3.1 The Staff of Life
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Unit 1
The Staff of Life
It should not be terribly surprising that Yahweh would choose to employ as His most basic symbols those things that present themselves in our daily lives—the things we ourselves eat, drink, smell, and use. These are the things we see around us as we walk through our world, things we encounter on a daily basis. The items we’ll explore in this chapter were chosen because they were not only commonplace and universally recognized by the generation to whom they were introduced—exodus generation Israel—but could also be related to by anyone who would encounter the symbols, for as long as mortal man would walk the earth.
Easily the most fundamental of these symbols is bread, the basic staple of the diet—so basic, in fact, the same Hebrew word is used for both “bread” and “food.” Whatever truth could be observed from the Iron Age Mediterranean diet would apply equally well to all men of any age. What was true of wheat and barley (and for a short time, manna) for the Israelites could be understood just as readily by other peoples whose staples were something else—corn or rice, potatoes or yams. The point was that God provided what was needed for us to live on. Even though we (in our fallen state) had to work for it (see Genesis 3:17-19), the fact remained that our food just “popped up out of the ground,” a gift from God.
And what was true for our bodies was equally true for our souls. As Moses reminded the Israelites at the end of their wilderness sojourn, “He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) As bread—food—is fuel for our mortal bodies, God’s Word is “fuel” for our souls. It’s what makes and keeps us alive in the spiritual sense—a life that can (if we eat what is provided) keep us alive and healthy forever.
Even in this life, of course, bread isn’t the only thing we need to make life fulfilling: it is only the beginning. So Yahweh has, as we shall see, recruited several other commonly encountered substances with which the Israelites would have been intimately familiar to demonstrate or symbolize concepts in the spiritual realm of which we all need to be cognizant. Olive oil served several purposes. It was food, but it was also used as an ointment—an anointing medium—and as fuel, burned in lamps to provide light after the sun had set. This combination of characteristics made olive oil an apt metaphor for the ministry of Yahweh’s Holy Spirit in the life of His people.
In a similar way, wine was used by God to teach us something about what He was doing for mankind—something that wouldn’t be fully understood until long after the Torah had been implemented. Obtained by harvesting the fruit of the vine, then crushing it (much like the process used to obtain olive oil), wine was required to be ritually poured out onto the ground when certain blood sacrifices were made at the Tabernacle. Eventually we would understand: the wine represented the blood of Christ, shed for the remission of our sins so that we might be reconciled to Yahweh. Until the passion of Yahshua, the rite made no sense; afterward, it did. But if we were unwilling to see Christ’s sacrifice as the fulfillment of the Torah’s picture, God’s instructions concerning wine would forever remain a mystery.
Animal flesh had been a part of the authorized human diet ever since the flood of Noah. But in the Torah, Yahweh refined the picture: He instructed that the fat of the sacrificial animal was to be handled separately, and set apart in His honor. Even if the sacrificial animal was to be eaten by the worshiper or the priests, the fat was to be burned on the altar in Yahweh’s honor. The picture taught us that as God sacrificed His very best—His only Son—to redeem us, we in turn are to reserve our very best for Yahweh.
Several other substances were used (or specifically prohibited) in Torah ritual worship as well, all of them laden with spiritual significance, if only we’ll pay attention to the Instructions of Yahweh. Salt spoke of preservation, purification, and flavor; leaven (i.e., yeast) was a picture of the insidious corruption of our sin; incense was to be made to a specific and detailed recipe, the ingredients of which all had something to say about our communication with God in prayer. One of those ingredients, frankincense, took on a life of its own in the Levitical rites, teaching us about the purity to be gained through sacrifice. And finally, honey was invested with symbolic significance as the sweet life available to us as children of Yahweh, but voluntarily relinquished by His Messiah as He came to fulfill all of these symbols on our behalf.
If nothing else, these symbolic substances should impress upon us that God wasn’t making up His plan of reconciliation as He went along. Rather, He planned it all in exquisite detail, peppered with robust and meaningful metaphors, from the very beginning.
(First published 2014)