From Pauper to Prince
Psalm 113:5-8 MT
Who is like the Lord our God, who sits enthroned on high,
yet deigns to look on heaven and on the earth!
He raises up the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heaps, to set them with princes, with the princes of his people.
But if he is not able to bring (lit., his hand does not reach) two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then he shall bring as his offering for what he has sinned the tenth part of an ephah of semolina for a purification offering; he shall not put oil on it, nor shall he place frankincense on it; for it is a purification offering.
Then shall he bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take his handful of it as a token portion, and burn it on the altar, with the offerings made by fire (or, food gifts) to the Lord; it is a purification offering.
And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin he committed…, and it shall be forgiven him; and [the rest] shall belong to the priest, as the cereal offering.
The Torah makes provision for the poor and needy in various ways, some explicitly stated in commandments such as leaving the corners of your field for the needy and the stranger (Lev. 19:9-10), others implicitly understood such as extending the Sabbath rest to the servant in your household and the stranger within your gates (Exod. 20:10). On the Sabbath even the pauper is a prince!
The voluntary and mandatory offerings also reflect this consideration. As in the passage from Leviticus quoted above, the benefits of participation in bringing offerings to the Lord were not limited to those who could afford a bull or a sheep. Here in Leviticus chapter 5 this is made explicit: those who could not afford a lamb could bring two domesticated birds, and if this was still too much then a cereal offering would be acceptable. But that is not all.
Jacob Milgrom’s excellent commentary* on Leviticus identifies several aspects of the offerings that have as their purpose to encourage the poor and needy:
(1) The very manner in which the bird is placed on the fire of the altar, by tearing and therefore spreading its wings (1:17), would “increase its size and give the appearance of a more substantial gift.” (p. 172)
(2) The cereal offering (Leviticus chapter 2) is essentially “the offering of the poor” (p.179) in place of the more expensive burnt offering.
(3) Even among the different forms of the cereal offering there is a gradation which allows the poor more access. The cooked cereal offerings are presented without frankincense. “The omission of the frankincense requirement may be regarded as a deliberate concession to the poor. That is, if they cannot afford it… they have the option of bringing a cooked cereal offering….” (p. 183)
What is God that he should show regard for paltry offerings, for our pitiful attempts to honor him? Yet, the God who reigns over heaven and earth deigns to look on our forms of worship and accept them, and shows special attention to the poor and needy. Even the pauper is a prince in the courtyard of the tabernacle, when he brings his heart and his offering before the Lord.
Mishnah Menachot 13:11 (adapted from Soncino edition)
It is said of the burnt offerings of cattle, an offering made by fire of a sweet savor (Lev. 1:9), and of the burnt offerings of birds, an offering made by fire of a sweet savor (Lev. 1:17), and of the cereal offering, an offering made by fire of a sweet savor (Lev. 2:2), to teach you that it is the same whether a man offers much or little, so long as he directs his heart to heaven.
*Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible, 1991.