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No. 35: The Ecology of the Tribute Offering

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 35
March, 1992
Copyright 1992, Biblical Horizons

The Hebrew word translated as "grain offering" or "cereal offering" is minchah. Like the translation of `olah as "burnt offering," the translation of minchah as "grain offering" is somewhat deceiving, since minchah does not refer to grain or cereal. In liturgical contexts outside of Leviticus, in fact, the word can refer to bloody sacrifices as well as unbloody sacrifices (see Gen. 4:3-4). Even in the law, where minchah is used exclusively of unbloody offerings, the word does not refer to the material used in the offering, but to the meaning of the offering.

We can gain a perspective on the meaning of minchah by noting its usage in non-liturgical texts. At times, it is best translated simply as "gift" or "present." Jacob sent a minchah to Esau as he returned from his sojourn with Laban (Gen. 32:13); in this context, the word comes close to the sense of "bribe." In other passages, it comes closest to the English word, "tribute." When a conquered people rendered homage to their conquerors, they paid minchah. When the Moabites were ascendant over Israel, the Israelites sent Ehud with a minchah to give to Eglon, king of Moab; Ehud brought a sword instead (Judg. 3:15-18). Later, the Israelites gained mastery of Moab, and the Moabites send a minchah to David (2 Sam. 8:2). Bruce Waltke concluded from his study of the term that the word always includes the idea of an inferior’s showing homage to a superior, of a vassal’s giving tribute to his lord, of a dependent’s showing respect to the one on whom he is dependent.

The analogy between these non-liturgical uses and the Levitical use of the term is obvious. By bringing a minchah to the Lord, the Israelites were confessing their dependence upon, their loyalty and vassalage to the Lord of the covenant. For these reasons, it is useful to think of the "grain offering" as a "tribute offering."

The tribute offering provides us with a number of perspectives on Biblical economics and ecology. First, it is a liturgical expression of the Biblical theology of ownership and property. By offering the tribute offering, the Israelite confessed ritually that he had nothing that he had not received, that the land and its produce were unmerited gifts from God. The memorial portion of the tribute offering was a token that the whole was at the disposal of the Lord. Thus, in the tribute offering, the Israelites acknowledged that they were merely stewards of a land not their own. In the New Covenant, the tithe is our tribute offering, our confession that we are vassals of the Great King.

The tribute offering, however, represented not only the property of the worshiper, but his labor. The worshiper expended time and energy in producing the materials that were offered as tribute to the Lord. Grain was not offered in its raw state; it was either ground into flour, baked into bread and wafers, or roasted in the fire (see Lev. 2). Oil, not olives, was spread on the wafers or mixed with the flour that was turned into smoke. The libation that accompanied the tribute offering was not an offering of grapes, but of wine. What was offered as tribute, then, were the products of man’s transformative restructuring of the original materials of creation. What was offered as tribute to God was not creation per se, but creation developed, molded, transformed, glorified by human labor.

Several important truths about work emerge from a consideration of the tribute offering’s relation to human labor. First, it shows that our self-sacrifice to the Lord is not merely an act of the will, an inner surrender to His will. Instead, we offer ourselves to the Lord precisely by offering our work to Him. Work dedicated to the Lord is a necessary outflowing of the self-sacrifice of faith. Christians have a duty not only to perform good works in the narrow sense of works of charity, but also to work faithfully in a calling. Faith without work is as dead as faith without good works.

Second, the tribute offering points to one of the goals of work. The tribute offering is not, as we have seen, merely an offering back to God of what He has given to us, but of the creation transfigured. The tribute offering thus reminds us that our calling, like Adam’s, is to glorify, develop, improve, transform this world, so that we can offer it back to God for His delight and pleasure. God made the world good, but He wants it to be made better; He made the world glorious, but expects mankind to work to transform it from glory to glory. God expects us not to bury our talents, but to increase them. Thus, the tribute offering embodies a theology of progress. When history ends, man will be expected to present to God a world transformed by human effort and skill, a world more glorious than the original creation. The tribute offering is an eschatological offering.

Third, the tribute offering confirms the Reformation principle of vocation. It teaches that all work can be pleasing to God. Farming and cooking are among the most basic, least glamorous kinds of work. Yet God accepted the prepared products of the field and vineyard as his food, and the Bible tells us the products of these labors brought pleasure to Him (Lev 2:2). Similarly, in the New Testament, Paul teaches that even the menial work of a godly household servant pleases God (Eph. 6:5-8).

Fourth, the tribute offering points to the proper relationship between work and worship. The Israelite plowed his field, sowed his seed, cared for and harvested the grain, ground it into flour, and baked it — he expended all this energy and time with a view to bringing the fruit of his labors into the house of God, to offer it to Him and to support the priests and Levites. The tribute offering reinforces the Biblical truth that the ultimate purpose of our work is to bring glory to God. On the other hand, the Bible also teaches that one of the effects of worship is to empower us for work. By sacrifice, the covenant was renewed, the worshiper was cleansed and refreshed, and sent back to his labors. The Christian life is a cycle of work and worship; we worship in part so that we can work effectively and faithfully, and we work in order to render homage to our Lord.

The tribute offering also has relevance to environmental concerns. As we have seen, it points to the Adamic calling to develop and transform the world. Man’s calling is not to preserve the pristine condition of the creation. It is true, of course, that the Bible teaches that man should use the creation wisely and carefully. The dominion command does not justify short-sighted pillaging and raping of God’s earth. But much of contemporary environmentalism assumes that man’s only legitimate role in "nature" is that of Preserver. Ultimately, this stance is based on an idolatry of nature. The Bible’s protest against this idolatry is woven into the details sacrificial system.

More generally, the tribute offering implies that what is natural is not necessarily more pleasing to God. Nature is not normative. Even many Christians who resist the extremes of environmentalism have unwittingly fallen into a kind of idolatry of nature, assuming that natural things are better (that is, more pleasing to God) than man-made things. Foods grown by natural methods are inherently better than foods grown with chemical fertilizers; natural childbirth is better than using drugs; natural family planning is ethically superior to the use of contraceptives; and so on.

The problem with such positions is not always that they are wrong, but that the arguments used to defend them assume that the "natural" is somehow inherently superior to the "man-made." The argument for natural foods has sometimes been framed this way: God knew what He was doing when He created the earth, so it’s bad for man to interfere with the natural growth of foods. Now, in fact, it might be true that naturally grown foods are more nutritious than chemically fertilized foods. But the above argument assumes that nature is normative, and that man’s calling is to stand back and let nature take its course. The tribute offering assumes a quite different calling for man.

Finally, it seems that tribute offerings were offered only as an accompaniment to a bloody offering. The evidence is not perfectly conclusive, but what evidence we have strongly suggests this conclusion. (For a discussion of this question, see J. H. Kurtz, Sacrificial Worship of the Old Testament, [Minneapolis: Klock and Klock, (1863) 1980], pp. 303-14).

Assuming that this is the case, it implies that our work, even our good works of charity and mercy, are not acceptable to God in themselves. It was Cain’s sin to presume to offering tribute offerings, works, apart from the shedding of blood. Such good works do not make us acceptable to God, and good works are not acceptable to God unless offered on the basis of a substitutionary sacrifice. Just as the grain offering was offered only on top of the bloody offerings, so also the fruits of our labors and products of our hands, our culture as well as our worship, is acceptable to God only as we offer it to Him in the Name of Jesus Christ.