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No. 3: The Thigh of the Peace Offering

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 3
April, 1989
Copyright 1989, Biblical Horizons

In the Levitical law, the priests received two particular portions of each peace offering: the "wave offering" of the breast and the "heave offering" (or better, "contribution") of the right thigh. The purpose of this essay is to attempt to determine the reason why the second of these, the thigh, should be given to the priest.

The word translated "thigh" in the passages discussed below is shoq. According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Tes- tament, "When shoq refers to a man’s body it designates the lower part of the leg, the shank from the knees downward. When shoq refers to part of an animal’s body it designates the upper, thicker part of the leg." The word yarek is used to refer to the upper part of a man’s leg (cf. Gen. 32:25, 32).

Shoq is used in the Mosaic law only with reference to the thigh of the peace offering. In Exodus 29:22-25, the right thigh of the ram of "filling" was to be burned with the peace offering, and the breast was to be given to Moses. Similarly, Leviticus 8:25-26 says that the right thigh was burned as an offering by fire at the ordination of the Aaron and his sons, and we are told in verse 29 that Moses took the breast for himself. In Leviticus 7:29-34, by contrast, the breast was to be shared by all the priests, while the right thigh was given to the officiating priest. And in Leviticus 9:21 and 10:14-15, the breast and thigh are said to belong to the priest, and must be eaten in a clean place. Exodus 29:27 specifically tells us that the breast and thigh of the ram of ordination was consecrated, but it does not say that they were eaten. Verse 28 seems to be a parenthetical instruction that, with the exception of the ram of ordination, the priests should receive the breast and thigh from every peace offering.

In other words, the right thigh of the ram of ordination was burned, but subsequently, the priest who offered the peace offering received the right thigh as his own. Perhaps we should understand that the Lord Himself and Moses were the officiating priests at the ordination of Aaron, since He and Moses received the priest’s portions.

The thigh was given directly to the officiating priest as a contribution (the mistranslated "heave offering"), so that it was for him and his family. The breast was given to God by the ritual of lifting it up and receiving it back again (the mistranslated "wave offering," which was actually lifted up, not waved). The things given to God were shared by all God’s special servants, the priests. Just so, in the ordination peace offering, the contribution-thigh was given to God, the officiating Priest, and thus turned into smoke as His "food" (Ex. 29:22-28). The offering-breast was also given to God, but was shared by all the other "meta-priests," who in this case were God and Moses. In any case, it is clear that the breast and right thigh were thereafter given to the priests. [For a discussion, see James B. Jordan, "Incentive Dynamics in the Tabernacle Corporation," Biblical Economics Today 11:1 (Dec./Jan. 1988).]

The cultic status of these offerings is pinpointed in Leviticus 10:14-15. The priests had to eat the breast and thigh of the peace offering in a clean place. In contrast to the leftovers of the grain offerings, the thigh and breast did not have to be eaten in a holy place (cp. Lev. 10:12-13; 2:10). The thigh and breast were "holy" but not "most holy" (cf. Nu. 6:20: breast and thigh are "holy for the priest"). This distinction between the grain and peace offering is consistent with the fact that some of the peace offering was eaten by the lay worshipper (Lev. 7:11-18). A final relevant priestly passage is Numbers 18:18, which compares the meat of the firstborn, which belonged to the priest, to the meat of the breast and thigh.

The word for "breast," chazeh, is used nowhere outside of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Shoq, however, is used in other connections. In Deuteronomy 28:35, the Lord threatens to strike His unfaithful people with boils on their knees and legs (shoq), and Samson struck the Philistines "leg on thigh" (shoq `al yarek). In 1 Samuel 9:24, Samuel calls attention to the fact that he has set aside the shoq for Saul, indicating at least that the thigh is a portion reserved for an honored guest and perhaps indicating something of the priestly aspect of Saul’s office.

Psalm 147:10 tells us that the Lord does not delight in the strength of horse or in the legs (shoq) of man, drawing attention to the connection between a man’s shoq and his strength. This verse seems to refer particularly to military strength (horses and legs = cavalry and infantry). Proverbs 26:7 says that the legs (shoq) of the lame are like a proverb in mouth of fools. In the Song of Songs, the groom’s legs are compared to pillars of alabaster set on pedestals of gold (5:15). Finally, in Isaiah 47:2 the virgin daughter of Babylon is told to that she will no longer be tender and delicate, but will be forced to work at millstones, to remove her veil, strip her skirt, and uncover her leg to cross a river. In verse 3, Babylon’s humiliation is described as an exposure of nakedness and shame.

How are we to put all this together? First, it is clear that the breast and thigh are associated with some characteristic of the priesthood. This is shown not only in the fact that the priests were exclusively permitted to eat the breast and thigh, but that the breast and thigh are compared to the firstborn, which also represent the priesthood. Moreover, the fact that the right thigh is given to the priest is significant. The priest of Psalm 110 sits, after all, on the right hand of God. Finally, in the background is the basic Biblical view that "you are what you eat," or, more precisely here, "you eat what you are." Priests eat priestly food.

This association of right hand and right thigh suggests that the right thigh might symbolize the authority and power of the priesthood. The association is strengthened by the fact that the groom’s thigh in Song of Songs 5:15 is compared to a pillar. The two pillars outside the temple represent the priest and the king. Thus, right thigh is associated with a pillar that is associated with the right hand of God. It is no surprise, then, that we find shoq associated with military strength in Psalm 147:10. The right thigh given to the priests was a sign that the priesthood was the strength of Israel and that the priest’s service was, by God’s appointment, the source even of Israel’s military victories (cf. 2 Chron. 20:1-30).

Proverbs 26:7 suggests more precisely the nature of the priests’ power. If the legs of the lame are like a proverb in the mouth of a fool, it can conversely be said that the legs of the strong are like a proverb in the mouth of a wise man, and that a man who speaks wisely is like one with strong legs. The priesthood therefore displays its strength, its "thigh-ness," by faithful and wise exposition of the Word (Mal. 2:7). The priest cannot speak wise things, however, unless he is eating the Word, and holding it in his mouth and heart. It is possible that shoq in Proverbs 26:7 refers to the thighs of a lame animal. If this is the case, it fits nicely with the Levitical prohibition against offering damaged animals as sacrifices. The thighs of a lame animal are like the words of fools, and are not to be chewed and eaten by the Lord’s priests.

As we have seen, shoq is used with reference to the legs of the groom of the Song of Songs. If the shoq is a symbol of the priesthood, this makes a great deal of sense. After all, the priests were Israel’s husbands and guardians. Alabaster, moreover, was used to build the temple (1 Chron. 29:2), and since alabaster is white, like the blossoms of Aaron’s rod, it is a fitting symbol of the glory and holiness of the priesthood.

In the New Covenant, Christ is our Peace, and we as His priests are permitted are permitted to eat His right leg, and take into ourselves His strength so that our legs become strong for our pilgrimage. In the New Jerusalem, we will be white-clad pillars in His temple.