Firstfruits From the Rejects

All the holy days point to Jesus Christ, often in multiple ways. For the soon-approaching Pentecost — the Feast of Firstfruits — Jesus is Himself “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” because He was the first of God’s people to raise from the dead to eternal life (1 Cor. 15:20-23). He’s also the one who redeemed us, making it possible for us to be firstfruits, and He’s the reason we receive the Holy Spirit, which was first given to the New Testament church on Pentecost (John 14:26; 16:7).

On the surface, the term “firstfruits” simply refers to the first agricultural produce of the harvest season. In the Hebrew scriptures, firstfruits were offered to God before you harvested anything for yourself. This offering occurred after Passover on a Sunday morning and kicked-off the 50-day count to Pentecost (Lev. 23:1-21).

Firstfruits From the Rejects | marissabaker.wordpress.com
photo credit: “Barley” by Susanne Nilsson , CC BY-SA

Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks or Feast of Harvest, pays a key role in God’s plan. Even churches that no longer keep the other holy days often mark Pentecost because that’s when the Holy Spirit was given to the New Testament church (Acts 2:1-4). In Leviticus 23, instructions about the wave-sheaf, 50-day count, and Pentecost occupy more than 1/3 of the entire chapter. Clearly, there’s something here we’re supposed to take careful note of.

Gleanings and Ruth

Embedded in the holy days discussion of Leviticus 23 is a peculiar verse. It doesn’t seem related to the chapter’s subject, yet it follows immediately after the instructions about Pentecost.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 23:22)

Why would God put this law in place while discussing the holy days? It doesn’t seem to make sense. It does, however, connect Pentecost with the story of Ruth. In Jewish tradition, Ruth is read every Pentecost, and perhaps that’s a clue as to why the law of gleanings is discussed here.

When Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem they’re both poor and Ruth was a “stranger,” a Moabitess instead of an Israelite. She more than qualified for gleaning under the law given in Leviticus, as well as the repetition in Deuteronomy 24:19 which added the “fatherless” and the “widow” to the list of those who could glean.

Instead of just letting Ruth glean, Boaz offered her protection (Ruth 2:9), provided food for her (2:14), and told his reapers to drop grain on purpose so she could glean as much as she wanted (2:15-16). When she first meets Boaz, Ruth’s relation to him is strikingly similar to us when first encountering Christ. He is good, and wealthy, and powerful while we have nothing. We don’t deserve anything from Him, and yet He offers us blessings beyond expectation.

Firstfruits From the Rejects | marissabaker.wordpress.com
photo credit: “Wheat” by Susanne Nilsson , CC BY-SA

Opening Salvation

When Jesus died, He opened up the covenants to non-Israelites. Prior to accepting His sacrifice, we were all “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). We were the sort of people who couldn’t expect more than the gleanings.

But He answered [the Gentile woman] and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” (Matt. 15:26-27)

Jesus did honor this woman’s faith and heal her daughter (Matt. 15:21-28), but by-and-large people outside Israel didn’t have access to God before the cross. Strangers who converted, like Ruth (Ruth 1:16; 2:12), were the exception rather than the rule. That didn’t really happen until after Christ’s Passover sacrifice, His ascension to the Father on wave-sheaf Sunday (click here for a timeline), and the Pentecost recorded in Acts 2.

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

Peter didn’t realize this included Gentiles until latter (Acts 10:34-35, 44-48; 11:18), but speaking by inspiration of the Spirit He still proclaimed salvation for all whom God calls. This was a huge step in God’s plan to save the world through Jesus Christ (John 3:16; 12:47), and it’s connected with Pentecost.

Redeemed Firstfruits

In the epistle of James, we’re told the Father “brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (James 1:18). The church is composed of the first people God will “harvest” from the world. We’re a rather unusual sort of firstfruits, though.

For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)

God picks us up from the things devalued and discarded by the world. In other words, He finds His firstfruits among the gleanings. He’s taking people who are underwhelming and overlooked and transforming us into something glorious. Like Ruth, we were strangers who are brought into fellowship with God’s people by a Redeemer (Ruth 2:20; Tit. 2:13-14).

Firstfruits From the Rejects | marissabaker.wordpress.com
photo credit: “Wheat” by Susanne Nilsson , CC BY-SA
Advertisements

Gleaning Firstfruits

Before getting to today’s topic, I just wanted to mention how much I’ve enjoyed doing an actual count-down this year instead of just putting Pentecost on the calendar. It’s helped me focus my Bible study and kept me in mind of the timing for God’s calender rather than feeling like Pentecost sneaked up on me. Today is the 7th Sabbath in our count, which means Pentecost is tomorrow!

And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord. (Lev. 23:15-16)

Though this is one of the easiest Holy Days to see evidence of in the New Testament (largely due to the giving of the Holy Spirit in Acts), I think we’ll spend most of our time today in the Old Testament, particularly in the book of Ruth.

Lawns of Gleaning

Pentecost, also called the Feast of the Firstfruits/Harvest/Ingathering, is a harvest-time festival. The count to this day begins with a wave-sheaf “of the firstfruits of your harvest,” and the offerings on the day of Pentecost include “two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah” of “fine flour” “baked with leaven” that are described as “the firstfruits to the Lord” (Lev. 23:10, 17). After a lengthy passage of instructions for Pentecost, there is a verse that does not quite seem to fit.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 23:22)

This is a repetition of a command also recorded in Leviticus 19:9-10, a command so important to God that He not only gave it twice, but He put one of those commands in the passage describing His most Holy Days. We can get some idea of how this practice works, and perhaps why it is so important, by looking at the book of Ruth.

‘Ruth Gleaning’ watercolor by James Tissot (1896)

There’s a note in my study Bible that says, “by New Testament times” the book of Ruth was being “read at the Feast of Harvest (Pentecost) because much of the story is set in the harvest fields.” It was one of five books “read publicly at the Feasts of Israel.”

I dare say we all know the story. Naomi and her family moved to Moab during a famine in Israel. There, her two sons married. About 10 years later, Naomi’s husband and sons were dead and she returned home to Israel accompanied by her daughter in law, Ruth. We jump into the story as Ruth and Naomi arrive in “Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22).

So Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, “Please let me go to the field, and glean heads of grain after him in whose sight I may find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” Then she left, and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers. And she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. (Ruth 2:2-3)

As we read further, we see Boaz went above and beyond what God’s law strictly required a landowner to leave for the poor. He offers Ruth protection and water, and asks her not to glean in any other field where he could not guarantee her safety (Ruth 2:8-9). Behind-the-scenes, he told his reapers to let grain fall for her on purpose and not to stop her if she wanted to glean even among the sheaves of grain (Ruth 2:15-16).

Unmerited Favor

There is much of Christ’s character visible in how Boaz treats Ruth when she first arrives in his field. Like Boaz did for Ruth, Jesus offers us His personal protection. He asks us not to stray from His laws because they are designed to keep us safe from the consequences of sin. He says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink” (John 7:37). Our response to this unearned favor ought to be much the same as Ruth’s.

So she fell on her face, bowed down to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10)

This is much the same question David asked God in Psalms 8:4 and 144:3 — “What is man that You are mindful of him?” Every human is small and insignificant compared to God, and those of us who God has chosen for His particular attention are unimportant even by human standards.

But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption — that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:27-31)

"Gleaning Firstfruits" marissabaker.wordpress.comGod is gleaning His firstfruits from the world’s rejects. He is taking people who are nothing and turning us into something glorious. He is taking strangers — like the Moabite Ruth — and adopting them into His family through Christ’s sacrifice.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. …Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:13, 19)

Our Redeemer

The adoption process by which we become God’s children is, as we discussed last week, linked inseprably to Christ’s redeeming work (Eph. 1:5-7; Rom. 8:23; Gal. 4:3-7). There is a parallel for this as well in the story of Ruth, in the role Boaz plays as a kinsman redeemer.

And her mother-in-law said to her, “Where have you gleaned today? And where did you work? Blessed be the one who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.” Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he of the Lord, who has not forsaken His kindness to the living and the dead!” And Naomi said to her, “This man is a relation of ours, one of our close relatives.” (Ruth 2:19-20)

My study Bible says this last phrase could be translated “one that hath right to redeem.” We find the basis for the practice of a kinsman redeeming land in Leviticus 25: 25, 48-49. To prevent an inheritance from leaving the family, someone who was closely related, financially able, and willing to fill this role could redeem land that was sold. In some cases, as here in Ruth, when the man who the land originally belonged to had left a childless widow, the redeemer was expected to marry her per the command in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.

We see all this played out in Ruth 4:4-10 where Boaz must offer a more closely related kinsman the opportunity to redeem Naomi’s family’s land and marry Ruth.  This man refuses (which, being the hopeless romantic I am, I suspect was Boaz’s plan all along).

Stepping back a chapter and looking at Ruth’s request that Boaz play the part of a redeemer, we read about a practice that seems rather unusual. Since Naomi counsels this action and Boaz knew how to respond, I assume Ruth asking him to be her family’s redeemer (perhaps even this method of asking) was not considered unusual in their culture. Per Naomi’s instructions, Ruth lies down at Boaz’s feet when he is asleep and waits for him to notice her.

And he said, “Who are you?” So she answered, “I am Ruth, your maidservant. Take your maidservant under your wing, for you are a close relative.” (Ruth 3:9)

Looking at the Hebrew for “wing”, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary for the Old Testament says “the idiom to spread (one’s) wings over means to take to wife.” This same word is used in Ruth 2:12 when Boaz tells Ruth, “The Lord repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.” Ruth is asking Boaz for a type of protection that mirrors the relationship between God and Israel. The comparison is drawn even more strongly reading God’s words to Israel in Ezekiel 16.

“When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,” says the Lord God. (Ezk. 16:8)

In the same way, we who are part of the church have been “betrothed you to one husband” — Jesus Christ — and will be married “to Him who was raised from the dead” after He died in order to redeem us (2 Cor. 11:2; Rom. 7:4).

Taken together, the book of Ruth and the Feast of Pentecost teach us about the glorious unmerited favor that God pours out on us. We were strangers like Ruth and were not only invited to partake in what God provides, but cared for deeply and betrothed to His own Son, who gave His life to redeem His firstfruit Bride.