Temples, Tithes, and Taxes: The Temple and the Economic Life of Ancient Israel

By Snell, Daniel. C. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2007 | Go to article overview

Temples, Tithes, and Taxes: The Temple and the Economic Life of Ancient Israel


Snell, Daniel. C., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Temples, Tithes, and Taxes: The Temple and the Economic Life of Ancient Israel. By MARTY E. STEVENS. Peabody, Massachusetts: HENDRICKSON PUBLISHERS, 2006. Pp. xi + 209, illus. $24.95 (paper).

This book began as a Union Theological Seminary dissertation under S. Dean McBride and William P. Brown addressing the crucial intersection between religion and society in ancient Israel. The topic is of vital interest with a number of open questions that need to be addressed, but this book does not do so.

The stated goal is to expose "pastors and laity" to the idea that Israel's temples were economic centers and to argue for an "integrative, holistic character of life that our ancestors in the faith experienced and that the Divine desires for all creation." This goal is presented on page 25 and repeated with a variant on page 173. In between we get a review of a number of the biblical texts referring to temples along with some parallels to Babylonian and occasionally Egyptian and Greek sources. It is not clear if the examples are taken as origins for Israelite institutions or as otherwise influencing them. One could argue that we know more about how Mesopotamian temples worked than about Israelite temples, and we might use cuneiform material to supplement and illustrate the sparse Biblical record. The author does not make such an argument. It would be helpful to have a critical historical discussion of the biblical texts about temples. But the book reads more like a preliminary listing of relevant texts than a dissertation with a sustained argument.

A first chapter reviews basic terms and gives a brief history of ancient Israel. A second examines the construction of temples in Israel, without much discussion of extra-biblical material. A third chapter examines people who worked for temples, from priests to craftsmen. A fourth deals with income of the temples, including land owned, tithes, and taxes. A fifth focuses on expense from Israel's temples. Another chapter argues that the Israelite temples did not function as banks but rather as "financial intermediaries" for goods that could be redistributed when needed. A final chapter gives a general vision of ancient Near Eastern temples and then focuses on the Jerusalem temple.

The author insists on calling ancient Israel a "barter" economy and confuses money with coinage, but this does not essentially undermine the value of the study. There was more to ancient temples than how their goods flowed. But aspects of charity as well as sacrifice are slighted here.

A key question concerning many ancient Near Eastern societies is whether--and if so, when--kings could spend temple moneys, that is, if kings mixed what in English history would be called the privy purse with temple funds. The author presents the relevant passages and lists Matthias Delcor's seminal study, "Le tresor de la maison de Yahweh des origines a 1' Exil," Vetus Testamentum 12 (1962): 353-77, in her bibliography, but she does not address the problem. …

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