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B'Midbar/Numbers 18:21 And to the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel, for an inheritance, an exchange of their work ...
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In the ancient Israelite economy, the tribe of Levi had no ancestral land inheritance. Instead, as highlighted in our text, the Levites were given all the tithes of the land and servedHaShem and the people in the role of religious functionaries. The work included direct service as singers, door-keepers and so on at the Temple in Jerusalem, but also covered instructing the people as a whole about the Torah and maintaining the cities of refuge positioned throughout the Land of Israel. The Levites could own property in the cities of refuge - houses and fields - and could buy and sell other property subject to the Jubilee year remission/return, and the normal rules of inheritance between one generation and the next applied to all of these classes of ownership. Unlike the other tribes, though, the Levites had no land holdings - property or farms - that belonged to their families and which would return to them in the year of Jubilee, no freehold right of ownership. Their role was not to be that of farmers and business people, devoting their lives to providing for their families and generating an income; they were to serve HaShem on behalf of the people, to minister in the Temple and teach the people about HaShem. The Torah therefore sets up a support system that provides them with an income and food, so that they can concentrate on their calling before G-d without needing to be concerned about their livelihood.
The word is used here either as a preposition: "in exchange for", or as a noun starting a construct chain: "an exchange of". The word is found in Aramaic and Phoenecian texts with the meaning "substitute", or "compensation". RabbiHirsch sees this provision as wages for work done by the Levites, rather then the portion of the offerings brought to G-d that are eaten by the priests. Indeed, the Levites themselves are required to give a tithe from their tithe income to the priests. Israel Drazin points out that if this were just a proportional business share in the produce of the land, then one tribe in twelve/thirteen1 should receive only eight percent of the produce, perhaps reduced further because the Levites made no capital investment or labour in cultivation. The tithe is therefore "not to be considered as a share, but as a gift in return for their service."
Most telling, perhaps, is the origin of the institution. This verse comes from a block of instructions given directly to Aharon by HaShem Himself that starts at verse 8 in this chapter of the text. HaShem says - a Qal 1cs affix form from the root - "I have given" the tithe to the Levites. While the most frequent meaning of the verb is "to give" it is often used in the sense of "appoint, set", so here it establishes the tithe not just as a gift but a divinely appointed wage or regular payment. By giving the instruction to Aharon, one of the relatively few occasions when Aharon is directly addressed rather than being told what to do through Moshe, HaShem makes it his responsibility to ensure that it is carried out in the proper manner; the provision for the Levites is just as important a part of the function of the priesthood as the bringing of the sacrifices in the Temple.
There is a tension too between the doing of the work and the provision of the tithe. The Levites are always on duty: seven days a week, throughout the whole year, feasts, shabbat and ordinary days; the gates and doors always need attendance, the singers are always needed, the infrastructure and physical cleaning and upkeep of the Temple has to be done, the treasury has to be open and the supplies and provisions of the daily sacrifices must be on hand. The service of the Temple, in its regular cycle of worship to G-d, must not be interrupted. Notice also that the Temple service is performed every year, even on sabbatical or jubilee years, when there was no formal harvesting and agricultural work. The Levites are as dependent upon the provision in the sixth year as the people who farm the land and give the tithe. The obligation upon the Levites to perform this work is not conditioned upon the giving of the tithe - the work must always be done because that is their job. At the same time, the people are to provide the tithe and the priests are to make sure that it is brought in, so that the Levites can be paid for their work.
We know from the biblical and archaeological record that Israel was far from consistent in this respect. At times of religious revival, the tithe was brought in and the Temple ran properly; at other times, little or no produce was supplied and the Levites were forced to go back to their cities and try to eke out a living by working. King Hezekiah "commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levites, that they might devote themselves to the law of the L-RD. And as soon as the order spread, the sons of Israel provided in abundance the first fruits of grain, new wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of all" (2 Chronicles 31:4-5, NASB), while during the time of Nehemiah, he "discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been contributed, and that the Levites and the singers who performed the temple service had made off, each to his fields. I censured the prefects, saying, 'How is it that the House of G-d has been neglected?' Then I recalled the Levites and installed them again in their posts; and all Judah brought the tithes of grain, wine, and oil into the treasuries" (Nehemiah 13:10-12, JPS). What was a Levite to do? He had to support his wife and children, put bread on the table for them to eat and maintain a roof over their heads; if his tour of duty in Jerusalem meant that the family would starve while he was away, because there were no tithes, then the pressure to simply stay at home was significant.
In these days of professional clergy, where the rabbi or minister receives a salary for his work in serving the congregation, similar tensions still exist. On the one hand, ministry can become like any other job, where clergy move from position to position to better their income, to work with larger congregations or receive promotion in a hierarchy. On the other hand, ministry can expose clergy to real hardship or abuse where a congregation or board take advantage of a family or an individual who feels called to stay in a situation without proper payment, housing or support. Part-time clergy often combine serving a congregation without payment or on a low stipend, with a standard job in the secular world to generate their main income. Many elders, house-group leaders and others serve in entirely lay capacities, giving hours of their time and often much of their own money, while holding down full-time jobs to support their families.
Rav Sha'ul applies the Torah to this issue when he tells Timothy that "The leaders who lead well should be considered worthy of double honor, especially those working hard at communicating the Word and at teaching. For the Tanakh says, 'You are not to muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,' in other words, 'The worker deserves his wages'" (1 Timothy 5:17-18, CJB). Quoting the same verse, he also told the Corinthians that "it is written in the Law of Moses, 'You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.' Is it for oxen that G-d is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the ploughman should plough in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop" (1 Corinthians 9:9-10, ESV), concluding that although he personally was not doing so, "the L-rd directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel" (v. 14, NASB).
Whether the tithe - either as a specific or minimum figure - remains a biblical principle that is incumbent upon both Jew and Gentile in the Body of Messiah today is a much debated point. What is certain is that some form of giving, from a personal desire to thank or bless a minister of the gospel (in the broadest sense), from being a committed part of a community supporting its work, or in long term support of individual workers or missionaries, is a significant and commanded part of our walk with the L-rd. By regular giving to a local church or congregation we demonstrate our commitment to its vision and values and participate in its calling and mission. By supporting individual workers on a long term basis we develop relationship and stamina both in them and ourselves, working together to grow the kingdom of G-d. By blessing others who have blessed us, on a spontaneous basis, we show love and appreciation at a personal level that helps and encourages everyone to feel acknowledged and valuable.
1 - depending on whether the two sons of Joseph are counted as one or two tribes
Further Study: Matthew 10:9-11; Galatians 6:6; Romans 16:1-2
Application: How can you show your appreciation and commitment within the family of G-d today? Your action - be that a gift of money, lending a hand, a smile and a word of encouragement, a note by post or e-mail - can lift someone's soul and make their day. Why not ask the L-rd who He wants you to bless next.
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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