perhaps about a quart.

Frankincense is not edible, so it wasn’t kneaded into the dough; it was put on the dough so it could be removed by the priest and placed on the fire. All the Frankincense was burned. It was expensive and highly valued and so made the offering a more precious gift. It also enhanced the pleasing smell of the offering burning on the altar. We spoke last time about the smells of the tabernacle or the temple.

v.3       That it was most holy meant, in practice, that it became the exclusive property of the priests and could not be eaten by anyone else or anywhere else but the sanctuary. Holy offerings, not most holy, such as the fellowship offering, could be eaten by the priests, their families, and by the worshipper and his or her family.

v.4       The offering could be in the form of a loaf or, if the dough were pressed thin, a cookie or wafer.

v.5       When the dough was prepared on a griddle, the flat cake became crisp and could easily be broken up into pieces.

v.7       What is meant here is probably that the cake was deep fried in the pan. In such a case the bread became soft. Verses 8-10 recapitulate the points made in vv. 2-3. No doubt oil and frankincense figured in these offerings as well, but each point is not repeated from the earlier instructions. Such repetition of procedure in regard to relatively minor differences is common in the law, serving both to clarify and to emphasize. [Levine, 11]

v.10     This is the first time we hear in this chapter of portions of the offerings being eaten by the priests, but we will hear a good bit more of it as we proceed through the sacrificial regulations. In this case, the food had to be eaten at the sanctuary and at the time of the sacrifice.

v.11     That is, there was nothing wrong with leaven or with honey in and of themselves. The Israelites used both in cooking. They were not even unsuitable for other offerings, only those burned on the altar. But they could not be burned on the altar and so could not be in the dough that had been mixed or the bread that had been baked prior to its being brought to the priests for use in sacrifice.

The term translated honey could refer to the product of bees, it does sometimes in the OT explicitly, but it could also refer to the nectar of dates, or to both.

As to why leaven and honey were forbidden, we are largely in the dark. The idea of fermentation itself did not necessarily disqualify an offering for wine was fermented but it could be poured on the altar. [Levine, 12] There is no commemorative explanation here, such as is given in regard to the unleavened bread of the Passover — a memorial of Israel’s haste in leaving Egypt the night of the Passover — and, in any case, honey had nothing to do with the history of the Passover. It has been suggested that these substances were forbidden because they were widely used in pagan worship and had associations with pagan thinking about sacrifices especially fertility rites. For example, when in Deuteronomy 14:21 we read that they were forbidden to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk — what seems to us an odd prohibition — that law is almost certainly directed at Canaanite fertility rites that did just that. An Ugaritic poem reads: “Cook a kid in the milk, a lamb in the cream.” On the other hand, pagan sacrifices also made use of meat, flour, olive oil and salt and these were used in Israel nevertheless so no one really knows for sure why no leaven and no honey were permitted to be burned on the altar. [Ross, 105n]

v.12     Yeast and honey could be used in the first fruits offerings because they were not cooked in the altar fires.

v.13     A similar thing is said in Numbers 18:19 but there in the context of other offerings, including animal sacrifices. In Ezekiel 43:24 salt is mentioned in reference to the burnt offering. In Ezra twice (6:9; 7:22) we read of large quantities of salt being brought to the newly rebuilt temple for use in worship. Apparently all the offerings were salted. Again, it is hard to know for sure precisely why salt was used. We think of salt as used either to preserve meat or to make food more tasty. Its preservative function does not obviously fit here. One was not preserving the meat, the priests were cooking it and so the grain. Salt is not used to preserve bread. If it were used on all animal sacrifices then its use in the burnt offering, in which the animal was entirely consumed and eaten by no one, would not likely be to enhance taste. But in the ancient world, among both Arabs and Greeks, the eating of salt was a feature of covenant making and covenant renewal ceremonies. Somehow it seemed to symbolize loyalty to the covenant; perhaps the preservative use of salt suggested permanence. [Hartley, 32-33; Sklar, 100-101] The salt in the offerings would have then been a constant reminder of God’s loyalty to them and of their summons to remain loyal to Yahweh.

v.14     Grain offerings of first fruits, of which more in chapter 23 and Deut. 26, were presented differently, the grain being roasted rather than milled into flour and made into dough.  Offerings of first fruits could be made in various ways depending upon when they were offered (unscheduled or as part of the Feast of First fruits), could have leavened or unleavened dough accordingly, and so on. [Levine, 14] We read in Deut. 26:1-11 that the offering of first fruits was to be accompanied by the confession of the Lord’s grace and provision for his people.

Now before we go any further, let’s think for a moment about ritual, about these frequently repeated ceremonies, these particular actions in a particular order, these established ways of worshipping God. There is abroad in the American church in particular an animus toward ritual in worship, by which is usually meant a more formally organized and offered worship. The suspicion is that such structured ceremonies inhibit the spirit, tend to dullness and a going-through-the-motions instead of contributing to the real engagement of the heart. But is that so? Did the Lord require the wrong thing of Israel? Is formlessness in worship really better than form and, for that matter, does anyone really practice a spontaneous and formless worship.

There have certainly been Christian groups through the years, Quakers, The Brethren, and so on, that have sought to worship God spontaneously and without ritual forms, but virtually anyone will admit that what they produced was simply another ritual. Their services looked the same and the same things were done in the same way every Sunday. The only difference was that they simply fell into their routine, rather than carefully crafted it on the foundation of their theological and liturgical principles. Indeed, the anti-ritual people in the modern American church have rather obviously produced services that are just as ordered; they too repeat the same actions in the same way week by week. Their services are usually distinguished only in that they include fewer of those separate actions than used to be the case in Christian worship. As human beings we need and we crave form and we create it instinctively.

In the Bible form and freedom in worship are never thought to be enemies of one another, but rather friends, good friends. In the OT again and again God’s people were told to rejoice in their worship of God and to worship with their hearts as well as with their outward actions. But they were, at the same time, to use the forms, the rituals prescribed in the Law so that their worship would be pleasing to God and of most benefit to themselves. The forms were crafted for a purpose, to create a worship that glorified God and, at the same time, taught and reinforced the faith in the minds and hearts of God’s people.

Here in the ritual of the grain offering, for example, there was plenty of freedom. It was the worshipper himself or herself who decided to bring an offering. They were not compelled to; they came with their offering when they felt constrained to do so, when they wanted to do so. What is more, they could prepare the bread in a variety of ways, pretty much any way they liked. Why do you suppose a worshipper did it in one way or another? No doubt because he liked his bread served that way, because she liked to cook it that way; they thought it tasted better. I remember trying to serve a big mug of iced tea to our organist at Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland whom we had invited for dinner. By the time the dinner was over the mug was still there, all the ice had melted, it was now cool tea and he hadn’t taken a sip the whole time. Apparently, though he was a godly man, there was something wrong with his taste buds! He didn’t understand what really tasted good. In the same way I’m sure that there were women who brought their grain offering to the sanctuary and in the back of their mind they were thinking, “The priests are going to love this. This is the way bread ought to be prepared.” There was a lot of freedom in the ritual of the grain offering. But, once at the tabernacle, he or she did everything in the approved manner because that was the offering and the way of making it that God himself had prescribed. Who better to know how to worship God than God himself! And who better to look out for the hearts of his people than the God who loved them and who had redeemed them at such great cost to himself? God thought ritual was key! It is certainly human.

Think about modern American life. For all its anti-formality in so many ways, it abounds in ritual. Kneeling used to be used widely in Christian worship; it is not any longer in many sectors of the Christian world. But there is one kneeling ritual that is still in widespread use and everyone knows what it means. When a fellow gets on his knees before a young woman, she knows immediately what he is about to say. Or perhaps before he speaks he shows her a little felt covered box that could contain within it only one thing, an engagement ring. In America, men usually don’t kneel to do anything else in their entire life from cradle to the grave, but they kneel to propose. That is the power of ritual. There is a right way to do things and the action gains power and meaning from it being done in that way.

When the president is inaugurated in Washington D.C. the service is conducted in an elaborate way according to an established form. That is ritual. It would demean the office to do it at the half-time of a football game with some rock star asking the questions of office rather than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. So the funerals of important people. If you’ve never watched the last ten or twelve minutes of Ronald Reagan’s funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. (or the whole thing for that matter), look it up on youtube. It is ritual from start to finish and a recommendation of ritual: the ceremonious forms, so scrupulously observed, all add great power, meaning and significance to the event. Or think of Thanksgiving in the United States; again a ritual. Even what food is eaten at the table is largely determined by long-standing customs. My mother once served ham for Thanksgiving and she never heard the end of it. She went to her grave complaining about the way she was treated that one Thanksgiving when she served ham! Or consider Christmas: the tree, the decoration of the house, the wrapping of presents, when they are opened (Christmas eve or Christmas morning), and so on. It is one elaborate ceremony. And we could go on and on. Standing and singing the national anthem at a ballgame, fireworks on the fourth of July, the marriage service, and on and on. We do them in much the same way according to long established practices. These are our rituals and they bind us together as a people and convey to us all a certain understanding of the importance and the meaning of things.

Rituals express, even below the level of our conscious reflection, the deep-seated convictions of people. Nathaniel Gutierrez was telling me the other day of calling on a family in a Peruvian village. Nathaniel and another fellow had been walking through the neighborhood talking to people about Christ and had come to this house. The people, according to the custom of the place, invited them in, had them wait while they collected food from their garden and prepared a meal for their guests — much like Abraham when visited by the three men in Genesis 18. They were poor people by our standards but their understanding of the duties of hospitality led them without conscious reflection to provide a meal and a ready ear to their guests. Perhaps not everyone in that part of Peru would do that, but a great many would precisely because it was behavior that had been deeply engrained in the pattern of their life by the repetition of this sort of welcome. Such a ritual of hospitality was second nature to them. They would have thought themselves to have failed to treat strangers properly had they not been hospitable in those particular ways.

One cannot escape ritual in human life, no matter when or where one encounters human life. It is universal in human experience. So it should come as no surprise that we find a great deal of ritual in the Bible: repeated ceremonies, formally organized behaviors that serve to express conviction and impress it on the hearts of all, including the rising generation. The fact that the Lord used the ritual life of the ancient near east, rituals that were easily understood and appreciated by the Israelites, should surprise no one. The fact that he altered the rituals in some significant ways and invested them with an entirely new meaning proves that he understood rituals to be powerful to teach and to reinforce the fundamental convictions of true faith, to settle them into the bones, as it were.

So what was the deep meaning of the minḥah, the grain offering that its ritual form was intended to convey and impress upon the Israelite heart with its constant repetition? Well, how about this for a summary: “Those who are loyally dedicated to the covenant will offer themselves and the best they have to the Lord.” [Ross, 108]

But let’s dig a bit deeper. The grain offering was not an offering that secured atonement. When offered with the burnt offering it characteristically came second. One must first be put right with God, only then can true dedication follow. Justification precedes sanctification, as it does everywhere in the Bible. What we have in Leviticus 1 and 2 is a more elaborate but less explicit form of the teaching Paul gives us in Romans when, after 11 chapters explaining the way of God’s grace in the salvation of sinners, he begins the ethical section of his letter by saying,

“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

You can’t give yourself as a sacrifice to God unless and until he has provided a sacrifice for you, a sacrifice sufficient to make you fit for fellowship with him. The Christian life flows from the atonement that Christ made on the cross and is the only true and fit response to it that a person can make. Since Christ is your burnt offering and made atonement for you, Paul wrote in effect, now give your grain offering to him!

That is a truth so fundamental that it is no wonder that it was worked into the deep structure of Israel’s ritual life. And I hope you all know and realize Sunday by Sunday that our ritual is designed to impress the same point upon our hearts, to drive it deep into our understanding of life, and then deeper past our understanding into the sub-structure of our thinking about life. We confess our sins and receive their forgiveness through the blood, the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ every Sunday before we ever make our commitments to the Lord or offer ourselves again and anew to him. The order of the gospel is essential to its meaning. You can’t work first and believe second. You can’t commit yourself to the Lord in hopes that he will forgive your sins — though that is the theology of vast numbers of people in the world today –, in the Bible you must receive God’s forgiveness granted to you as a free gift, only then can you dedicate your lives to him. Christians don’t serve the Lord in order to be saved but because they have been saved. That is the order of life, the only order of life. And our ritual on Sunday mornings expresses that order and by its constant repetition that understanding of our relationship with God is settled deep in our hearts.

But, as the grain offering reminds us, we must dedicate ourselves to the Lord; we must respond to his love and salvation with gratitude and service. The grain offering is not made unnecessary by the burnt offering; it is made inevitable by it. It is the only proper response to the Lord’s making a covenant with us, providing forgiveness for our sins, and continuing to do so in spite of our constant failure to live worthy of the grace we have received. There must be the burnt offering and the grain offering just as there must be faith and obedience.

That is the fundamental lesson of the grain offering and its place in Israelite ritual. But there is more communicated than just that and we are to understand these additional features of its view of believing life. Woven into the ritual are further lessons that likewise, taken together, form the structure of our faith and our understanding of reality.

  • The first of these, though there is no particular order suggested in the ritual itself, is that we do not live our Christian life in isolation. Much of what we are to be and do as the children of God concerns the service of others. We know that. There is an immense amount of teaching to that effect in the Bible. We only begin to see this in chapter 2, but we have it here and certainly we find the same point made comprehensively throughout the Law of Moses. When worship in Israel was practiced correctly, when the sacrifices and offerings were given properly and sincerely, all kinds of good was done to all sorts of people.  The poor were cared for, the priesthood was provided for, the people were encouraged and purified, and God was praised. All of that resulted from right worship.

Here we read about the priests being provided for. They drew their sustenance from the offerings brought to be temple; not entirely, to be sure, but significantly. And in some cases not only the priests were fed from the offerings but the people who brought them to the tabernacle or temple had a great feast as well. This, by the way, may well be a reason for the grain offerings that were turned into bread. Some sacrifices, including this one, were actually meals to be eaten on the spot, and since bread and meat would have been the staples of a feast in those days at that time, bread was baked or otherwise cooked and brought to the sanctuary as an offering with a view to its being eaten there. [Sklar, 95] Bread and meat together, burnt offerings and grain offerings being brought together, were being eaten all the time in the sanctuary; good meals no doubt greatly enjoyed.

Well, so it is today in like fashion. When we offer ourselves to God in true thanksgiving lots of good comes from it to lots of people. The Lord’s people are encouraged and heartened in their faith — especially when the sanctuary is full of people worshipping in spirit and in truth –, the ministry of the church is provided for, the needy are looked after, and the Lord is glorified.

  • God’s grace compels us to give back to him our very best. We are well aware of the fact that there is a temptation not to give the Lord our very best, to give him something less than our best, something cheaper, something not so much a sacrifice for us. We face that temptation every single day. We content ourselves with less than the Lord might have had for us.

There is some debate about precisely what sort of grain is referred to in chapter 2 but there is agreement that whether it was semolina — the flour produced from the inner kernels of wheat (Levine, 9-10), a luxury in that time and place — or simply refers to finely ground flour, the point was that it ought to be our best that is given to God. And there is more of that emphasis here. Frankincense was expensive but it added to the pleasing aroma when the dough was cooked on the altar. Olive oil made the bread tastier.

And not only our best, but, as the chapter concludes, our first as well. The giving to God of the fruit fruits of the harvest was a potent way of acknowledging that all that we enjoy, all our productivity, all our wealth is his gift to us.

So should our worship be: our very best whether we are singing, or praying, or hearing a sermon, or giving our offerings, or coming to the Table of the Lord. Not half-hearted worship, but whole-hearted; not indifferent attention to the Word, but complete attention, and so on.

  • Further, faith without perseverance is a sham. What God requires of us is not loyalty for a time, but loyalty forever.

That is the point of the salt apparently. It was a symbol of permanence, of a relationship that never ended. Any worshipper in that time and place apparently would have understood the function of salt in that way. In the ancient world to eat salt together was a ritual symbolizing the indissoluble nature of the covenant they had entered into. [Hartley, 32] So when they put the salt on the bread — like we do with a nice warm pretzel! — they knew what they were doing and were not only reminded of the covenant God had made with them, but they were recommitting themselves to that covenant.

That should be part of our worship as well every Lord’s Day: that recommitment and re-consecration of ourselves to God. In all that we do here in this sanctuary together, we ought to be saying to God in one way after another: thank you again for bringing me into your family, and hear me say to you once more: I will be your son, I will be your daughter, come wind, come weather to the very end. I’m not going anywhere; your house is my home!

Such sacrifices, of course, were not the whole of a believer’s worship and service. In the OT as in the New, the total obedience and service of one’s life was how he or she thanked God. The ritual part of his worship was a token, like the so-called “memorial portion,” a small gift that represented a much larger one. When we give our offerings in morning worship we are not saying, we must not say, “Alright Lord, you’ve got your tenth; now the rest is mine.” No; our gifts are but tokens. It is our entire life that the Lord deserves from us: all our time, all our money, all our abilities, all our interests. “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee.” That is what Paul means when he exhorts us to do everything we do to the glory of God. The person who gave a grain offering at the tabernacle, at least the person who did it with a true spirit and a loving and grateful heart, did not return home to live for himself!

Whenever you see a Christian giving his or her very best to God, whenever you witness a Christian meeting the needs of others in Christ’s name, whenever you see a Christian holding fast to the Lord through a difficult time, think of the grain offering that followed the burnt offering and then try to bring it yourself if in its New Testament form.