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Vayikra/Leviticus 27:28 However, anything proscribed that a man proscribes to the L-rd ... may neither be sold nor redeemed; anything proscribed is most holy to the L-rd.
This verse hinges around a problematic Hebrew word and concept: , "to proscribe" or, in some dictionaries "to devote to destruction" or "consecrate". Although this has attracted bad press due to its use against the seven peoples whom the Israelites were to dispossess when entering the Land, raising accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing, it and its cognates are widely recorded throughout the nations of the Ancient Near East and may have had a more symbolic than practical effect - part of the "rhetoric of empire."1 In this context, it can be translated "unconditionally consecrates" (CJB) or "vows unconditionally" (NJB). RabbiHirsch observes that, "in its absolute sense, means annihilation and destruction. As a rule, it is used where the purpose of such annihilation or destruction is to prevent something being brought into contact with others. Used, not in its absolute sense, but relatively, is that which is placed out of use and employment." In mediaeval times, it was used for the idea of excommunicating a person from the community and from G-d.
The root appears three times in the verse. The first and third are the same: , a noun meaning someone or something that has been set apart for destruction as the mechanism for consecrating to G-d. The second, , is the Hif'il prefix 3ms verb form, "he will proscribe". The last phrase of the verse makes it clear the cultic nature of the action: it is not simply destroying something that is a nuisance and not wanted any more, there is a specific surrendering of the item or person to G-d. Servants or slaves, domestic animals and fields may all be totally given over to G-d. However, this does not mean that they should be totally destroyed; it would seem rather hard on a slave that he should be killed as part of his master's devotion to G-d, and it would be difficult to totally destroy a field - its content, crop or yield perhaps.
So how is this process accomplished? What does a person do to make a total consecration of something to G-d? Rashi picks out the phrase "may neither be sold or redeemed" and comments somewhat cryptically, "it has no redemption until they come into the possession of a cohen." The first thing we can learn here, then, is the very item itself - not a substitute item or its value - must be given over into the keeping of a priest. TheBeer Yitzkhak confirms, "the item itself must be given to a cohen. One may not redeem it and give the value to a cohen." The Gur Aryeh goes a step further, adding that "coming into the possession of the cohen is the equivalent of redemption in that it removes all sanctity from the property." This based on the Talmudic dictum, "Our Rabbis taught: Things devoted to the priests cannot be redeemed, but must be given to the priests. Things devoted, as long as they are in the house of their owners, are in every respect as objects consecrated, as it is said: 'Every devoted thing [in Israel] is most holy unto the L-rd'. Once given to the priests, they are in every respect profane, as it is said: 'Everything that has been proscribed in Israel shall be yours' (B'Midbar 18:14, JPS)" (b. Arachin 29a).
There is a difference between things that are simply given to G-d in the normal way and so may be used for the maintenance and upkeep of the Temple, general expenses of the priests and Levites and providing for the regular sacrifices, and these 'devoted' or totally consecrated items. Unlike the former, "a purpose which can be equally as well achieved by any other object of the same value", Hirsch considers that this is because they have been given explicitly to G-d and, as the last phrase in our verse says, have become "most holy". This is why Baruch Levine suggests that "not only may the original owner not redeem it, nor may the sanctuary ever sell it, although it could probably use the revenue from it."
How did things get to be devoted to G-d in this way? is normally an imposed condition, not something that people would naturally do. For example, one would not voluntarily proscribe a field. Baruch Levine offers two explanations: "first, it may be speaking of a man who swore to devote his property. Or, second, it may be speaking of one who took an oath in another matter, swearing that if he failed to uphold that oath, his property would be forfeit as . In either case, the oath, once taken, made of the act of devotion a binding obligation; it was no longer a voluntary act. In late Second Temple times, this was a common practice - saying, "I owe this, under penalty of proscription." Such oaths were called - proscriptions.
What are we, as believers in Yeshua, in an age and society where money is the almost universal medium of exchange and charity, to learn from this verse and its explanations? Should congregations offer certified destruction points where members can set fire to five pound notes or dollar bills to totally destroy them before the L-rd? Is that what the L-rd would want us to do with some or all of our giving? Perhaps there is a principle instead that we can see at work: giving what we give totally and unreservedly, without any strings attached and without trying to direct or exercise control over that gift.
The National Trust often has the difficult task of negotiating with an aristocratic family who are donating their ancestral house and estate to the Trust, but want to retain a small apartment or flat within the house and to have access to the grounds. Finding the right balance between the demands of the family and the need to open the house to the public can be challenging. More difficult still is when one or more members of the family insist on a controlling place on the house's management team, with a veto over which rooms can and cannot be opened, the route through the house, the appearance of the house, the furniture, decorations and so on. It can be a nightmare for both the family and the National Trust, both of whom have a legitimate interest in potentially incompatible aims and objectives. Hard though it may be for a family to let their house go, things work out better when they make a total gift of the house to the Trust, moving themselves into either a smaller house somewhere on the estate or to another property altogether. Then the Trust has a free hand to do what it needs to do to maximise public access to the house, without needing to be sensitive to the desires and perhaps fears of the donating family.
Similar situations sometimes happen in churches. One family seem to have a controlling position on the board, or seem to be the largest and most significant financial contributors to the church budget. This can make a pastor's life very difficult, particularly if that family - or group of families - are resistant to what he feels the church should be doing. On a much smaller scale, one member of the congregation might offer to pay for some new audio-visual or computer equipment with the expectation in their mind that they would be allowed to operate it, or to provide all the paint to redecorate the youth hall in the colour they like. This is giving with one hand, while keeping hold of your gift with the other. It is not a free, open and generous gift that is totally devoted to the L-rd.
This then gives a new way of looking at Rav Sha'ul's remarks to the Corinthian church: "Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for G-d loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7, NASB). The English word 'cheerful' translates the Greek - cheerful, gay, merry, joyous2 - from which we also get the English words 'hilarious' and 'hilarity', something that is extremely amusing, with much laughter, boisterously merry. This is open-handed giving, recognising a need and being joyful about being able to help meet it, seeing a shortfall and rejoicing at the opportunity to cover it, gleefully sowing into ministries and people in the expectation of seeing a reward, not for ourselves but for the kingdom of G-d. This may be done anonymously, chuckling behind one's hand as the abundance is revealed, or openly helping to plan and shape the giving and support in a way that leaves the way clear for the recipients to follow their calling and take ground for the kingdom of G-d. Time, money, resources, advice and services are just some of the ways in which we can be generous givers.
1. - see Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991)
2. - Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford University Press, 1889), 379
Further Study: Joshua 6:17-19; 2 Corinthians 9:6-9
Application: Do you give openly and freely, without expecting any return or control, or do you always want to make sure that your gift is used in the way you think best? How could you learn to give and let go?
14:35 01Jun16 Sean: The principle to give freely with no strings attached is a great take away. Though, I believe, for one to truly do that there trust must fully be in God. Great commentary.
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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