9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, 11 and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, so that you may be accepted. On the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. 12 And on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb a year old without blemish as a burnt offering to the Lord. 13 And the grain offering with it shall be two tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, a food offering to the Lord with a pleasing aroma, and the drink offering with it shall be of wine, a fourth of a hin. 14 And you shall eat neither bread nor grain parched or fresh until this same day, until you have brought the offering of your God: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.” – Leviticus 23:9-14 ESV
God adds another element to His list of sacred days and observances, but this one would not go into effect until the people occupied the land of Canaan. This celebration was known as firstfruits, which in Hebrew (רֵאשִׁית – rē’šîṯ) translates as “beginning, first, or best.” It was to be held in the early spring at the beginning of the grain harvest, on Nissan 16, the third day after Passover, and the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. According to the book of Deuteronomy, the feast of firstfruits was intended to commence after the Israelites had brought in their first official harvest in the land God had promised as their inheritance.
“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you as a special possession and you have conquered it and settled there, put some of the first produce from each crop you harvest into a basket and bring it to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored.” – Deuteronomy 26:1-2 NLT
God had promised to give them a land of fruitfulness and abundance. In his call of Moses, God had described the land in glowing terms:
“So I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt into their own fertile and spacious land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey—the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live.” – Exodus 3:8 NLT
Now, from their vantage point at the base of Mount Sinai, the Israelites were being reminded by God that the land of Canaan would one day be theirs. Despite all the setbacks and difficulties they had faced up to this point, He was still going to honor His commitment to give them the land of Canaan as their inheritance. And when they got there, He expected them to express their gratitude for His goodness.
When they brought the first produce from each crop they had harvested, they were to present it to the priest at the Tabernacle and declare, “With this gift I acknowledge to the Lord your God that I have entered the land he swore to our ancestors he would give us” (Deuteronomy 26:3 NLT). The gift was meant to serve as proof of the fact that God had kept His word and that the land was just as He said it would be. In other words, God was faithful and the land was fruitful.
As part of the ceremony, the Israelites were to recount how God had miraculously delivered them from bondage in Egypt and delivered them to Canaan.
“You must then say in the presence of the Lord your God, ‘My ancestor Jacob was a wandering Aramean who went to live as a foreigner in Egypt. His family arrived few in number, but in Egypt they became a large and mighty nation. When the Egyptians oppressed and humiliated us by making us their slaves, we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors. He heard our cries and saw our hardship, toil, and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and powerful arm, with overwhelming terror, and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land flowing with milk and honey! And now, O Lord, I have brought you the first portion of the harvest you have given me from the ground.’” – Deuteronomy 26:5-10 NLT
The gift of firstfruits was meant to be an expression of thanksgiving, but also an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over all things. Not only did they belong to Him but so did the land in which they lived and all the produce it provided. By giving to God the best of what the land had given them, they were declaring their allegiance to Him. Their fruitfulness had been the result of God’s faithfulness.
As part of the ceremony, the Israelites would place their gift before the Lord, then bow down and worship Him. Only after celebrating the goodness and graciousness of God could the people rejoice in the bounty of the harvest He had given them.
“Afterward you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.” – Deuteronomy 26:11 NLT
The Leviticus passage adds another vital element to the ceremony. The Israelites were also to bring a sheaf of grain gathered from the first harvest in the land. What is interesting to note is that the Israelites were forbidden to eat “any bread or roasted grain or fresh kernels on that day until you bring this offering to your God” (Leviticus 23:14 NLT). As they presented the best of their grain to God, they would be in the midst of a fast. It was not until they had demonstrated their gratefulness to God and given Him the best of all that they had gathered that they could break their fast and enjoy the blessings He had bestowed upon them. God had to come first.
Along with these offerings, the Israelites were to sacrifice a one-year-old unblemished lamb as well as a burnt offering. This was accompanied by a grain offering consisting of four quarts of choice flour moistened with olive oil. The lamb and the grain offering were burned on the altar and the smoke would rise as “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Leviticus 23:13 NLT). The final part of the ceremony was “one quart of wine as a liquid offering” (Leviticus 23:13 NLT). In a sense, the people were serving God a sacred “meal” to celebrate all that He had done for them. It was a visible expression of thanksgiving to their divine provider and protector.
The real purpose behind this ceremony was to remind the people of Israel that they were completely dependent upon God at all times. Even in the midst of fruitfulness, they were expected to maintain their faithfulness to God and never allow His gracious gifts to distract from their reliance upon Him. In fact, Moses would later warn the Israelites of the dangers the bounty of Canaan would present.
“When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. But that is the time to be careful! Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the Lord your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and decrees that I am giving you today. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful! Do not become proud at that time and forget the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 8:10-14 NLT
If they weren’t careful, God’s blessings could actually become a curse. The fruitfulness of the land could end up making the Israelites self-sufficient rather than God-dependent. As their crops grew, their flocks expanded, and their fortunes improved, they might be tempted to see themselves as the masters of their own fates. The real threat they faced in the promised land was not the Canaanites but spiritual apathy brought on by physical prosperity.
Moses would go on to warn the people of the dual perils of affluence and forgetfulness.
“Do not forget that he led you through the great and terrifying wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, where it was so hot and dry. He gave you water from the rock! He fed you with manna in the wilderness, a food unknown to your ancestors. He did this to humble you and test you for your own good. He did all this so you would never say to yourself, ‘I have achieved this wealth with my own strength and energy.’” – Deuteronomy 8:15-17 NLT
Forgetfulness would be a real and present danger. If they weren’t careful, their wilderness experience and God’s miraculous provision all along the way could become a fading memory. Once they arrived in Canaan and got settled in their new homes, their success in the land could produce gratefulness and a greater dependence upon God or it could result in an unhealthy sense of self-reliance. That’s why Moses warned them: “Remember the Lord your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, in order to fulfill the covenant he confirmed to your ancestors with an oath” (Deuteronomy 8:18 NLT).
God’s blessings were intended to produce greater dependence upon Him. By giving God the firstfruits of their harvest, the Israelites would be acknowledging their reliance upon Him. He had blessed them with freedom, and soon He would bless them with land, houses, fields, flocks, and vineyards. Their days as slaves and nomadic wanderers would be far behind them. But that would become the greatest test of their allegiance to God. Forgetfulness would lead to ungratefulness and ungratefulness would eventually result in unfaithfulness.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.