Reading: Deuteronomy 15:1-15
Next Sunday, your Sunday school class will start discussing the book of Isaiah. The Illuminate ‘quarterly’ has a group of lessons that cover the high points of Isaiah and Jeremiah — and, I am excited about the opportunity to go through a part of the Bible that is so important to my own faith-journey. I love the prophets, and have loved them as long as I remember.
The Old Testament, in its most literal reading, is not that difficult to understand. In it’s most literal reading, the Torah, the first five books are the laws and rules of the nation, mixed with some historical and religious justification for these laws The holy history of God’s people and the great lawgiver Moses are a part of the narrative, but the core of Torah is the law of a nation. The books often called “Historical” books tells the continuing history of God’s people after they were given the law. The Prophets, in general, condemn Israel and Judah for failing to live up to the law, but instead having a corrupt government.
What is hard for us is if we follow the most literal reading, then the Old Testament is made up of obsolete legal code, the history of a failed experiment in Theocracy, some religious poetry, and Wisdom literature. If we follow the most literal reading, only the Psalms and Wisdom literature remain relevant. The law itself, in its most literal reading would become obsolete at the time of the Babylonian captivity. The history would be relevant, in the most literal reading, as primarily interesting to historians.
What happened, however was something nearly miraculous: People learned to look beyond what the law literally was. They realized that they lived in a society that cared nothing for justice, and that they had no control over the laws of the nation that they lived in. Recognizing this, they searched the Torah, studied everything they could study, asking the question: How can I become a just person in an unjust society? They also asked the question: “How can we still be a people of God, when we no longer are a Godly nation?” The way people read Torah changed to meet the new reality, and Torah took on a new meaning beyond the literal. Torah, as they started learning to interpret it in Babylon, became the standard that Jesus called people to is His preaching.
Interpreting in ways beyond what is literal does not only apply to the Jews, but also to Christians. The United States is not Israel. The Church also is not Israel, nor do those in positions of religious leadership stand in the place of Hebrew priests. God does not have the same covenant with us that God made with Israel at the time of Moses. In spite of this, we often connect with the holy stories of the Old Testament, and make them our own. We make connections between ancient Israel and ourselves, because we find that the positions are in some ways similar. Israel, at times, is a metaphor for the Church — as both are God’s people. Israel is at times a metaphor for the state, because sometimes we fail to live up to our standards of justice. Allegory and metaphor are good, because it allows us to apply an application beyond the literal facts. Unfortunately, for many, we have no understanding of the literal meaning. Today is for education. If we are going to study and discuss the prophets, we need to know a little bit about what their message meant to people of ancient Israel. Our methods of interpretation might be good methods — but, one really should not get into a discussion of metaphor and allegory without at least a little understanding of the passage meant to the first readers.
I chose this reading, because it is an example of the law that the prophets were always talking about. This section of the law is cited many times by many of the prophets: Whenever there was a prophecy against the people of Judah or Israel for not observing the Sabbath years, this was the section that was cited. This is a law saying that debts are forgiven, and indentured servants (people enslaved because of their debts) are to be freed — and paid generously at a specific time that happens every 7 years. The idea is that nobody should be destroyed, irreparably, by debt. instead there should be mercy and second chances. The United States actually feels the same way to the point that we have personal bankruptcy laws, and laws preventing becoming indentured. This is an example of how Israelites were called to be compassionate, remembering that they were once slaves in Egypt. Because they remembered what it was like to be slaves, they were to systematically forgive debts and release slaves, allowing people crushed by poverty another chance.
As this was a legal system, there was a tax code. The bulk of the taxes are called “tithes” in our Bible. Sometimes we are confused, because we think tithing is giving voluntarily to the church — and we think that it is a suggested amount of 10%. Now, ancient Israel is just like any other government. Taxes are not a suggested donation, and if you are suspected of underpaying a government official will come, audit you, and take what he thinks is right. A tithe is 10%, but, this was not the whole tax burden. There were multiple tithes to fund multiple programs: There was a tithe to fund the public celebrations and festivals that happened pretty much every month. There was another tithe to take care of the needs of the poor, especially widows, orphans, and foreigners. There was another tithe to take care of all of the government workers, and a ‘tithe of a tithe’ (1%) went to the temple. There is some debate about what the total tax burden was, but without getting into that, we can understand why, when kings added even more taxes, people were ready to revolt.
Another theme we find in the prophets is that of the tithes. Often, we think of this in terms of “we should tithe” meaning, we should give, generously and systematically. It is true, we should give generously and systematically. Old Testament tithing, however, was not talking about systematic donations to a worthy cause — it was talking about a rather heavy tax burden. The people who did things like stole the tithes were people in political power. Do you know people who refuse to pay their taxes? If I don’t pay my taxes, the IRS will have a freeze put on my bank account, I will be audited, and I will not only pay the taxes I owe, but penalties for making the collection inconvenient. Do we really believe that ancient Israel had no recourse when people refused to pay? Wherever there are governments, there will always be tax collectors.
One Biblical example of a leader stealing the tithes is found in Nehemiah 13. Eliashib stole the tithes that would have been used to support the government workers; in order to survive the whole bureaucracy became corrupt, because the Levites had no sustenance beyond their positions in the State In this corrupt system, those who depended upon government services and aid for their needs were left to starve. I am convinced when Malachi asks: “Can a man rob God”? He is thinking of a specific man, and likely that man’s name is Eliashib.
Starting next week, we will study Isaiah and Jeremiah. The adult Sunday school Bible study will go through select passages, offer some written reflections on the passages, and ask discussion questions based on the reading. I love the prophets, I loved the prophets from my youth, and I look forward to this study.
The prophets lived in a time when the law that was written, and what was actually done was different. There was corruption, and many of the people in power exploited their positions for their own gain. The prophets are also familiar to us, because they hold the hope and promise of restoration. Even in the times without justice, when the nation seemed to be falling and enemies were ready to conquer, the people had hope that God would send a Deliverer. In the Christian understanding — the prophets anticipated Christ’s coming.
I’m excited about this this opportunity to read together, to explore, and to learn both from each other and from the written thoughts of several other people. I know, many times people expect some sort of a practical application, but, I’m not going to tell you. I’m sure nobody is going to try to figure out when the Sabbath Year will next fall — nor do I think anybody really wants to live in Ancient Israel. What seems important right now is that we know the context of the as we enter the study.
For me, the point of telling you this is to remind you that there are many ways that people understand what they read. The Sabbath year is important, because, according to Daniel, the 70 years of captivity are the same as the 70 times the Sabbath year passed, and debts remained unforgiven. This law that seems so obscure to us today is central in the understanding for the reason of the captivity. We remember God promised David his line would be unbroken — but, David’s line didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. David’s line ignored the standards of Justice written into the Law. The literal meaning of the prophets is tied up in Torah, and a unbroken line of Kings who ignored Torah’s ideals of an understanding of justice built on empathy, mercy, and compassion.
The wonderful thing is, the New Testament invites us to reflect on this Holy History. We see Jesus establishing a New Kingdom. We see Jesus inviting us to live in that New Kingdom. We no longer need a Theocracy to be a Holy People, instead we are invited to live lives of mercy, compassion, and justice even as we are in a world that sometimes treats mercy as a vice. Though corrupt people failed to establish God’s kingdom on the Earth, God came to establish a kingdom in the hearts and minds of people — and as God changes us, we become a force that changes the world.