Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tithing – Part III. The Tithe in Deuteronomy 14 and 26

Finally, the tithe discussed in Dt 14.28-29 and in Dt 26.12-15 is again concerned with the Levites and with the location and means of giving the tithe. Israelites are to bring the tithe to the centralized cultic location two years out of three, but in the third year are to deposit the tithe in the local town.

In calling this a third tithe for the poor, commentators seem to ignore that here, too, the Levite is provided for out of this tithe for precisely the same reason articulated in the other passages, namely “because he has no portion or inheritance among you” (v. 29). To be sure, Isarelites bring this tithe into the local town instead of to God’s centralized sanctuary, and God also provides for the most vulnerable members of society – orphans, widows, and aliens -- in this tithe. But these individuals are “like” the Levites in that they have a tenuous relationship to the inheritance in the land, and are people whom God is particularly concerned to provide for.

This, and the immediate proximity of verses 28 and 29 to the discussion of the tithe in verses 22 through 27, makes it hard to believe that this is a brand new tithe being commanded here, as opposed to a law relating to the issue addressed in the other Deuteronomic tithing laws – the issue of where the tithe is to be brought. Two years it is to be brought to Jerusalem, and there is a festival associated with the trip. In the third year, the tithe is to remain in the local town, and is to provide for the local poor and needy in addition to the Levite.

We should also keep in mind that the tithe was not the only means of providing for the poor and alien in Israel. There were interest-free loans for the poor that were then forgiven every seven years (Dt 15.1-11), Israelites had to leave gleanings in the field for the poor to gather, they also could not prevent people from eating among the “standing grain” as they passed through the fields. There was also a form of Old Testament “workfare” in the form of temporary indentured servitude which, again, could last a maximum of six years (Dt 15.12).

My impression is that, just like the portion of the tithe that went for the cost of the festival, even the third-year tithe was mainly reserved for the Levites. Plus, we should remember that the Levites weren’t wholly dependent upon the tithe for their support. They were provided pasture lands around the cities for their cattle and other animals (Nm 35.1-5, Lev 25.34).

We should also remember that the tithe would provide the Levites with a ten percent surplus relative to the other tribes that would allow tithe money to go for the costs of the tithing festival and the third-year sharing with widows, orphans, and aliens, without undermining the basic rationale for the tithe of providing for the Levites.

Consider this simple example. There are twelve tribes. For simplicity, assume that each tribe has ten members. Also assume that each member of the eleven non-Levitical tribes realize a gain of $100 a year. In response, each non-Levite Israelite would tithe $10. So their after-tithe net income would be $90 a year.

So the tribe of Levi would receive a total of $1,100 from the other eleven tribes. Dividing this up among the ten Levites means that each Levite would receive $110 from the tithe.

Of course, the Levites would not keep the entire $110, they had to tithe the tithe God (Nm 18.26). So the Levites would tithe $11 per year of what they received from the other Israelites, leaving them with $99 a year. This is ten percent more than the net income of the non-Levitical Israelites. So if roughly $9 per Levite went to pay for the festival expenses in the two years in which the tithe was taken to Jerusalem, and if $9 went to the widow, orphan, and the alien in the third year when the tithe remained in the local town, then the Levites would still have roughly the same income as all of the other Israelites. So it doesn't seem to me that the festival and providing for orphans, widows, and aliens, is financially inconsistent with the tithe mainly being for support of the Levites.


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