Some people ignore the Old Testament as irrelevant today. That presupposition could be refuted in several ways, but in a 2-part blog post I wanted to show how learning about one holiday in the Old Testament can help us better understand the New Testament and shed light on our lives as Christians even today.
The ancient Israelites had an annual cycle of feasts or holidays (also called festivals) that they kept throughout the year as appointed by God. Four of these were in the spring, and three in the autumn. These holidays were a sacred time to remember God’s provisions in the past, His work in the present, and the hope of future provision. Likely you have heard of some of them such as Passover and Pentecost. Besides providing us with a review of the history of ancient Israel, in these holidays we can see a foreshadowing which was fulfilled in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
We’ll consider the lesser known holiday of Firstfruits. In this post, the focus will be on the Old Testament. Hang in there! Then in part 2, we will look at references to firstfruits in the New Testament…and discover depth of meaning in some New Testament passages which we might have otherwise missed.
Firstfruits is an agricultural term. Indeed, various aspects of the Jewish holidays were linked to the agricultural cycle of the land of Israel. Firstfruits were the earliest gathered fruits of the spring harvest. Barley was the earliest grain to ripen about the month of April, which is Nisan on the Jewish calendar. Other grains, such as wheat, did not ripen until later in the season. The Feast of Firstfruits is only dealt with briefly in the Old Testament law, yet its importance should not be overlooked. The two primary passages on this holiday are Leviticus 23:9-14 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11.
The Leviticus passage describes a distinct ceremony on a specific day. It appears to be linked together with the eight day celebration of Passover and Unleavened Bread. Since Leviticus 23:11 refers to the day after Sabbath, it is generally believed that the Feast of Firstfruits was celebrated on Nisan (April) 16. Verse 10 also indicates that this feast would not begin to be celebrated until they had entered the land, likely because they had made a transition from being nomadic in the wilderness to having a permanent home in the land. For this ceremony, the people would bring a sheaf of the barley harvest to the priest who would wave it before the Lord. Then they would offer a burnt offering of a male lamb, a grain offering of fine flour, and a drink offering of wine. Verse 14 indicates that no barley was to be harvested until this firstfruits offering had first been brought to the Lord. It also states that this would be a lasting ordinance throughout the generations.
The passage in Deuteronomy gives us another dimension to the Feast of Firstfruits. The wording seems to indicate that the particulars described in verses 2-11 may have only been done one time, in order to commemorate the very first harvest when they had arrived in the land. The people would take a basket of firstfruits to the priest, and statements of declaration would be made. These statements acknowledged that they had arrived in the land as the Lord had promised, and briefly reviewed their history as a people. References are made to Jacob, their time in Egypt, and the exodus. They were to worship and rejoice for all that the Lord had done in bringing them to the “land flowing with milk and honey.”
The Feast of Firstfruits was more than just a superficial observance. A number of underlying principles can be seen behind the rituals:
- When the Israelites brought their offering of firstfruits to the Lord, it acknowledged that the products of the land came from God. They were offering back to God what He had given to them. They were also putting God first, as they did not begin to harvest the crop until God’s portion had first been offered to Him.
- By offering God a portion of the first fruit to ripen, it was also seen as a pledge, or an earnest, for the full harvest that was yet to come. It anticipated the harvest that would be reaped in the following months, even though it had not yet been received.
For those in an agricultural society, this certainly had more meaning and significance than we can fully grasp in our modern, non-agrarian way of life. This was their livelihood, and a distinct element of faith in God is demonstrated.
We’ll move into the New Testament in part 2.