Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Covenant of Salt

Daily Readings
Psalm 71 + Numbers 18 + Deuteronomy 11 + Matthew 27

Verse for the Day
My lips will shout for joy
when I sing praise to you—I,
whom you have redeemed. Psalm 71:23

Daily Text --Numbers 18:1-2, 19, 21, 25-26

The LORD said to Aaron: You and your sons and your ancestral house with you shall bear responsibility for offenses connected with the sanctuary, while you and your sons alone shall bear responsibility for offenses connected with the priesthood. 2So bring with you also your brothers of the tribe of Levi, your ancestral tribe, in order that they may be joined to you, and serve you while you and your sons with you are in front of the tent of the covenant. 19All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the LORD I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and your descendants as well. 21To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for a possession in return for the service that they perform, the service in the tent of meeting. 25Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 26You shall speak to the Levites, saying: When you receive from the Israelites the tithe that I have given you from them for your portion, you shall set apart an offering from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe.

Covenant of Salt
Here there is an immediate consolidation of the understanding of the place of the Levites in the priestly economy of Israel. Clearly this is in response to the rebellion of Korah and Aaron’s justification through the budding of his staff. Two matters, at least, are clarified. The priests are given precedence in Levi through Aaron, who is honored as if he were the original Levi, son of Jacob. The second matter clarified is that of the perpetual due that is accorded all Levites through the tithe the people make to God.

Whatever is given as sacrifice within the limits outlined belong to the Levites, priests and acolytes and their families. The principle is that since the Levites do not inherit land with the rest of Israel, their living comes from the offerings made by the people to God. It is a holy system; it is a practical system; it is an unalterable system. To say something is their ‘perpetual due’ is to give them legal recourse. A ‘due’ is something entitled whether through contractual obligation or in this case covenanted responsibility. When one engages with an employer to work 40 hours doing some particular task, the salary paid is not gratuitous, it is that one’s ‘due’. It may be generous or penurious, but it is agreed upon and ‘due’ to the person who has taken on the responsibility.
This matter is further confirmed by stating that it is ‘a covenant of salt forever (19:19).’ Gray summarizes this with the following: “’Yahweh…gave the kingdom…to David…for ever…by a covenant of salt’ (2 Ch.13.5). The phrase means an inviolable covenant. Its origin is probably to be sought in old nomadic custom, whereby a bond was established between those who had shared the same food. The principle is, ‘If I have eaten the smallest morsel of food with a man, I have nothing to fear from him; ‘there is salt between us,’ and he is bound not only to do me no harm, but to help and defend me as if I were his brother.’ Salt was mingled with all Hebrew sacrifices (Leviticus 2.18) and with the holy incense (Exodus 30:35), and continued perhaps to symbolise the inviolability of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel.” 414:232
The covenant of salt was therefore with God himself, as if one had eaten a meal with God and the salt mixed with the sacrifice symbolised the trustworthiness of the covenant. Therefore, the tithe was an integral part of relationship in the society and religion of Israel. It is the way God ordained for the care of the temple and those who served God in it. All shared equally, the tithe being a tenth part of the first fruits, a percentage and fell equally on the poor and the wealthy. “According to Snaith:
The principle that lies behind the whole idea of the first fruits and the first-born is that all increase of every kind belongs to God, and this must be acknowledged by the presentation at the Shrine of the first of the fruits and the first that is born. These are not ‘given,’ but ‘presented,’ since they are God’s already. Thus at all harvest festivals, modern equally with ancient, the harvest-gifts are God’s gifts to men and not man’s gifts to God. When all this has been acknowledged in the first-fruits ceremony, God permits men to use the rest for sustenance and enjoyment.” 185:1141
Driving this principle home, God also required the Levites to tithe their portion back to the high priest and the temple. Everyone participates. The sad loss in the Christian practice of the tithe is that it is usually presented as a nice option rather than a covenant of salt. We no longer understand that all that we are and all that have comes from God. The words are said, the meaning is lost on most. Perhaps it was always so in Hebrew circles, as well. Who knows, but the loss is just as real, for without the means to care for the ministry of the people of God, the ministry God would have in the world is truncated and the blessings which flow from it are lost to us and to the world. The divine notion that we are a kingdom of priests to serve the world becomes a fiction, a denial of the truth of YHWH.

God’s Due
George Herbert

Restore to God His due in tithe and time;
A tithe purloin’d cankers the whole estate.


Anonymous Janie said...

Thanks for your expertise!

11:45 AM  

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