הביאו את כל המעשר אל בית האוצר ויהי טרף בביתי ובחנוני נא בזאת אמר יהוה צבאות אם לא אפתח לכם את ארבות השמים והריקתי לכם ברכה עד בלי די—מלאכי ג
Bring all the tenth to the treasure house and let there be a portion in my house. And do test me in this, says YHVH of hosts, if I shall not open to you+ the skies, and I shall empty to you+ blessing until no stop—Mal'achi 3:10
And then the baskets are passed around. Or a member of the congregation, having been delegated the task of a brief explanation for this part of the weekend service, explains that God wants us to give him one tenth of our incomes to support "the work of the Lord". Or the pastor sermonizes on the symbolism of the tithe—that in fact all of our money belongs to God; this tax-free, relinquished fraction is symbolic of the whole.
Let us acknowledge that countless Christian and MJ church-goers give a tenth—surely sometimes even more—of their earnings out of deep adoration of the God of heaven and earth. And they do so sacrificially, believing that our God notices each of us and will provide. In so doing they express their reliance on God and not on their finances. Perhaps many think of Markos' report of how Yeshua spoke well of a widow for donating to the temple's treasure house "out of her poverty, [giving] all that she had to live on." I am confident that God sees what such folks do and is very pleased with those individuals because of their motivation to give and the trust they display by their action.
Ecclesiastic theology connects this traditional Christian practice of handing-in a tithe to a church directly to the standard tithe mandated for 'Am Yisra'el. But from my personal bible study, this teaching is erroneously based on the biblical tithe both from a hermeneutical and practical standpoint. To be clear: this post isn't a judgment of the tithe-er, but rather a criticism of the widespread theology that determines the output of folks' readiness to offer up to God what the world generally considers livelihood. (Though of course I want to encourage folks to keep God's commands even if that means changing even well-intentioned current practice.) Moshe gave Yisra'el an altogether different description of the tithe, both in purpose and practice. I here embark on a worthy topic not only because of the direct consequences and benefits of refining our understanding of God's commands, but also because doing so opens us up to an honest way of thinking about what a physical church or messianic congregation (including their services) is: a club house. Even more, this topic gives us an opportunity to re-examine the apparent normalcy of the modern structure of our societies in terms of how we relate to the poor.
Let's examine the biblical descriptions of the tithe in order to get an idea of what God requires of bnei Yisra'el. In Dvarim 14 God instructs Yisra'el, "Tithing you shall tithe all the income of your seed—the outcome of your field—year by year." The default Yisra'eli society is agricultural, first of all, and the tithe is required annually. But how to tithe? Moshe goes on to convey that God wants us Yisra'elim to "eat before YHVH your God; in the place in which he will choose to establish his name, there tithing your corn, your wine, your oil, the first of your cattle and your flock in order that you will learn to revere YHVH your God all the days." Within the Christian and MJ circles I've encountered, the tithe is indeed understood to be an annual tenth of one's income—a clear parallel with what God instructed Yisra'el in the wilderness. But contrary to the typical modern destination of the tithe, so far the text doesn't tell me to donate my tithe to anyone. Rather, in Yerushelayim I'm apparently to eat it.
Continuing on, Moshe tells us that if Yerushelayim is too far off for traveling with all this produce and animals, we can give [the מעשר] as money "and binding the money in your hand, you shall go to the place in which YHVH your God shall choose." God in his mercy allows us to bring the tithe in cash, though only if one faces the problem of travel burden because of the long distance. But again, we're instructed to use this tithe money for ourselves—specifically for eating! "And you shall give the money in all that your soul craves: in cattle, in flock, in wine, in alcohol, and in all that your soul shall ask you—you shall eat there, before YHVH your God you shall be happy, you and your house." To recap, I as a Yisra'eli am to go to Yerushelayim on an annual basis and use one tenth of my earnings from that year to eat and drink whatever I desire. What these commands communicate to me is that the tithe is meant to publicly demonstrate the richness of God's provision for every single family in Am Yisra'el. In his wisdom he makes the point that this festivity is to be done as a family, to take place in Yerushelayim as he has invested his name (i.e. his reputation and government) there, in his presence, and it shall be done joyously. I could just be out of the loop, but I've never heard of a church or messianic congregation collectively booking a flight to our capital and having a "tithe party" there.
Now, while Moshe has communicated the main idea and purpose of the tithe, he isn't done explaining God's expectations. Perhaps even within the same breath as where we left off, "you and your house," he says, "and the Levi that is within your gates, you shall not abandon him for he has no part or inheritance with you." The local Levi is to be included in this trip to Yerushelayim and the family celebration that is to incur there. Moshe begins here to alert us to another purpose of the tithe, one that is more akin to the currently familiar one: the needs of others. In fact, here we learn that the use of the tithe changes within a three-year interval. At the end of three years, "take out all the tenth of your outcome in that year and lay it at your gates. And the Levi shall come since he has no part or inheritance with you, and the ger, and the orphan, and the widow that are within your gates, and they shall eat and be satisfied in order that YHVH your God shall bless you in all the work of your hand that you shall do." The use of the tithe, therefore, depends on the year: In A and B years, it is for celebration in Jerusalem; in C years, it is deposited for the local celebration of the those who do not permanently own land.
We find later in Dvarim that Moshe instructs us further in handling the tithe:
At the end of the third year, which is called, שנת המעשר (the year of the tithe), You shall say before YHVH your God, "I completely-did-away-with the sanctified from my house, and I gave it to the Levi, to the ger, to the orphan, and to the widow as all the commands that you commanded. I have not passed from one of your commands and I did not forget. I did not eat in my strenth from it, and I did not completely-do-away from it in being unclean, and I did not give of it to the dead. I have listened to the voice of YHVH my God; I did as all that you commanded me."
Perhaps to make sure that we won't take the triennial tithe lightly, God has us acknowledge before him that we have been faithful to give the entire tithe to the permanently-landless among us. Once we've essentially ensured that we've fulfilled our part, we are to then implore our God to "look down from your holy habitation, from the skies, and bless your people, Yisra'el, and the ground that you gave to us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey." The tithe, then, is an intrinsic factor in the cyclical nature of the productivity of the land of Yisra'el. Its ultimate function is, I think, to publicly announce God's faithfulness in upholding his promise to Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Ya'akov, manifested annually. It is ingenious that God also finds a way to ensure that the permanently landless within the Land will do the same; the tithe was given to an agricultural society, wherein the productivity of the ground was tantamount to one's living.
But this reading of the tithe is different than the more-usual form of the modern tithe in churches/congregations. I don't see the focus of the tithe being for the general relief of the poor. I imagine someone might alert me to the fact that the group that receives the tithe at the end of the third year consists of the poor. But first, I'm not sure that the relevant types of people were certainly poor, and second, notice that the tithe is for them to eat and be satisfied—not to take away for storage or selling.
For sake of brevity I won't get into the passage that discusses the Levitical tithe, which is a tithe from the tithe we Yisra'elim give to our priests. It is discussed in Bamidbar 18. Based on this passage we might call the C-year tithe, תרומה (donation).
Why, then, does this idea of the tithe as an annual offering for a church/congregation continue to define today's tithing practices? Perhaps because of the Mal'achi 3 verse that suggests that "all the tithe" was to be brought into a treasury within the temple. I must say I find that confusing when it seems quite clear that the tithe according to Dvarim is to be either eaten by the one bringing it to Yerushelayim or else given to the Levi, the ger, the widow, and the orphan—depending on the year. But even if I'm somehow missing something about the Dvarim passages that Mal'achi reveals, the tithe still ends up in Yerushelayim, in the temple—not a church or congregation.
In connection with conceptions of the tithe, here is where I'll touch on "issue number two": rethinking what a church/congregation is. From my experience within the MJ movement and based on the impression I've gotten from Christian friends, a modern-day Christian/messianic congregation-meeting is felt by attendees to be a stand-in for the temple of Yerushelayim--even if they don't make this claim in these particular words. I think my statement is arguable for a number of reasons, a couple of which are: the supposed spiritual implications of the service and the building/service's regular association with members' tithes. Folks talk about these services as necessary for satisfying the spiritual needs of the individual and also the community. The parallels with the temple of Yerushelayim are obvious. The music is a permanent fixture in the service as it became within the temple precincts. During a typical "worship service", the "worship leader" starts the music set with faster "praise" songs that transition (a generous term in some instances) into slow, more ethereal "worship" songs. I have heard the head of the team talk about passing from the "outer courts" and into the "holy place" and even into the "holy of holies"—all temple imagery for sure. The biblical notion of worship itself has become confused with a mood often somewhat dependent on a musical atmosphere in these services. But again, part of the reason seems to be that, in lieu of a physical altar and the act of worship in the temple (e.g. purchasing/bringing and having an animal slain), folks want to act sacrificially in God's presence—and they're taught that the service pretty much functions as the temple. [Let's not overlook also the rabbinic synagogue with shakharit, minkha, and ma'ariv explicitly replacing the temple sacrifices, or the veil between the congregation and scrolls of the tora as the veil that separated the temple's holy place and holy of holies.]
But as the tithe is our present focus, I'll remark here that on that topic I notice a most obvious likening of the church-/congregation-building with the temple. When people give a tithe of their income and it goes at least toward the salary of the elders and building maintenance, we have the implied harkening-back to the Levitical temple-service in the assumption that the elders are surrogate priests and the building is a surrogate temple. But when Dvarim has been clear to locate the application of the tithe to one temple in Yerushelayim and to include the Levi'im, from where do leaders of churches and congregations derive their right to the tithes of their communities? I think one answer has to do with the fact that the typical building- and service-oriented community is under the impression that both of those are significantly necessary. And the assumption seems to be that they're necessary because they are mini-temples (cf. Reformed Judaism for its regular mis-terminology). It strikes the usual attendee of a congregation as natural to give his tithe to his congregation since it is, essentially, the temple of Yerushelayim. But it's not, and we are never told by any prophet to develop these mini-temples. So if a church- or congregation-building is not a God-instituted stand-in for the temple, what keeps the misleading theology alive?
Beyond an erroneous tradition, perhaps it is the mere fact that indeed there literally are costs for a community to maintain a building, have a sound system for its band, and tend to the monetary needs of full-time ministers. With the inaccurate yet prolific teaching that these buildings and weekend services are necessary and accomplish spiritual needs for the community, folks may simply know that money is necessary for up-keep of the place and support for the employees and so they see their giving the tithe to that cause as naturally "God's work"—and what better cause for the tithe? one thinks. But, bottom line: where is the biblical basis or model? In my opinion, these buildings, their services, and their staff we could more accurately term as "clubs" because they aren't mandated by Yisra'el's prophets yet are felt by many real as well as phony followers of Yeshu'a to be necessary for them. And if you want your club to be outfitted with a grand sound system, lights for embellishing "spiritual" effect, a big screen for video-aided sermons, and so on, you'll have to pay a membership fee because entertainment has a price—in currency. But stop demanding that every faithful follower of Yeshu'a follow suit, and please, don't call your financial obligation the "tithe." You incidentally inhibit the spread of God's fame by routing people away from the commanded form of the annual tithe. And to associate it with the biblical notion is just inaccurate.
In tying up this piece, I'll add one last observation about the tithe and the needy, which forms our "issue number three." While modern tithers often give for the relief of the needy, that is not the function of the biblical tithe (though it is an honorable, even if mistaken, version). We saw how the tithe is used primarily to publicly confirm God's faithfulness in bringing Yisra'el to a land that indeed flows with milk and honey. Since the Levi, the ger, the widow, and the orphan have no alloted piece of the land, the teruma is given to them so that they also may enjoy God's provisions and acknowledge his goodness. But the biblical tithe, in my view, is never a charity. Rather, God wove into the law of Moshe that we will open our hand to the needy, as the prophets constantly remind us. But apparently that was assumed to be fulfilled more regularly or spontaneously. Why is this point important? While I do not think, on the basis of the posturing of their hearts, that God is angered by modern-day folks giving their tithe-money for the sake of the poor via the collection baskets of their religious institutions, perhaps in their erroneous conception of the tithe they are in fact missing what God intended for all of his faithful ones: personal contact with impoverished individuals. Western societies seem to have developed so that Well-off and Destitute don't have to interact much. Folks volunteer in soup kitchens, give money to NPOs that host programs for those in financial need, and Christians and MJs go on short mission-trips. But let's think wider: is the overall societal structure right? Wouldn't it be better for those who fall into financial crisis to find relief from those around them? Wouldn't that establish a long-term and personal relationship between the one in need and the neighbor who gives for the sake of the other? Herein, the fact that God allotted to Yisra'elim land, establishing a localized agriculture-based nation, becomes relevant and perhaps is the ideal. But that topic will have to form a later post.