Our covenantal relationship with God compels us to offer our “first fruits” to him in sacrifice and praise. The offering of the first fruits is inextricably connected with God’s covenantal relationships. When God covenants with his people, an offering of the “first” acknowledges God’s sovereignty and gives thanks to God from whom all things come.
First Fruits in the New Testament Church
The first century New Testament church understood first fruits offerings as part of God’s plan for the sanctification of his Church. The Didache, commonly known as the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” is the earliest known liturgical writing of the earliest church and was written about 100 A.D. It prescribes offering first fruits for the support of both the clergy and the poor:
But every true prophet that wills to abide among you is worthy of his support. So also a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman, of his support. Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, you shall take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if you have not a prophet, give it to the poor. If you make a batch of dough, take the first-fruit and give according to the commandment. So also when you open a jar of wine or of oil, take the first-fruit and give it to the prophets; and of money (silver) and clothing and every possession, take the first-fruit, as it may seem good to you, and give according to the commandment.
Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, written around 180 A.D. in reply to the Gnostic heresy, carefully laid out the theological and liturgical place of the first fruits offering, both of the Eucharist and of the goods presented at the altar:
The oblation of the Church, therefore, which the Lord gave instructions to be offered throughout all the world, is accounted with God a pure sacrifice, and is acceptable to Him; not that He stands in need of a sacrifice from us, but that he who offers is himself glorified in what he does offer, if his gift be accepted. For by the gift both honor and affection are shown forth towards the King; and the Lord, wishing us to offer it in all simplicity and innocence, did express Himself thus: Therefore, when you offer your gift upon the altar, and shall remember that your brother has ought against you, leave your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then return and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24) We are bound, therefore, to offer to God the first-fruits of His creation, as Moses also says, You shall not appear in the presence of the Lord your God empty; (Deuteronomy 16:16) so that man, being accounted as grateful, by those things in which he has shown his gratitude, may receive that honor which flows from Him.
. . . . They (the Jews) had indeed the tithes of their goods consecrated to Him, but those who have received liberty set aside all their possessions for the Lord’s purposes, bestowing joyfully and freely not the less valuable portions of their property, since they have the hope of better things [hereafter]; as that poor widow acted who cast all her living into the treasury of God.
. . . . He does not stand in need of these [services], yet does desire that we should render them for our own benefit, lest we be unfruitful; so did the Word give to the people that very precept as to the making of oblations, although He stood in no need of them, that they might learn to serve God: thus is it, therefore, also His will that we, too, should offer a gift at the altar, frequently and without intermission.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 18 (emphasis added)
The Fathers of Vatican II echoed and urged the same understanding: “Indeed, it is the duty of the whole People of God, following the word and example of the bishops, to alleviate as far as they are able the sufferings of the modern age. They should do this too, as was the ancient custom in the Church, out of the substance of their goods, and not only out of what is superfluous.” Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes 88 (1965) (emphasis added).
In a future article, I hope to describe in detail the historical teaching of the Catholic faith on first fruits offerings and tithes. Before we get there, though, we must understand first fruits in the context of God’s covenants, and for that understanding, we must look to the Old Testament.
By reading and interpreting the historical covenants “in the sacred spirit in which it was written,” carefully studying “the content and unity of the whole of Scripture” [Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum 12 (1965)], the first fruits offering in the economy of salvation can be understood.
God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New. For, though Christ established the new covenant in His blood, still the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the Gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament and in turn shed light on it and explain it.
I will analyze first fruits offerings in the Old Testament covenants, letting scripture itself do much of the talking. We shall see that our sacrificial offerings are a necessary acknowledgement of God’s ownership of all that we have and of a right understanding of our stewardship.
These are the major covenantal sacrifices in the Old Testament:
- The First Offering of the First: Cain and Abel
- The First from the Ark: Noah
- The First Tenth to Melchizedek: Abram
- The First Son: Abraham (née Abram)
- The Tenth at Bethel: Jacob
- The Passover and the Offering of the Firstborn: Moses
- The Sinaitic Covenant: Moses
- The Davidic Covenant
The First Offering of the First: Cain and Abel
The first offering recorded in scripture is the story of Cain and Abel.
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
What was the difference between the offerings of the two brothers that would lead God to reject the one and approve the other? The text emphasizes the “firstlings” nature of Abel’s offering. Abel brought “the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions,” while Cain offered merely “of the fruit.”
You know the rest of the story. Cain was angry at God that his offering was unacceptable, so he argued with God about it.
So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.
Then, out of envy, Cain went out and murdered his brother Abel, who was the firstborn of our first parents.
Notice how God pointed to the consequence of improper giving: “If you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” [Genesis 4:7]. As discussed in my last article, the primary purpose of giving is to save the giver’s soul. Thus, if we do not give our first portion, “sin is lurking at the door”.
The First from the Ark: Noah
The first thing Noah did when the ark landed was give to God an offering from the animals in the ark.
In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.”
God was pleased and blessed Noah. “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” [Genesis 9:3]. “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” [Genesis 9:7]
Then God made a covenant with man and with all living things: “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” [Genesis Genesis 9:11].
Again we see the “firstness” of the offering. Noah offered the first of the new creation, even before the animals had begun to multiply on the earth. In response, God made a promise that all living things would be fruitful and multiply and that creation would always provide food for humans. Thus, God promised fruitfulness and life on account of Noah’s offering of the first.
The First Tenth to Melchizedek: Abram
After Abram was victorious in battle, he immediately made an offering to Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem, of a tenth of the winnings from war.
After [Abram’s] return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.
Then God immediately made a covenant with Abram.
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
In the same pattern as Noah’s covenant, Abram made a first offering of a tenth to God through the priest-king Melchizedek. Upon seeing Abram’s offering, God covenanted Abram’s descendants would be as the stars in the heavens. Thus, God promised life to Abram’s descendants on account of Abram’s offering of the first.
The First Son: Abraham (née Abram)
The offering of Isaac, Abraham’s “only son” and the firstborn of Sarah, is a dramatic foreshadowing of the Paschal Sacrifice of Christ.
God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” . . . Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.
Although Abraham also had a son, Ishmael, by Hagar the Egyptian slave, God refers to Isaac as “your only son Isaac, whom you love,” following God’s assurance in the previous chapter that “it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.” Genesis 21:12. See also Galatians 4:22-31.
God had promised Abraham that Isaac would be the heir and then ordered Abraham to sacrifice and burn him! Abraham’s faithfulness to God’s command was astounding by any measure. Abraham offered up Isaac, who was the first in Abraham’s heart (“Isaac, whom you love”) and the first from which offspring would be named after Abraham.
God’s response was yet another covenant:
By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.
Abraham offered his only, his beloved, son to God in obedience to God’s command. God added to the prior covenant by making Abraham’s offspring the gate through which all nations shall gain blessing. Thus, God promised to bless the lives of all nations through Abraham’s offering of his first heir.
The Tenth at Bethel: Jacob
In the story of Jacob’s Ladder, God covenanted the promised land to Jacob, which prompted Jacob’s vow to return a tenth to God. God’s covenant to Jacob was the first to give the promised land to a particular individual. God had promised to Abram, “To your descendants I will give this land” [Genesis 12:7], but here, God promised to give the land to Jacob.
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob recognized God’s sovereignty, erected a pillar, and made a vow:
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
God’s promise moved Jacob to an immediate sacrifice in response. His sacrifice was his vow to give a tenth of the land because, being on the run from Esau, his word was all he had. Thus, Jacob’s vow sacrificed the first tenth, even before he had the means to fulfill his vow. Jacob was ultimately unable during his lifetime to keep the vow to return a tenth to God, because he died before he and his descendants could take full possession of the land. However, as we shall see, Jacob’s descendants did fulfill the vow as part of the Sinaitic/Mosaic covenant.
Later in Jacob’s life, God gave him a new name and reaffirmed the covenant:
God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he was called Israel. God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.”
A famine came and forced Jacob and his twelve sons into Egypt, where their descendants stayed for about 400 years. But while in Egypt, God’s people never forgot they were the children of Israel and heirs to the Promised Land of Israel. And God did not forget his covenant, either.
The Passover Lamb and the Offering of the Firstborn: Moses
The Passover sacrifice is the quintessential foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass.
God called Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Moses first went to Pharaoh asking for the release of God’s people to go “a three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God.” Exodus 5:3. Pharaoh was unwilling to allow the Hebrews to go, so God sent the plagues, the last of which was the terrible Passover:
Moses said [to Pharaoh], “Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, ‘Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.’ After that I will leave.” And in hot anger he left Pharaoh.
That day, God required the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb, which sacrifice is to be repeated forever:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. . . . Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. . . . It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
Along with the Paschal Lamb, unleavened bread is to be eaten as part of the Passover:
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you.
You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance. In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread.
Looking forward to the giving of the Promised Land, God commanded that the first born of man and beast be offered to God:
“When the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and has given it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the Lord’s. But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.”
True to his word, God sent the angel of death over Egypt at midnight, but the children of Israel were spared. Pharaoh relented long enough for Moses to part the Red Sea and lead the people through to the other side. Pharaoh gave chase, Moses touched the sea, the waters returned, and Pharaoh and his army drowned.
Thus, with the offering of the lamb, the unleavened bread, and the firstborn, God renewed his covenant with Israel and established the Passover remembrance forever.
The Sinaitic Covenant: Moses
The essence of the Old Testament is the covenant God made with the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. After Moses led them out of Egypt across the Red Sea, the children of Israel traveled to Mt. Sinai. When they arrived, God proposed to the people the Sinaitic covenant, and they agreed:
Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”
After three days of preparation, Moses went up the mountain and there received the Law of God, including the Ten Commandments. Intrinsic to the covenantal relationship at Sinai is once again the system of sacrifice of the firsts. Space does not permit a complete description of the Mosaic sacrificial system, and on almost every point there was some rabbinical debate, so the following discussion will be necessarily abbreviated.
The Mosaic law set out a system of sacrifices of the sabbath, the Passover, three first fruits liturgical offerings, and the tenths (tithes) related to the first fruits. A summary of the offerings is found in Exodus 23:10-19:
- The Sabbath [Exodus 23:10-13]
- The Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread [Exodus 23:15]
- The Harvest Feast (Feast of First Fruits) [Exodus 23:16a]
- The In-Gathering Feast (Feast of Weeks) [Exodus 23:16b]
- The First Fruits of All the Land (Feast of Tabernacles) [Exodus 23:19]
Sacrifice of First Time: The Sabbath
The first and greatest offering is the sacrifice of time — the sabbath day of worship and rest commanded in the Decalogue. The sabbath is stated as the seventh day of the week, because creation had been completed in six days, but it is also the first day after creation was finished. Thus, the sabbath day has significance both for worship (as the first and holiest day) and mercy (as the seventh day of rest). The sabbath was not only a time of worship but also a relief for workers and the poor and for beasts wild and tame. Thus, the sabbath is consecrated to God.
The sabbath was a day of the week:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
The sabbath was also a year:
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.
The Passover Lamb and the Feast of Unleavened Bread
The Passover offering of the lamb is on Nisan 14 (Nisan is the first month of the Jewish year), and the next day (Nisan 15) is the sabbath of the feast of unleavened bread:
In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. For seven days you shall present the Lord’s offerings by fire; on the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation: you shall not work at your occupations.
The Passover sacrifice of the lamb and the feast of unleavened bread are fulfilled and perpetuated in the Last Supper, which was completed with Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. The institution of the Eucharist after sundown was the beginning of the Passover and feast of unleavened bread. Cf. Luke 22:15. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was crucified later the same day (Jewish days begin at sundown) at the precise time the Passover lamb was slain in the temple. Cf. Luke 23:44-46,54-56.
The early Church understood that Christ our Passover is the fulfillment of the Mosaic Passover. The most obvious evidence is that the Church never sacrificed animals. This is astonishing, given that the Apostles were Jewish and well accustomed to the sacrifices of the Mosaic law. As the writer of Hebrews said, “It is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” [Hebrews 10:10]
The Harvest Feast (Feast of First Fruits)
The Feast of First Fruits falls on Nisan 16, the day after the High Sabbath of Nisan 15.
The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall raise the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance; on the day after the sabbath the priest shall raise it. On the day when you raise the sheaf, you shall offer a lamb a year old, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the Lord. And the grain offering with it shall be two-tenths of an ephah of choice flour mixed with oil, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord; and the drink offering with it shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin.
Christ arose on the day after the High Sabbath of the unleavened bread, on the Feast of First Fruits. The Apostle Paul comments on the implications:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
Thus, in the Mass, the Old Covenant species of the bread and wine that we offer become Christ, the First Fruits offering of the New Covenant.
The In-Gathering Feast (Feast of Weeks)
The in-gathering feast, the Feast of Weeks, occurs 50 days after the sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened bread. Another word for the Feast of Weeks is “Pentecost,” taken from the Greek word for 50.
And from the day after the sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord.
You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering, each made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of choice flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to the Lord. You shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, one young bull, and two rams; they shall be a burnt offering to the Lord, along with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord. You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of well-being. The priest shall raise them with the bread of the first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord, together with the two lambs; they shall be holy to the Lord for the priest.
On that same day you shall make proclamation; you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout your generations.
Pentecost is the day that the Holy Spirit came upon the Church and made the Church the Body of Christ. See Acts 2:1-4. Because the Church itself became the Body of Christ, Christ’s faithful became themselves the offering of the First Fruits. Cf. Romans 8:23 and James 1:18.
Christ arose on the first day of the week and the Day of Pentecost falls on the first day of the week. The early Church moved the sabbath day from the last day of the week to the first [Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶ 2178], which remains the sabbath for the people of God. [Hebrews 4:9-11]
The First Fruits of All the Land (Feast of Tabernacles)
During the Feast of Tabernacles (“Sukkot”), the Jews would stay in homemade booths or tents looking forward to the time when the Messianic prophecies would be fulfilled.
Now, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the festival of the Lord, lasting seven days; a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. You shall keep it as a festival to the Lord seven days in the year; you shall keep it in the seventh month as a statute forever throughout your generations. You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
The feast was a harvest festival, coming at the end of the harvest time for produce. Consequently, a first fruits offering was made. [Leviticus 23:36]
At the Transfiguration, Christ stood with Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets), vividly conveying that Jesus is the Messiah and fulfillment of the Torah. God’s glory was revealed from within his body, showing that God was present in the tabernacle of Jesus’ flesh. “On the mountain—in the conversation of the transfigured Jesus with the Law and the Prophets—they realize that the true Feast of Tabernacles has come.” Pope Emeritus Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, p. 317.
The Three Tithes
The three tithes were for:
- Support of the Levites (the first tithe, or “terumah”) [Numbers 18:21-26],
- Sacrificial consumption at the temple (the second tithe, or “ma’aser”) [Deuteronomy 14:22-27], and
- Relief for the poor every third year (the third tithe, or “bikkurim”) [Deuteronomy 14:28-29].
Thus, the total of the tithes in the Old Testament is 23.33%!
St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, analyzed the three tithes with his usual clarity of thought. He concluded that under the New Covenant, the first tithe is binding partly morally and partly juridically, the second tithe is abrogated, and the third tithe is increased “for our Lord commanded us to give to the poor not merely the tenth part, but all our surplus.” [St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 87, Tithes, Article 1].
Three ecumenical councils (Third Lateran Council in 1179, Constance in 1415, and Trent in 1563) of the Catholic Church have dogmatically held the tithe to be binding on the morals of the faithful. However, the current Code of Canon Law makes no mention of the tithe, so Aquinas would likely hold that the simple failure to tithe is not a mortal sin:
In like manner the ministers of the Church rightly refrain from demanding the Church’s tithes, when they could not demand them without scandal, on account of their having fallen into desuetude, or for some other reason. Nevertheless those who do not give tithes in places where the Church does not demand them are not in a state of damnation, unless they be obstinate, and unwilling to pay even if tithes were demanded of them.
As I mentioned before, I hope to further analyze in a later article the tithe in Catholic doctrine.
The Davidic Covenant
The apex of the Old Testament covenantal relationship between God and Israel is God’s covenant with David, king of Israel. The making of the Davidic covenant is a story that unfolds over the course of David’s reign. It was finally sealed when he turned over the kingdom to his son Solomon, and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. David was both a foretype of the expected Messiah in his giving of his entire self for Israel and an example to Israel in giving itself completely to God.
The arrival of the ark in Jerusalem
By the time of David’s reign, Israel the nation was fulfilling the vow that Israel (Jacob) the patriarch gave when he received his covenant. David and the entire nation of Israel were offering, in the sacrifices prescribed by Moses, the tithe of all that God gave, as the patriarch Israel had promised to do. David sought to perpetuate the Sinaitic covenantal sacrifice and further integrate it into the life of the nation he governed.
Since Moses, the ark of the covenant had been kept mostly in a tent (the “tabernacle of the covenant”) and was carried into battles or moved from time to time. When David became king of Israel and made Jerusalem the capital, he brought the ark to Jerusalem, “for we neglected it in the days of Saul.” [1 Chronicles 13:3]
The sacrifice given at the ark’s arrival at Jerusalem is once again a “first” offering, as it was both the very first action upon the ark’s arrival and also a remembrance of the offering of first fruits in the Mosaic law. When the ark arrived at Jerusalem, amid much rejoicing, “they brought in the ark of God, and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and they offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before God.” [1 Chronicles 16:1]
The Sinaitic offering involved a sacrifice of a lamb, bread, and grape wine. Here, David made a burnt sacrifice and then distributed to his entire kingdom meat, bread, and raisin cake: “When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord; and he distributed to every person in Israel—man and woman alike—to each a loaf of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins.” [1 Chronicles 16:2-3] Thus, the nation remembered at once the Sinaitic covenantal sacrifices of the Passover lamb and the first fruits offering of grain and wine. A more graphic and literal foreshadowing of the Last Supper and of the Mass sacrifice could scarcely be imagined. [See Matthew 26:26-28]
David wrote for the occasion a hymn of praise that invoked the covenantal relationship between God and Israel:
He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth.
Remember his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac,
which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance.”
The hymn then exhorts proper worship, by bringing offerings and giving praise and thanks:
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come before him.
Worship the Lord in holy splendor;
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
“Save us, O God of our salvation,
and gather and rescue us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
and glory in your praise.”
The institution of continual sacrifice
After the celebration of the ark’s arrival in Jerusalem, David instituted continual sacrifice to God. “And he left the priest Zadok and his kindred the priests before the tabernacle of the Lord in the high place that was at Gibeon, to offer burnt offerings to the Lord on the altar of burnt offering regularly, morning and evening, according to all that is written in the law of the Lord that he commanded Israel.” [1 Chronicles 16:39-40]
God’s announcement of the Davidic covenant
When David returned home, he saw the irony of his own house being built of cedar while the ark of the covenant was in a tent. See 1 Chronicles 17:1. But God told David: “You shall not build me a house to dwell in.” [1 Chronicles 17:4] Instead, God proposed a much greater plan.
God’s covenant with David paralleled Jacob’s covenant:
- “I will make for you a name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.” [1 Chronicles 17:8] (God had given Jacob the name Israel. [Genesis 35:10].)
- “I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more.” [1 Chronicles 17:9] (God had promised the land to Jacob. [Genesis 35:12].)
- “The Lord will build you a house” [1 Chronicles 17:10] (God had promised “a nation and a company of nations” to Jacob. [Genesis 35:11].)
- “I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom.” [1 Chronicles 17:11] (God had promised that kings would spring from Jacob. [Genesis 35:11].)
God then assured David that his desire to build a temple for God’s presence would be fulfilled by David’s promised successor.
- “He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne for ever.” [1 Chronicles 17:12]
- “I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom for ever.” [1 Chronicles 17:14]
In the making of the Davidic covenant, God used a play on words. “House” refers both to a dwelling place and to the people of the household, especially the descendants. Thus, the “house” of a king means the succession of lineal descendant kings. God promised that he would build David a house and that David’s successor would build God’s house and “confirm him in my house and in my kingdom.” Thus, God’s promise was that David’s house, his kingdom, would be God’s house forever and that David’s successor would build the temple.
David understood the implications and thanked God in prayer. See 1 Chronicles 17:16-27, especially verses 25 and 27. David’s acceptance of the covenant foreshadowed Mary’s fiat at the Annunciation. Compare 1 Chronicles 17:23 (“As for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, let it be established forever, and do as you have promised.”) with Luke 1:38 (“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”)
David understood that after he had made his first fruits offering, the remainder of all that he had also belonged to God. In the Davidic covenant, the sacrificial offering of “firsts” at the ark was integral to the very existence of David’s “house” and of Israel as a nation. David faithfully offered his tithes and first fruits, and he recognized that the rest of his possessions also belonged to God and must be used for the building of God’s “house.” For the rest of David’s life, he made preparations for the building of the temple and sacrificed time, talent, and treasure in expectation of God’s promise.
Purchase of the land for the temple
Worship requires an actual sacrifice. An angel commanded David to build an altar on the Jebusite’s threshing floor, which was to be the temple site. When David asked to buy the site, the owner offered to give the land and the sacrificial livestock to the king. David’s answer reveals the proper understanding: “No; I will buy them for the full price. I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” 1 Chronicles 21:24
In our time, St. John Paul II stated the underlying reason why worship requires a tangible, sacrificial expression. “A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. . . . In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.” St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor at ¶ 49.
Preparations for the temple
The house of God is built of generous freewill offerings in addition to the first fruits and tithe offerings. David spent his life laying up provisions for the temple. See 1 Chronicles 22:2-5. At the end of his life, David assembled all the officials of Israel, presented to God all that he had accumulated, and asked Israel to join him:
King David said to the whole assembly, “My son Solomon, whom alone God has chosen, is young and inexperienced, and the work is great; for the temple will not be for mortals but for the Lord God. So I have provided for the house of my God, so far as I was able, the gold for the things of gold, the silver for the things of silver, and the bronze for the things of bronze, the iron for the things of iron, and wood for the things of wood, besides great quantities of onyx and stones for setting, antimony, colored stones, all sorts of precious stones, and marble in abundance. Moreover, in addition to all that I have provided for the holy house, I have a treasure of my own of gold and silver, and because of my devotion to the house of my God I give it to the house of my God: three thousand talents of gold, of the gold of Ophir, and seven thousand talents of refined silver, for overlaying the walls of the house, and for all the work to be done by artisans, gold for the things of gold and silver for the things of silver. Who then will offer willingly, consecrating themselves today to the Lord?”
Then the leaders of ancestral houses made their freewill offerings, as did also the leaders of the tribes, the commanders of the thousands and of the hundreds, and the officers over the king’s work. They gave for the service of the house of God five thousand talents and ten thousand darics of gold, ten thousand talents of silver, eighteen thousand talents of bronze, and one hundred thousand talents of iron. Whoever had precious stones gave them to the treasury of the house of the Lord, into the care of Jehiel the Gershonite. Then the people rejoiced because these had given willingly, for with single mind they had offered freely to the Lord; King David also rejoiced greatly.
1 Chronicles 29:1-9 (emphasis added)
Thus, we see in David’s actions that the building of God’s kingdom is worthy of everything we have, for everything we have comes from God. David’s prayer of dedication is famous for its succinct statement of proper stewardship: “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. . . . O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own.” 1 Chronicles 29:14,16 (emphasis added).
The Old Testament sheds light on and explains the New Testament. Indeed, only by understanding the Old Covenant do we understand what the New Covenant really is: a mutual self-gift between God and man. God does not need our money. Neither is God moved by empty gifts without love. The purpose of giving is to save the giver’s soul by sacrificially entering into the covenantal relationship with him.
Now we make offering to Him, not as though He stood in need of it, but rendering thanks for His gift, and thus sanctifying what has been created. For even as God does not need our possessions, so do we need to offer something to God; as Solomon says: He that has pity upon the poor, lends unto the Lord. (Proverbs 19:17) For God, who stands in need of nothing, takes our good works to Himself for this purpose, that He may grant us a recompense of His own good things, as our Lord says: Come, you blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you. For I was an hungered, and you gave Me to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and you took Me in: naked, and you clothed Me; sick, and you visited Me; in prison, and you came to Me. (Matthew 25:34, etc.)
We live in covenant with God. Christ Jesus, as the eternal Heir of David’s House, gives himself to and for his Church. We, in turn, as the Bride of Christ, give our entire lives — everything we have and are — to God, from whom all things come.
The New Covenant finds its source and summit in the Eucharist, instituted by Christ himself. The first fruits offering of our time is the Sabbath day, which is offered in worship, praise, and thanksgiving with the assembly of the Church. The first fruits offerings of our tithes are presented at the offertory in the Mass, and the offertory is a sacramental of our entire lives given to God. By following the command of Christ and his Apostles to give for the spread of the Kingdom and relief of the poor, sick, and needy, the Church becomes a holy, reasonable, and living sacrifice.
The old English hymn captures the reason for our sacrificial offering:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Isaac Watts, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (public domain, 1707)