Thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 27
A vow of persons
A vow of animals
A dedication of a house
A dedication of inherited land
A dedication of purchased land
On the previous web page dealing with Leviticus chapter 26, I noted that Lev 26:46 sat as a conclusion to what would be expected to be a large volume of material for it reads that what’s preceded it
‘…are the statutes and ordinances and laws which YHWH made between Him and the people of Israel on Mount Sinai by Moses’
The only place in Leviticus where anything remotely similar is found is Lev 19:37 where the command
‘…you shall observe all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them…’
occurs, sitting as it does as a summation of the laws which have just been delivered to them. However, there the speaker is YHWH Himself but, in Lev 26:46, it seems to be a scribal addition which brings to a conclusion an extensive section. Indeed, had it not been for the presence of chapter 27, it would have served as a perfect concluding word to the entire Book. Something similar occurs there also (Lev 27:34) which is possibly why the scroll found its conclusion at that point, Num 1:1 giving the reader a specific date of the census which was taken shortly before their march from Sinai towards Canaan.
It strikes me that Leviticus chapter 27 must have been put together in similar fashion to today’s appendices at the close of books for there appears to be either an additional treatment of some of the themes which have occurred previously or subsequent situations which were perceived as needing addressing (although the vagueness with which the vow, for example, is previously mentioned may also suggest that these weren’t further treatments but, rather, scenarios which had gone unaddressed in the main body of the legislation but which were already a significant part of Israelite life and culture) - as if some of the Israelites had said
‘Yes, Moses, we understand - but what about…?’
If this was the case, Lev 26:46 would stand as the original end to the Book which was added to before the nation left Sinai on their way to the Promised Land. There was sufficient time for this to happen as the conclusion of the Book of Exodus seems to envisage them at Sinai before the year was up after their deliverance from Egypt, the next date being in Num 1:1 during their second year.
The sort of ‘possibility’ that has been briefly discussed above has often been a point of offense to the more fundamental of believers - as if the authority of Scripture is being brought into doubt. No such position is necessary, of course, for the way in which the Scriptures were written has no bearing upon their use in bearing testimony to truth and of showing what’s both right and wrong conduct.
Besides, the acceptance of the authority of what we now call ‘The Bible’ is purely a matter of revelation and faith, and can’t be based upon a clear and concise statement within the Bible’s own pages that there are 66 books which should be considered authoritative - while there’s a clear statement that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching (II Tim 3:16), there’s nothing which lists what might be considered to be authoritative in the Old and, more especially in the New, Testament.
It’s the individual believer’s submission to the authority of both Testaments, therefore, that’s of prime importance in the recognition of what is and isn’t Scripture - how a book or books might have come into being should never be allowed to undermine that position for they can only relate propositions and suppositions about composition rather than to be able to conclusively prove or disprove infallibility.
Even amongst those who hold to the authority of the Bible with its 66 Books (amongst whom I myself should be numbered), there are camps who’ll vehemently adhere to only one translation as being ‘inspired’ or to one Hebrew and Greek text as being ‘infallible’ - so, instead of there being the belief that God is Sovereign and able to authoritatively speak through the variant readings which have come down to us, the Bible becomes not a point of unity but of man-made division.
And Biblical interpretation isn’t without its problems, either, for the simplest of statements are often misapplied, misunderstood, twisted or even downrightly rejected - not just by those who would be labeled ‘liberal’ or ‘atheist’ but amongst those who hold to the infallibility of the 66 book Bible.
But acceptance of the infallibility and authority of the Bible doesn’t mean that one can’t marvel at the way passages seem to have been put together or how books appear to have been compiled - such considerations for the faithful are only pointers towards the complexity and Sovereignty of God, of being able to marvel at His control through what might appear to have been chaotic times and circumstances. They should never be a point of unbelief.
A vow of persons
The vow seems to have been so integral a part of Jewish society by the time of the giving of the Mosaic Law that we find no specific instructions as to what both validated and invalidated the verbal formula that a man or woman uttered. In first century Israel, however, the Rabbis debated at some length as to the correct formulae which were to be used and expected to be fulfilled (see the tractate Nedarim in the Mishnah), legislation which covered not only vows directed towards YHWH but those which were agreements between two human parties.
Biblical vows followed a simple formula in which a conditional statement, when fulfilled, compelled the utterer to perform their promise. As such, they normally began with ‘if’ before going on to an action preceded by ‘then’. So, for example, Jacob makes a vow in Gen 28:20-22 in which he begins with the condition that
‘If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear so that I come again to my father’s house in peace…’
and goes on to commit himself that, when God fulfils the conditions
‘…then YHWH shall be my God and this stone which I have set up for a pillar shall be God’s house; and of all that Thou givest me I will give the tenth to Thee’
The vow could very easily take on the idea of a bargain with God but it shouldn’t be considered to be such in its best form for the person who vows is more likely offering a gift of thanksgiving to YHWH who’s seen to be fulfilling something out of the ordinary which the offerer is half-expecting Him to fulfil anyway. In this way, the vow also becomes a confession of faith in the will and purposes of God.
I’ve already dealt with the format of a vow on my web page that deals with four different types of offering (the tithe, the freewill offering, the votive offering and the sacrificial offering) and the reader is directed there for a fuller treatment of the subject.
Before we move on to look at the specific application of the vow to the giving of persons to YHWH, we should note that a vow was expected to be honoured. In Num 30:2 (see also Deut 23:21-23, Eccles 5:4-5), YHWH commands through Moses that
‘When a man vows a vow to YHWH…he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth’
In this way, the Israelite was expected to reflect the character of His God in that what’s spoken isn’t thought to be superfluous and meaningless - rather, if the Israelites expected God to fulfil His covenant with them, they also must be prepared to stand by the promises they make. The making of a vow, however, wasn’t laid upon the Israelite as a necessity but was something which was to come about through an individual’s freewill (Deut 23:22) - but, once made, the promises were expected to be carried out and performed.
Although these principles are fairly straightforward, when we come to attempt a simple interpretation of the ‘vow of persons’ of Lev 27:2-8, we’re confronted with the problem of diverse opinions as to what exactly the passage is referring to. To take Hartley first, he sees the reason for the statements regarding the monetary value of the people vowed as being a substitute which was paid in their place. He writes
‘It was possible that a person could fulfil such a vow by becoming a servant of the sanctuary but given the servant role of the Levites, an ancient sanctuary had little need for more workers. Since in Israel a person could not be sacrificed, these vows regarding people could only be fulfilled by paying the sanctuary the amount specified in this law’
But this isn’t totally correct for we find the boy Samuel being given to Eli to serve in the Tabernacle as a fulfillment of a vow (I Samuel 1:27-28 - we’ll look at this in a little more detail below) and there’s no rebuttal on the part of Eli that he wants a monetary substitute rather than the child himself. Again, the Gibeonites find themselves enslaved to be drawers of water and hewers of wood for the service of the Tabernacle (Joshua 9:23) and a person vowed to God could, theoretically, be assigned to these non-priestly duties.
Harrison, however, sees the monetary assessment as being paid in addition to the giving over of the person into the Tabernacle service, and goes on to define some of their roles by writing that
‘…women would doubtless assist the priests in non-ceremonial duties connected with the sanctuary and in addition would probably care for the more junior votaries…children would be taught how to assist the priests in various duties as long as the period of their vows lasted’
His definition of the duties of those vowed certainly has Scriptural backing (there were women who served at the entrance to the Tabernacle in Ex 38:8 and I Sam 2:22, and Samuel is recorded as ministering to YHWH in the Tabernacle under Eli in I Sam 2:18, 3:1) but to think of the person as also incurring a monetary payment by the vower seems unnecessary.
Yet another way of interpreting the passage comes from Wenham who sees the vows mentioned as being individual ones where the commitment to YHWH Himself isn’t done to a Third Party but concerns the person who makes the vow themselves, citing II Sam 15:8 and Ps 116:14-18 in support of his position. He writes of the reason for the monetary payment that
‘Had the regulations permitted, they could have worked as slaves in the temple; but that was a privilege reserved for the priests and Levites. To free themselves from the vow, they had instead to pay to the sanctuary the price they would have commanded in the slave market’
But the Scriptures cited don’t provide the link needed to show that a man might vow himself into YHWH’s service and the Leviticus passage doesn’t read this way either. It seems easier to understand the legislation to be defining what was to take place when a Third Party was vowed into God’s service. I should point out, however, that Wenham doesn’t limit the application only to this type of vow for he understands it possible that a man might vow another person under his charge to YHWH’s service.
North takes the mention of the individuals being vowed as being solely slaves whose ownership was being transferred either to one of the priests or to the Tabernacle/Temple itself. In this way, he gets round the problem of accepting the all-inclusiveness of the type of person being vowed. His statements that such a vow of an adult male would disinherit them (page 585) is, however, supposition because nowhere do we read that such a disinheritance would take place - or that the person vowed was to be accepted into the service of the Tabernacle at the bequest of another (see my explanation below).
If the adult person vowed wasn’t a slave, though, North is right in pointing out that it would be tantamount to enforcing slavery on a freeman, but children may have been an entirely different proposition here and the example of Samuel shows us that conception was viewed as being from God so that what Hannah gave to YHWH was only a return of what had been granted her (I Sam 1:27-28). It should be noted that North’s expectation that Eli should have disinherited his sons from being priests and, rather, have adopted Samuel as a Levite into his own family (pages 590-1) is impossible to be happy with simply because YHWH states plainly to Samuel in I Sam 3:13 that His contention with Eli wasn’t on the grounds of disinheritance but that
‘…his sons were blaspheming God and he did not restrain them’
It was discipline which lay at the heart of the problem - the sons of Eli had a right to be ministering priests by birth but their conduct should have been restricted by Eli’s restrictive influence.
North later goes on to speak of the transference of a child from under his father’s authority to under that of a priestly family (page 587 - though, as noted above, he’s previously made the statement that the transference of an individual could only be conceived of as being a personal slave) and notes that the amount of money specified as needing to be paid for the vow was an admission charge into the tribe of Levi (page 589) although paid into the Tabernacle/Temple treasury (page 592 and footnote 20 on the same page).
Part of the problem here is that it would be all too easy for anyone to vow a child into a priestly family even if the priest didn’t want it. North notes that the price of such an admission was necessarily high as to forbid most of the poor from securing for their children some sort of sneaky welfare system but the fact that Lev 27:8 provides for the poor not to have to pay a prohibitive fixed amount is surely an indication that it would have been far too easy for children to have been ‘taken off their hands’ - and that, even against the will of the patriarchal Levite.
So, in conclusion, there are four commentators with differing opinions!
To try and understand the context of the legislation, we could turn to the two passages that occur later on in the life of the nation (Judges 11:29-31,34-40 and I Samuel chapters 1-3) which record vows of persons to YHWH. Even though Jephthah’s vow stands closest in time to the Levitical passage, it need concern us very little for we find him vowing to YHWH that he would sacrifice the first human to emerge from his household to Him as a burnt offering (presumably because the slaves were wont to run out to greet their master in service upon his return rather than members of his family) and, therefore, we can be sure that any connection with Mosaic legislation was purely coincidental (some believers have struggled to accept the story and have provided elaborate explanations as to what the Scripture really meant to say - however, just because a man makes a vow, it doesn’t have to follow that God is pleased or takes delight in the words.
We don’t read that God fulfilled the condition of the vow because he wanted a human sacrifice - only that, through the irrational promise of someone who had failed to grasp the character and nature of YHWH, Jephthah finds himself obligated to kill his own daughter. North comments that he accepts ‘the standard interpretation of this story: she was not literally executed by her father’ but, rather, she was ‘delivered into a priestly family’ presumably through some sort of adoption).
The giving of Samuel into YHWH’s service is a better example but, even then, it doesn’t follow the legislation recorded for us in Lev 27:2-8 for nowhere do we find an assessment of the baby’s worth and of a payment being made to anyone (Lev 27:6 Cp I Sam 1:24 - having said that, nowhere do we find payment for the redemption of the first born as laid down in Num 18:16). Hannah’s frustration at not being able to conceive a child by her husband is turned into a vow which gives what she desires into the hands of God Himself, thereby, ironically, taking away the very thing which her heart had desired (I Sam 1:11).
Eli, the high priest, makes no objections as to the legality of the vow and is willing to take Samuel and allow him to minister to YHWH in the Tabernacle which it wasn’t legally right for him to do (he was descended from Ephraim, not Levi - I Sam 1:1). Elkanah, Hannah’s husband, seems also to have been happy to allow his wife’s vow to stand for there was legislation laid down by Moses that allowed a father to annul the vow of a daughter or a husband to annul the vow of a wife (Num 30:3-15).
Therefore, although the vow concerning the baby Samuel is certainly an example of what it must have meant to vow a third party to YHWH, it seems to fail to be presented as an event which took place within the commands of Lev 27:2-8 and, as such, it means that we’re struggling to gain some relevant application of the legislation to the Jewish culture of its contemporaries. We certainly can observe two reasons how a vow might have been made which obligated the vower to offer an individual under their own authority to YHWH, but the relevancy of the legislation seems not able to be applied.
The three commentators previously cited all try to give the Scripture meaning as they understand Jewish society but it seems that we don’t know sufficiently enough about this aspect of that culture to make any definitive statements. I do, however, want to draw the reader’s attention to the phrase which sits at the end of Lev 27:2 (my italics). The text reads (in the context of 27:3 which follows)
‘…When a man makes a special vow of persons to YHWH at your valuation, then your valuation of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary’
It seems to me that the vow is being made not independently of the priesthood but in accordance with the valuation of the person being vowed by the Levites - when a person uttered a vow in which their fulfillment was a commitment of a person into YHWH’s hands, it only ever meant a monetary payment.
The main reason for this passage, then, isn’t an instruction to the nation so much as a clear restriction that’s being placed upon the value of the people being vowed. In other words, a vow of a person to YHWH meant a monetary payment only and there was never envisaged a situation whereby the one vowed was to be taken into YHWH’s service, a service that was given over exclusively to the Levites (and certainly never that the person was to be sacrificed).
That Samuel found himself serving God in the Tabernacle doesn’t annul this interpretation but, instead, it shows that even by an early date (and Jephthah’s vow is even earlier), the Mosaic legislation was probably being ignored - my note above that the Gibeonites were accepted into the Tabernacle service in a non-levitical function would point towards Samuel being able to be accepted in a similar manner were it not for the statements that he ‘ministered’ (I Sam 2:18, 3:1) and that he was lying down within the place where the Ark of God was (I Sam 3:3). These indicate that he was no external minister but one who had been accepted into some sort of Levitical service.
It also demonstrates that the assertion that Leviticus chapter 27 was a later scribal addition to the scroll is without good foundation for there appears to be no time within Jewish history in which it could sit comfortably and, therefore, within which it could be conceived of as having been written.
Finally, the Law acknowledges that not everyone would have been able to afford the fixed assessments laid down here (Lev 27:8) and so allows for the priests to assess the person who’s been vowed according to the ability of the vower to pay. This is wholly in keeping with other places in the Mosaic Law where it isn’t the strict meeting of a debt which is to be enforced regardless but that the value is to be made to fit the person’s circumstances (for example, Leviticus chapter 4, 5:1-13, 14:10,21).
A vow of animals
It may seem surprising that I’ve titled this section as a ‘vow’ seeing as the word doesn’t occur anywhere in the passage. However, the opening words
‘If it is an animal…’
need the context of the previous verses - where a vow of persons is being described - to make sense. Therefore, Wenham’s rendering of the opening as
‘If anyone makes a vow involving an animal…’
is to be accepted. We’re still on votive offerings, therefore, and the legislation being here presented shouldn’t be thought of as referring to sacrifices offered to God in accordance with the opening legislation of the Book of Leviticus but, rather, have a specific application to vows in which an animal has been earmarked as given to God when the conditions find their fulfillment (for more on the definition of a ‘vow’ - the ‘if…then’ principle - see my web page on ‘Giving’).
The instructions here seem fairly straightforward. In the case of a clean animal (that is, an animal which could be offered to God in sacrifice), the command is that whatever has been vowed must be presented before YHWH and no substitute be put in its place. This isn’t meant to be thought of solely in terms of replacing a good animal with a poor one because the text is careful to point out that even giving to God something which was economically better would be unacceptable (27:10) - in this way, whatever is vowed is whatever is carried out.
The terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are taken to mean animals which are economically better or worse than one other (this is the way the words appear to be used in 27:12 where a valuation is being made) even though it’s possible that a blemished animal could be implied in the words. This doesn’t seem possible, however, when Lev 22:20-21 is consulted for there the command reads (my italics) that
‘You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you. And when any one offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to YHWH, to fulfil a vow or as a freewill offering, from the herd or from the flock, to be accepted it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it’
However, what if the vowed animal (for example ‘the first of my flock’s offspring next spring’ which cannot determine the worthiness of the first lamb to be born) was blemished? For lack of a clear Scriptural command, I have to assume that the blemished animal is considered to be ‘unclean’ and is dealt with in the manner in which these are specified at the end of this passage (Harrison states that 27:11-13 is exclusively meant to be taken as referring to blemished animals but this seems to deny the possibility as described below that an Israelite’s vague vow could find its fulfilment through the giving of, for example, a donkey which could not be offered in sacrifice in the Tabernacle).
While most believers would understand that a promise made to God must be fulfilled, most wouldn’t comprehend why they shouldn’t ‘go the extra mile’ (a phrase which is used of one’s enemies - Mtw 5:41) and give to God something which is more valuable or involve more time on behalf of the offerer.
But the Scripture is plain here that YHWH requires only that vows be kept as they were originally spoken - not that any more or less is given. Indeed, as we’ve just seen, the substitution of the original promise with something other - whether better or worse - causes both that and the original vow to become YHWH’s. Such is the importance of not taking back that which has been committed into God’s hands that, should a substitute be brought to the Tabernacle, both it and the original object of the vow must be sacrificed - where the idea seems not to be so much a penalty upon the offerer but the fulfilment of the principle that whatever is offered cannot be redeemed. Because the second animal is also brought to God, it, too, must be offered but its substitution for the vowed animal doesn’t annul the need for it to be sacrificed.
It was always possible that an unclean animal might be the subject of a vow - an animal such as a donkey which couldn’t be offered in sacrifice. This doesn’t mean that a man might specifically mention this type of animal as the fulfilment of a vow but he might offer to God in thanksgiving the first of the offspring of his livestock (though the firstling of every animal belonged to God by right - Lev 27:26-27 - the principle being that offerings could only be given once in the fulfilment of religious obligation) and, as it happens, the first animal born is from an unclean animal.
Again, though, no substitution can be made - for whatever has been vowed must be fulfilled. But neither can the animal be offered in sacrifice to God. In this case, the animal is to be brought before the priest and is to be valued (27:11-12).
This valuation serves two functions (Wenham sees the possibility that the animal itself could be used for the benefit of the priesthood but no such possibility is offered in the text. It seems best, therefore, to think of the valuation as implying that the animal was to be sold and that, even if the priest desired the animal for his own, he was still obliged to pay the price for it).
Firstly - and assumed from the text rather than it being clearly stated - the valuation is as a means towards purchase. That is, the animal was to be offered for sale in accordance with the value which had been placed upon it by the officiating priest (confirmed also by the wording of Lev 27:27 where it’s applied to firstlings). What was to happen to the money from the sale of the animal is unclear but, presumably, as it was an offering to God, the money would have been given into the ‘treasury’ or distributed amongst the priests as their due.
Secondly, there’s the possibility that the person who offers the animal as the fulfilment of a vow would desire the animal back for whatever reason - although some commentators see this as compulsory, the text seems to allow it only as a possibility. The problem here is that the clean animal wasn’t able to be substituted by another or redeemed once vowed because the sacrifice had to be made upon the altar. However, as the unclean animal is going to be sold anyway, it might as well be sold to the person who’s offering it to God - therefore the valuation is the basis for the assessment of the amount of money that needs to be paid to the priest for its return, with one fifth added to the assessed value.
It’s difficult to come to a correct understanding of what the fifth is meant to represent. Some would see it as a penalty (Lev 5:16, 6:5, 22:14 - Harrison talks of it as a ‘fine’ because the vow was considered to be unacceptable to God) but in the scenario outlined above, it’s surely in the priest’s interests not to have to take steps to have the animal offered for sale which would use up time and resources - if anything, one might have expected the priest to knock ten per cent off for a quick sale!
It seems to follow along the lines of the redemption of the tithe (Lev 27:31 - though this appears to refer only to the increase from the land which precedes it and not to the tithe of the livestock which follows and which could not be redeemed) and, perhaps, this is about all we can say - that one fifth was the accepted amount for the redemption of something which rightfully belonged to God.
In this way, it showed that redemption cost the redeemer something ‘extra’ - that is, he shouldn’t be considered to be able to receive something of the same value as that which was paid but that, in the very act of redemption, there was a part of the redeemer which was lost or spent to secure the release and freedom of the object that was currently restricted.
Therefore Jesus’ death on the cross in which He redeemed mankind from all the bondage with which they’re restricted from serving God, shouldn’t be thought of simply as a ‘full payment’ of what mankind was worth - rather, there has to be seen an additional cost to the Redeemer Himself which was never recovered and which was necessary that He might have the right to own all those redeemed.
A dedication of a house
Little needs to be added here that hasn’t already been said about the unclean animal that was offered as the fulfillment of a vow (27:11-13 - see the previous section). Because the item dedicated to God couldn’t be sacrificed (in this case, the house would have had to have been destroyed), it becomes assessed with a monetary value that presumably becomes the amount of money which is expected to be received on the ‘free market’ when it’s put up for sale.
The person who dedicates the house has the right to redeem the house but must add a fifth to the valuation to do so.
The difference between the former passages and this one is that there the idea of the payment of a vow is involved whereas here the act is described as a dedication. A ‘dedication’ would be thought of more as a gratuitous commitment of an item into the hands of God whereas a vow would be fulfilled when the ‘if’ of the conditional phrase came about. The net effect of both is identical, however, for the item becomes YHWH’s possession.
Presumably, the house here specified isn’t on that which formed part of the inheritance or else it might be presumed that the land upon which it was built was also included in the sale - certainly, it rendered the land upon which it stood as unusable even if ownership was still considered to belong to the original owner.
For this reason, the house here specified seems to be more likely to have to be taken as that which was founded in a city which didn’t revert to any original owner come the fiftieth year of Jubilee (Lev 25:29-31). The Scripture is open, however, and isn’t specific - but one wonders why there wouldn’t have needed to have been some clarification of the matter had a house been meant that resided on tribally inherited land. Besides, the next section (27:16-21) seems to mention all inherited land as having a value according to the barley crops which could be sown on it before it’s year of redemption and it would be better to assess a dedicated house which stood on such land to still be assessed according to the crop value.
Harrison understands the passage to be inferring that the priests could use the house as they saw fit but, as I noted in the previous section, the fact that a valuation is placed upon it and that redemption is only offered as a possibility, it seems best to understand that a priest was allowed to take possession of the item but only if they paid the full amount of the priestly assessment. Otherwise, it would be sold.
A dedication of inherited land
The passage now turns its attention towards both inherited and purchased land (the latter of which we’ll deal with in the following section). The land has previously been defined in terms of a crop value in Lev 25:15-16 where the purchase of inheritable land is spoken of as being
‘…the number of the crops that he is selling to you’
rather than it’s position close to cities or other influences which might make the area more desirable than another. In the present day, the price of the acquisition of land and property has to do with ‘better areas’ but, in Israel, if the Mosaic Law was observed, there would have been no one area morally better than any other. A similar principle of crop value is therefore applied even to dedicated fields (27:16) with a homer of barley being defined with a monetary value of fifty shekels of silver. But, whereas the sale of land to another Israelite is assessed in terms of crops to be harvested, the dedicated field is assessed in terms of crops to be sowed - Wenham, however, translates the passage to be speaking about seed harvested rather than seed sown.
In the case of the valuation being seed sown, the homer of barley defined in Hartley would sow approximately 3.75 acres.
This valuation is according to a full 49 year cycle to the beginning of the year of Jubilee when all inherited land was to be returned into the possession of the one to whom it had been given as an inheritance (25:10,13). However, this needs some clarification because the 50 year agricultural cycle would be more representative to be taken as in mind, which would then allow the valuation of one shekel per year - that is, for each homer of barley able to be sown upon the land, one shekel per year was expected to be added to the valuation.
It will immediately be objected that the Israelite didn’t sow his land each and every year in the 50 year cycle for seven sabbatical and one Jubilee years and that this would have allowed only 42 years of cultivation. So, why wasn’t 42 shekels given as the valuation? Lev 25:21 states that the 48th year harvest would give sufficient for three years until the next harvest was due to be reaped in the 51st.
It would be going too far to assume that the other six sabbatical years would produce a harvest equivalent to two years for the Scripture says only that the resting land would provide food even during the sabbatical year and that it wasn’t meant to be cultivated (Lev 25:6-7). What grew of itself would be sufficient to feed the nation and, although one might be right in expecting uncultivated land to produce less than on a normal year, it still did produce sufficient for the nation.
In this way, it might be reasoned that, with the 48th year’s crop producing 3 years, the valuation of 50 shekels (27:16-17) was meant to be taken as one shekel per year per homer of barley sown (one year’s seed sown would have produced what would have been expected from a volume of three year’s sown seed) and that an assessment of any part of the fifty years was performed on a simple basis where fractions of monetary values were kept to a minimum (27:18). Harrison also comments that
‘This is comparable to Mesopotamian practices where a homer of barley cost a shekel’
So the equation
50 shekels=50 years
becomes a reasonable assumption. It should be noted also that the valuation isn’t on the basis of crops to be harvested but upon crops that could be sown. Therefore, even if a field was to be dedicated, the farmer should reasonably expect to continue to make a profit from his dedication.
As in the case of the unclean animal, redemption is allowed so long as an extra fifth is added to the valuation (27:19). Here, redemption becomes something of a necessity (it is presumed that, as the years before the Jubilee decrease, the assessment of the land’s worth and, therefore, the redemption price, would decrease) because, come the year of Jubilee, the land would become the perpetual ownership of YHWH Himself in the form of the priest (27:20-21). This is the first place where what becomes holy to YHWH is spoken of as belonging to the priest but this shouldn’t be applied to all the legislation that has gone before as I’ve been careful to point out.
It’s only because the sanctuary isn’t to sell the land on to anybody else that the priest is given the right of possession come the Jubilee year - unclean animals and houses still appear to have been expected to have been sold even though it could have been the officiating priest who purchased them with his own money.
It was in the long-term interests of the dedicator’s family, therefore, to redeem that part of his land (the Scripture doesn’t specify that the entire land was dedicated but that it was only a part) rather than forfeit it at the Jubilee. There’s one other situation related here and that’s if the dedicator sells the field to another (27:20). The interpretations of what this might mean in effect are dependent upon the land continuing to be cultivated by the one who dedicates.
That is to say, a dedication of part of the land appears to assume that it would continue to be cultivated by the original owner so that its crop value might be realized. Whether this was expected to be paid annually (adjusted for sabbatical years) or whether the day of the assessment was the time at which the full amount was to be paid to the priests is unclear but it seems more likely that an annual income from dedicated land was allowable and, in some respects, more desirable than a lump sum.
So, because the dedicator continues to have possession of the land upon which to grow crops until the Jubilee, it still remains under his control to sell at a value which is accordance with the crops which would be expected to be harvested from it (Lev 25:16).
Because the new temporary owner is under no illusion that the land would revert to another’s ownership when Jubilee comes, he’s not being short-changed but will only pay the relative price of what he considers is due, but the original owner forfeits his title to the land automatically.
Why any Israelite would have considered this a valid proposition is difficult to imagine (commentators aren’t backward in coming forward with their own theories and many of them are possible - perhaps any or all of them shouldn’t be excluded for the Scripture gives no context for the sale, only that a sale is made. However, some commentators object to the very thought of a double sale of crops as if the dedicator is ‘pulling a fast one’ - but the solution lies in the fact that the dedication is valued in terms of crops sown whereas the sale of the land is in terms of crops harvested) but it would have meant that the debt of dedication could have been paid off immediately.
Even so, it seems to be a high price to pay for convenience.
Although this legislation isn’t envisaged as having to be applied very often (that is, the situation whereby an Israelite would forfeit part of his land because of failure to redeem), it would have caused the Levites to begin to possess small tracts of land which, theoretically, could have been used to supplement their provision under the sacrificial system.
A dedication of purchased land
Land that has been purchased from another and which isn’t part of the tribal allotment of the purchaser is treated differently if it becomes dedicated to God. The initial difference between this passage and the previous one, however, isn’t in the type of land (inherited as opposed to purchased) but in the quantity of land being dedicated. In the former situation, the Law speaks about part of the inheritance being dedicated to YHWH whereas here the idea is that of an entire field that has been given over to His use.
This type of dedication would be thought to have been much larger generally than the one which precedes it.
The first requirement following the dedication is the same, however. A valuation is given by the priest which, presumably, is based upon the amount of barley seed that can be sown but the assessment of the land’s worth is immediately to be paid by the dedicator to the priest, YHWH’s representative (27:23).
It’s important for the dedicator to be sure in his own mind, therefore, that he has sufficient funds to settle the amount which was to be laid upon him. However, unlike the previous situation of inherited land (27:16-21), he would have been able to immediately sell his land on with no loss of personally inherited land. Had an Israelite been expected to have paid the full amount of the assessment upon the part dedication of his own land, the selling of it to meet his obligation would have caused him to lose the right of redemption come the year of Jubilee (27:20).
Therefore, it seems best to accept Lev 27:16-21 as allowing the dedicator the right to pay annually the amount due of his dedication whereas Lev 27:22-25 insists on immediate settlement of the ‘debt’.
Come the year of Jubilee, the land must revert to its original owner (27:24) unless, of course, the original purchase was of dedicated land (this might be too complicated a scenario and could well have been generally unacceptable).
Finally, a practical note concerning the definition of a shekel is laid down (27:25) so as to give a fixed value that’s indisputable. With this line, it becomes impossible for a priest to insist that thirty gerahs are required or for a worshipper to claim that only ten were meant. Wenham writes that, at this time in Israelite history
‘The average wage of a worker…was about one shekel per month’
so a gerah was roughly equivalent to a day’s wage (assuming a 28 day lunar month with 4 sabbatical days = 24 labouring days in total).
The commandment has already been given in Ex 13:2 that
‘…whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is Mine’
and, in Ex 34:19-20, although the general command is again given, specific instructions concerning an ass is given which differs from that which could more generally be applied here. There, the ass is either redeemed with a lamb or has its neck broken whereas the generalization here for unclean animals is that they are to be redeemed (with a 20 per cent addition to the assessed price) or sold according to the priest’s valuation.
These two passages don’t contradict for one is a specific instruction while the other is a generalization for all types of unclean animals with the one exception of Ex 34:20. All firstborn Israelites, though, had to be redeemed because human sacrifice was forbidden.
We noted above in a previous section (Lev 27:11-13) that the implication of the animals being valued was that the assessment was the amount at which it would be sold if not redeemed. Here in 27:27, we find the parallel instruction for unclean firstling animals where it’s clearly stated that one of the purposes of the valuation was for its sale. This verse, then, should be used to interpret the previous instructions so that any thought of a compulsory redemption or that the unclean animal became the property of the priest regardless of it being bought are both shown to be incorrect.
The main reason for these two verses, however, is to point out to the Israelites that, because the firstborn already belonged to God by right, they were forbidden to be dedicated to God as an offering - that is, the worshipper mustn’t offer something to God that isn’t his or, more applicable here, that which already belongs to Him. Hartley puts it cleverly when he notes that the Israelite was forbidden
‘…to gain double spiritual benefit from the presentation of a single animal’
Offering animals that represented no personal loss to the offerer was the same principle that David refused to employ when he needed to sacrifice to YHWH to avert His wrath on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (II Sam 24:22-24). Anything that’s dedicated or vowed to God must represent a cost to the worshipper or else it becomes meaningless.
The first question to answer here is what the difference is between dedicating an object (as in 27:14-25) or devoting it. Wenham is certainly correct when he states that
‘Banning or devoting was a more solemn and irreversible vow than ordinary dedication’
but the exact circumstances in which something would be considered to be devoted rather than dedicated by an individual is far from clear. Harrison, however, doesn’t accept that devoted items were a matter of a person’s freewill. He writes (my italics) that
‘Such a procedure of “devoting” or “placing under the ban” is the result of God’s direct instructions in given circumstances and is therefore quite different from acts of individual dedication to the Lord’s service’
but the Scripture states plainly that ‘a man’ had the authority to devote an item to YHWH regardless of there needing to be obedience to a specific Mosaic regulation or law. Hartley cites Levine in his comments and suggests that the devoted item was that which was given to God when an oath was invoked - but as we don’t know whether this was the Israelite procedure at this time in their history, we’re unable to be definitive about the matter.
All that we can say about Lev 27:28, then, is that a devoted item was compulsorily handed over to YHWH regardless of any desire on the part of the offerer to redeem the item devoted. We might suppose that a devoted item was a sacrificial offering which dealt with a person’s sin according to the Law or a giving over of an item for YHWH’s use by an act of freewill but it’s difficult to be any more specific than this.
Lev 27:29, however, does undergird certain OT Scriptures and we can see certain examples of people who are devoted to destruction. The Mosaic Law commanded certain individual sins as being worthy of the ‘devoting’ of the transgressor into the hands of God through execution. So Ex 22:20 lays down the principle that anyone who sacrifices to any god apart from YHWH was to be ‘utterly destroyed’ and Deut 13:12-18 speaks of the utter destruction of a city and its inhabitants because of their deviation to serve other gods.
When the Israelites came against Jericho after having entered the land of Canaan, Joshua noted (Josh 6:17 Cp 7:1,11-13,15. The pronouncement was based upon Deut 7:2) that
‘…the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to YHWH for destruction…’
When Achan broke command regarding the devoted items, his fate became as if he also had been devoted (Josh 7:15,25). The incident of the devotion of the city of Jericho and its inhabitants seems to be the basis for individual or corporate devotion of an item or items even when there’s no prescription in the Mosaic Law for it. When the king of Arad came against the Israelites, the nation vowed and said (Num 21:2 - see also I Samuel 15:3)
‘If Thou wilt indeed give this people into my hand then I will utterly destroy their cities’
Strictly speaking this was a vow but it imposed ‘devotion’ to YHWH of something - for all we know, this could have been the way items were devoted at that time in Israelite history. But whether we should read ‘destruction’ into the context of Lev 27:28 is uncertain - it could mean only that devotion was always unredeemable whereas dedication wasn’t in only certain circumstances. Wenham’s observation that
‘It seems unlikely that ordinary Israelites could pronounce such vows; only the recognized leaders had authority to declare a death sentence’
is certainly a rational understanding of how it might have been implemented but, as I’ve experienced in my own life, leadership often thinks itself in a better position to make bold pronouncements upon matters when it has little or no knowledge. As an individual’s commitment of an item to be devoted occurs in 27:28, we shouldn’t think only corporate pronouncements or those by recognized ‘leadership’ were the ones which were legitimate. All devoted items were irredeemable - whether that meant annihilation or a change of use to employment in the Tabernacle is not entirely clear.
One thing we can say, though, is that every devotion of a human to destruction by individuals would probably soon have been abused - and it’s unlikely that a mere pronouncement of this would have been enforced by Israelite society.
The legislation concludes here with a consideration of the tithe, a subject that I’ve previously dealt with on my web page that discusses various forms of giving.
Tithing is here shown to be totally random (27:32), as if the flocks and herds are gathered on one specific day and driven through a small opening so that they’re forced into a single line (whether or not this practice took place is not important to the discussion - I’m only using it as an easy example of how a tithe might be made to be random). The Israelite then uses his fingers and allocates one animal to each of his digits in order until the final finger ‘falls’ on the animal directly in front of him (in this way numeracy wasn’t a necessary requirement of Jewish males).
This animal he then marks as the tithe, holy to YHWH (27:30). I’m of the opinion (along with North) that the tithe was a tenth of the net gain from farming rather than one tenth of all that which one possessed at any given time. Therefore, a tithe of one’s flocks would be a tenth of the additional animals that had been added to the flock or a tenth of harvested grain after the initial quantity of seed sown was deducted. I must confess, however, that this isn’t how the Scripture appears to read - and there are also unanswered questions here such as
‘Is a sheep killed for food taken to be a part of the starting capital or is it allowed to be deducted and replaced by a new-born or bought-in sheep?’
A strict ‘one tenth of the total flock’ would have been much easier to assess and would have meant that deductions from the flock for sustenance would have been allowed throughout the agricultural cycle. With regard to flocks and herds at least, it would have been fairly soon that a near equilibrium would have occurred where the equation would have held true that
Annual Tithe = (S + [I-(F+N)]) ÷10 = Net Increase
(where I=Increase through birth, F=Firstborn offering to YHWH, N=Amount of animals taken as food and offered in sacrifice and S=The number of animals that the agricultural year was started with after the deduction of the previous year’s tithe). In other words, the amount of the increase after all deductions and obligations had been taken would have been equivalent to the tithe. However, in the case of God granting a slightly greater increase than was needed to maintain the equilibrium, wealth would have been generated.
I will have to leave it to the considerations of those who are better versed in the agricultural expectations of Israelite farming methods of that time in their history to determine whether the net increase would have been expected to have been greater or lesser than the previous year’s tithe.
In a similar manner to the tithe of the flocks and herds, the yield of the field is to be done randomly - perhaps at the reaping/harvesting stage or later in the process of the threshing of grain or storage of fruit. The one who tithes is not to make a determination as to the worth of the animal or produce which is earmarked as the ‘tenth’ (27:33) but is simply to follow the principle.
If the farmer takes steps to exchange a sheep for another, both are forfeited (27:33) - but if the Israelite chooses to redeem part of his tithe, he can add a fifth to the valuation of the item (a valuation, presumably, which was to be made by the officiating priest as it is in the preceding passages) and so retain it.
In this way, a favoured sheep (whether something more resembling a family ‘pet’ - II Sam 12:3 - or, perhaps, one noted for its breeding success) could be legitimately bought back if the owner felt that it’s value to him was more than it’s average price as being ‘just one of the others’.
Harrison, however, seems to understand the idea of the ‘exchange’ of 27:33 as forbidding redemption by adding a fifth to its value so that it was only the produce of the land (the seed and fruit) which could be bought back. Hartley also follows this interpretation but his translation of 27:31 (my italics - which is identical to the RSV) speaks about an Israelite wanting to redeem
‘…any of his tithe’
and it seems difficult to accept the word here used as implying anything other than the entirety of the tenth. It also seems strange for the commandment to note that both the originally tithed animal and the one substituted for it
‘…shall not be redeemed’
if there was never a possibility that redemption could have taken place. For these reasons, it seems best to accept the allowable redemption of all the tithe but only at a cost of an additional 20 per cent to the one who wishes to retain it.
The chapter concludes (27:34) with a short statement which brings the chapter - and the Book - to a rounded conclusion.
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