[The following excerpt is from my book, “Rescuing Religion from Republican Reason.”]
Biblical Taxation – Was it Optional?
When I share these passages with Tea Party Christians, they all tend to give me the same response. They say God’s tithes and taxes were optional, that it was up to the individuals to give out of the goodness of their hearts. To the contrary, Nehemiah 12:44 speaks of the tithes as being “required.” It says, “On that day men were also appointed over the chambers for the stores, the contributions, the first fruits, and the tithes, to gather into them from the fields of the cities the portions REQUIRED by the Law for the priests and Levites; for Judah rejoiced over the priests and Levites who served.” Also, God expresses anger, not at individuals, but at the whole nation, for failing to collect the tithes in Malachi 3:8-10, “Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflow blessing [NRSV].”
Notice that the purpose of the tithe is “so that there may be food in my house.” God doesn’t need food. The food was for the Levites, widows, orphans, and immigrants, because they were unable to provide for themselves, since they had no inheritance of land. When the nation failed to enforce the collection of tithes, people created in God’s image suffered. The nation had robbed the needy; therefore, it had robbed God (“to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me,” Matthew 25:45). God responded by cursing the nation, demonstrating that He held the nation responsible for not enforcing the tithes. He wasn’t disciplining individuals.
I’ve even had Tea Party Christians tell me the entire Law of God was optional, because the Jewish word for “law” had a different meaning than it does for us today, that it was merely a guide for virtuous living, not a legal requirement; therefore, God’s wealth redistribution system was voluntary, not mandatory. Here are some passages that disprove their point:
Deuteronomy 28:58-59…68, “If you do not diligently observe all the words of this Law that are written in this book, fearing this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, then the Lord will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies…The Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, by a route that I promised you would never see again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer [NRSV].”
Leviticus 26:14-17, “But if you do not obey Me and carry out all these commandments, if instead, you reject My statutes, and if your soul abhors My ordinances so as not to carry out all My commandments, and so break My covenant, I in turn, will do this to you: I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that will waste away the eyes and cause the soul to pine away; also you shall sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies will eat it up. And I will set My face against you so that you shall be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when no one is pursuing you.”
Wow! That sounds pretty mandatory to me! Severe punishments like these don’t apply to optional practices. God held the nation of Israel responsible for its people’s obedience to His every command. If the nation failed to enforce His laws, His wrath against the nation would soon follow.
Finally, Tea Party Christians have argued (at least to me) that God’s wealth redistribution laws must not serve as an inspiration for American Christians, because they were religious laws rather than civil laws; and religious laws are forbidden by our Constitution. This is a point worth considering. However, biblical examination shows it to be incorrect. God’s system of wealth redistribution was property law, not worship or moral law. In the Bible, the breaking of religious laws (moral and worship laws) was punished either by death or by being cut off from one’s people. The breaking of injury laws was punished by eye-for-an-eye retribution. Unlike all of these, property laws had no punishments assigned to them as they were given in the Scriptures, but breaking them was most likely punished by no more than 40 “strikes,” a punishment given in Deuteronomy 25 that has no crimes assigned to it. Likewise, the tithes and requirements to share with the poor have no punishments assigned to them, so they qualify as property law. Property law and injury law constitute civil law, something that all civilizations enforce. Without civil law, a nation cannot function, nor can it be called a civilization. Religious law, on the other hand, is not necessary for a civilization to function, which is why many multi-religion nations flourish in the world today. Here are some examples of the different law types and their punishments:
Leviticus 17:8-9, “Then you shall say to them, ‘Any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to offer it to the Lord, that man also shall be cut off from his people.”
Exodus 17:10, “And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people.”
Numbers 9:13, “But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet neglects to observe the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people, for he did not present the offering of the Lord at the appointed time.”
For Christians, these worship laws no longer apply, because they were all part of the ceremonial way in which God’s people atoned for their sins in the centuries prior to Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Now, through Jesus’ sacrifice of His life on the cross, He became the perfect atonement for our sins. His sacrifice replaces the Old Testament sacrifices and ceremonies because, according to Hebrews 7:27, Jesus, the perfect and sinless Son of God, “does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this he did once and for all when he offered up Himself.”
Exodus 21:15, “And he who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.”
Exodus 21:17, “And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.”
Exodus 22:18, “You shall not allow a sorceress to live.”
Exodus 22:19, “Whoever lies with an animal shall surely be put to death.”
Exodus 22:20, “He who sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be destroyed.”
Exodus 31:14-16, “Therefore you are to observe the Sabbath for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day there is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to celebrate the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.”
Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their heads.”
Leviticus 22:22, “If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die….”
Deuteronomy 18:20, “But the prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.”
Notice that only one of these moral sins is illegal in America today, and that the vast majority of conservative Christians seek no government prohibition of the others (the only exception is the prohibition of homosexual behavior). This is because these laws, as well as the worship laws I covered, are religious laws, not civil laws.
Leviticus 24:17-20, “And if a man takes the life of any human being he shall surely be put to death. And the one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. And if a man injures a neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.”
Exodus 21:16, “And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” This qualifies as eye-for-an-eye punishment, because a person who is kidnapped and sold as a slave effectively has their life taken away from them.
Exodus 22:3,7 “…A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft…the thief, if he is caught, must pay back double.” [NIV]
Leviticus 19:9, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
Leviticus 25:10, “You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family.”
The punishment: Deuteronomy 25:2-3, “…then it shall be if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall then make him lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of stripes according to his guilt. He may beat him forty times but no more, lest he beat him with many more stripes than these, and your brother be degraded in your eyes.”
Israel’s society could not have functioned without physically enforced property laws. It would have been anarchy. If these property laws had been optional, the thieves would have chosen not to pay back double, the landowners would have chosen not to share with the poor, and those who had purchased property would have chosen not to give it back to the families from whom they had purchased it, as was required in the Year of Jubilee. That’s the nature of greed. It keeps us from voluntarily doing what’s right. Thanks to this sinful nature, all of God’s laws had to be mandatory, not optional.
Does the fact that the property laws were not punished by death make them less important than moral and religious laws?
While the moral, worship, and injury violations cannot be undone or compensated in any way, property violations are the only violations in which the criminal can fully compensate the victim. For example, if a thief steals an ox, he can return it to the owner or replace it. If a landowner fails to tithe, he can be forced to give a double tithe next time. If a violator failed to make good for what he stole or damaged, he was sold into slavery in order to make restitution. Putting the violator to death would have made restitution far more difficult.