Thursday, August 20, 2015

Giving: Deuteronomy 26

In Summary:

Deuteronomy 26 is focused on material giving. It is one of several areas in the Old Testament that take note of the practice of tithing. Others are found in Leviticus 27, Numbers 19, and Deuteronomy 14.

Tithing is also referenced in Malachi 3 but given that Malachi comes some 1,000 years after Deuteronomy, that’s not as useful in helping see what Moses is speaking of. Malachi relies on the Mosaic commands, because otherwise it just makes no sense at all.

The word itself needs this explanation: “tithe” comes from an Old English word for “tenth,” and translates a Hebrew word for “tenth.” A “tithe” is always a tenth of something, and the word occurs in multiple contexts. There is no requirement that a “tithe” be a religious word—see 1 Samuel 8 or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King for examples.

Deuteronomy 26 addresses not only tithing, though. It opens with the instruction to take of the “first fruits” of the ground after the conquest and offering them to Lord God. This offering does not use the term “tithe.” Instead, it uses “some.” This reflects a different emphasis: tithing was ongoing and done as part of the covenant. Deuteronomy 26 spawns an annual festival, but it does not command it. Instead I see this as setting up a commanded initial celebration after the conquest.

How so? Other passages command the annual tithes, but this speaks of “when you enter the land” and “take…the first of all the produce.” This reads to me as if it were establishing a celebration not only of the conquest of the land, but of God’s provision of establishing normal life.

The same could be said of the “third year” tithe, at least as described here. In those first three years, the Levites, orphans, widows, and so forth would not have been able to establish their own holdings as well as the people had. The Levites would have been busy helping teach and establish the legal/government systems. Widows and orphans would have been allotted land initially, but whatever tragedy turned them into widows and orphans would likely have harmed their ability to feed themselves. This “third year” would have been a moment to stop and notice those whose first years in the Promised Land had not gone well.

In all, this chapter speaks of a set of specific giving requirements, but the application of them today is likely doubtful. Except for what I will put in focus today.

In Focus:

The middle of this chapter deals not with what one gives, but addresses what one says when he gives it. The formula of “My father was a wandering Aramean…” sets up the reciting of the history of the people of Israel. It’s a history different than we tend to think of, as it is a history reflecting the unmerited favor that God poured out on them throughout the time from Abraham until Moses.

It is a speech of gratitude and of remembrance. In it, the Israelite is reminded that he wasn’t alone in this world. And he hadn’t pulled himself up by his own sandal straps. It was the grace of the Almighty who brought him there.

In Practice:

We’re not Israelites possessing the land in 1400 BC. Most of us are not even first-generation people in our own country. We’ve started off better than a new wave of immigrants would have.

The same is true spiritually, as well. We have churches and fellow believers to connect with. Even those who are first-generation believers can still find long-running disciples to learn from. We still, though, should remember that apart from the grace of God, we really don’t have much at all. What, then do we do? As always, I’ve got some suggestions:

1. Don’t separate financial/material giving from your faith heritage. There is a growing tendency to pull finances out of the behavior of the body of Christ. While I respect the privacy of people in their giving (I really do not want to know who gives or how much), not connecting that aspect of life with the rest of our worship isn’t wise for making disciples. We need to make whole-life disciples, and that includes material.

2. Giving should come from a grateful heart, not from a guilt-driven life. I understand Scripture to set forth a standard that we should follow, but it should be a gratitude that drives us. Not guilt response or attempting to buy the favor of God.

3. Material blessings come in many forms, not just literal fruit but also the fruit of our labor. The joy of worship through giving is not reserved to those who have farms.

In Nerdiness: 

It’s already pretty nerdy in here, with positing a different take on Deuteronomy 26. The alternate, and standard, view is that this chapter commands establishment of a yearly tithe and and triennial social needs tithe. This is, like I said, the normal view. It all hinges on the interaction between this chapter and the remainder of the passages relating to tithing and giving.

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