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No. 25: The Theology of the Drink Offering

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 25
May, 1991
Copyright 1991, Biblical Horizons

The drink offering or libation (nesek) is mentioned in only three places in the book of Leviticus. When the sheaf of the firstfruits was waved before the Lord, a grain offering was to be burned, along with "its libation, a fourth of a hin of wine [approx. one gallon]" (23:13). Similarly, libations were to be offered with the lambs, bull, and rams offered on the day of Pentecost (23:18). A general statement is made concerning libations in 23:37: "These are the appointed times of the Lord which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, to present offerings by fire [or, "food offerings"] to the Lord — burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and libations, each day’s matter on its own day."

More elaborate instructions for the drink offering are found in Numbers 15. There, the Israelites were commanded to offer a libation of wine with all burnt offerings and "sacrifices," the latter being a common term for the peace offering (15:8; cf. 1 Sam. 9:12-13; 1 Ki. 8:62-63). Two facets of this set of commands are noteworthy. First, a libation was required for all burnt offerings and peace offerings, whether they were offered to "fulfill a vow, or as a freewill offering, or in your appointed times" (v. 3). Second, it might seem from these verses that libations were not offered with sin or trespass offerings. Numbers 28:15, however, states that the sin offering included a libation. Every bloody sacrifice was to be accompanied by grain and wine offerings.

Numbers 15 also gives instructions on the amounts of wine required, which varied according to the kind of animal being sacrificed. Finally, the directions for the sacrifices in Numbers 28–29 include instructions for the offering of drink offerings.

To arrive at the meaning and rationale for the drink offering, it is helpful, first, to note, as Kurtz points out, that the drink offering was never to be offered except in the land of promise. (J. H. Kurtz, Sacrificial Worship of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, {1863} 1980].) The instructions in Leviticus are prefaced with "when you enter the land which I am going to give to you" (v. 10), as are the instructions in Numbers 15. If the sacrifices are God’s food (literally, bread), then the libations are evidently God’s drink. The law of the drink offering, therefore, tells us that God would not drink wine with His bread until His people entered the land.

This makes sense in terms of biblical theology. Drinking wine is a sabbatical activity; it is a sign and a means of rest and celebration. Specifically, the libation is a sabbatical offering, particularly as described in Leviticus 23. Only after the Lord had defeated the enemies of His people, and given His people a restful dwelling in the land, would He accept the wine of the libations.

This connection of victory and rest with the drink offering is highlighted by the context of the laws of Numbers 15. These laws were delivered immediately after Israel rebelled at Kadesh Barnea, and then rashly attacked the Amalekites when God was not with them. God punished the Israelites by leaving them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years (Num. 13–14). Immediately after this defeat, God gave Moses instructions on the drink offering. In the context, the drink offering is a promise of eventual victory and settlement in the land. It is a sign also of God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Israel. Israel was to suffer in the wilderness for 40 years, restless and wandering; for 40 years, they were unable to eat and drink and rejoice before the Lord (Dt. 14:22-27). If God’s peculiar people were to be 40 years without wine, then God Himself would refrain from drinking wine for those same 40 years. Wine is an eschatological drink: it requires time for it to reach its maturity. So, God fasted from wine until His people reached their eschaton, the land where huge clusters of grapes grew. He wandered with His people, sharing in their sufferings, for the joy that was set before Him. Though the Israelites would wander for a generation, they could take comfort in the assurance that God was wandering with them.

Second, it should be noted that, even when the people of Israel entered into a conquered the land, it was only God who was given the wine of the drink offering. True, the people were permitted to drink wine and strong drink at the sanctuary. But, unlike most of the animal and grain offerings — a portion of which were retained for the priests or the worshiper — the entire drink offering was poured out upon the altar of burnt offering. (Kurtz, convincingly, infers this from two facts: first, the priests were forbidden to drink wine in the tabernacle [Lev. 10:9], and, second, the requirement that all sacrificial food be eaten in the tabernacle precincts [Lev. 6:16]). Thus, the drink offering was a sign not only of God’s victory and His entering into sabbath rest, but a sign of Israel’s exclusion from full participation in that victory and rest. In the New Covenant, Christ, the God-man, has entered into Sabbath rest, and we with Him. Therefore, we are given not only to eat of the flesh of our peace offering, but also to drink of the wine of the libation.

Third, the drink offering, like the grain offering, was symbolic of the works of the worshiper. This is a further reason why libations had to await entrance into the land; entering the land not only brought rest from wandering and from enemies, but also brought a renewed demand for dominion. The fruits of that dominion over the land — grain, oil, and wine — were to be offered to the Lord.

This background can perhaps shed some light on Paul’s statement that he was being poured out as a drink offering (Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6). Though often understood as a reference to his impending death, it is more likely that Paul understood the struggles and toils of his apostolic ministry as a libation upon the sacrificial service of the churches among which he ministered (see Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians. Word Biblical Commentary 43 [Waco: Word, 1983], pp. 104-6). In the OT, the libation was offered as a portion of the fruits of the worshiper’s labor, so it is fitting for Paul to speak of his labor as a libation. His labor was offered up as drink for God, as wine to make His heart glad. But, as is appropriate to a better covenant, it is not only the Lord who drinks the wine of joy, but also the people: hence, Paul says that he shares the joy of his libation-labor with the Philippians, and asks them to respond by pouring their libations out upon him (2:17-18).