Further thoughts and teaching on the Cereal or Meal Offering
The Meaning of the Hebrew word
The Hebrew word that’s used for the cereal offering (TWOTOT - see under ‘The Sacrificial Offerings of Leviticus chapters 1-7’ below for the full source details) is one that
‘...is used in secular contexts of gifts to superior persons, particularly kings, to convey the attitude of homage and submission to that person...The religious use of the term derives from the secular’
Harrison also notes (page 49-50) that
‘The term...means in general a ‘gift’, whether as an expression of reverence (Judges 6:19, I Sam 10:27), gratitude (Ps 96:8), homage (Gen 32:14, 43:11, 15, 25) or allegiance (II Sam 8:2, 6, II Chr 17:11). In sacrificial terminology it always seems to have had this broad sense of ‘gift’, as in the earliest Old Testament references, which covered both animal and vegetable offerings (Gen 4:3-5)’
while Wenham writes that the word (page 69)
‘...often means “tribute”, the money paid by a vassal king to his overlord as a mark of his continuing good will and faithfulness...It may simply mean “a present”, though it frequently suggests that the giver is afraid of the recipient and that he is seeking to ingratiate himself by means of the gift’
Concluding, the simple meaning of ‘gift’ is quite sufficient for our understanding of the Levitical legislation of chapter 2, though there may well have been other concepts present on differing occasions that were dictated by the culture of the Israelites’ day.
The Purpose of the Cereal Offering
There’s no shedding of blood and, therefore, no atonement. No atonement is mentioned and we shouldn’t attempt to look for something that is quite obviously not there. The Lord was not concerned to make every offering one that secured some form of atonement, but He recognised (along with the peace offering) that worshippers wanted to express themselves to Him even when the relationship between themselves and Him were good.
If a covenant relationship is based solely upon provision for situations and circumstances that are detrimental to its continuance, there would be little need for contact between the two parties when things were going well. Therefore, God provided a way for the worshipper to bring a small gift to Him - perhaps in thanksgiving - but definitely in recognition of God’s sovereignty (following the culture’s use of the word to denote tribute given to a king).
The gift was virtually worthless but, here the saying holds true, ‘it’s the thought that counts’!! There’s absolutely no compulsion laid upon the Israelites to bring a cereal offering, the passage only informs the offerer what he is to do when he desires to offer sacrifice - that is, the offering is not an inevitable consequence of a specific individual’s past action but a freewill action that overflowed from a heart that acknowledged the sovereignty and goodness of God.
Inclusions and Exclusions
Flour/grain - this was the reason for the name of the offering and probably doesn’t have any symbolic meaning past that of representing a cost in time (the preparation and journeying to the tent of meeting) and money.
Oil - this was a necessary ingredient in all the cereal offerings though, for some, it was cooked with the cereal (2:7) and, for others, it was simply poured over what was being offered (2:1,15) and for some you needed to do both (2:6)!! See below on frankincense.
Frankincense - this was only specified to be used with the flour (1:2) and the crushed grain (2:15) and was omitted from the pre-cooked offerings.
Both oil and frankincense don’t appear to be easily identifiable as symbols that are relevant here - even more so as frankincense was not used upon every cereal offering - but there may just be an allusion in Proverbs 27:9 to joy when it instructs us that
‘Oil and perfume [the frankincense - though a different word is used here] make the heart glad...’
This may be further confirmed by the command concerning the sin offering in Lev 5:11 where the offering of cereal which accompanied it and which secured forgiveness is specifically commanded not to have either oil or frankincense on it - there would indeed be no reason for individual joy when sin is being dealt with (though there would be cause for joy after the offering’s acceptance).
Salt - had to be added to all the cereal offerings (Lev 2:13). That salt is specified as compulsory is probably indicative of the eternality of the covenant. Salt can symbolise many different concepts within Scripture’s pages, but passages such as Num 18:19 and II Chr 13:5 demonstrate this sufficiently well.
Today, to say that there’s ‘salt’ between two people in certain cultures of the world is to say that there’s a mutual bond of commitment to the other’s welfare - though this, however fitting, shouldn’t be considered to be within the original intentions of the legislation.
Leaven/yeast - The notable exception here is that an offerer was allowed to use leaven (and honey) in a first fruit offering so long as the offering was not burnt on the altar of burnt offering (2:11-12).
The ‘obvious’ interpretation is that leaven represented corruption and decay - something that it wasn’t correct to symbolise when the covenant was being spoken of through the offering - but it certainly would produce a puzzle as to why an offering could be brought as a gift so long as it was not burnt on the altar (2:12) and why the peace offering for thanksgiving could contain leaven (7:13).
Honey - similar to Leaven, it could be used in a first fruit offering so long as it was not burnt (2:11-12). This is even more bewildering than the leaven. Wenham notes (page 71) that
‘Most commentators reckon that yeast and honey were prohibited because they cause fermentation’
but the exact reason is far from certain.
God provided for the High Priesthood by giving them a portion of the cereal offerings (2:3,10, 6:14-18) - a sort-of ‘working man’s snack’ throughout the day as he ministered to the Lord on behalf of the people.
There were other provisions from the sacrifices in order that the priesthood might be looked after, not only by the people they were representing, but by the One they were ministering to. The burnt offering provided coverings as clothes (skins - 7:8) while both the cereal and peace offerings provided grain (6:14-18, 7:13-14) and the peace, guilt and sin offerings provided meat (7:31-33, 6:24-29).
Though the priesthood had given so much up for the Lord, they would find their provision in serving Him for the rest of their days. In similar manner, the New Testament speaks of those who serve God getting their provision through the preaching of the Gospel (I Cor 9:13-14) and that those who receive benefits from His servants should make sure that their material provision is shared with those who are the channels (Gal 6:6).
If we were to attempt to look for a fulfilment of this offering ‘in Christ’ we could satisfy ourselves with seeing a continuation of the Lord’s provision for His ministers as continuing into the New Covenant, but that would be to forget the function of the sacrifice for the offerer.
If we think about the offerer under the Levitical system giving something of himself back to God even though there was no negative reason for doing so (that is, he was under no obligation to do so), then the offering speaks to us now of consecration and commitment to the ways and will of the Lord where that ‘offering to God’ becomes the sacrifice of our own will for the service of His (Rom 12:1).
The real gift that God requires from mankind is not a cereal offering - whatever the intentions of the heart may be - but the gift of obedience that springs up from a joyful heart.
But, more than this, the Old Covenant laws should be seen as pointing towards both Christ and His work (Col 2:17), though it would be wrong of us to try and somehow see in the offering an atonement that finds its ultimate provision in the cross. In Christ’s life even before the cross, we can witness the truth of His statements (John 5:30, 14:31, 15:10) that
‘...I do as the Father has commanded Me...’
‘...I have kept My Father’s commandments...’
‘...I seek not My own will but the will of Him who sent Me’
and, even more illuminating (John 17:4), when the work of the cross is still a future event, He talks about having accomplished what the Father had given Him to do, showing us that He’d been obedient to the will of the Father throughout His life.
And, in Heb 10:5-7, a quote which is from Ps 40:6-8 (the passage quoted below), we read words put prophetically into Christ’s mouth saying
‘Sacrifice and offering [that is, the cereal offering by translation] Thou dost not desire...I delight to do thy will, O my God...’
where the significance of the shadow being put to one side (all the offerings mentioned in the passage) in order that the reality of obedience might be present, witness to the fact that, in Christ - and before the cross - we see the fulfilment of the cereal offering through His obedience to the will of God the Father.
Just as the continuing fulfilment of the cereal offering at the present time is the gift to God of an obedient life in acknowledgement of His sovereignty, we see that the perfect sacrifice (of which ours is but a pale shadow) is the obedient life of Christ ‘from the cradle to the grave’
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