We 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.
(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.