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CHAPTER XXVIII.

CONCERNING VOWS.

Lev. xxvii. 1-34.

As already remarked, the book of Leviticus certainly seems, at first sight, to be properly completed with the previous chapter; and hence it has been not unnaturally suggested that this chapter has by some editor been transferred, either of intention or accident, from an earlier part of the book—as, e.g., after chapter XXV. The question is one of no importance; but it is not hard to perceive a good reason for the position of this chapter after not only the rest of the law, but also after the words of promise and threatening which conclude and seal its prescriptions. For what has preceded has concerned duties of religion which were obligatory upon all Israelites; the regulations of this chapter, on the contrary, have to do with special vows, which were obligatory on no one, and concerning which it is expressly said (Deut. xxiii. 22): "If thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee." To these, therefore, the promises and threats of the covenant could not directly apply, and therefore the law which regulates the making and keeping of vows is not unfitly made to follow, as an appendix, the other legislation of the book.

Howsoever the making of vows be not obligatory as a necessary part of the religious life, yet, in all ages 542 and in all religions, a certain instinct of the heart has often led persons, either in order to procure something from God, or as a thank-offering for some special favour received, or else as a spontaneous expression of love to God, to "make a special vow." But just in proportion to the sincerity and depth of the devout feeling which suggests such special acts of worship and devotion, will be the desire to act in the vow, as in all else, according to the will of God, so that the vow may be accepted of Him. What then may one properly dedicate to God in a vow? And, again, if by any stress of circumstances a man feels compelled to seek release from a vow, is he at liberty to recall it? and if so, then under what conditions? Such are the questions which in this chapter were answered for Israel.

As for the matter of a vow, it is ruled that an Israelite might thus consecrate unto the Lord either persons, or of the beasts of his possession, or his dwelling, or the right in any part of his land. On the other hand, "the firstling among beasts" (vv. 26, 27), any "devoted thing" (vv. 28, 29), and the tithe (vv. 30-33) might not be made the object of a special vow, for the simple reason that on various grounds each of these belonged unto the Lord as His due already. Under each of these special heads is given a schedule of valuation, according to which, if a man should wish for any reason to redeem again for his own use that which, either by prior Divine claim or by a special vow, had been dedicated to the Lord, he might be permitted to do so.

Of the Vowing of Persons.

xxvii. 1-8.

"And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When a man shall accomplish a vow, 543 the persons shall be for the Lord by thy estimation. And thy estimation shall be of the male from twenty years old even unto sixty years old, even thy estimation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. And if it be a female, then thy estimation shall be thirty shekels. And if it be from five years old even unto twenty years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male twenty shekels, and for the female ten shekels. And if it be from a month old even unto five years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male five shekels of silver, and for the female thy estimation shall be three shekels of silver. And if it be from sixty years old and upward; if it be a male, then thy estimation shall be fifteen shekels, and for the female ten shekels. But if he be poorer than thy estimation, then he shall be set before the priest, and the priest shall value him; according to the ability of him that vowed shall the priest value him."

First, we have the law (vv. 2-8) concerning the vowing of persons. In this case it does not appear that it was intended that the personal vow should be fulfilled by the actual devotement of the service of the person to the sanctuary. For such service abundant provision was made by the separation of the Levites, and it can hardly be imagined that under ordinary conditions it would be possible to find special occupation about the sanctuary for all who might be prompted thus to dedicate themselves by a vow to the Lord. Moreover, apart from this, we read here of the vowing to the Lord of young children, from five years of age down to one month, from whom tabernacle service is not to be thought of.

The vow which dedicated the person to the Lord was therefore usually discharged by the simple expedient of a commutation price to be paid into the treasury of the sanctuary, as the symbolic equivalent of the value of his self-dedication. The persons thus consecrated are said to be "for the Lord," and this fact was to be recognised and their special dedication to 544 Him discharged by the payment of a certain sum of money. The amount to be paid in each instance is fixed by the law before us, with an evident reference to the labour value of the person thus given to the Lord in the vow, as determined by two factors—the sex and the age. Inasmuch as the woman is inferior in strength to the man, she is rated lower than he is. As affected by age, persons vowed are distributed into four classes: the lowest, from one month up to five years; the second, from five years to twenty; the third, from twenty to sixty; the fourth, from sixty years of age and upwards.

The law takes first (vv. 3, 4) the case of persons in the prime of their working powers, from twenty to sixty years old, for whom the highest commutation rate is fixed; namely, fifty shekels for the male and thirty for a female, "after the shekel of the sanctuary," i.e., of full standard weight. If younger than this, obviously the labour value of the persons service would be less; it is therefore fixed (ver. 5) at twenty shekels for the male and ten for the female, if the age be from five to twenty; and if the person be over sixty, then (ver. 7), as the feebleness of age is coming on, the rate is fifteen shekels for the male and ten for the female.5656These commutation rates are so low that it is plain that they could not have represented the actual value of the individual's labour. The highest sum which is named—fifty shekels—as the rate for a man from twenty to sixty years of age, taking the shekel as 2s. 3·37d., or $·5474, would only amount to £5 14s. 0¾d., or $27·375. Even from this alone it is clear that, as stated above, the chief reference in these figures must have been symbolic of a claim of God upon the person, graded according to his capacity for service. In the case of a child from one month to five years old, the rate is fixed (ver. 6) at five, or, in a female, then at three shekels. In this last case it will be 545 observed that the rate for the male is the same as that appointed (Numb. xviii. 15, 16) for the redemption of the firstborn, "from a month old," in all cases. As in that ordinance, so here, the payment was merely a symbolic recognition of the special claim of God on the person, without any reference to a labour value.

But although the sum was so small that even at the most it could not nearly represent the actual value of the labour of such as were able to labour, yet one can see that cases might occur when a man might be moved to make such a vow of dedication of himself or of a child to the Lord, while he was yet too poor to pay even such a small amount. Hence the kindly provision (ver. 8) that if any person be poorer than this estimation, he shall not therefore be excluded from the privilege of self-dedication to the Lord, but "he shall be set before the priest, and the priest shall value him; according to the ability of him that vowed shall the priest value him."

Of the Vowing of Domestic Animals.

xxvii. 9-13.

"And if it be a beast, whereof men offer an oblation unto the Lord, all that any man giveth of such unto the Lord shall be holy. He shall not alter it, nor change it, a good for a bad, or a bad for a good: and if he shall at all change beast for beast, then both it and that for which it is changed shall be holy. And if it be any unclean beast, of which they do not offer an oblation unto the Lord, then he shall set the beast before the priest: and the priest shall value it, whether it be good or bad: as thou the priest valuest it, so shall it be. But if he will indeed redeem it, then he shall add the fifth part thereof unto thy estimation."

This next section concerns the vowing to the Lord of domestic animals (vv. 9-13). If the animal thus dedicated to the Lord were such as could be used in sacrifice, 546 then the animal itself was taken for the sanctuary service, and the vow was unalterable and irrevocable. If, however, the animal vowed was "any unclean beast," then the priest (ver. 12) was to set a price upon it, according to its value; for which, we may infer, it was to be sold and the proceeds devoted to the sanctuary.

In this case, the person who had vowed the animal was allowed to redeem it to himself again (ver. 13) by payment of this estimated price and one-fifth additional, a provision which was evidently intended to be of the nature of a fine, and to be a check upon the making of rash vows.

Of the Vowing of Houses and Fields.

xxvii. 14-25.

"And when a man shall sanctify his house to be holy unto the Lord, then the priest shall estimate it, whether it be good or bad: as the priest shall estimate it, so shall it stand. And if he that sanctified it will redeem his house, then he shall add the fifth part of the money of thy estimation unto it, and it shall be his. And if a man shall sanctify unto the Lord part of the field of his possession, then thy estimation shall be according to the sowing thereof: the sowing of a homer of barley shall be valued at fifty shekels of silver. If he sanctify his field from the year of jubilee, according to thy estimation it shall stand. But if he sanctify his field after the jubilee, then the priest shall reckon unto him the money according to the years that remain unto the year of jubilee, and an abatement shall be made from thy estimation. And if he that sanctified the field will indeed redeem it, then he shall add the fifth part of the money of thy estimation unto it, and it shall be assured to him. And if he will not redeem the field, or if he have sold the field to another man, it shall not be redeemed any more: but the field, when it goeth out in the jubilee, shall be holy unto the Lord, as a field devoted; the possession thereof shall be the priest's. And if he sanctify unto the Lord a field which he hath bought, which is not of the field of his possession; then the priest shall reckon unto him the worth of thy estimation unto the year of jubilee: and he shall give thine estimation in that day, as a 547 holy thing unto the Lord. In the year of jubilee the field shall return unto him of whom it was bought, even to him to whom the possession of the land belongeth. And all thy estimations shall be according to the shekel of the sanctuary: twenty gerahs shall be the shekel."

The law regarding the consecration of a man's house unto the Lord by a vow (vv. 14, 15) is very simple. The priest is to estimate its value, without right of appeal. Apparently, the man might still live in it, if he desired, but only as one living in a house belonging to another; presumably, a rental was to be paid, on the basis of the priest's estimation of value, into the sanctuary treasury. If the man wished again to redeem it, then, as in the case of the beast that was vowed, he must pay into the treasury the estimated value of the house, with the addition of one-fifth.

In the case of the "sanctifying" or dedication of a field by a special vow two cases might arise, which are dealt with in succession. The first case (vv. 16-21) was the dedication to the Lord of a field which belonged to the Israelite by inheritance; the second (vv. 22-24), that of one which had come to him by purchase. In the former case, the priest was to fix a price upon the field on the basis of fifty shekels for so much land as would be sown with a homer—about eight bushels—of barley. In case the dedication took effect from the year of jubilee, this full price was to be paid into the Lord's treasury for the field; but if from a later year in the cycle, then the rate was to be diminished in proportion to the number of years of the jubilee period which might have already passed at the date of the vow. Inasmuch as in the case of a field which had been purchased, it was ordered that the price of the estimation should be paid down to the priest "in that day" (ver. 23) in which the appraisal 548 was made, it would appear as if, in the present case, the man was allowed to pay it annually, a shekel for each year of the jubilee period, or by instalments otherwise, as he might choose, as a periodic recognition of the special claim of the Lord upon that field, in consequence of his vow. Redemption of the field from the obligation of the vow was permitted under the condition of the fifth added to the priest's estimation, e.g. on the payment of sixty instead of fifty shekels (ver. 19).

If, however, without having thus redeemed the field, the man who vowed should sell it to another man, it is ordered that the field, which otherwise would revert to him again in full right of usufruct when the jubilee year came round, should be forfeited; so that when the jubilee came the exclusive right of the field would henceforth belong to the priest, as in the case of a field devoted by the ban. The intention of this regulation is evidently penal; for the field, during the time covered by the vow, was in a special sense the Lord's; and the man had the use of it for himself only upon condition of a certain annual payment; to sell it, therefore, during that time, was, in fact, from the legal point of view, to sell property, absolute right in which he had by his vow renounced in favour of the Lord.

The case of the dedication in a vow of a field belonging to a man, not as a paternal inheritance, but by purchase (vv. 22-24), only differed from the former in that, as already remarked, immediate payment in full of the sum at which it was estimated was made obligatory; when the jubilee year came, the field reverted to the original owner, according to the law (xxv. 28). The reason for thus insisting on full 549 immediate payment, in the case of the dedication of a field acquired by purchase, is plain, when we refer to the law (xxv. 25), according to which the original owner had the right of redemption guaranteed to him at any time before the jubilee. If, in the case of such a dedicated field, any part of the amount due to the sanctuary were still unpaid, obviously this, as a lien upon the land, would stand in the way of such redemption. The regulation of immediate payment is therefore intended to protect the original owner's right to redeem the field.

Ver. 25 lays down the general principle that in all these estimations and commutations the shekel must be "the shekel of the sanctuary," twenty gerahs to the shekel;—words which are not to be understood as pointing to the existence of two distinct shekels as current, but simply as meaning that the shekel must be of full weight, such as only could pass current in transactions with the sanctuary.

The "Vow" in New Testament Ethics.

Not without importance is the question whether the vow, as brought before us here, in the sense of a voluntary promise to God of something not due to Him by the law, has, of right, a place in New Testament ethics and practical life. It is to be observed in approaching this question, that the Mosaic law here simply deals with a religious custom which it found prevailing, and while it gives it a certain tacit sanction, yet neither here or elsewhere ever recommends the practice; nor does the whole Old Testament represent God as influenced by such a voluntary promise, to do something which otherwise He would not have done. At the same time, inasmuch as the religious impulse which 550 prompts to the vow, howsoever liable to lead to an abuse of the practice, may be in itself right, Moses takes the matter in hand, as in this chapter and elsewhere, and deals with it simply in an educational way. If a man will vow, while it is not forbidden, he is elsewhere (Deut. xxii. 22) reminded that there is no special merit in it; if he forbear, he is no worse a man.

Further, the evident purpose of these regulations is to teach that, whereas it must in the nature of the case be a very serious thing to enter into a voluntary engagement of anything to the holy God, it is not to be done hastily and rashly; hence a check is put upon such inconsiderate promising, by the refusal of the law to release from the voluntary obligation, in some cases, upon any terms; and by its refusal, in any case, to release except under the condition of a very material fine for breach of promise. It was thus taught clearly that if men made promises to God, they must keep them. The spirit of these regulations has been precisely expressed by the Preacher (Eccl. v. 5, 6): "Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the messenger [of God],5757So certainly should we render instead of "angel," in accordance with the suggestion of the margin (R.V.). The reference is to the priest, as Mal. ii. 7 makes very clear: "He [the priest] is the messenger of the Lord." that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?" Finally, in the careful guarding of the practice by the penalty attached also to change or substitution in a thing vowed, or to selling that which had been vowed to God, as if it were one's own; and, last of all, by 551 insisting that the full-weight shekel of the sanctuary should be made the standard in all the appraisals involved in the vow,—the law kept steadily and uncompromisingly before the conscience the absolute necessity of being strictly honest with God.

But in all this there is nothing which necessarily passes over to the new dispensation, except the moral principles which are assumed in these regulations. A hasty promise to God, in an inconsiderate spirit, even of that which ought to be freely promised Him, is sin, as much now as then; and, still more, the breaking of any promise to Him when once made. So we may take hence to ourselves the lesson of absolute honesty in all our dealing with God,—a lesson not less needed now than then.

Yet this does not touch the central question: Has the vow, in the sense above defined—namely, the promise to God of something not due to Him in the law—a place in New Testament ethics? It is true that it is nowhere forbidden; but as little is it approved. The reference of our Lord (Matt. xv. 5, 6) to the abuse of the vow by the Pharisees to justify neglect of parental claims does not imply the propriety of vows at present; for the old dispensation was then still in force. The vows of Paul (Acts xviii. 18; xxi. 24-26) apparently refer to the vow of a Nazarite, and in no case present a binding example for us, inasmuch as they are but illustrations of his frequent conformity to Jewish usages in things involving no sin, in which he became a Jew that he might gain the Jews. On the other hand, the New Testament conception of Christian life and duty seems clearly to leave no room for a voluntary promise to God of what is not due, seeing that, through the transcendent obligation of grateful love to the Lord 552 for His redeeming love, there is no possible degree of devotement of self or of one's substance which could be regarded as not already God's due. "He died for all, that they which live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto Him who for their sakes died and rose again." The vow, in the sense brought before us in this chapter, is essentially correlated to a legal system such as the Mosaic, in which dues to God are prescribed by rule. In New Testament ethics, as distinguished from those of the Old, we must therefore conclude that for the vow there is no logical place.

The question is not merely speculative and unpractical. In fact, we here come upon one of the fundamental points of difference between Romish and Protestant ethics. For it is the Romish doctrine that, besides such works as are essential to a state of salvation, which are by God made obligatory upon all, there are other works which, as Rome regards the matter, are not commanded, but are only made matters of Divine counsel, in order to the attainment, by means of their observance, of a higher type of Christian life. Such works as these, unlike the former class, because not of universal obligation, may properly be made the subject of a vow. These are, especially, the voluntary renunciation of all property, abstinence from marriage, and the monastic life. But this distinction of precepts and counsels, and the theory of vows, and of works of supererogation, which Rome has based upon it, all Protestants have with one consent rejected, and that with abundant reason. For not only do we fail to find any justification for these views in the New Testament, but the history of the Church has shown, with what should be convincing clearness, that, howsoever we may gladly recognise in the monastic communities of 553 Rome, in all ages, men and women living under special vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity, whose purity of life and motive, and sincere devotion to the Lord, cannot be justly called in question, it is none the less clear that, on the whole, the tendency of the system has been toward either legalism on the one hand, or a sad licentiousness of life on the other. In this matter of vows, as in so many things, it has been the fatal error of the Roman Church that, under the cover of a supposed Old Testament warrant, she has returned to "the weak and beggarly elements" which, according to the New Testament, have only a temporary use in the earliest childhood of religious life.

Exclusions from the Vow.

xxvii. 26-33.

"Only the firstling among beasts, which is made a firstling to the Lord, no man shall sanctify it; whether it be ox or sheep, it is the Lord's. And if it be of an unclean beast, then he shall ransom it according to thine estimation, and shall add unto it the fifth part thereof: or if it be not redeemed, then it shall be sold according to thy estimation. Notwithstanding, no devoted thing, that a man shall devote unto the Lord of all that he hath, whether of man or beast, or of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed: every devoted thing is most holy unto the Lord. None devoted, which shall be devoted of men, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death. And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord's: it is holy unto the Lord. And if a man will redeem aught of his tithe, he shall add unto it the fifth part thereof. And all the tithe of the herd or the flock, whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord. He shall not search whether it be good or bad, neither shall he change it: and if he change it at all, then both it and that for which it is changed shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed."

The remaining verses of this chapter specify three classes of property which could not be dedicated by a special vow, namely, "the firstling among beasts" (ver. 554 26); any "devoted thing" (vv. 28, 29), i.e., anything which had been devoted to the Lord by the ban—as, e.g., all the persons and property in the city of Jericho by Joshua (vii. 17); and, lastly, "the tithe of the land" (ver. 30). The reason for prohibiting the vowing of any of these is in every case one and the same; either by the law or by a previous personal act they already belonged to the Lord. To devote them in a vow would therefore be to vow to the Lord that over which one had no right. As for the firstborn, the Lord had declared His everlasting claim on these at the time of the Exodus (Exod. xiii. 12-15); to vow to give the Lord His own, had been absurd. To the law previously given, however, concerning the firstling of unclean beasts (Exod. xiii. 13), it is here added that, if a man wish to redeem such a firstling, the same law shall apply as in the redemption of what has been vowed; namely, the priest was to appraise it, and then the man whose it had been might redeem it by the payment of the amount thus fixed, increased by one-fifth.

The Law of the Ban.

xxvii. 28, 29.

"Notwithstanding, no devoted thing, that a man shall devote unto the Lord of all that he hath, whether of man or beast, or of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed: every devoted thing is most holy unto the Lord. None devoted, which shall be devoted of men, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death."

Neither could any "devoted thing" be given to the Lord by a vow, and for the same reason—that it belonged to Him already. But it is added that, unlike that which has been vowed, the Lord's firstlings and the tithes, that which has been devoted may neither be sold nor redeemed. If it be a person which is thus 555 "devoted," "he shall surely be put to death" (ver. 29). The reason of this law is found in the nature of the herem or ban. It devoted to the Lord only such persons and things as were in a condition of irreformable hostility and irreconcilable antagonism to the kingdom of God. By the ban such were turned over to God, in order to the total nullification of their power for evil; by destroying whatever was capable of destruction, as the persons and all living things that belonged to them; and by devoting to the Lord's service in the sanctuary and priesthood such of their property as, like silver, gold, and land, was in its nature incapable of destruction. In such devoted persons or things no man therefore was allowed to assert any personal claim or interest, such as the right of sale or of redemption would imply. Elsewhere the Israelite is forbidden even to desire the silver or gold that was on the idols in devoted cities (Deut. vii. 25), or to bring it into his house or tent, on penalty of being himself banned or devoted like them; a threat which was carried out in the case of Achan (Josh. vii.), who, for appropriating a wedge of gold and a garment which had been devoted, according to the law here and elsewhere declared, was summarily put to death.

This is not the place to enter fully into a discussion of the very grave questions which arise in connection with this law of the ban, in which it is ordered that "none devoted," "whether of man or beast," "shall be ransomed," but "shall be surely put to death." The most familiar instance of its application is furnished by the case of the Canaanitish cities, which Joshua, in accordance with this law of Lev. xxvii. 28, 29, utterly destroyed, with their inhabitants and every living thing that was in them. There are many sincere believers 556 in Christ who find it almost impossible to believe that it can be true that God commanded such a slaughter as this; and the difficulty well deserves a brief consideration. It may not indeed be possible wholly to remove it from every mind; but one may well call attention, in connection with these verses, to certain considerations which should at least suffice very greatly to relieve its stress.

In the first place, it is imperative to remember that, if we accept the teaching of Scripture, we have before us in this history, not the government of man, but the government of God, a true theocracy. Now it is obvious that if even fallible men may be rightly granted power to condemn men to death, for the sake of the public good, much more must this right be conceded, and that without any limitation, to the infinitely righteous and infallible King of kings, if, in accord with the Scripture declarations, He was, literally and really, the political Head (if we may be allowed the expression) of the Israelitish nation. Further, if this absolute right of God in matters of life and death be admitted, as it must be, it is plain that He may rightly delegate the execution of His decrees to human agents. If this right is granted to one of our fellow-men, as to a king or a magistrate, much more to God.

Granting that the theocratic government of Israel was a historical fact, the only question then remaining as to the right of the ban, concerns the justice of its application in particular cases. With regard to this, we may concede that it was quite possible that men might sometimes apply this law without Divine authority; but we are not required to defend such cases, if any be shown, any more than to excuse the infliction of capital punishment in America sometimes by lynch 557 law. These cases furnish no argument against its infliction after due legal process, and by legitimate governmental authority. As to the terrible execution of this law of the ban, in the destruction of the inhabitants of the Canaanitish cities, if the fact of the theocratic authority be granted, it is not so difficult to justify this as some have imagined. Nor, conversely, when the actual facts are thoroughly known, can the truth of the statement of the Scripture that God commanded this terrible destruction, be regarded as irreconcilable with those moral perfections which Scripture and reason alike attribute to the Supreme Being.

The researches and discoveries of recent years have let in a flood of light upon the state of society prevailing among those Canaanitish tribes at the date of their destruction; and they warrant us in saying that in the whole history of our race it would be hard to point to any civilized community which has sunken to such a depth of wickedness and moral pollution. As we have already seen, the book of Leviticus gives many dark hints of unnamable horrors among the Canaanitish races: the fearful cruelties of the worship of Molech, and the unmentionable impurities of the cult of Ashtoreth; the prohibition among some of these of female chastity, requiring that all be morally sacrificed5858On this subject, among other authorities, see Ebrard, "Apologetik," 2 Theil, pp. 167-90, especially p. 173. —one cannot go into these things. And when now we read in Holy Scripture that the infinitely pure, holy, and righteous God commanded that these utterly depraved and abandoned communities should be extirpated from the face of the earth, is it, after all, so hard to believe that this should be true? Nay, may we not rather with abundant reason say that it would have been far 558 more difficult to reconcile with the character of God, if He had suffered them any longer to exist?

Nor have we yet fully stated the case. For we must, in addition, recall the fact that these corrupt communities, which by this law of the ban were devoted to utter destruction, were in no out-of-the-way corner of the world, but on one of its chief highways. The Phœnicians, for instance, more than any people of that time, were the navigators and travellers of the age; so that from Canaan as a centre this horrible moral pestilence was inevitably carried by them hither and thither, a worse than the "black death," to the very extremities of the known world. Have we then so certainly good reason to call in question the righteousness of the law which here ordains that no person thus devoted should be ransomed, but be surely put to death? Rather are we inclined to see in this law of the theocratic kingdom, and its execution in Canaan—so often held up as an illustration of the awful cruelty of the old theocratic régime—not only a conspicuous vindication of the righteousness and justice of God, but a no less illustrious manifestation of His mercy;—of His mercy, not merely to Israel, but to the whole human race of that age, who because of this deadly infection of moral evil had otherwise again everywhere sunk to such unimaginable depths of depravity as to have required a second flood for the cleansing of the world. This certainly was the way in which the Psalmist regarded it, when (Psalm cxxxvi. 17-22) he praised Jehovah as One who "smote great kings, and slew famous kings, and gave their land for an heritage, even an heritage unto Israel His servant: for HIS MERCY endureth for ever;" a thought which is again more formally expressed (Psalm lxii. 12) in the words: "Unto 559 Thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for Thou renderest to every man according to his work."

Nor can we leave this law of the ban without noting the very solemn suggestion which it contains that there may be in the universe persons who, despite the great redemption, are morally irredeemable, hopelessly obdurate; for whom, under the government of a God infinitely righteous and merciful, nothing remains but the execution of the ban—the "eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. xxv. 41); "a fierceness of fire which shall devour the adversaries" (Heb. x. 27). And this, not merely although, but BECAUSE God's "mercy endureth for ever."

The Law of the Tithe.

xxvi. 30-33.

"And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord's: it is holy unto the Lord. And if a man will redeem aught of his tithe, he shall add unto it the fifth part thereof. And all the tithe of the herd or the flock, whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord. He shall not search whether it be good or bad, neither shall he change it: and if he change it at all, then both it and that for which it is changed shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed."

Last of all these exclusions from the vow is mentioned the tithe. "Whether of the seed of the land, or of the herd, or of the flock," it is declared to be "holy unto the Lord;" "it is the Lord's." That because of this it cannot be given to the Lord by a special vow, although not formally stated, is self-evident. No man can give away what belongs to another, or give God what He has already. In Numb. xviii. 21 it is said that this tenth should be given "unto the children of Levi ... for the service of the tent of meeting."

Most extraordinary is the contention of Wellhausen 560 and others, that since in Deuteronomy no tithe is mentioned other than of the product of the land, therefore, because of the mention here also of a tithe of the herd and the flock, we must infer that we have here a late interpolation into the "priest-code," marking a time when now the exactions of the priestly caste had been extended to the utmost limit. This is not the place to go into the question of the relation of the law of Deuteronomy to that which we have here; but we should rather, with Dillmann,5959See "Die Bücher Exodus und Leviticus," pp. 635-638. from the same premisses argue the exact opposite, namely, that we have here the very earliest form of the tithe law. For that an ordinance so extending the rights of the priestly class should have been "smuggled" into the Sinaitic laws after the days of Nehemiah, as Wellhausen, Reuss, and Kuenen suppose, is simply "unthinkable;"6060See "Undenkbar;" so Dillmann, op. cit., p. 638. while, on the other hand, when we find already in Gen. xxviii. 22 Jacob promising unto the Lord the tenth of all that He should give him, at a time when he was living the life of a nomad herdsman, it is inconceivable that he should have meant "all, excepting the increase of the flocks and herds," which were his chief possession.

The truth is that the dedication of a tithe, in various forms, as an acknowledgment of dependence upon and reverence to God, is one of the most widely-spread and best-attested practices of the most remote antiquity. We read of it among the Romans, the Greeks, the ancient Pelasgians, the Carthaginians, and the Phœnicians; and in the Pentateuch, in full accord with all this, we find not only Jacob, as in the passage cited, but, at a yet earlier time, Abraham, more than four hundred years before Moses, giving tithes to Melchizedek. 561 The law, in the exact form in which we have it here, is therefore in perfect harmony with all that we know of the customs both of the Hebrews and surrounding peoples, from a time even much earlier than that of the Exodus.

Very naturally the reference to the tithe, as thus from of old belonging to the Lord, and therefore incapable of being vowed, gives occasion to other regulations respecting it. Like unclean animals, houses, and lands which had been vowed, so also the tithe, or any part of it, might be redeemed by the individual for his own use, upon payment of the usual mulct of one-fifth additional to its assessed value. So also it is further ordered, with special regard to the tithe of the herd and the flock, "that whatsoever passeth under the rod," i.e., whatever is counted, as the manner was, by being made to pass into or out of the fold under the herdsman's staff, "the tenth"—that is, every tenth animal as in its turn it comes—"shall be holy to the Lord." The owner was not to search whether the animal thus selected was good or bad, nor change it, so as to give the Lord a poorer animal, and keep a better one for himself; and if he broke this law, then, as in the case of the unclean beast vowed, as the penalty he was to forfeit to the sanctuary both the original and its attempted substitute, and also lose the right of redemption.

A very practical question emerges just here, as to the continued obligation of this law of the tithe. Although we hear nothing of the tithe in the first Christian centuries, it began to be advocated in the fourth century by Jerome, Augustine, and others, and, as is well known, the system of ecclesiastical tithing soon became established as the law of the Church. Although 562 the system by no means disappeared with the Reformation, but passed from the Roman into the Reformed Churches, yet the modern spirit has become more and more adverse to the mediæval system, till, with the progressive hostility in society to all connection of the Church and the State, and in the Church the development of a sometimes exaggerated voluntaryism, tithing as a system seems likely to disappear altogether, as it has already from the most of Christendom.

But in consequence of this, and the total severance of the Church from the State, in the United States and the Dominion of Canada, the necessity of securing adequate provision for the maintenance and extension of the Church, is more and more directing the attention of those concerned in the practical economics of the Church, to this venerable institution of the tithe as the solution of many difficulties. Among such there are many who, while quite opposed to any enforcement of a law of tithing for the benefit of the Church by the civil power, nevertheless earnestly maintain that the law of the tithe, as we have it here, is of permanent obligation and binding on the conscience of every Christian. What is the truth in the matter? In particular, what is the teaching of the New Testament?

In attempting to settle for ourselves this question, it is to be observed, in order to clear thinking on this subject, that in the law of the tithe as here declared there are two elements—the one moral, the other legal,—which should be carefully distinguished. First and fundamental is the principle that it is our duty to set apart to God a certain fixed proportion of our income. The other and—technically speaking—positive element in the law is that which declares that the proportion to be given to the Lord is precisely one-tenth. Now, 563 of these two, the first principle is distinctly recognised and reaffirmed in the New Testament as of continued validity in this dispensation; while, on the other hand, as to the precise proportion of our income to be thus set apart for the Lord, the New Testament writers are everywhere silent.

As regards the first principle, the Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, orders that "on the first day of the week"—the day of the primitive Christian worship—"every one" shall "lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him." He adds that he had given the same command also to the Churches of Galatia (1 Cor. xvi. 1, 2). This most clearly gives apostolic sanction to the fundamental principle of the tithe, namely, that a definite portion of our income should be set apart for God. While, on the other hand, neither in this connection, where a mention of the law of the tithe might naturally have been expected, if it had been still binding as to the letter, nor in any other place does either the Apostle Paul or any other New Testament writer intimate that the Levitical law, requiring the precise proportion of a tenth, was still in force;—a fact which is the more noteworthy that so much is said of the duty of Christian benevolence.

To this general statement with regard to the testimony of the New Testament on this subject, the words of our Lord to the Pharisees (Matt. xxiii. 23), regarding their tithing of "mint and anise and cummin"—"these ye ought to have done"—cannot be taken as an exception, or as proving that the law is binding for this dispensation; for the simple reason that the present dispensation had not at that time yet begun, and those to whom He spoke were still under the Levitical law, the authority of which He there reaffirms. From these 564 facts we conclude that the law of these verses, in so far as it requires the setting apart to God of a certain definite proportion of our income, is doubtless of continued and lasting obligation; but that, in so far as it requires from all alike the exact proportion of one-tenth, it is binding on the conscience no longer.

Nor is it difficult to see why the New Testament should not lay down this or any other precise proportion of giving to income, as a universal law. It is only according to the characteristic usage of the New Testament law to leave to the individual conscience very much regarding the details of worship and conduct, which under the Levitical law was regulated by specific rules; which the Apostle Paul explains (Gal. iv. 1-5) by reference to the fact that the earlier method was intended for and adapted to a lower and more immature stage of religious development; even as a child, during his minority, is kept under guardians and stewards, from whose authority, when he comes of age, he is free.

But, still further, it seems to be often forgotten by those who argue for the present and permanent obligation of this law, that it was here for the first time formally appointed by God as a binding law, in connection with a certain divinely instituted system of theocratic government, which, if carried out, would, as we have seen, effectively prevent excessive accumulations of wealth in the hands of individuals, and thus secure for the Israelites, in a degree the world has never seen, an equal distribution of property. In such a system it is evident that it would be possible to exact a certain fixed and definite proportion of income for sacred purposes, with the certainty that the requirement would work with perfect justice and fairness to all. 565 But with us, social and economic conditions are so very different, wealth is so very unequally distributed, that no such law as that of the tithe could be made to work otherwise than unequally and unfairly. To the very poor it must often be a heavy burden; to the very rich, a proportion so small as to be a practical exemption. While, for the former, the law, if insisted on, would sometimes require a poor man to take bread out of the mouth of wife and children, it would still leave the millionaire with thousands to spend on needless luxuries. The latter might often more easily give nine-tenths of his income than the former could give one-twentieth.

It is thus no surprising thing that the inspired men who laid the foundations of the New Testament Church did not reaffirm the law of the tithe as to the letter. And yet, on the other hand, let us not forget that the law of the tithe, as regards the moral element of the law, is still in force. It forbids the Christian to leave, as so often, the amount he will give for the Lord's work, to impulse and caprice. Statedly and conscientiously he is to "lay by him in store as the Lord hath prospered him." If any ask how much should the proportion be, one might say that by fair inference the tenth might safely be taken as an average minimum of giving, counting rich and poor together. But the New Testament (2 Cor. viii. 7, 9) answers after a different and most characteristic manner: "See that ye abound in this grace.... For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might become rich." Let there be but regular and systematic giving to the Lord's work, under the law of a fixed proportion of gifts to income, and under 566 the holy inspiration of this sacred remembrance of the grace of our Lord, and then the Lord's treasury will never be empty, nor the Lord be robbed of His tithe.

And so hereupon the book of Leviticus closes with the formal declaration—referring, no doubt, strictly speaking, to the regulations of this last chapter—that "these are the commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses for the children of Israel in mount Sinai." The words as explicitly assert Mosaic origin and authority for these last laws of the book, as the opening words asserted the same for the law of the offerings with which it begins. The significance of these repeated declarations respecting the origin and authority of the laws contained in this book has been repeatedly pointed out, and nothing further need be added here.

To sum up all:—what the Lord, in this book of Leviticus, has said, was not for Israel alone. The supreme lesson of this law is for men now, for the Church of the New Testament as well. For the individual and for the nation, HOLINESS, consisting in full consecration of body and soul to the Lord, and separation from all that defileth, is the Divine ideal, to the attainment of which Jew and Gentile alike are called. And the only way of its attainment is through the atoning Sacrifice, and the mediation of the High Priest appointed of God; and the only evidence of its attainment is a joyful obedience, hearty and unreserved, to all the commandments of God. For us all it stands written: "Ye shall be holy; for I, Jehovah, your God, am holy."


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