And every tenth of cattle or flock, every [one] that will pass under the staff, the tenth one shall be holy to the L-rd. – Vayikra/Leviticus 27:32
Almost the last command in Vayikra as the book draws to an end, this and its companion two verses earlier, cause some confusion to the commentators. As Gunther Plaut points out, “this tithe of animals is mentioned nowhere else in the Torah.” Whilst we have early examples of Avraham, who gave a tenth of all that he possessed to Melchizedek, the king of Salem and priest of El Elyon, the Most High G-d – “Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (B’resheet 14:20, JPS) – and Ya’akov who expansively promised HaShem that “of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You” (28:22, JPS), Baruch Levine affirms that there is no other place where the Torah requires a tithe of one’s entire herd and flock. In fact, even changing the frame from one’s entire stock to simply the increase during the year, he still asserts, “no other Torah legislation ordains a tithe from the annual increments of the herds and flocks.” This change matches the Jewish tradition as Hirsch, writing in the nineteenth century demonstrates: “one tenth of the increase of one’s flocks and herds has to be designated … only those born to the livestock of one owner in each year, or those purchased by him before the age fitting them for offering (seven days).” The Ralbag too affirms that it was applied only to the increase in the flock, when he explains that each animal “must pass under its own power. This teaches that they would put the animals’ mothers outside so that the lambs and calves would hear their voices and go out to them.”
Some scholars have suggested that this (and verse 30) are vestiges of an earlier tithing system that predates the Sinai legislation. If so, there are other subtle suggestions that this system was in practice in the prophets. During the closing days of the kings, when Jeremiah is imprisoned in Jerusalem for speaking out the words he has been given and the land has been desolated by the Babylonian invaders, HaShem sends a picture of future restoration: “In the towns of the hill country, in the towns of the Shephelah, and in the towns of the Negeb, in the land of Benjamin and in the environs of Jerusalem and in the towns of Judah, sheep shall pass again under the hands of one who counts them — said the L-RD” (Jeremiah 33:13, JPS). Later, the same metaphor is used again through another prophet: “I will make you pass under the shepherd’s staff, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant” (Ezekiel 20:37, JPS). The people of Israel are seen as the flock, being gathered in the wilderness and judged by HaShem and being counted under the staff of their shepherd. The picture must therefore have had currency among the people who heard those prophets speaking.
The Sages explain exactly how this was done: “How does one tithe them? He brings them into a corral and makes a small chute so that two cannot exit simultaneously. And he counts using a staff: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight, nine. And the one which exits tenth does he mark with a red mark, saying, ‘Lo, this is tithe'” (m. Bechorot 9:7). Rashi adds that the staff is coloured with a red dye and is used to strike the animal so that the animal can be easily separated later. This is done to calves and lambs every year. This process is carried out by the owner and shepherd of the flock; it is he who does the counting and the marking. All the sheep are under his authority and protection; the staff is not only his practical instrument of shepherding and his weapon against attackers and thieves, it is his sign of authority: by it he shepherds and with it he marks and separates.
There is, however, some confusion about what happens next. The text says “it shall be holy to the L-rd” and Rashi says that this means, “for its blood and specified parts to be offered on the altar, and the meat is eaten by the owner.” After all, he says, “it has not been listed in B’Midbar chapter eighteen among the rest of the gifts of priesthood” and the Sages say that “the meat may be eaten by any man, in any part of the city, prepared in any way” (b. Zevachim 56b). Drazin and Wagner say that “this is the first tithe”, while the Rashbam says, “this is the second tithe.” Pointing out that the identification is dubious, Plaut comments that “tradition associates this with D’varim 14:22ff, making this the ‘second tithe’, which two years out of three remains in the possession of the farmer, to take to Jerusalem for a festive celebration with family and guests.”
David spoke of the authority of the shepherd in the tools of his trade: “Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff — they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4, JPS). He knew that G-d was watching over him and that G-d’s authority would not only keep him in his place, but keep him safe and be an almost physical sense of His presence. The prophet cried out to G-d to urge Him to engage His staff in looking after His people: “Oh, shepherd Your people with Your staff, Your very own flock. May they who dwell isolated in a woodland surrounded by farmland graze Bashan and Gilead as in olden days” (Micah 7:14, JPS). May G-d’s authority bring His people into a place of safety and open grazing. But Israel had bad shepherds, who fed themselves rather than the sheep, slaughtering the fat sheep and wearing their wool. So HaShem rebuked the shepherds: “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (Ezekiel 34:4-6, JPS). He said that He Himself would be their shepherd, would rescue them from all the places they had been scattered and bring them back to rich grazing on the mountains of Israel: “I myself will be the shepherd of My sheep, and I Myself will make them lie down, declares the L-rd G-D. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice” (vv. 15-16, ESV).
This then forms the backdrop for Yeshua when he told the people in Jerusalem, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:11-16, ESV). See how Yeshua will bring His flocks together – the flock of Israel and the flock from the nations – that they may become one flock under His staff and in His hand. When the people hear Yeshua say that He is the Good Shepherd, they resonate with the words of the prophets. Yeshua is the Son of David, so He matches the text, “And I will set up over them one shepherd, My servant David, and He shall feed them: He shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:23, ESV). Yeshua’s words about bringing things together under the Davidic rule – “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in My rules and be careful to obey My statutes” (37:24, ESV) – speak not only of the restoration of Israel, but of the gathering of individuals from the nations, those nations who “shall go up year after year to worship the King, the L-RD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths” (Zechariah 14:16, ESV).
Picking up the last thread from the Torah text, the tenth animals, those marked under the staff of the shepherd and dedicated to the L-rd, “cannot be redeemed” (Vayikra 27:33, JPS); they cannot become not holy, they have been consecrated to G-d. In the same, way, believers in Yeshua cannot be bought back or exchanged by the enemy. Yeshua explains: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29, ESV). If we have come under the authority of Yeshua’s staff and been marked as belonging to Him, part of the kingdom of G-d, then we cannot be stolen away by the enemy and de-consecrated – we remain holy for Him and His purposes.
Further Study: Vayikra 27:9-10; 2 Samuel 5:1-3; Ezekiel 36:22-32
Application: Have you been marked by the Shepherd’s staff and belong to the kingdom of G-d? Then know that Yeshua’s protection and authority lie upon you and no-one shall steal you away from His hand.