Counting the Omer from Firstfruits to Pentecost

By: Karen Engle, ICEJ USA Managing Editor 

I like to count. When I know there’s a vacation coming and it’s getting close, I start mentally checking off days on my calendar. Six more days of work … now five … only four! You get the idea and can probably relate.

God knows this about people and established a unique period of reckoning time in the Old Testament called “counting the omer.” God would fulfill this counting of time with Pentecost—a feast on God’s calendar that would mark the beginning of His new way of operating in the world.

Counting the Omer: 50 Days

Counting the omer starts at the Feast of Firstfruits and ends with Shavuot (Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks)—this year falling on June 12. God’s instruction for these days of counting is found, among other places, in Leviticus 23:15–16:

And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord.

God instructed Israel to celebrate the Feast of Firstfruits on the day after the weekly Sabbath, which means Firstfruits most likely would have always been on a Sunday. (Jewish scholars differ on which Sabbath God intended in Leviticus 23:15—the weekly Sabbath or another Sabbath—resulting in four different dates adopted by different Jewish sects. However, the simplest interpretation is that it refers to the weekly Sabbath during Passover week, Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.)

The First Sheaves of Barley

On that day, the Jewish people were to bring the first sheaves (in Hebrew, an omer) of the barley harvest to the temple. The JPS Dictionary of Jewish Words says the Hebrew word omer means “sheaf”—a measure of grain equal to about two quarts of barley.

They were to bring their omer offering before reaping or even touching the rest of the harvest, where they ground it into a course meal, sifted it, and then gave it to the priest who poured oil and frankincense over it. In his book The Temple: Its Ministry and Service, Alfred Edersheim says the priest then waved it back and forth, up and down, before burning a small handful of the mix on the altar. The offering was symbolic of repayment to God for providing manna in the desert:

Then Moses said, “This is the thing which the Lord has commanded: ‘Fill an omer with it, to be kept for your generations, that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” (Exodus 16:32)

An Acceptable Offering

It was also the people’s act of consecrating the remaining harvest to God. If God “accepted” the omer offering, they knew He would accept the entire harvest.

But the offering signaled the start of something else: 49 days (seven weeks) of “counting” that concluded the next day, day 50, with Shavuot (Pentecost):

You shall count seven weeks for yourself; begin to count the seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the grain. Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. (Deuteronomy 15:9–10)

Sefirit ha-Omer

This period of counting days in Hebrew is called Sefirat ha-Omer. It linked the Exodus out of Egypt with the giving of the law—for on day 50 after leaving Egypt, the children of Israel arrived at Mount Sinai. Here, God performed His first act as Israel’s King by establishing His law. The law, or torah, was God’s instruction for how His people were to operate in His kingdom so that they would be set apart from the watching, godless nations whose people would thus be drawn to the goodness and faithfulness of the One True God.

Shavuot (Pentecost) in the New Testament fulfilled what happened at Sinai. Jesus—the living Torah—was poured out in the hearts of the disciples. Through God’s people, the church, God’s law would now go out to the nations.

Ever since the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70, Jews have not been able to observe this omer offering. However, many Jews today still count the days and weeks that have passed since Firstfruits. This daily counting reminds the Jewish people of the importance of each day and provides them an opportunity for introspection and growth.

Jesus and the Counting of the Omer

As with the feasts, there is great significance to this 50-day count related to Jesus.

First, consider the time span of the first 40 days. Significant events occurred during the time span of 40 in the Bible, whether 40 days or 40 years. For example, the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years; Moses descended Mount Sinai with the law after 40 days; and Satan tempted Jesus 40 days in the wilderness, to name a few. Clearly, the number 40 is important in God’s reckoning of time, and this is true of the first 40 days of counting the omer.

Most significantly, Jesus walked the earth for 40 days after God raised Him from the dead—during the first 40 days that all Israel was counting the omer. All of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances occurred in those 40 days. Though Scripture doesn’t give details of the disciples “counting” during that time, it’s clear Jesus was preparing them for His departure on day 40, when He would ascend to the Father:

After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3, emphasis added)

God’s Spirit Poured Out

Then, ten days later, on the fiftieth day of the counting of the omer, as the disciples were back in Jerusalem to keep Shavuot, God’s Spirit poured out on the disciples. It was the same day all Israel was remembering the giving of God’s instruction at Mount Sinai.

Dr. Richard Booker writes in his book Jesus in the Biblical Feasts that counting the omer “helped people keep their focus on the Lord and His special feast days.” It linked for them the Exodus out of Egypt with the giving of the law at Mount Sinai and how God redeemed them at Pesach (Passover) and gave them His law at Shavuot (Pentecost).

Just as counting the omer linked the Exodus out of Egypt with the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, so, too, do the 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection link His disciples’ journey out of “Egypt.” Jesus redeemed those out of the world with His death on the cross, and for those who believe, provides the Helper, the Holy Spirit, to be able to walk in His presence continually—the Word made flesh, the “living Torah,” now dwelling within them.

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