The second portion of Numbers is called Naso (Numbers 4:21-7), meaning “take up.” It contains such a wealth of topics that at first, I was overwhelmed with indecision as to what to write; but in the end, I thought I’d zero in on something relatively manageable. I’m going to look at the significance of barley in Biblical symbolism, especially with regard to the grain offering of jealousy in Numbers 5.
In a way, I guess you could say this is a sort of continuation to The sacrifices of God: part II. In that post, I said that the offerings of the Mosaic sacrificial system are all, in some way, a pictorial lesson of how believers are to offer themselves to God, since a person is supposed to be identified with the offering that he/she brings before the sanctuary.
Accordingly, it’s worth noting that the offering of jealousy consists of barley meal rather than wheat, unlike even the asham, or guilt offering, which was the most serious of the personal sin offerings in Leviticus (again, see The sacrifices of God: part II), and which was similarly not adorned with oil or frankincense. So the question arises: why?
Well, in ancient times, barley was a staple for the impoverished. As a crop, it’s often grown on land that’s too cold, poor or saline to cultivate wheat, and matures quickly after a short growing season. This means it was harvested much earlier, and was therefore cheaper and easier to obtain than wheat (the wave offering of Firstfruits was a sheaf of barley, the first crop to be reaped from winter sowing, followed by wheat 50 days later at Pentecost).
Barley was therefore seen as a coarser alternative to wheat, and also used as animal food. It’s occasionally sown in autumn to provide keep for sheep in the following spring, and is recorded as horse feed in 1 Kings 4:28. Thus when you look through the Scripture, it noticeably tends to be associated with that which is poor, humble, debased or despised.
An example of this is Gideon, who identified his clan as the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh, and himself the least in his father’s house (Judges 6:15). In Judges 7, he overhears a man in the camp of the Midianites recounting a dream where a loaf of barley bread tumbled into the camp, struck a tent and made it collapse, and this bread was identified by a fellow Midianite as “the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel” – a representation of the insignificant Gideon and his tiny band of warriors, who would nonetheless prevail against the tents of Midian.
Another example is Hosea, who bought his unfaithful wife back with 15 shekels of silver + one and one-half homers of barley (Hosea 3:2), or God’s charge against the false prophets and prophetesses of Israel in Ezekiel 13:19: “Will you profane Me among My people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, killing people who should not die, and keeping people alive who should not live, by your lying to My people who listen to lies?” – indicating the cheap and wretched price at which the human lives in question were valued. And of course, there’s Yeshua, who, as the firstfruits of the resurrection, was identified with the sheaf of humble barley that was offered to God on the Feast of Firstfruits, in keeping with His claim to be meek and lowly, and Isaiah’s description of Him as being despised, oppressed and afflicted.
This association continues even when barley is mentioned merely as a setting, e.g. in the story of Ruth’s journey to make a life for herself as a Moabitess in Israel; the story of David’s men withstanding the Philistines in a field of barley even though they were outnumbered (1 Chronicles 11:12-14); and the 7 descendants of Saul’s house being hanged to atone for the blood of the Gibeonites at the beginning of barley harvest (2 Samuel 21).
When you look at all this, it makes sense of why the jealousy offering consisted of barley meal. Firstly, without witnesses or hard evidence, a woman who was innocent of adultery but suspected of it by her husband was a despised figure who could only be vindicated by God; and secondly, if she was guilty, it was only fitting that she be identified with a grain that was used for animal food, because she had done something base… something beastly.
So the meaningful symbolism of the sacrificial system remains consistent, even in this obscure statute. And there’s an interesting dualism to it, a bit like the Scriptural symbolism of clouds (see The message in the cloud). On the one hand, barley is associated with the poor and signifies that which is humble and lowly, yet chosen/innocent; but on the other, it alludes to that which is debased and prepared for judgement and destruction, just as barley grows and ripens swiftly for the sickle – like an unfaithful woman, or the descendants of a faithless and bloodthirsty man.
Next portion: Israel begins its departure from Sinai.