Unsurprisingly, with an agrarian economy that formed the major part of Israel’s day to day existence in the Promised Land, the term ‘firstfruits’ was employed by God as a motif to underline the various harvests that belonged to Him.
The main Hebrew terms used in the Old Testament for ‘firstfruits’ are re’shit and its synonym bikkûr. The former term occurs more frequently, because it embraces both the literal and metaphorical senses of ‘firstfruits’ whereas the latter term is applied only literally. The meaning of ‘firstfruits’ is initially developed by God in association with the various harvests that Israel reaped from the land, see, for example, Exodus chapter 23 verses 16 and 19, where the term is related to the three most important Jewish festivals, Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The ‘firstfruits’ or ‘earliest fruits’, Neh. 10. 35; Ezek. 44. 30, were dedicated to God as an offering to signify that the entire harvest belonged to Him since He owned the land, Lev. 25. 23, and was also responsible for ensuring that it produced fruit in due season, Deut. 8. 10-18. The historical and theological reasons for this principle of dedicating the ‘firstfruits’ to God are explained in Deuteronomy chapter 26 verses 1-11. The actual ceremony of offering the ‘firstfruits’ was, however, contingent upon Israel entering, and conquering the Promised Land, and, more to the point, living in the land and reaping successive harvests. Peter Craigie points out that, ‘Unlike Passover and the covenant ceremony, the offering of firstfruits would be a new religious institution in Israel; before taking possession of the land, they were not an agricultural people and therefore had no harvest festival’.1
It was not just the ‘firstfruits’ that were to be given to God, but also first-born animals, and, importantly, first-born children, Exod. 13. 2; 22. 28-29, unless they were redeemed. Rabbinical scholars believe that the practice of dedicating animals to God can be traced back to Abel when he brought the ‘choicest of the firstlings of his flock’ (Tanakh), as a gift to the Lord, Gen. 4. 4. What is therefore being emphasized in all these practices is that irrespective of status, everyone in Israel was obliged to give God the first and the best of everything that they owned or possessed. In doing so, there would be great reward for obedience to God’s word, Prov. 3.9. But even when Israel was between harvests, they were not to appear before God empty, Exod. 23. 15, which would be far more of a challenge to them than in the seasons of plenty, Deut. 16. 16-17. Specifically, they were to appear before God with their own gift according to the measure of the blessing that God had bestowed upon them, Deut. 16. 17. Sadly, Israel soon forgot the blessings that had accrued to them and it needed men like Nehemiah, Neh. 10. 35-37; 12. 44, to revive and restore the practice of bringing ‘firstfruits’ to God. We could pause here and ask ourselves the question whether our giving to God truly reflects all that He has blessed us with? Is our gratitude limited to our economic circumstances or are we prepared to give liberally to God and others, even out of penury, Luke 21. 4; 2 Cor. 8. 2; 9. 6-7?
So far we have seen how the term for ‘firstfruits’ has been used literally, but there are a number of important texts in the Old Testament where the term is used by way of metaphor. In Jeremiah chapter 2 verse 3, the nation of Israel is described as being ‘holy to the Lord’, cp. Deut. 7. 6, and the firstfruits of His harvest. In the preceding verse, there is the suggestion that because Israel was faithful to God in an unsown land, then it has become consecrated to God as ‘firstfruits’ in a cultivated land. In other words, as Michael Fishbane states, ‘Israel is the very fruitful produce of the land. And since in another oracle Jeremiah also refers to the people of Israel as the “land-inheritance” of YHWH (10. 16; 51. 19), there is no reason to be surprised that also in 2. 3 Israel is described as the possession of the Lord’.2 Similarly, in Ezekiel chapter 48 verse 14, the tribal portions of the land in the temple vision of Ezekiel are identified as a special portion or ‘firstfruits’ – the Septuagint translates this verse as, ‘And the firstfruits shall be given to them out of the firstfruits of the land, even a most holy portion’.
When we turn to the New Testament we find that the dynamic Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term re’shit (aparchê) is used mainly by Paul as a metaphor for various aspects of Christian doctrine. These can be grouped as follows:
|Romans chapter 8 verse 23||The Holy Spirit||The term ‘firstfruits’ is used here to emphasize that the Holy Spirit is the guarantee (or down payment) of the age to come, cp. 2 Cor. 1. 22; 5. 5; Eph. 1. 14|
|Romans chapter 16 verse 5 and 1 Corinthians chapter 16 verse 15||Believers in a particular location||The term ‘firstfruits’ is used here to emphasize that these first groups of believers are symbolic of a greater harvest of believers to come, cp. Jas. 1. 18|
|1 Corinthians chapter 15 verses 20 and 23||The Resurrection of Christ||The term ‘firstfruits’ is used here to emphasize that Christ’s bodily resurrection is the guarantee that others will be resurrected in the future.|
Paul makes one literal reference to ‘firstfruits’ in Romans chapter 11 verse 16 where he is probably alluding to the offering of the first yield of the dough, as in Numbers chapter 15 verses 17 to 21. The dough was given to the priests, as well as all the choice ‘firstfruits’ and this subsequently brought blessing to the householder, Ezek. 44. 30; cp. 2 Cor. 9. 8-11. The dough offering is therefore viewed as analogous to the offering of ‘firstfruits’. There are two other references to ‘firstfruits’ in the New Testament, James chapter 1 verse 18 and Revelation chapter 14 verse 4. In both these instances, the word is used as a metaphor for future harvests.
The term ‘firstfruits’, therefore, not only signifies the things that should be dedicated to God, but ultimately reminds us of those things that belong to Him. Even more amazing is that God condescends, in His grace, to share these things with us. May we respond to Him by dedicating our lives and everything that we possess in His service, Rom. 12. 1-3. Furthermore, let us remember that He is Lord of the harvest, and continue to pray that He will send out labourers into His harvest field, Matt. 9. 38.
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