Thursday, April 24, 2008

God Swaps Income Taxes for Potlucks: Deuteronomy 14:22 - 15

This post is part of a revolutionary Biblical commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Deuteronomy 14 gives the most succint description to date of the tithe, i.e. what began as the 10% flat tax imposed by the priesthood upon all Israel. It will be one-tenth of agricultural production for the year. You can either bring the tithe straight to God or, if it is too far from your home to the central priesthood, you can sell them for silver and take the silver to God, and re-purchase food and livestock once you've arrived at the temple. This is a very interesting development because it means those who own farms right next to wherever the priesthood settles are going to make an extraordinarily lucrative profit off of annual pilgrimages.

On the other hand, Deuteronomy inexplicably - but in my opinion, positively - alters the balance of power. The tithe will no longer belong chiefly to the Levites, Moses decrees. The tithes also belong, by right, to the aliens, the fatherless, and the widows, who "may come and eat and be satisfied" from all the food that is collected in the tithe. In this chapter, Moses even suggests that giving to the Levites is a form of charity - because "they have no allotment or inheritance of their own." Thus Moses is proposing a truly inspired method of national poverty alleviation and wealth transfer, of the sort conservative Christians today often denounce as liberal foolishness. Moses is going to solve crimes of poverty by creating a national institution of food sharing.

What's interesting about this is that God seems to expect the tithes being brought to the central temple to ultimately become a grand festival. Later, Moses elaborates that everyone is permitted to eat from the tithes that they bring to God: indeed, they are expected to bring "whatever [food] your heart desires" and then "eat before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household." Deuteronomy is overturning a significant power of the priesthood in doing this.

The tithing rules are brief enough and old enough that they really don't need to be discussed at great length, except that Christians today so frequently draw links from the tithe to our financial obligations today. So, let's take a deeper look at its significance.

Off the top, we can see that the tithing rule will already need some extensive re-interpretation, of the sort literalists usually hate, before it will have any relevance to us. The tithe is quite specifically limited only to the agricultural industry - a fair assessment for a largely rural society, though even Israel was going to have a large number of towns and cities, according to the law. The new rationale for the tithe - the giant festival in which food is available to anyone who is hungry - is quite clearly no longer about donating property to the priesthood. Basically, God is proposing a giant national potluck.

So the notion that the tithing system parallels our obligations to financially support the church today immediately is shown to be quite ridiculous. The tithe envisioned in Deuteronomy is not about supporting the church; it is about sharing directly with every believer, without exception (and non-believers, we might suppose from the "aliens" statement), and it is about doing so through the provision of food for charity.

This sounds well and good, and as Christians arguably we ought to be doing such things anyway, given the shortages of food among disadvantaged people today. However, the tithing system is not the way to go about this process. We are all Levites, to draw the closest possible parallel - or indeed, we are all priests, if one is to accept at face value the frequently bandied-about notion of the "priesthood of all believers," though in truth very few denominations actually practice this so-called belief, or they wouldn't need to create a high priesthood of pastors and ministers and so on.

At the same time as the above, we are also all citizens of the kingdom; hence we are both the givers and the recipients. So we could hold large supplies of food in common and give it to those who had need - and probably we should do just that - but there is no such thing as a tithe, because we have no holier-than-holy inside group entitled to receive the tithe from us.

Thus the largely cash and material donations to the contemporary church have nothing to do with the tithe, and the social order of Christianity does not permit the tithe. It's a nice idea but it's not ours and we shouldn't pretend that is.

It's interesting that Moses follows up his reforms to the tithing system by making further concessions to the disadvantaged. Debts must be cancelled every seven years. Servants must be freed every seven years - and not merely "freed," but sent away with a "liberal" reward of food and drink. When you free your slaves, you must treat them with the same generosity as God showed in liberating the Israelites from Egypt. This is a most intriguing statement, in terms of social criticism, in that it is implicitly criticizing slavery even while permitting it as an institution: if you own slaves, you must treat them the way God treated Egypt's slaves, i.e. you must liberate them.

Even more stunningly, Moses declares that "there should be no poor among you," because there is enough wealth in the land to make sure everyone lives in at least some degree of modest comfort. If there are poor people, he suggests, it is because the rest of Israel has failed to show the appropriate charity. If you know a poor man, you must treat him generously and "freely lend him whatever he needs." You aren't even allowed to withhold loans on the grounds that the seven-year debt forgiveness point is coming up.

Because the people are sinful, Moses concludes, "there will always be poor people in the land." But at the same time, there should not be. Poverty, he argues, is the result of the affluent not keeping the commandments and not showing charity.

I'm guessing this approach wouldn't win a lot of friends today, even within churches.