“The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat the food of the land, present a portion as an offering to the LORD. Present a cake from the first of your ground meal and present it as an offering from the threshing floor. Throughout the generations to come you are to give this offering to the LORD from the first of your ground meal.’” (Num. 15:17-21)
We'll start our journey of this verse with some observations. Observations help the reader to notice certain things which may be overlooked if not closely scanned. After the observations we'll go step-by-step through interpreting this verse and see how significant OT verses like these are for us today.
There are repeated words in “the LORD”, “you”, “land”, “present”, “offering”, “the first of your ground meal”, and “from”. There are active verbs in “enter”, “taking”, “eat”, “present”, and “give”. A generational statute is given, “Throughout the generations to come you are to give this offering”. There is an action of God, He takes them to the land (v. 18). There are actions of the people, they do the entering, eating, presenting, and giving. Also, there is a command, “present…an offering”. In the NKJV, ESV, NASB, and KJV they say “you shall” right before, indicating a command.
Step 1: What did the text mean (or what was the author's intent) to the biblical audience?
At this point in Israel’s journey this specific instruction of God probably didn’t make much sense to the people. Ten of the twelve spies sent to spy on the Promise Land had come back with a bad report, and the people of Israel listened and refused to enter the land which God swore they would have (ch. 14). So, God assures them that due to their refusal they will not enter the land, none of them twenty and older (14:29); that is except for Joshua and Caleb (14:30). But the people mourned more for the word from God than the word of the spies. They decided they are ready to enter the land like they should of the first time. Despite the warning of Moses and the word of the LORD, they presume to enter (14:39-44) and were defeated (v. 45). The following instructions in chapter 15 come on the heels of there double disobedience to God and defeat of the Amalekites and Canaanites, all regarding the Promise Land. They were just told they were not going to enter the Promise Land, only Joshua, Caleb, and their children—who they complained would be victims—would enter, they on the other hand would die in the wilderness. Thus these instructions were for the Israelites that would be entering the land (v. 17-18). These instructions were also similar to that spoken of already in Exodus (34:26) and Leviticus (2; 23:9-14, 17). And, the term “food of the land” indicates that the entering generation would no longer be eating manna and quails, but rather food from the land (cf. Josh. 5:10-12). As a result of this all, the overall objective of this text is obedience and honoring God with an offering of the first of the “ground meal” of the land He was bringing them into.
Step 2: What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
We are no longer under the Old Covenant. We haven’t recently been defeated by the people occupying the land we were promised by God to possess. We are not about to enter into the land promised to our ancestors by God only to be told we will now die in the wilderness because of our disobedience, complaining, and complete lack of trust in God. We do not live in tents in the Middle Eastern desert. We have not been recently freed from slavery and bondage to Egypt with great signs and wonders. We are not civilians of a theocracy. We have never seen or been led by God personally in the form of a cloud or fire. Moses is not our mediator, Jesus is. And so on the list can go.
Step 3: What is the theological principle in this text?
Obedience to God and honoring Him with an offering of the first of what He has blessed us with.
Step 4: Does the New Testament teaching modify or qualify this principle, and if so, how?
Obedience is the greatest manifestation of the people of God. As we obey God to love, forgive, be faithful, and so on God is glorified (cf. Matt. 5:16). Obedience to God is presented in the New Testament just as much as it was in the Old Testament (e.g. Lk. 11:28, Jn. 10:27; 14:15, Rom. 8:5, 14, 1Pet. 1:13-16, 1Jn. 2:3-6, Rev. 22:14). As for honoring God with an offering of the first of what He has blessed us with, the New Testament says very little on this. Actually in the book of Hebrews the author says that God had no pleasure in “sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin (which are offered according to the law)”, and in Christ “He takes away the first that He may establish the second” (Heb. 10:8-9). Through the offering of Jesus Christ “we have been sanctified…once for all” (Heb. 10:10). Now if this entails every offering ever instituted under the Law, then we are no longer obligated to present an offering to God for anything other than because we want to. However, there are other verses that say our offerings are to be “the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15), doing good and sharing (Heb. 13:16), walking in the love of Christ (Eph. 5:2), and presenting our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1). So we can continue to obey God as those in the Old Testament and honor God with an offering of the first of ourselves—that is the life He has blessed us with—though not as a fulfillment of the law but purely because we want to honor God and He deserves it.
Step 5: How should individual Christians today apply this modified theological principle in their lives?
By learning and following the wisdom and instructions in the Word of God. For every day presents an opportunity for believers to obey or disobey the God’s instructions, to follow Him or follow what we think is fitting, and to honor or not honor Him with the first (best) of our lives that He has blessed us with.
The One Volume Bible Commentary, 1936
NASB Life Application Study Bible, Updated Edition, 2000
NIV Archaeological Study Bible, 2005
The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance, 1999