Ki Tavo & Vayigash: Tithes and Taxes

August 26, 2021 at 5:58 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Vayiggash | Leave a comment

How does a theocracy support itself?

Governments today, both democratic and autocratic, levy taxes to pay for government programs that range from making war to feeding children.  But a few thousand years ago in the Ancient Near East, most countries were theocracies; gods were considered the ultimate rulers, and their deputies were anointed kings and priests.

Both Egypt and the two kingdoms of Israel conscripted soldiers for war and laborers for major building projects.1  But how did they fund the programs that kept at least some of their people from starving?

The book of Genesis credits Joseph, the pharaoh’s viceroy, with refinancing the government of Egypt.  The next four books of the bible state what Israelites must contribute when they have their own nation, their own king, and their own clergy.

Joseph, Overseer of Pharaoh’s Granaries, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874

Egypt in Genesis

Joseph stockpiles grain in Egypt during the seven years of plenty in the Torah portion Vayigash.  Then in the first year of the seven-year drought, he sells it (to Egyptians as well as Canaanites) for silver.  In the second year, he sells grain to Egyptians in exchange for their livestock.  The third year, when the pharaoh owns all of Egypt’s silver and livestock, the  farmers offer:

“Acquire us and our farmland for the food, and we ourselves will be Pharaoh’s slaves, and our land.” (Genesis 47:19)

Joseph agrees.  All the farmland of Egypt, except what belongs to the priests, becomes the property of the government, and the farmers become serfs.  Joseph gives them grain for planting and eating.  And from then on, the farmers have to give one-fifth of their produce to Pharaoh as rent.

Joseph does not create any means for them to buy back their former land.  In fact, he moves whole villages to other parts of the country.  This underscores the claim in the story that the pharaoh now owns all the land and the farmers are mere serfs.

Israel in Numbers and Deuteronomy

Moses, speaking for God, decrees a different plan for the Israelites to follow after they have conquered their own country.  God is the true owner of all the land, but God has assigned a landholding to every Israelite in every tribe.  Plots of land can be sold, but only for temporary ownership; all lands return to the original clans every fifty years.2

King Solomon, French 13th century

Kings throughout the Ancient Near East appointed tax collectors to make sure landowners paid taxes, mostly in the form of foodstuffs.  In the bible, King Solomon divides the united kingdom of Israel into twelve districts, each supervised by an official who had to provide food for the king and court one month out of the year.3

Landowners are also responsible in the Torah for supporting the kingdom’s two most important social programs: the state religion, and care for the poor.  While the priests and their households receive portions from individual offerings at the altar,4 and wealthier Israelites are obligated to extend loans to their poorer neighbors and kin,5 the primary method for supporting people without their own land is mandatory tithing.

The Talmud distinguishes three kinds of tithes in the Hebrew Bible.  The first tithe is brought to the temple for the resident priests and their households.  The second tithe is also brought to Jerusalem, but consumed on the spot in a feast for the landowner’s family, slaves, and employees; Levites and landless immigrants are also invited to feast.6  Every third year, the second tithe is replaced with a “poor tithe” stored in the towns and doled out to the local Levites, immigrants, widows, and orphans.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“when you come”), requires landowners to accompany their tithes both in Jerusalem and in their home towns with declarations that they owe their livelihood to God and they are tithing to obey God’s orders.  First Moses addresses the annual contribution of the best of the first fruits:

First Fruits, bible card by Providence Lithograph Co. ca. 1900

You shall take some of the first of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your land, which God, your God, is giving to you, and put it in a basket.  And you shall go to the place where God, your God, chooses to let [God’s] name dwell.  And you shall go to whoever the priest is at that time, and you shall say to him: “I announce today to God, our God, that I have come into the land that God vowed to our fathers to give to us.”  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:2-3)

The farmer then recites a brief history from Jacob’s descent to Egypt through his descendants’ arrival in Canaan.7  He concludes:

“And [God] brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  And now, hey!  I bring the first fruits of the earth that you gave to me, God!”  And you shall leave [the basket] in front of God, your God, and you shall bow down in front of God, your God.  (Deuteronomy 26:9-10)

The baskets of first fruits are presented to God, then eaten by the resident priests and their households.

Then you shall rejoice in all the good things that God, your God, gave to you and your household—you and the Levite and the immigrant who is in your midst.  (Deuteronomy 26:11)

The summer pilgrimage festival in Jerusalem, Shavuot, is identified as the “Day of First Fruits” in Numbers 28:26.  But the Israelites must continue to bring the first fruits of each of seven species8 as they ripen through the summer, until the fall pilgrimage festival, Sukkot.  The Israelites are obligated to bring the first-born animals from their herds and flocks to the temple for the spring pilgrimage festival, Pesach or Passover.9

For all three pilgrimage festivals, as well as for other offerings at the temple, landowners are obligated to invite the Levites and immigrants from their own neighborhoods to accompany them to Jerusalem and join in the feast.10  Perhaps the participation of Levites and immigrants is why the Talmud calls this the “second tithe”.

barley

But a feast every few months is not enough to sustain life.  So every third year, landowners must bring the “poor tithe” to a central location in the nearest town.  This tithe includes foods that have a longer shelf life (grain, wine, and olive oil), and it is also accompanied by a declaration in this week’s Torah portion.

When you have finished laseir every maseir of your produce in the third year, the year of the maseir, and you give it to the Levite, to the immigrant, to the fatherless child, and to the widow, then they will eat inside your gates and they will be satisfied.  Then you shall say in the presence  of God, your God: “I cleared out the sacred [portion] from the house, and also I gave it to the Levite and to the immigrant, to the fatherless child and to the widow, as in your commands that you commanded me.  I did not bypass your commands, and I did not forget.”  (Deuteronomy 26:12-13)

laseir (לַעְשֵׂר) = tithing, assembling a tithe, collection one-tenth.  (From eser, עֶשֶׂר = ten.)

maseir (מַעְשֵׂר) = tithe.  (Also from eser.)

The Levites serve at the temple on a rotating schedule as administrators, guards, assistants, and musicians, and by God’s decree cannot own farmland of their own.  The third tithe also provides sustenance for immigrants who have not been able to buy land, and for two other categories of people who were often impoverished in ancient Israel: widows and children who have lost their fathers.

The grain and other foods set aside for the third-year tithe are considered sacred because they are prohibited for mundane use; they cannot be either sold or eaten by the owner’s household.  This tithe is also sacred because it serves God; giving food to those who do not have the means to feed themselves is a sacred obligation.

*

Today the citizens of most nations are required to pay taxes.  Portions of our taxes go to the military, though sometimes we also conscript soldiers.  In modern nations, no one is conscripted to provide labor for government building projects; they are supported by taxes (including roads and other infrastructure).  Our taxes are also spent on education, on health care, and on supporting those who do not have the means to support themselves—the elderly and disabled, minor children whose parents cannot take care of them, recent victims of disasters.

I believe we should treat the taxes we pay for these social programs as a sacred obligation.

  1. Corvée labor, called mas (מַס) in Hebrew, is imposed by both pharaohs in Exodus on the Israelites to build brick storehouses (Exodus 1:11-13. 5:6-9) and by the Israelite tribes on Canaanites (Josiah 16:10, 17:13; Judges 1:27-35). A list of King David’s top officials includes an officer in charge of mas (2 Samuel 20:23-26); so does the list of King Solomon’s top officials (1 Kings 4:6).  King Solomon imposes mas on 30,000 Israelites who spent every third month in Lebanon cutting wood and quarrying stone (1 Kings 5:27).  Then he imposes mas on resident Canaanites to build the temple, his own palace, a citadel, and city walls around Jerusalem, Chazor, Megido, and Gazer.
  2. Leviticus 25:10-24.
  3. 1 Kings 4:7-19, 5:7-8.
  4. Numbers 18:8-19.
  5. Leviticus 25:35-37.
  6. Except in Numbers 18:21-29, which describes an earlier system of tithing. In that system, the first tithe is given to the Levites, who then give one-tenth of what they receive to the priests.
  7. See my post Ki Tavo: A Perishing Aramean.
  8. Deuteronomy 8:8-9 calls Israel “a land of wheat and barley, of grapevines and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey/date syrup; a land where you need not stint on eating food …”  Mishnah Bikkurim 1:3 states that only these seven species are brought to the temple, and they are not brought before Shavuot.
  9. Exodus 13:11-13 and 22:28-29; Numbers 18:13-18. God assigns the first fruits of Pesach and the meat of the firstborn animals to the Levites (including the priests), as well as a contribution of five shekels for each firstborn son.
  10. In front of God, your God, you shall eat them, in the place that God, your God, choosesyou and your sons and your daughters and your male slaves and your female slaves and the Levites who [live] within your gates. And you will rejoice in front of God, your God, in everything you put your hand to. Guard yourself lest you abandon the Levite on any of your days on the earth.  (Deuteronomy 12:18-19)

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