Should You Tithe Based on Persian Era Imperial Policies?
This church bulletin comes with a loophole for those who don’t like tithing very much:
Apparently: Tithing math is hard!
While this bulletin made me laugh it also got me thinking about a bigger issue: should texts authored in the political, religious, and societal upheaval of Persian era Yehud be normative for persons today?
I guess we should start by explaining Yehud, and the socio-historical context of Malachi:
Yehud Medinata (Aramaic for “the province of Judah”), Yahud Medin’ta/Yahud Medinsa, or simply Yehud, was a province of the Achaemenid (ancient Persia) empire, roughly equivalent to the older kingdom of Judah but covering a smaller area, within the satrapy of Eber-Nari. The region corresponded to the Babylonian province with the same name, formed after the fall of the kingdom of Judah to the Neo-Babylonian Empire (c.597 after its conquest of the Mediterranean east coast, and again in 585/6 BCE after suppressing an unsuccessful Judean revolt). [LINK]
It is in this period that many of the books of the Hebrew Bible were written. And it is this socio-historical context that sheds light on the function of these texts within the communities that used them.
Malachi, quoted above to substantiate modern tithing practices, was written in the Persian period, which was an era of extreme change in Abar Nahara and Yehud. Self-interested Persian policies changed with the different emperors, and only those who were sympathetic with the Persian overlords were allowed to govern in the provinces. This included Yehud and the building of a Temple in Jerusalem to stimulate the economy and collect larger taxes for the Persians. However, during this period there were also Persian emperors that removed Temple funding from their foreign policies significantly stressing the infrastructure of such an establishment. It is during one of these lean periods for the Temple authorities that I imagine “prophecies” like Malachi’s developed.
In Yehud there were prosperous times of direct imperial intervention (very likely heightened during conflicts in Egypt), but also periods of little Persian influence; there were times of imperial funding for building projects (money coming in and out), but also times of heavy taxation (money going out).
Persia preferred to rule its provinces, including Yehud, through governors, and possibly religious leaders. In Yehud, those with ethnic ties to the land were sent back with imperial power to implement imperial policies which were favourable to the empire. Generally then, in the texts the elite of Yehud authored, we find positive references to their Persian overlords (Cyrus is even referred to as meshiach, Isa 45:1). However, the point of this system of rule was to profit the empire, therefore, even in the ‘memoirs’ of the Persian appointed governor Nehemiah we find a reflection of the memory of oppressive imperial taxes where supposedly some even lost their homes and children to pay their taxes (Neh 5:1-5).
In addition, Yehud very likely experienced significant social, ethnic, and religious upheaval. Social upheaval, generated by the return of a group of persons with ties to the land who were empowered to govern; ethnic upheaval, from a possible program of endogamy; and religious upheaval, by a new single temple religion.
The function of texts such as Genesis, Malachi, or Nehemiah then, is an attempt to normalize and authenticate the new social circumstances most of the society found themselves in by appealing to paradigmatic situations from the past and recontextualizing them for their present state of affairs.
Persian imperial policy created an environment of conflict in Yehud between the “people of the land” and the societal elite empowered to implement imperial policies. The changing environment in Jerusalem can be demonstrated with a brief review of the first five Persian emperors. (For more extensive reading materials on Persian Yehud there are further resources in the footnotes below)
The first emperor, Cyrus, the ‘anointed’ one, made some sort of allowance for those with ethnic roots in the province of Yehud to return to their homeland. This decision arose from Cyrus beginning a program of economic intensification and expansion in the empire.
As opposed to the Babylonians before him who centralized their government, Cyrus attempted to expand his kingdom’s borders and strengthen the periphery. Very likely, upon Cyrus’ initial decree there were very few returnees, and the changes in Yehud were gradual; however it is presumable that there was some social conflict between the returnees and those who remained in the land. Ultimately, Cyrus’ goal in allowing those with ethnic ties return to Yehud was increased economic prosperity for the empire.
Cyrus’ son Cambyses followed him to the throne, and mostly followed his father’s economic and imperial program. Cambyses had little effect in Yehud beyond raising taxes to fund his wars against the Egyptians. The lack of imperial interest during this period in the tiny colony, “offered an opportunity for slow, steady change throughout Yehud, probably including the assimilation of the immigrants.”
Upon the death of Cambyses a new type of ruler ascended to the throne from the Achaemenid family, Darius, whose extended rule had significant impact on the empire and in Yehud. There were three important innovations of Darius that impacted the province of Yehud.
First, Darius reorganized the empire’s satrapies, and Yehud became a subprovince in the satrapy of Abar Nahahra (Beyond the River) which included Syria, Phonecia, Palestine, and Cyprus.
Second, Darius commanded the temple be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Darius, sent a noble in Persia with ethnic roots in Yehud, Zerubbabel, to oversee this project along with the high priest Yeshua. The construction of the Second Temple had significant religious and social impact—which will be further pursued below—however, there were economic and political reasons for Darius’ requiring such an edifice. With a loyal Persian governor in Jerusalem overseeing the temple, economically the building acted as a center for the collection of taxes for the empire.
During his reign, Darius engaged in a battle to reclaim Egypt for the empire, and in the process, brought his forces through Abar Nahara and very close to Yehud. Politically then, the temple in Jerusalem allowed for a centralized place for his servants to collect monies to fund his campaign, and Berquist suggests, food to feed his armies during the Egyptian campaign. There is also some evidence that Darius funded Temples elsewhere during his campaigns in an effort to religiously propagandize regions enabling him to capture them without force.
Third, while Darius was a reformer politically and economically in the empire, he may have also been a reformer concerning legal matters. The theory of Persian imperial authorization of the Torah has been a successful hypothesis in recent scholarship. Darius has been referred to as the ‘lawgiver’, and some have suggested that it was under the auspices of the Persian emperor that certain laws were codified in Yehud. However, “It was customary for the Persians to respect local law, as long as it did not interfere with the law of the imperial overlord.” This aspect of imperial policy was “the insistence on local self-governance inscribed primarily in a codified and standardized corpus of traditional law backed by the central government and its regional representatives.”
A parallel for Darius’ involvement in codifying local laws comes from the Demotic Chronicle in which Darius orders the satrap of Egypt to send him “Wise individuals from the ranks of warriors, priests, and scribes” to compile “the law of Pharaoh, the temples and the people.”
While the situation in Yehud is not so clear, because of the uniformity in Persian policy and its close proximity to Egypt in the same satrapy it is plausible to consider something similar happening in Yehud (cf. Ezra 7:25-26). This is not to suggest that the final form of Torah appeared during the reign of Darius, but to show possibly the beginnings of the codification of laws in Yehud, some of which may have been innovative, or reflected the needs and concerns of a sub-group within the society, thereby, adding to social conflicts in Yehud.
After Darius’ death Xerxes became emperor and employed different methods throughout the empire than his predecessor. While Xerxes’ primary focus was largely on the independence of Egypt and Greece, the biggest effect his reign had on Yehud was the removal of funding for the temple. This removal of local funding was also combined with a tax structure that increasingly favored Persians which necessitated the taxing of foreign colonies to fund Persian building programs and economic intensification programs. Xerxes’ imperial policies led to a general decline among the provinces of the empire as their local economies became increasingly more stressed, which may have led to a revolt in Egypt, and possibly some isolation in Yehud.
The last significant emperor for this post is Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes came to power after the assassination of his father and brother. Like many of the emperors before him Artaxerxes was involved in disputes with Egypt and was interested in Yehud for economic gains and military strategy. Early in the reign of Artaxerxes, the Persian general Megabyzus brought his Persian forces near Yehud on its way south to challenge an Egyptian-Greek alliance. It is during this period it seems that Artaxerxes sent strong governors to the once again border colony of Yehud to strengthen its defenses. Artaxerxes also reversed Xerxes’ policy concerning temple funding and may have used the economic support of the temple and religion propagandistically like Darius before him. However, while there may have been significant imperial funding and administrative support during the first part of Artaxerxes reign, upon the defeat of the Egyptians, Yehud may have found itself, once again, an underfunded and overtaxed poor colony on the outskirts of the kingdom.
This brief review of the early Persian history of Yehud is important in considering the function of a text such as Malachi. Persian Imperial involvement waxed and waned through the period. Persian interests in Yehud began with Cyrus and economic intensification—and this economic intensification was in the form of resources going from from Yehud to the empire—and the strengthening of the empire’s borders. However, Yehud enjoyed better economic prosperity during times of conflict between Persia and Egypt, including the funding for construction in Jerusalem of a centralized taxation center/temple, and at times the funding for the religious functionaries and imperial servants who worked there under the auspices of their imperial overlords.
However, at other times this funding was withdrawn, and the taxation center had to generate its own income to support its personnel. It is from within this socio-historical context that the words of YHWH of Hosts need to be considered: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.”
The priests need resources and food, so they put the “request” for it in the authority and mouth of YHWH.
And personally, I find this “challenge” from Malachi as normative for me today as I find any concerning the “Tabernacle”:
If your offering is a goat, you shall bring it before the LORD and lay your hand on its head; it shall be slaughtered before the tent of meeting; and the sons of Aaron shall dash its blood against all sides of the altar. You shall present as your offering from it, as an offering by fire to the LORD, the fat that covers the entrails, and all the fat that is around the entrails; the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins, and the appendage of the liver, which you shall remove with the kidneys. Then the priest shall turn these into smoke on the altar as a food offering by fire for a pleasing odor. All fat is the LORD’s. ~ Lev 3:12–16
That’s right: all fat is the LORD’S! Make sure to remove it from your meal the next time you’re at McDonald’s!
Though I suppose I could always try to compare the verse in Malachi with: “Do not put the LORD your God to the test…” (Deut 6:16). Um, wait?… am I supposed to test the Lord or not?
Anyways, the point is, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now: these texts come from a certain socio-historical and cultural context. To try and take them and make them normative for today doesn’t just misunderstand the original context and intent of the text, it misuses it for alternative purposes.
Elemenope doesn’t apply to me today. The Book of the Dead doesn’t apply to me today. Enuma Elish doesn’t apply to me today. 1 Enoch doesn’t apply to me today. And attempts to feed priests and fund the Temple from Malachi does not apply to me today.
So: should you tithe based on fifth century BCE Persian Imperial policies?
 Sources for Persian history and Yehud: Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible (ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1992), 239-42; Jon L. Berquist, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow: A Social and Historical Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 23-120; Diana Edelman, The Origins of the ‘Second’ Temple: Persian Imperial Policy and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem (London: Equinox, 2005); Lisbeth S. Fried, The Priest and the Great King: Temple-Palace Relations in the Persian Empire (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004); Richard N. Frye, The History of Ancient Iran (Munchen: Beck, 1983); James Maxwell Miller and John Haralson Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (OTL London: SCM Press, 1986), for a map of Abar Nahara see 461; Oded Lipschits and Manfred Oeming, eds., Judah and Judeans in the Persian Period (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006); A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1948); Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990).
I do not believe a blog post needs another detailed history of the Persian empire. Primarily, I assume three major possibilities for substantial social conflict in Yehud: the first period is during the reign of Cyrus and the return of some people with ethnic ties to the land. Cyrus’s program of economic intensification—from Yehud in the direction of the empire—may have been a setting for conflict; however, I believe this the least likely possibility.
The second period is during the reign of the third Achaemenid emperor, Darius, who commanded a temple be built in Jerusalem. Darius, sent a noble in Persia with ethnic roots in Yehud, Zerubbabel, to oversee this project along with the high priest Yeshua. The construction of the Second Temple had significant religious and social impact, however, there were economic and political reasons for Darius’ requiring such an edifice. With a loyal Persian governor in Jerusalem overseeing the temple, economically the building acted as a center for the collection of taxes for the empire which may have also led to substantial social conflict.
The third possibility is during the reign of Artaxerxes who, like many of the emperors before him, was involved in disputes with Egypt and was interested in Yehud for economic gains and military strategy. Early in the reign of Artaxerxes, the Persian general Megabyzus brought his Persian forces near Yehud on its way south to challenge an Egyptian-Greek alliance. It is during this period it seems that Artaxerxes sent strong governors to the border colony of Yehud to strengthen its defenses. Artaxerxes also reversed Xerxes’ policy concerning temple funding and may have used the economic support of the temple and religion propagandistically like Darius before him. However, while there may have been significant imperial funding and administrative support during the first part of Artaxerxes reign, upon the defeat of the Egyptians, Yehud may have found itself, once again, an underfunded and overtaxed poor colony on the outskirts of the kingdom.
 This does not mean that I am in favour of the contentious hypothesis of Persian imperial authorization of the Torah: Berquist, In Persia’s Shadow, 138-39; Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch, 239-42; Lester L. Grabbe Ezra-Nehemiah (London: Routledge, 1998), 149-50; Konrad Schmid, “The Persian Imperial Authorization as a Historical Problem and as a Biblical Construct: A Plea for Distinctions in the Current Debate” in The Pentatuech as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (Gary N. Knoppers and Bernard M. Levison eds.; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 23-38; James W. Watts, ed., Persia and Torah: The Theory of Imperial Authorization of the Pentateuch.
 For a review of Cyrus’ political and military history in founding the Persian empire see Richard N. Frye, The History of Ancient Iran (Munchen, 1984), 78-95; A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 34-51).
 Berquist, Judaism, 25.
 Ibid., 49
 James Maxwell Miller, John Haralson Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 460. For a map of Abar Nahara see Ibid., 461.
 Berquist, In Persia’s Shadow, 57-63.
 Konrad Schmid, “The Persian Imperial Authorization as a Historical Problem and as a Biblical Construct: A Plea for Distinctions in the Current Debate” in The Pentatuech as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (Gary N. Knoppers and Bernard M. Levison eds.; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 23-38; Berquist, In Persia’s Shadow, 138-39; Lester L. Grabbe Ezra-Nehemiah (London: Routledge, 1998), 149-50; Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible (New Youk: Doubleday, 1992), 239-42.
 Grabbe, Ezra-Nehemiah, 149
 Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch, 239.
 Lisbeth S. Fried, The Priest and the Great King: Temple-Palace Relations in the Persian Empire (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004), 75.
 Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch, 240.
 Berquist, In Persia’s Shadow, 89.
 Diana Edelman argues on the basis of genealogical material in Nehemiah that either Zerubabbel and the building of the temple need to be moved to the reign of Artaxerxes, or Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem moved to the reign of Darius. Her conclusion regarding this matter is that the temple was built during the reign of Artaxerxes. Diana Edelman, The Origins of the ‘Second’ Temple: Persian Imperial Policy and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (London: Equinox, 2005). It would be interesting to reduce the political, social, and religious conflicts of Yehud to a single era, and examine some of the materials from the Hebrew Bible through such a matrix of significant innovation and political upheaval.