The Political Church: Meeting God in the Torah, Part 1

Church StateWe can’t really sort through how the church and Christians should relate to the government until we figure out who God is and what he wants from us. And one less-than-obvious place to learn this is the Law of Moses. Yes, really.

You see, it only makes sense that God would introduce himself to his people early in his scriptures — but we often assume we can ignore everything until the Gospels and still fully understand God. Not so.

Let’s start in Deuteronomy. The scene is the eastern side of the Jordan River and the Israelites are preparing to enter the Promised Land, conquer it, and possess it. And God has Moses assemble the people to confirm his covenant with his people. After all, Mt. Sinai and the original giving of the law was about 40 years in the past. Most of those present were now dead in the desert. The desert-born Israelites were either very young or not even born at the time.

(Deu 9:5-6 ESV) 5 “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

6 “Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.”

God is pretty frank with the Israelites: they don’t deserve the Promised Land. They are receiving it because of God’s promises to Abraham and because of the evil of the people God wants them to defeat. This is grace, but grace with an attitude. God is not naive. He sees us for who we are, and yet for his elect, he keeps his promises.

(Deu 10:12-13 ESV) 12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?”

(Deu 10:15-16 ESV)  15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.

In return, God expects his people to love and serve God and to keep his commandments. But even this command is for the good of the Israelites. God does not need their worship or the obedience. The commands are given for the good of the people.

And contrary to over a century of very bad teaching, under the Law of Moses, God expects the people to worship from the heart.

Notice the flow. The people are stubborn and undeserving. God gives them the Promised Land because of his covenant with Abraham, and calls on the people to “circumcise therefore the foreskin of [their] heart, and be no long stubborn.” God acts first, trusting the people to respond with changed hearts.

(Deu 10:17-19 ESV) 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

Now, having laid out their relationship — a relationship of grace — God explains who he is. God “is not partial and takes no bribe.” It sounds absurd to think of God taking a bribe! But it’s obvious why God says this. He expects the Israelite judges to be just like him!

God also announces his concern for the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner — and he reminds the Israelites they were once sojourners and so should love the sojourner.

“Sojourner” is often translated “alien,” and is often contrasted with “native born.” It refers to non-Jews who are either traveling in the land or residents of the land by permission (that is, not among the people to be conquered and destroyed). After all, the Israelites lived in Egypt as sojourners for centuries, not because they were temporary residents but because they weren’t Egyptians and didn’t have the rights of the native born. At this stage, it seems likely the sojourners with the Israelites were people who’d attached themselves to the Israelites for hire.

And so we have God re-introducing himself by announcing his concern for the fatherless, the widow, and sojourner — people who were the most vulnerable in that society. God’s love is not abstract. It’s especially directed toward those who need his help.

(Deu 11:18-21 ESV) 18 “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19 You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.”

God expects his law to be continually on the minds and lips of his people. Before he gets far into his commands, he specifies that the people are responsible for teaching their own children — teaching his ways in morning, throughout the day, and in the evening. God understands that children learn best from their own parents, and that lessons must be repeated many times to be effective.

God does not believe in compartmentalized lives. God’s law was not be about Sabbath-day study. It was to be discussed and thought about all day long every day.

The tithe

(Deu 14:22-26 ESV)  22 “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. 23 And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, 25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire–oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.”

Most modern Christians would be surprised to learn that the tithe was eaten in a fellowship meal “before the LORD your God” at the tabernacle. The tithe and the meal was to teach the Israelites to “fear the LORD your God always.” This not the usual sense of “fear,” is it? After all, in that culture, to eat in someone’s house — God’s house, in this case — was to come under his protection and hospitality.

Moreover, this was an agrarian society. Survival depended on a good crop each year. And so the surrounding tribes worshipped fertility god and goddesses in hopes of assuring a good harvest — even to the extent of sacrificing their babies.

God wanted his people to credit him with each harvest, and so they were to share a feast with God at his tabernacle, celebrating God’s bounty. Rather than having to beg and kill children for a good harvest, God’s system was to rejoice in the good harvest before God.

And God expected them to bring their wine with them and enjoy it in God’s presence — so they’d credit God with the blessings they receive from him. This certainly wasn’t to condone drunkenness or addiction, but rather reflects the Bible’s attitude toward wine and strong drink as blessings from God to be received with gladness and responsibility.

(Deu 14:28-29 ESV) 28 “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29 And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.”

But every third year, the tithe went to provide a feast for the Levites in their priestly duties, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. Where have we seen this list before? These are the very people God insists should receive “justice,” meaning food and clothing.

None of these people had land to farm. The Levite was given no land, so he could dedicate himself to tabernacle service. The sojourner or alien had no inheritance as a non-Israelite. Women didn’t inherit land (unless they had no brothers), and widows didn’t inherit from the husbands. The fatherless have no fathers from whom to inherit. Therefore, every third year, the community pooled their tithes so the landless could enjoy the fruit of the land and celebrate before God.

This was by any definition a social welfare system, with all people being required to pay goods into a common pool, which was distributed to those in need, based on need.

Normally, the tithe is set aside for sacrifice and for table fellowship with God, but one-third was set aside for those in need. This is “justice” in the eyes of God.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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22 Responses to The Political Church: Meeting God in the Torah, Part 1

  1. laymond says:

    amen, brother.

  2. Pastor Mike says:

    Perhaps I'm getting ahead of the discussion, but I have a question before we get to eager to apply the principle of social justice as you have suggested it to our political system today. In Deut., the nation and God's people were one in the same. In our world today, you would be hard pressed to make the same claim about the U.S. I'm therefore wondering how best to apply this, as I am uncomfortable with the idea that this suggests we should endorse and promote our country's current welfare system. Just curious as to where this is going.

  3. John says:

    Jay, wonderful Post. I'm always thankful for anyone who can take the Old Testement and make it relevent.

    Pastor Mike, are you saying that since the nation and God's people were the same, as opposed to not being the same now, that the fatherless, the widow and the alien are not the care of the state?
    If the military, public education, police protection for our cities, well paved streets and beautifully landscaped neighborhoods can be paid for by taxes, then every orphan, widow, and yes alien, who need help deserves every penny that Christians can persuade their elected officials to give.
    No, this does not relieve us of personal responsiblity. Remeber the Israelites were told not to harvest the edges of their fields; they were to be left for the poor. And if those fields were anywhere near the size of fields I grew up around, the owners could have made a lot of money with what simply grew around the edges.
    We cannot escape our resposibility to those who have not…nor should we want to.

  4. gt says:

    And we see where the welfare state has landed Greece, and soon, the rest of Europe. California is a microcosm of what to expect in the rest of the US.

  5. Jody B says:

    John, to further your statement, the teaching of the apostles and indeed Jesus himself does not give us the right to withhold our taxes based upon our belief that the system is rife with fraud and corruption on the part of the administrators and some of the benefactors of those funds. Although I'm adamantly opposed to the fraud which we all know takes place, and I vote for those who I think will best control it, I simply must submit to that teaching.

  6. Alabama John says:

    If a man won't work, neither should he eat!

    Too many healthy not working.

    Too many can't afford to work for the low wages they would get as it would cut off their welfare benefits, aid to dependent children, medical and dental care, food stamps, etc. So, they cannot work and support their families as well as the government will, That's the real problem.

  7. Pastor Mike says:

    It seems I may have struck a bit of a nerve.

    John,
    As you can see there is sentiment among His people that simply aupporting the government programs is not necessarily a good solution. It does appear that a percentage of the those receiving beneftis are being, or have been made dependent on the "system." Jesus said that the poor will always be with us, and it does seem clear that there will always be those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to support themselves. Still, I would argue that the church is nearly always going to do a better job than a government because of the relational aspect of the charity (at least in an ideal situation.)
    I am reminded of the cycle of the "body poitic" that goes something like this.
    Bondage -> Revival -> Liberty -> Industry -> Complacency -> Dependency -> Bondage. I can't remember the source right now, and I may not have it complete correct, but if we are not careful, our best intentions can create a larger problem than someone who needs help.
    Like I said earlier, I'm anxious to see where this series is going.
    Pastor Mike

  8. Pastor Mike says:

    As I reread my most recent post, I am reminded again of the dangers of posting while needing sleep. Sorry about the misspellings and other typos.

  9. Terry says:

    Is there a distinction in the Hebrew between "alien" and "sojourner"? I read somewhere that there are 2 different words in Hebrew that we sometimes confuse in English, but I'm not familiar with the words or their possibly nuanced meanings.

  10. gt says:

    "When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that justifies it."

    Frederic Bastiat

  11. Alan says:

    But every third year, the tithe went to provide a feast for the Levites in their priestly duties, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. Where have we seen this list before? These are the very people God insists should receive “justice,” meaning food and clothing.

    1) This has nothing to do with justice. Helping the poor and needy is mercy, not justice.

    2) Every third year they brought a tithe for the Levites and the poor. That averages out to 1/3 of 1/10 of a person's annual produce — 3.3%. A majority of that would have been for the Levites — after all, they are one whole tribe out of twelve. And so maybe the poor got 1% of the annual produce of Israel, every third year. That's a far cry from a social welfare system.

  12. Pastor Mike says:

    I suspect the point is not mathmatical accuracy, but grace toward all, including the foreigner and downtrodden.

  13. Pingback: The Political Church: Some quick thoughts on welfare « One In Jesus.info

  14. Terry says:

    I was mistaken about the 2 words in Hebrew. I found the source of my question from a book review I read last summer. They should be "alien" and "foreigner" according to a book review at http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/….

  15. John says:

    There is the tendency of most political and religious conservatives to view the poor of the past, especially in the Biblical past, as the real poor, while thinking of the current poor as those who just don't want to work.
    But the poor are the poor, and most of them will never think, look, act, or produce proof of authenticity the way many think they should. Jesus never required them to. And yes, they are always with us, needing us to do what we can do, even through taxes, the same taxes that benefit those of us who live in comfort.

  16. Alabama John says:

    I like the example I heard about this sunday. There is a church in, I think Fairfield, Tennessee that is the communities collection place for items to be brought from all other churches and beliefs to be given to those flooded out.

    A church of Christ as the leader in a whole community cooperation effort!

    What a wonderful change from the 4 hour only use of the church building.

    Things are cnanging in the church of Christ and how I applaud them.

  17. Todd Collier says:

    Wow we were having this argument over breakfast this morning. Let's be real. The modern welfare state exists because the local church would not and still does not meet its responsibilities to the poor in the community. Our religious father's stood by and allowed the state to assume our responsibilities glad to have washed our hands of a "bottomless pit" and now able to turn our funds to the more important business of spreading the Gospel (by increasing our real estate holdings, buildings, publications, et al.) Don't whine and complain and wag your fingers about how wrong it all is when our own laziness has created this mess. Which of our congregations proclaiming our freedom from the tithe and celebrating our great blessings in Christ now consistently gives 11% instead?

    Hypocrites!

    Unless you feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the sick and those in prison, take care of widows and orphans and aliens you have no part of Christ. How can you not see that? How can you ignore so much scripture?

    We have allowed so much of our politics to poison our faith. The system indeed needs to be changed, but you must still love your neighbor. The system indeed needs to be changed, but don't expect it to change until we are willing to stand up (or rather bend down) and take up the wash basin and the towel.

    This is the religion God approves…

  18. Tim Archer says:

    I'm just amazed you were able to throw in a textually correct comment on alcohol and not get any flak for it!

    🙂

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  19. Alabama John says:

    Tim

    Nothing to disagree about.

    All the folks here in the mountains and those in NC and TENN that I know all agree that their stills and the products produced are blessed by God.

  20. nick gill says:

    This has nothing to do with justice. Helping the poor and needy is mercy, not justice.

    Absolutely mistaken. Mercy is not doing the harsh thing you could do. Justice is taking action to set something right. They're two facets of the mission of God, but to do justice is to act to set things right, and poverty and death and sin are wrong. Setting them right is fundamental to both God's justice and mercy.

  21. Alabama John says:

    Helping the poor is not the churchs responsibility, it is the individual christians.

    WE as individuals should do what we can to stop or ease suffering whether they are poor or not.

    Too many times as it has been said we depend on the government and should ask ourselves What am I doing to help?

    I don't mean dropping a contribution in the collection plate either, but, actually doing something.

    How many times have we seen people turned away from a church of Christ building because they were not members there or members of the Lords Church. If the church doesn't think it should help, then at least call some members so they individually can.

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