Part 1: Wave Sheaf

While the sacrificial system in general revealed how people could be brought into fellowship with God, the annual festivals of the Lord celebrated future events.

The Lord introduced His festivals with the instructions: Celebrate! Celebrate! Celebrate! “Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me,” He said. “Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread… Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field. Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your cops from the field.”[1]

Everybody loves a party, so God told His people to throw a party. “Children can enjoy the party,” God said in effect, “then, as they grow up, learn what the party is all about. The adults too will enjoy the celebration and gain more insight year by year. The parties are about hope. Hope for the future. Be joyful in that hope.”

Every good party has a theme, so God designed His three festival seasons around the theme of harvest. These feasts look forward to the time when the Israelites would enter Canaan, the land God had promised to them. Once in that land they would cease being nomads and settle into an agricultural lifestyle.

The spring and fall festival seasons were broken into three parts, making a total of seven festivals. Each festival or party had hidden in its rituals a message—a message about future events. The question is: Will you recognize when the events foretold by the festival are fulfilled, or will you keep on searching for its fulfillment, not realizing when the mystery has been solved?

 

Summary of Annual Feasts

Spring feasts:

Three feasts occur in the spring of the year, in the first month of the Jewish calendar. These are: (1) Passover, (2) the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, and (3) the Firstfruits Wave Sheaf, which occurs during the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the day after the Sabbath of that week. These feasts point to the core of the Gospel.

Passover points to Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus died exactly on the day of Passover, and He declared “It is finished!” just as the priests were declaring that the time for killing Passover lambs was ended. (They quit mid afternoon so that the process of butchering, burning and cleaning up could be completed before sundown of the first day of Unleavened Bread, which was a day of rest.[2])

The Wave Sheaf points to Jesus’ resurrection.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread points to the holy living which is made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

All three of these feasts have been fulfilled in Jesus, but most Jews do not recognize that fulfillment and are still looking for a future Messiah.

 

Pentecost:

The one-day feast of Pentecost, celebrated seven weeks after the Wave Sheaf, points to the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost was fulfilled in Acts chapter 2.

Fall feasts:

The final three feasts, known collectively as “the Feast of Ingathering,”[3] occur in the fall in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. These are: the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles.

Though Jesus partially fulfilled the fall feasts when He was here on earth, the major fulfillment of these feasts is still future. I believe that future is not far distant now. Be joyful in that hope!

Firstfruits

Let’s look in more detail at the Wave Sheaf during the spring feasts, as it gives us insight into other festivals as well as other prophecies.

First mention:

The first mention of the word “firstfruits” in the Bible is in Exodus 23:16 when God is instituting the Lord’s appointed feasts. “Celebrate the Festival of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field.” God is here referring to what we commonly call “Pentecost.” Details of how to celebrate the feast are given later in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.[4]

The fact that firstfruits are mentioned first in connection with Pentecost forever associates firstfruits with the Church, the Bride of Christ, the body of Christ-followers. The timing of Pentecost also forever associates it with the wheat crop.

Significance of Firstfruits:

There is something about being first that is special to God—even holy. Abel recognized this when he brought his offering to the Lord—the offering which so famously got him killed. “The Lord “looked with favor on Abel and his offering” not just because it was a blood sacrifice, but also because “Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.”[5] Abel must have been taught that the firstlings in his flock were special.

(Did Cain bring his offering from last season’s crop? We don’t know. Whatever the case, we know that Cain’s heart was not attuned to God.)

The purpose of all planting is to benefit from the harvest, and every harvest has its firstfruits. Throughout the spring, summer and fall, as each crop was harvested—whether barley, wheat, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, or honey[6]—some of it was offered in thanksgiving to God before partaking of the new crop.

Offering some of our harvest to God before we partake of any of it for ourselves is a way of acknowledging that everything we have comes from God.

 

Wave Sheaf

Though the first mention of “firstfruits” appears in connection with Pentecost, the first celebration of firstfruits occurs during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is seven weeks earlier in the year than Pentecost. Instructions in Leviticus chapter 23 concerning the Wave Sheaf shows that it was an offering of firstfruits—the firstfruits of the first crop of the year, barley.

What can we learn from the Old Testament Wave Sheaf?

At this point in history we have the benefit of hindsight, so let’s look at the tenth item, the last thing we learn about the Wave Sheaf, first.

  1. Explained in the New Testament

The apostle Paul used the term “firstfruits” when teaching about Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Paul said, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all dies, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”[7]

Paul is saying that Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection points to more resurrections to follow—the resurrection of Christ-followers.

Using the term ‘firstfruits’ gives us the clue to look back to the celebration of firstfruits in the Lord’s appointed feasts. Firstfruits are mentioned in two places—in the Wave Sheaf and in the celebration of Pentecost. It doesn’t take long to figure out that, of these two, Paul is referring to the Wave Sheaf.

  1. No name

I struggle to name the third spring feast because the Bible does not give it a name. Bible translators also struggle to provide a title for the section. For translations which do supply titles, it is variously titled The Feast of Firstfruits (NKJV), the Offering of Firstfruits (RSV and NIV) and the Celebration of First Harvest (NLT). Maybe the most accurate name would be “Wave the Sheaf of the Firstfruits of the First Harvest” Feast. Too long!

  1. Omer

                        Omer, the name which the Jews use, is a logical name for the Wave Sheaf. Omer, the Hebrew word for “sheaf,” refers both to a sheaf of grain and to a measure of  volume of grain equal to one tenth of an ephah, or about two quarts.[8]

The Israelites were told, “Bring to the priest a sheaf (omer) of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf (omer) before the Lord.”[9] I assume that the sheaf which was waved was the size needed to produce an omer of grain.

The word omer is used without translation in our English Bibles only in the story of Exodus 16, in which God sends manna from heaven to feed the Israelites in the desert. Moses told the people, “Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.” On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much—two omers for each person so that they could rest on the Sabbath.

Moses also commanded Aaron: “Take a jar and put an omer of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to be kept for the generations to come.” The jar of manna was placed in the Tabernacle in front of the tablets of stone on which God’s finger had inscribed the Ten Commandments. [10]

The manna in the desert pointed to Jesus as the Bread of Life. The omer of the Wave Sheaf was a reminder of the manna sent from heaven and at the same time pointed to the One that God would later send from heaven for our spiritual sustenance.

An omer was also the perfect amount of food to sustain one person for one day.

  1. Date

Two of the three spring feasts are given dates. Passover is the 14th day of the first month. The Feast of Unleavened Bread begins on the 15th day of the first month and lasts for seven days.[11] The Wave Sheaf date is not a specific calendar date. It is dated as “the day after the Sabbath”[12] of the week of Unleavened Bread.

There is a very good reason for this. Nisan 16, or whatever day you pick in that week, can, depending on the year, fall on any of the seven days of the week. But “the day after the Sabbath” will always fall on the first day of the week, which we call Sunday.

Why? Because Jesus rose on the first day of the week.

According to what history I could glean, the Sadducees in Jesus’ day waved the omer and began their count toward Pentecost beginning with the day after the weekly Sabbath during Unleavened Bread. The Pharisees, however, began their count from the day after the first day of Unleavened Bread, a practice which is still followed by most of the Jewish community.

I find it ironic that the Sadducees, who deny the resurrection,[13] waved the sheaf on the right day, while the Pharisees got it wrong!

Giving the Omer a fixed date is a denial of the obvious—that God intended the Wave Sheaf to point to Jesus, who rose from the grave in fulfillment of the Wave Sheaf on the day after the Sabbath—the first day of the week, or Sunday.

  1. When the annual celebrations start

Celebration of the Lord’s appointed feasts began on the first anniversary of Passover, the escape from Egypt. In less than a year from the giving of instructions at Mount Sinai, the Tabernacle and its furnishings had been constructed and were ready for use. Then the Lord said to Moses: “Set up the tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the first month.”[14] All was in readiness for Passover on the 14th day of the month.

But the Omer or Wave Sheaf was not celebrated for another forty years!

The Lord had said to Moses: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them; ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest.’”[15]

This delayed the celebration for several years after entering the Promised Land, because the Israelites had to drive out the inhabitants first, and then be there long enough to plant and harvest.

Starting the Wave Sheaf ceremonies after settling in the Promised Land reminds us today that, even though we may have knowledge of the resurrection, we celebrate it only after we have put our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

  1. Ceremony

In Biblical times, to celebrate the Wave Sheaf, an omer of barley from the firstfruits of the barley harvest was waved before the Lord. Only after this ceremony were the people allowed to consume barley from their new harvest. Moses told them, “you must not eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God.”[16]

Though the priest waved the sheaf, the Bible makes it clear that the offering was personal. “When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf before the Lord so it will be accepted on your behalf” or “for your acceptance.”[17]

The bringer of the sheaf was to bring his best. “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.”[18] And come in an attitude of thanksgiving and worship—“before the Lord.”

  1. Accompanied by sacrifice

The Omer or Wave Sheaf was to be accompanied by the sacrifice of a lamb as a burnt offering. The burnt offering represented total surrender to God. All of it was burned up; none of it was eaten by either the giver or the officiating priest. This sacrifice also ties the resurrection (represented by the Omer) together with the death of Jesus (the Lamb of God who died for us).

  1. Accompanied by unusual grain offering

The lamb was accompanied by a grain offering of fine flour—two tenths of an ephah, or two omers. This is unusual. The usual grain offering accompanying the sacrifice of a lamb was one tenth of an ephah, or one omer. Why two omers in this case?

This is an echo of the day before the Sabbath in the desert when the Israelites gathered two omers of manna instead of one. It was in preparation for the day of rest.

This also draws your attention to the next feast. On the day of Pentecost “you” are to bring two loaves of bread made from two omers of fine flour and baked with yeast.

  1. No assembly

All of the Lord’s appointed feasts involved “sacred assemblies,”—all except one—the Wave Sheaf ceremony. Most of the feasts were times when God’s people came together for worship, rejoicing, and fellowship; but the Wave Sheaf ceremony was small and relatively quiet. Why?

The days of Unleavened Bread commemorate the days following Israel’s exodus from Egypt. The Wave Sheaf is personal; it reminds us of our own journey out of slavery to sin and into freedom in Christ.

Furthermore, Jesus’ resurrection was not observed by people. Even His ascension into heaven to be received on our behalf[19] was unobserved by humans.  And so this ceremony is done before relatively few people.

  1. Taught only in Leviticus

Though instructions for the Lord’s appointed feasts are given in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the firstfruits Wave Sheaf or Omer is mentioned only in Leviticus. This is significant.

The focus of Exodus is primarily historical. Instructions for celebrating Passover are given in detail in Exodus chapter 12, but that was before the first Passover, before the Israelites left Egypt. After Sinai, in Exodus chapter 23, God gives bare bones instructions concerning the annual feasts. Two verses cover all three feast seasons. Passover isn’t even mentioned; it was covered in chapter 12. Basically all God says is: “Celebrate! Celebrate! Celebrate!”[20]

The focus of Numbers is historical and corporate. Instructions concerning feasts and concerning sacrifices on behalf of the nation of Israel are given to the priests.

Deuteronomy focuses on remembering. It highlights the things that might get overlooked in the future. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and follow carefully these decrees.”[21]

But the instructions in Leviticus are personal. The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites [not the priests and Levites] and say to them: ‘When you enter the land…’” The Wave Sheaf is of benefit only if it is applied personally to your life. Though Jesus’ death and resurrection makes salvation available to all, each person must individually accept the gift of salvation for himself.

The Wave Sheaf has very personal applications:

  • Have you been freed from your personal Egypt, from slavery to sin?
  • Are you in your heart coming “before the Lord”?
  • Do you recognize in this offering the resurrection of Jesus?
  • Do you recognize in the lamb you sacrifice along with the Wave Sheaf the Lamb of God who died in your place?
  • As you outwardly offer a burnt offering, do you inwardly offer yourself in total surrender to God?

We need to ask ourselves similar questions today, especially when we celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection through the Lord’s Table.

 

[1] Ex. 23:14-16

[2] For a more complete explanation, see “Good Thursday,” by Elsa Henderson.

[3] Ex. 23:16b

[4] Lev. 23:15-22; Num. 18:26-31; Deut. 16:9-12

[5] Gen. 4:4-5, emphasis added.

[6] See Deut. 8:8. The Jews claim to bring the Bikkurim, the firstfruits of the seven species for which the land of Israel is praised in Deut. 8:8, but they substitute dates for honey.

[7] 1 Cor. 15:20 – 23

[8] Slightly more than 2 litres. See also Ex. 16:36.

[9] Lev. 23:10-11

[10] Ex. 16:16, 22, 33, 34

[11] Lev. 23:5-6; Num. 28:16-17. Deut. 16:1 uses the Hebrew name Abib. During the Babylonian captivity the Jews started using the Babylonian name Nisan for the first month, a practice which continues today.

[12] Lev. 23:11

[13] Acts 23:8

[14] Ex. 40:2

[15] Lev. 23:10, emphasis added.

[16] Lev. 23:14

[17] Lev. 23:10-11. Compare YLT.

[18] Ex. 23:19

[19] Jesus in John 20:17 told Mary not to hold onto (touch or embrace) him because “I have not yet returned to the Father.” Later that day he showed his disciples his hands and side, presumably allowing the disciples to touch and feel him, so he must have returned to his Father in the meantime. Forty days later Jesus ascended into heaven for good, while everyone was watching (Acts 1:9).

[20] Ex. 23:15-16

[21] Deut. 16:12

 

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