I live in Roseville, Minnesota, USA, close to a number of religious colleges and seminaries. One of these is Bethel University, just up the road a bit. It is a good school, and has a large theological library, which I have used with great profit from time to time (intellectual profit, that is—I haven’t yet figured out how to get paid monetarily to read books). So, the following comments are to be read in that light.
Amos, one of the most sarcastic of the Hebrew prophets (Malachi is another), declares to his listeners in chapter 4 to “go to Bethel and sin” (v. 4a, NIV). Later on in the same verse, he says, “Bring your a sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years.” (That is the NIV version, but the Hebrew actually reads “bring your tithes every three days” [compare the NLT translation]; the NIV follows those who interpret the text in light of the “storehouse tithe” of the book of Deuteronomy paid every three years [see the “Robbing God?” blogpost for details]). Delighting in religious practice far beyond what the Torah dictates, and ignoring the ethical demands of the Torah—that is the sarcastic thrust of Amos’ comments throughout this entire passage: “brag about your freewill offerings—boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do” (v. 5b, NIV).
Now, we have already heard about the city of Bethel (or at least, about its ancestral site) in connection with the Ancient Near Eastern practice of tithing. Centuries earlier, Jacob the patriarch happened to be in that same location when, in a difficult time in his life, he promised God a tenth of his future wealth if God blesses and protects him (see the “God laughs at our plans?” blogpost for details). Now the name “Bethel” means “house of El (God),” so the present reference in Amos chapter 4 is particularly apt—in God’s house offering sacrifices daily, tithes every three days, also thank offerings and freewill offerings all the time—and boasting and bragging about their religious devotion—that is a recipe for sin if ever I heard one (please, I too am being sarcastic here). (I’ll refrain from further sarcasm concerning all the sermons I have heard about bringing the full tithe into the storehouse [taken as the local church] so that God can bless you, but that too may come under Amos’ “go to the house of God and sin” category as well). And for Christians, Jesus’ sarcastic comments about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees’ strict devotion to tithing also fits uncomfortably well:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law [the Torah]—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24, NIV; compare Luke 11:42 for a slightly gentler version of this saying).
So, the “takeaway” from this blogpost: do not go to Bethel and sin! Do not brag about paying your tithes every three days. Do not (for Christians, at least), be guilty of straining out a gnat [a tiny insect] and swallow a camel! Instead, let’s keep our priorities safe. And may our God take delight and bless our efforts.
As I write this in late August, 2013, my concluding comment of “Shalom” gains urgency as there is now all-too-much turmoil both in the nations of Egypt and Syria. Let us all earnestly pray, in our own fashion, for “shalom” [peace] to reign once and for all in the Middle East.