Saturday, April 12, 2008

God's New Tithing System: Numbers 18-19

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

God clarifies that all of the sacrificial meat and food belongs only to Aaron's lineage, i.e. to the real priests. The rest of the Levites, however, are given all other tithes. They get no inherited land within Israel; instead, they belong to God and get the tithe. When they get the tithe, the Levites are also required to tithe: they must give one-tenth of their one-tenth to God. Naturally, because Aaron remains the capo di tutti capi, the Levites' tithe is actually going to be given to his priests. What a deal.

Aside from the fact that this cements into place in economic terms the troubling hierarchy God has been building on the social and religious level, it's actually an interesting idea. The Levites are going to be relatively wealthy: ten percent of the Israelite economy is a larger share than any other tribe seems mathematically likely to get (there being 13 tribes in total), especially given that the Levites are a much smaller group than most of the others.

Before analyzing this any further, I want to point out that it seems rather cruel for God to be giving them these rules at this point in the narrative. A few days ago, he slaughtered three thousand Israelites for asking to speak with him directly. He also announced his intention to delay the Israelites' invasion of Canaan until every living adult had died. Now that they've been essentially sentenced to death in the desert, God is lecturing them on the customs and practices their descendants will adopt once they're settled in Canaan. God's timing is pretty poor. No wonder the people are often unhappy with his leadership.

The tithing law is actually detailed more extensively in Deuteronomy than is is here, so I'm going to leave off on a more detailed criticism of it.

After making the tithing arrangements, God invents yet another new ritual, this one involving the slaughtering of a red heifer. Have you noticed that the rituals are getting increasingly more complex than the simple handful of sacrificial forms back at the beginning of Leviticus? It's all part of giving the sophisticated priesthood something to do. The heifer is to be sacrificed and burned. The Israelites will keep the ashes, however, and use a handful whenever they need to purify somebody from sin or uncleanness. This is a new treatment for uncleanness that wasn't necessary before, back when people were just unclean for a few days and then could return to the camp. Strangely, the person presenting himself for purification doesn't seem to have to bring along an extra offering to pay the priest his commission. Are the priests expected to perform this ritual for free, for a change?

I wonder what's going to happen when the ashes of the heifer are all gone. You'd think this would happen fairly quickly, what with the enormous size of the tribe. At least within this chapter, God doesn't seem to think they're going to have to perform this particular sacrifice more than once, which is another example of his strange lack of foresight.