I was just looking at one of the cuneiform tablets I am using for my dissertation and saw the following notation:
eshru sha Marduk u Nabu
It means that for the goods recorded on the tablet, the tithe of the gods (i.e. the temples) has been paid. It was, in effect, a temple tax.
I took a quick look at the Assyriological literature on the tithe. What struck me is that tithing seems to have been rounded down. So, on 85 garments, you tithed 8. Obviously 8.5 wouldn’t work, but if you were really righteous you might have donated 9. They didn’t. So much for over-paying. (But as we know, those Babylonians were a wicked lot.) Of a tangential stripe is the injunction in Leviticus that only the tenth animal that passed under the rod was to be tithed (Lev. 27:32). In other words, if you had fewer than ten cattle they were exempt. (Of course, paying 10% of 9 cows is a bit tricky.)
This is all exegesis lite, but one way of looking at Leviticus is that the very poor (i.e. those with less than 10 cows) do not have to pay tithing.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is famously reticent to define what it means by a “full and honest tithe” of one’s “increase.” This is good as it theoretically leaves things between the tithe payer and God. There are downsides, however. One is the nagging feeling that we are somehow not paying enough. Witness this Splendid Sun discussion on whether “barter” should be tithed. I have never paid tithing on gross income but occasionally some do-gooder tells me that if I pay net tithing I will only get “net blessings.” This is all well and good coming from the mouth of an American, but when you live in Europe and you’ve already been whacked with high payroll taxes, “gross income” bears little relation to the money in your pocket, your “increase.” “Net” is the tithing model I grew up with. Still, I sometimes feel guilty about it.
Incidentally, I found a calculator online for the Jewish tithe — Ma’aser Kesofim — and it was very specific with very little room for doubt. Plug in your numbers, run a few deductions, and you get a dollars-and-cents figure. This tax-like approach to the tithe raises the ire of many Christians who feel contributions to the church should be a gift not a tax. The Mormon tithe, inasmuch as full participation in the church (i.e. the temple) is dependent on it, could even be considered to be “obligatory,” which annoys them further.
Anyway, to the poor. Silence by the church means that poor folk are left without guidance as to how to deal with their welfare cheque, or their student grant, or whatever. If Leviticus was the norm, perhaps the church would have a threshold of say $10,000 (10 cows?), under which a person was exempt. I don’t think this would sit right with Mormons, however. (What would we do without all the stories of people who chose to pay tithing rather than buy food?) After all, a poor person’s $1 on $10 is the same as the rich person’s $10 on $100?
Or is it?
One could argue that for a person earning say, $20k, a $2k tithe would really bite. A family earning that much in the US are going to need every penny just to survive with any modicum of self-respect. But for someone earning $100k, after paying tithing they are still $70k over the poverty line.
All of which is to say that the burden of tithing is heaviest on the poor. This does not mean that the widow should not pay her mite, or that Malachi 3 should not be trusted, but it does behoove the rich Mormon to have some compassion for his fellow member for whom tithing is a real trial. Not paying tithing may exhibit a lack of faith, but it is not a faith test all of us are called to bear in equal measure.