Thursday, February 08, 2007

Speaking of Paul's religious views...

Homemade Whole-Wheat Challos
Under a Traditional Embroidered Shabbat Challah Cover
...the challah is set apart, but also the whole loaf?
(Image from Wikipedia)

... what does he mean by this:

Romans 11:16 For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.

Romans 11:16 ει δε η απαρχη αγια και το φυραμα και ει η ριζα αγια και οι κλαδοι
This refers to the firstfruits offering noted in various scriptural passages, as detailed in this online Bible Encyclopedia, which I'll simply quote (out of laziness and lack of time):
The first-fruits of the ground were offered unto God just as the first-born of man and animals.

The law required, (1.) That on the morrow after the Passover Sabbath a sheaf of new corn should be waved by the priest before the altar (Lev. 23:5, 6, 10, 12; 2:12).

(2.) That at the feast of Pentecost two loaves of leavened bread, made from the new flour, were to be waved in like manner (Lev. 23:15, 17; Num. 28:26).

(3.) The feast of Tabernacles was an acknowledgement that the fruits of the harvest were from the Lord (Ex. 23:16; 34:22).

(4.) Every individual, besides, was required to consecrate to God a portion of the first-fruits of the land (Ex. 22:29; 23:19; 34:26; Num. 15:20, 21).

(5.) The law enjoined that no fruit was to be gathered from newly-planted fruit-trees for the first three years, and that the first-fruits of the fourth year were to be consecrated to the Lord (Lev. 19:23-25). Jeremiah (2:3) alludes to the ordinance of "first-fruits," and hence he must have been acquainted with the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, where the laws regarding it are recorded.
The term "holy" in the Hebrew Bible can have either of two meanings:

1. something containing a 'contagious' sacred force

2. something that is purified and set apart

If I had more time, I could ground this two points in scripture and commentaries, but let's assume that this twofold distinction is noncontroversial.

The firstfruit offering is holy by dint of the second, namely, by being presented as a pure offering set apart to God -- and one should note that the Hebrew term for "holy" (kadosh) means "set apart" -- such as is expressed in Number 15:20-21:
Numbers 15:20 Of the first of your dough ye shall set apart a cake for a gift; as that which is set apart of the threshing-floor, so shall ye set it apart. 21 Of the first of your dough ye shall give unto the LORD a portion for a gift throughout your generations.
Paul seems to be alluding specifically to this passage in Numbers, but also by extension to Leviticus 19:23-25:
Levitcus 19:23 And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as forbidden; three years shall it be as forbidden unto you; it shall not be eaten. 24 And in the fourth year all the fruit thereof shall be holy, for giving praise unto the LORD. 25 But in the fifth year may ye eat of the fruit thereof, that it may yield unto you more richly the increase thereof: I am the LORD your God.
Thus, Paul is alluding to verses such as these two, but given the context to Romans 11:16, he is also thinking of Jeremiah 2:3:
Jeremiah 2:3 Israel is the LORD'S hallowed portion, His first-fruits of the increase;
Without going into all of the scriptural allusions and their complications, let me simply note that Paul uses this understanding of Israel as the Lord's sanctified firstfruit in order to build an argument that if Israel is holy to the Lord, then so are the Gentile Christians.

The argument's logic seems to be this: Because the firstfruit is holy, then the entire harvest from which the firstfruit is set apart is also holy.

But this is rather odd, for only by being set apart did the firstfruit become holy. How, then, can Paul declare the entire harvest holy?

I suggest that Paul is interpreting the firstfruit not merely as an offering but also as a sort of 'sacrifice' for purifying the entire harvest. Now, the Hebrew Bible doesn't seem to present the firstfruit offering in this way (but correct me if I'm wrong), so Paul is either creatively interpreting or drawing upon Jewish tradition.

Anyway, if Paul understands the firstfruit offering as a sacrificial offering that purifies the entire harvest, then he 'only' needs to add the view that the entire harvest itself is thereby "set apart" to the Lord (and yet simultaneously kept for one's own use).

I use ironic quotes with 'only' because such a conceptual shift would not be a simple one (as my parenthetical remark implicitly acknowledges), but Paul seems to be making precisely that move.

Any suggestions from you biblical scholars out there?


At 1:01 PM, Blogger Brandon said...

I'm not a biblical scholar by any means, but perhaps there is a clue in the fact that the firstfruits in the first clause are treated as analogous to the root in the second? Thus the firstfruits are treated as a sort of principle or foundation or starting-point for the rest of the harvest.

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Brandon, for the comment.

Yes, there is parallelism, I agree, and we are, I think, intended to see the firstfruits as infusing the remaining fruits with holiness just as the roots infuse the branches.

That's the analogy.

But what sort of hermeneutic of the Hebrew scripture lies behind this analogy? How is Paul using the firstfruits, which are sacred, to sanctify the entire harvest, which is not -- so far as I can see -- explicit in the Old Testament passages?

That's what is puzzling me.

He seems to be interpreting the firstfruits offering as a sacrifice that purifies the remaining harvest, but then he takes this an extra step, namely, to holiness.

How might Paul justify his interpretation?

Jeffery Hodges

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