Musings on the greatest set of books ever written, etc.

Month: August, 2013

“Go to Bethel and sin”

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.




No, it’s not a Pyramid scheme . . . or is it?

Most people know about pyramid schemes. No, not the schemes which built the original pyramids in Egypt—back in the day (that is, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, around 2500 B.C., way before even the time of Abraham (see Gen 12:10-20), let alone Moses (see Exodus chapter 2 and following). No, the pyramid schemes I am thinking about are the network marketing schemes where someone sells a product, and the profit goes to him or her, plus somebody else (in the “upline”), and often somebody else above that second person—sometimes to five or even more levels. People make money off of those who they (or their “downline”) have previously recruited to do the work, and often the money can be quite lucrative indeed. Many people on the bottom, few at the top—whence the phrase “pyramid scheme.”

Now, some people in the church have called their current system of tithing as a pyramid scheme—and they have a point. Church members pay ten percent of their income to the local church (often, and in my view, mistakenly labeled the “storehouse”—see my first tithing blogpost on “robbing God”), and the local pastor or minister pays ten percent of his or her tithe to the district officials, and the district pays ten percent to the national headquarters, etc. Again, this quickly adds up to quite a hefty sum, at least for those who are at the top. Yes, a pyramid scheme (I remember a prominent official in the church I was attending, in a moment of unguarded candor in the pulpit, admitting just as much).

Now, is there any biblical warrant for such a practice? Not really, in my opinion, but there does seem to be somewhat of a parallel in the familiar tithing text found in Numbers 18:20-28 where the Levites (the Israelite religious officials serving in the Tabernacle under the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who himself was a Levite [that is, from the tribe of Levi]) would receive a tithe from the other tribes, and they in turn would pay a tithe on that tithe to the priests, or at least to Aaron the priest (see v. 28). The repeated rationale here is that neither the Levites nor the priest(s) have any land of their own, whence no harvest (this tithe is akin to the “storehouse tithe” of the book of Deuteronomy where in the third year, the widow, the orphan, the alien [non-native], and the Levite are to receive a tithe from the people of Israel—again, consult the “robbing God” blogpost for details). Hence, the double-level, tithe-of-a-tithe, procedure, which probably helped lead to the “pyramid scheme” of tithing found in some church denominations today. Another text, found in the last chapter of the book of Leviticus, which deals with 120% redemption of vows, also alludes in passing to tithing “to the Lord” (see vv. 30-33, again this tithe would presumably go to the priests). And, to be fair, the priests were also given portions of some of the meat offerings brought by the people to the Tabernacle, and later the Temple (see, for example, Lev 6:26; 7:6, 28-36; etc.; for a notorious example of the priestly abuse of this procedure, see 1 Sam 2:12-17). (I wonder what a modern priest or pastor or rabbi would do if a parishioner brought him or her a nice portion of a T-bone steak or ribeye in gratitude for a great homily or sermon or Torah meditation?)

So, no real pyramid schemes in the Bible. Just some well-deserved food offerings for some landless clergy (and their equally deserving assistants). Yet again, evidence for the practicality of the Bible. When one recalls the rarity of meat in the diet of the average Israelite (probably only several times a year), one can certainly sympathize with the priests sometimes enjoying a share of the barbecue after it was roasted on the altar. (The “every tenth animal” procedure in Lev 27:32-33 indicates that tithes of flocks and herds, as well as the more familiar fruit and grain, were sometimes given as well, at least according to the priestly materials found in the Torah.)

And once again, in the early church, no system of tithing—just lavish generosity—was ever effected. But God’s religious workers were still to be supported—for in both in the Old and New Testaments we are reminded, “Do not muzzle the ox when it is treading out the grain” (see Deut 25:4; 1 Timothy 5:18; and is it just me, or is Paul having some fun in the Timothy passage with his comparison of God’s workers to oxen?). Surely, the laborer is indeed worthy of his (or her) hire (1 Tim 5:18b; see also Luke 10:7 for Jesus’ very similar words on the subject).



God laughs at our plans?

OK, we continue in the “tithing” series, this time with the Patriarch Jacob in the book of Genesis. Jacob was a scoundrel, there is no question about that. Grandson of Abraham the “tither to Melchizedek” (see the last blogpost), he is the next person who is said to offer a tithe to God (see Genesis 28:20-22). But, quite unlike the generosity of his grandfather, Jacob couches his tithe offer in an “if-then” statement: “if God [Hebrew, ‘elohim, often a generic term for “God” or “the gods,” but here, as elsewhere, a reference to the Hebrew God “Yahweh”] will be with me, and protect me, and give me food and clothing, and bring me back home [to Canaan] safely, then I will erect a memorial pillar to him, and give him a tenth of everything he gives me.” (Spoiler alert: Yahweh does all that and more, as we soon shall see.)

Now, I immediately must digress. The name “Jacob” did not originally mean “heel-grabber” or “supplanter” (i.e., “scoundrel,” “deceiver,” or the like). It was a perfectly good west Semitic name (probably ya’kub-‘il or the like), meaning “may God protect (my heel).” Of course, in the Jacob-Esau narratives, Jacob grabs the “heel” [Hebrew, ‘aqeb] of his twin brother Esau when they were born (Gen 25:26; also see Esau’s bitter comments in 27:36), and he twice gets the better of his brother Esau later in life. But the biblical storytellers do not give negative names to their villains, just for our convenience! They rather enjoy wordplays, just as many of us do (for example, we would not give the name “Harry” to a baby covered with hair [that is, “hairy”], but we might enjoy the ironic echo that given name might elicit). So the name “Jacob,” a perfectly positive name originally, eventually gained an ironic overtone when this particular “Jacob” acted just like a “heel” in later life. (My favorite line from the original “Dear Abby” [a sharp-tongued advice columnist, back in the day]: “time heals all wounds, and wounds all heels.”) So, in conclusion: the patriarch Jacob (name originally meaning “may [God] protect my heel [i.e., backside]” or the like) now needs some serious protection, particularly from the rear—an angry Esau (see Gen 27:41) who has effectively chased Jacob out of the land God had promised to Abraham’s progeny, and back to Mesopotamia, Abraham’s original homeland. No wonder Jacob offers God a tithe of whatever wealth he eventually might obtain—this is a standard offer in the ancient Near East for gratitude for divine blessings (again, see the last blogpost for details).

Now, back to our story. Jacob is on his way to upper Mesopotamia, eventually to live with his uncle Laban, and Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel (Jacob eventually marries both of them—don’t ask—after being deceived by his dear uncle concerning their marriageability [see Gen 29:16-30]). Jacob does eventually become quite wealthy, after living in Laban’s land for some twenty years. He eventually has some twelve sons (yes, the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel), and at least one daughter, Dinah. Yes, God has indeed protected Jacob’s “rear.” (By the way, we never hear about Jacob actually paying his promised tithe to God, but the later prominence of the shrine at Bethel—the spot where Jacob gave his original offer—implies that he probably did.)

Now, some twenty years later, Jacob is again on the run, this time from his angry uncle Laban (see Genesis ch. 31). But this time, he is running back to Canaan—yes, the very location where his brother Esau lives! So Jacob, as resourceful as ever, divides his considerable family and property into two groups, sending both of them ahead to meet “Lord Esau” (32:4). Jacob stays behind. Surely his problems are ahead of him, not behind him! (Laban had been effectively placated back at the end of the preceding chapter.) But, ahem, Jacob will soon have a new problem to face: an unexpected attack from his rear (see the famous passage found in Gen 32:22-32). Some sort of angel (or God?) wrestles with Jacob throughout the night, with the wrestling match ending at dawn, apparently without a clear winner. Jacob hangs on and insists his unknown opponent give him a blessing (v. 26b). To make a short story even shorter, Jacob ends up with a name change (“Israel”—probably originally meaning “may El persist, persevere,” but here understandably interpreted as “may he (continue to) persevere with El” [see v. 28]). By the way, it is not until ch. 35 that we read that Jacob returns to Bethel where God again blesses him (vv. 9-13), and Jacob puts up a stone pillar in his honor (v. 14—maybe he paid his tithe at that point, too—the text is silent on that point, although an offering of wine and olive oil is mentioned).

A quick observation: when you promise a tithe to God, and then later become quite wealthy, pay the tithe, so that you do not end up in an unexpected wrestling match with a divine opponent. But that might still take place. Then, hang on. You never know!

More seriously, this is not the main conclusion I want to draw from the Jacob story. Like life in general, walking with God (and perhaps wrestling with him) can be quite unpredictable. For those who have read ahead in Genesis, do recall that Jacob ends up living in, of all places, the land of Egypt—in another “soap opera” of a story—and he eventually ends up even “blessing” Pharaoh (see Gen 47:1-12, and especially vv. 7-10). Jacob does however return to Canaan, the Promised Land, but as a mummy—an embalmed body—to be interred in the ancestral burial place of Abraham and his family (see Gen 50:1-13). God was faithful to his servant Jacob. Except, perhaps, for that one unscheduled wrestling match at a place Jacob later named “Peniel”—“face of God”  (“where I saw God face to face, and my life was spared,” Gen 32:30). And there was that deception about Jacob’s favorite son Joseph, which went on for years and years. . . .

God sometimes laughs at our plans. But God is also faithful to his promises.

And just to be safe: when you promise a tithe or offering to God, and you later come into wealth and prominence, make sure you make good on what you have promised! You never know.


“Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek”

So far, we have looked at tithing as described in the book of Deuteronomy. But the practice of tithing in the ancient Near East certainly predates by far even the time of Moses, the leader who is quoted at length throughout that book. In the New Testament (the last part of the Christian Bible), we read in the book of Hebrews, chapter 7, that “Father Abraham” (the traditional ancestor of the Jews and Arabs, and a number of other ancient peoples) paid tithes to someone named “Melchizedek” (see verses 2, 4, 6). A reference back to Genesis, chapter 14, gives us further information about this Melchizedek who is said to be both king and priest (the name in Hebrew is often translated “king of righteousness,” but probably originally signified “legitimate [i.e, “righteous”] king,” a king who is not a usurper, one who is born to the throne). In this Genesis passage, which is undoubtedly ancient, possibly even contemporary with the events it describes, Abraham (here named Abram) is pictured as a resolute tribal chieftain who must rescue his nephew Lot from a coalition of enemy kings (actually glorified “kinglets” ruling over small city-states in the Late Bronze Age). Still, Abram’s courage is exemplary, for he and his small army of allies, including some 318 men from his own household (note the exact number as given in v. 14, a sign of contemporaneity), do succeed in rescuing Lot and recovering all his possessions; and in gratitude for this success, offers a “tithe” of the spoils of war to the aforementioned Melchizedek, who is described as “king of Salem” (probably a shortened name of the city-state of Jerusalem), and “priest of God Most High” (Hebrew, El ‘Elyon). Once again, this “tithe” is specifically said to be from the spoils of victory (see v. 20), representing a one-time gift in gratitude for victory in battle (the practice of tithing was widespread in the ancient Near East—indicating a typical amount of generosity in giving to temples and/or royal officials).

So then, why is this tithe brought up in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament? Answer: this is once again the typical gift one might give to a temple and/or royal official (in a nice bit of parallelism, the recipient here is both a temple and a royal official, a point particularly stressed by the writer of Hebrews!). Also in a further bit of allegory, the writer of Hebrews then stresses that Levi (the ancestor of the Levitical priesthood—the priesthood found in the Mosaic Tabernacle, and later in the Temple of Solomon), as it were, himself paid tithes to Melchizedek (since his “seed” already existed, as it were, in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham). Talk about “paying it forward”!

OK, a lot of biblical details here. The point is, Melchizedek was greater than even Levi, the ancestor of all the later Israelite priests and temple officials (one pays one’s tithes to someone greater than oneself). In fact, even Father Abraham himself is not greater than Melchizedek (who in the book of Hebrews is taken as a type [or specific foreshadowing] of Jesus Christ—the greatest king/priest of all). The point of these chapters in Genesis and in Hebrews is that Abraham was great, but Melchizedek was greater. (Maybe, especially for the Hebrews references, one can also argue that we can bless our great-grandchildren in advance by giving a tithe of our victory-spoils to those who have blessed us in our military endeavors).

So in conclusion, next time you win a battle against a powerful enemy, celebrate your victory by giving one-tenth of your spoils of war to any powerful king/priest who has given you a blessing. After all, it was the accepted thing to do back in the ancient Near East.