These you shall do for the L-rd on your appointed times, separately from your vows and your free-will offerings… – B’Midbar/Numbers 29:39
These words form the concluding paragraph of two chapters of detailed regulations for the sacrifices to be brought on each and every feast day throughout the Jewish calendar, including Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and all the intermediate days of Sukkot. Two words seem important: eleh, ‘these’, and levad, here ‘separately’ but also ‘apart from’ (Davidson). What are ‘these’ and why are they different from the vows and free-will offerings, not to mention the other offerings listed in the rest of the verse: “burnt offerings, grain offerings, drink offerings, or peace offerings” (B’Midbar 29:39b)? Rashi says that “‘these’ refers to the matter which has been fixed as an obligation”, drawing a distinction between offerings that must be brought and offerings that are strictly voluntary. Gunther Plaut suggests that the line is drawn between public and private rather than between obligatory and voluntary: ‘these’ means “communal obligations, regardless of any private sacrifices.” Hirsch seems to support the latter, reporting that “the offerings prescribed in this and the previous chapter are those offerings with which the nation as a whole approach HaShem in the festivals.” Hirsch feels that while private devotion does not reduce the community obligation, the festivals are occasions on which national unity and brotherhood are to the fore. Nevertheless, he continues, “the fresh impetus which the festivals give to the national relationship to G-d and the Sanctuary of His Torah is rather to benefit private life and its relationships to G-d.” The private flows from and is strengthened by the public.
On a more pragmatic basis, Rash advises that if you have “vows or free-will offerings which you have pledged during the entire year, offer them on the festival, lest it be difficult to ascend again to Jerusalem and to offer your vows and you be found in default: ‘When you make a vow to the L-RD your G-d, do not put off fulfilling it, for the L-RD your G-d will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt’ (D’varim 23:22, JPS)”. He describes this as “having a commandment in your hand”; it is right there, just waiting to be fulfilled. Do it now, so that you don’t miss doing it and so break your vow.
Later in his life, King David insisted – against the advice of his army commander – in conducting a census of Israel. The L-rd sent a plague against Israel and “70,000 of the people died between Dan and Be’er Sheva” (2 Samuel 24:15, CJB). David saw that the destroying angel had paused at the threshing floor of Araunah and the prophet Gad told him to build an altar there to the L-rd to stop the plague. When he arrived, Araunah offered to give the threshing floor, the wooden boards, his oxen and all their tackle to the king for the sacrifice, but David refused: “No, I will buy them from you at a price. I cannot sacrifice to the L-RD my G-d burnt offerings that have cost me nothing” (v. 24, JPS), and then paid fifty shekels of silver before offering the oxen as burnt offerings and peace offerings. This was an obligatory offering – Gad the prophet had brought the L-rd’s instructions – but it was a private offering, brought by David himself. David refused to give the L-rd something that had cost him nothing; whether public or private, obligatory or voluntary, the offering had to have real value.
A question that often arises among the followers of Yeshua is whether tithing is required and what happens about ‘extra’ voluntary gifts or offerings. If tithing is required, does it have to go to one place, such as a ‘home’ congregation, on a regular basis, or is it simply an amount of money to be distributed anywhere the individual feels ‘led’ each month or periodically? The Webb brothers, in their book “Beyond Tithes and Offerings”1 offer a typical non-tithing argument based on the principles that tithing is part of an agrarian economy rather than a money economy, that there is no temple and priestly system, and – perhaps most importantly for them – that Christians are free from the law. Notice, however, they do not suggest that giving either to the L-rd’s work at large or to support the local congregation is wrong. They argue that all giving should be voluntary and led by the Spirit, cheerfully and willingly, and that priority should not be given to the local congregation at the expense of the poor. Most particularly, they reject the terms ‘tithes’ and ‘offerings’ as denoting a required minimum and an optional extra level of giving for believers today. Although the Webbs are speaking to the specific context of finance, they redefine the meaning of many standard texts, over-turning both traditional Christian and Jewish understandings in order to proclaim a liberty that they think will actually increase the level of giving – that they call “grace giving” – within and from the Body of Messiah. By such redefinition to serve their particular agenda, they blur the Bible’s distinction between obligation and voluntary devotion.
Yeshua taught about the need to fulfil our basic obligations in the Parable of the Dutiful Servant: “Will any one of you who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'” (Luke 17:7-10, ESV). Darrell Bock comments that, “obedience is not be be accepted as a cause for merit but as a fulfillment of duty … the disciple has done what is required … the servant cannot pick and choose what to obey.”2 Yeshua explicitly uses the word ‘commanded’ – a word that closely connects with the Torah which contains G-d’s mitzvot, commandments – which is a significant word today as many believers lose sight of the fact that we, whether Jews or Gentiles, are a commanded people, subject to the commands of our Master. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai agrees: “If you have studied much Torah, do not claim merit for yourself, because for this you were created” (m. Pirkei Avot 2.8).
Rav Sha’ul also spoke about the basic obligations of a believer: “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Messiah, and stewards of the mysteries of G-d. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2, NASB). We are servants and stewards of Yeshua and there are requirements placed upon us; we are expected to behave in certain ways, live in accordance with Yeshua’s teaching and be trustworthy – fulfilling our calling faithfully at all times, not just when we think someone is looking. Sha’ul goes on to explain that when Yeshua returns, He will bring to light all the things done or hidden in darkness, disclosing everyone’s motives “and then each man’s praise will come to him from G-d” (v. 5, NASB). As Bock comments, “the servant serves dutifully and G-d offers thanks for faithful service.” While we do not – or, at least, should not – serve to receive a reward, nevertheless G-d will not ignore the service quietly and faithfully given. Yeshua commented on one such woman in the Temple: “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on” (Luke 21:3-4, NASB). It is not the absolute or monetary value of the gift, nor the meeting of a particular financial target (i.e. a tithe), but the act of giving something as a fulfillment of obligation rather than a quantity offered voluntarily from surplus.
Do we have a tendency to think that our ‘offerings’ – whether financial, service, goods, care, listening – are just extras, as and when we feel like it or feel particularly ‘moved’, or do we recognise that we have basic obligations as participants in the kingdom of G-d? Again, this is not about money and financial giving, although the principle applies to that, it is about the way we work our basic relationship with G-d and His people. Our text from the Torah speaks about the designated sacrifices to be made by the nation as a whole on the festival days throughout the calendar year. These sacrifices are to be made by and on behalf of the nation regardless of how many individual or voluntary offerings are also brought on any of those days. These sacrifices are to be offered by those persons responsible for the community sacrifices from community resources, regardless of their own sacrifices or resources on those or any other days.
We too need to recognise that there are basic obligations that each of us have as individuals before the L-rd: ways of serving Him, directly or by serving each other. These are not negotiable and must be carried out at the relevant times and places, regardless of our own devotional actions. Concurrently, the Body of Messiah also has basic obligations to serve the L-rd, in worship and praise, in corporate service of and giving to the poor. These are also not negotiable and must be actioned, no matter what else the Body is doing, thinks of or wants to do. We are a commanded people and there is an obligation!
1. – Michael L. Webb and Mitchell T. Webb, Beyond Tithes & Offerings, (Tacoma, WA: On Time Publishing, 1998)
2. – Darrell L. Bock, ECNT Luke 9:51-24:53, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996)
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 9:16-17; 1 Peter 4:7-11
Application: How do you fulfill your own basic obligations each day? How could you contribute to fulfilling the Body’s obligations to the L-rd?