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No. 8: Prey in My House

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 8
November, 1989
Copyright 1989, Biblical Horizons

Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, `How have we robbed Thee?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this," says the Lord of hosts, "if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows" (Malachi 3:8-10).

Malachi 3:8-10 is a well-known passage dealing with the tithe. There is, however, a seldom-recognized difficulty in verse 10, where God demands the tithe "that there may be food in My house." The word translated "food" in the NASB is tereph, which elsewhere carries the connotation of "prey." The use of this word in reference to the tithe is odd, but not altogether inexplicable. The difficulty is increased when we realize that the priests, whose livelihood was largely from the tithe, were forbidden to eat anything torn (terephah, Lev. 22:8). (Lay Israelites were also forbidden to eat terephah [Ex. 22:31], but since they did not receive any portion of the tithe, this fact is irrelevant to Malachi 8:10.)

Perhaps this apparent anomaly can be resolved by distinguishing between tereph and terephah. There appears to be a subtle difference of meaning. Tereph often refers to an animal (or symbolically, to a person or a nation) that is in danger from a predator; terephah refers to the torn flesh of an animal. But this distinction is fuzzy; in Ezekiel 22:27, for example, the princes of Israel are compared to "wolves tearing the tereph," and in Nahum 2:12 the two words are used in poetic parallelism. True, the notion of violent attack sometimes retreats to the background, so that tereph sometimes means simply "food" (cf. Job 4:11; 24:5; Ps. 111:5; Prov. 31:15), while terephah always refers to something torn. But it still seems odd that God would refer to the tithe as His "prey," instead of the more common "bread."

Practically, the resolution to this apparent contradiction lies in the fact that the priests were only forbidden to eat flesh that had died of itself, or had been torn by an animal predator. They could eat flesh that they themselves "tore," but could not eat flesh that had been torn by beasts (cp. Lev. 22:8 with Ex. 22:31: lit., "therefore flesh in the field, terephah, you shall not eat").

Still, we are left wondering in what sense the tithe may be considered "prey"? In order to answer this question, we shall examine the biblical usage of tereph and related words (terephah, verb: taraph, "to tear in pieces"). Then we shall apply our findings to the tithe. 

The Meaning of Tearing

It is worth noting, first, that tearing flesh is associated with judgment and rule. The Lord’s anger tore Job (Job 16:9). Hosea warned that the Lord would be like a lion to Ephraim and Judah. He would tear them to pieces when there was none to deliver (5:14). Yet, Hosea promised, though the Lord had torn Israel, He would also heal (Hos. 6:1). Isaiah prophesied against those who went to Egypt for help. The Lord would come against them like a lion who is not scared away by shepherds. Like a lion who "growls over his prey," the Lord would come to wage war on Zion (31:1-5). When the Lord captured Israel, He would roar like a lion over His prey (Amos 3:4-8).

Tearing prey is associated not only with God’s judgment and rule, but with human rulership. In Genesis 49:9, Judah is compared to a lion’s whelp. The following words are enigmatic: "From the prey (tereph), my son, you have gone up." What does it mean for Judah to "go up" (`alah) from the prey? The remainder of the verse compares Judah to a lion that no one dare rouse, and verse 10 is a prophecy of Judah’s kingship (cf. Nu. 24:9). The image appears to be that Judah has finished devouring his prey, and then takes his rest. This would fit the following verse: After devouring his prey (defeating his enemies), Judah ascends to take his rest upon his throne. In any case, it is clear that tearing and eating prey is associated with human rule.

A similar image is used to describe Benjamin: He is a wolf that tears; in the morning, Benjamin devours his prey and in the evening he divides spoil (Gen. 49:27). Thus, Judah and Benjamin are the two tribes associated with the tearing-ruling function, and it was from these two tribes that Israel’s first kings came: Saul from Benjamin and David from Judah.

Along these lines, tearing prey refers to victory over one’s enemies (Gen. 49:27). Victory and governance are seen in a lamentation for the princes of Israel, where Ezekiel described Israel as a lioness who taught her cubs to tear their prey and to devour men (19:3, 6). We also see this in Micah 5:8, which describes the remnant of Jacob as dew among nations and as a lion that tramples down and tears.

Tearing prey is also used as an image of oppression. In Ezekiel 22:23-27, the prophet denounced a conspiracy of prophets. Like roaring lions tearing their prey, they have devoured lives, taken treasure, and made many widows. Similarly, the princes were like wolves tearing prey, shedding blood, destroying lives for their own gain. David viewed his enemies as lions preying on him (Ps. 7:2). In Ps. 124:6, God is praised for delivering Israel at the Red Sea, and for not giving His people "to be prey to [the Egyptians’] teeth."

Torn flesh (terephah) also appears in the Book of the Covenant. Exodus 22:13 says that no restitution is required if one loses a neighbor’s animal, provided he can bring the torn flesh to prove that the animal was killed and not stolen. Jacob apparently knew something of these provisions, for he defends himself to Laban by saying that he never brought terephah to Laban, but instead bore the loss himself (Gen. 31:39). Jacob’s statement implies that he had the right to relieve himself of his obligation to pay for a lost animal by bringing the torn flesh. His kindness to Laban was shown in the fact that he did not press his rights.

As we have already noted, the Israelites were forbidden to eat terephah. In Exodus 22:31, the rationale for this prohibition is that "You shall be men of holiness to me." The torn flesh could be given to dogs. Leviticus 7:22-27, where the same prohibition is repeated, also prohibit eating of fat and blood. Significantly, these verses place the fat of sacrificial animals, fat of corpses, and fat of terephah under category of animals which are offered to the Lord (vv. 24-25). Leviticus 17:15 makes provision for cleansing after eating of a carcass (nebelah) or a terephah: The offender, whether Israelite or alien, must wash clothes and bathe and remain unclean until evening (cf. Lev. 22:4-8).

Apparently, an animal becomes unclean, and a cause of uncleanness when it dies or when it is torn to pieces. The difference between a carcass and terephah appears to lie in the manner of death: An animal might fall off a rock, and become a corpse, but it had to be torn by a predator in order to be considered terephah (cf. Ezk. 4:14). Neither was edible by the Israelites, however. 

Torn Flesh and the Tithe

Now let us turn to the relevance of all this for our understanding of the tithe, and draw out some biblical-theological connections. We have seen that the words tereph and terephah are associated with divine and human judgment and rule, that terephah was used in the law as a evidence in defense against charges of negligence in caring for a neighbor’s animal, and that the Israelites were forbidden to eat torn flesh. Now we shall attempt to determine what all this means, and specifically how it applies to the tithe.

Several things about tithed animals should be kept in mind here. Tithed animals were holy to the Lord, and sufficiently holy that, unlike some offerings, they were not permitted to be redeemed. "And for every tenth part of herd or flock, whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD. He is not to be concerned whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it; or if he does exchange it, the both it and its substitute shall become holy. It shall not be redeemed" (Lev. 27:32-33). When Malachi calls such tithed animals "prey," he is likening God to a lion, or some other regal beast. God is the great King, who tears His prey.

Perhaps we should understand it this way: The priests are God’s agents to tear His tithe-prey. They use their sacrificial knives for this purpose, so that the flesh of the animal is not in fact "torn" as is the case when a wild animal tears another animal. Nevertheless, the two events seem to be symbolically parallel.

Although the priests are not to eat meat torn by beasts, they may eat of God’s tithe. What God tears is not rendered unclean.

We can connect all this with another important dimension of the tithe. Tithed animals represented the Israelites themselves. This connection is implicit in the fact that the offering of the tithe was an act of worship by which the offerer symbolically offered all he was and had, and is brought out explicitly when Isaiah calls the faithful remnant of Israel a "tithe" (Is. 6:13). The remnant that rebuilt Jerusalem had passed under the rod of God’s judgment, and had entered into a new covenant (Ezk. 20:37; cf. Lev. 27:30-33). Additionally, sacrificial animals in general represented Israel. The whole sacrificial system rested on the identification of the offerer with an animal substitute.

Putting these considerations together, we may conclude that the tithe is prey in the sense that it is God’s food. And, since the tithe and the sacrifices represent the Israelites, they are symbolically offering themselves to God as His food, through a sacrificial substitute (since they, being "lame" sinners, are not acceptable). God is the Great King, the Lion who has the right to tear and eat His prey. By presenting themselves before Him, they submit to His rule and judgment over them.

The association of judgment and "prey" is in view here in at least two ways. First, God judged the offering good or bad by "tasting" it, and, second, the sacrificial animal was a substitute that suffered the condemnation that the offerer deserved. In our tithes (and in worship generally), we offer ourselves as living sacrifices for God’s inspection and judgment. Whatever is hay and stubble is consumed, and whatever is gold and silver is purified. 

The Tearing of Christ

Of course, Jesus Christ is the True Israelite, the True Sacrificial Victim, and thus He is, in the deepest sense, the "prey" that is brought into the Lord’s house. Several Christological dimensions of tereph may be noted. First, it is clear that Christ Himself is the One torn. This is clear in the Christological Psalm 22, where the Psalmist speaks of his enemies as bulls of Bashan who open their mouths like a "tearing" lion (v. 13). There also appears to be a type of Jesus as tereph in the Joseph narrative. In Genesis 37:33 (cf. 44:28), Jacob sees Joseph’s bloody robe and concludes that some wild beast has devoured Joseph. Christ, the Greater Joseph, was also attacked by wild beasts — his brethren, the tribes of Israel — and torn.

Joseph’s bloody garments might be seen in the light of Exodus 22:10-13. They provided evidence (forged in this case) of the innocence of Joseph’s brothers. Because they brought evidence that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, Jacob required no restitution of his sons. Similarly, the blood of Jesus is (genuine) evidence that He was slaughtered. It is a witness before the Father that His beloved Son is dead. The Church also is Joseph, her garments made bloody by the death of a substitute, a male goat, a sin offering. God sent His Son to His own, but His own received Him not. The torn-apart body of Christ provides evidence that we are not guilty of putting the Holy One to death, and we are therefore not required to pay with our own lives.

Though God permitted "wild bulls of Bashan" and other human beasts to "tear" His Son, it was actually God Himself who acted as Supreme King and Judge, and who sacrificed Jesus. Jesus was not rendered unclean, as was the flesh of animals torn by other animals; but like the tithe, Jesus was a clean tereph, torn by God Himself, and thus acceptable to Him.

(It may also be significant that the priests’ garments were blood-stained, Lev. 8:30. Because he was anointed with oil and blood, Aaron could enter the Most Holy Place. We, sprinkled with the blood of the Greater Aaron, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, enter into the heavenly sanctuary.)

These thoughts may also have some relevance for sacramental theology. In the Eucharist, we present before the Lord tokens of the body and blood of Christ as evidence that we are not liable to punishment. Moreover, the prohibition of eating terephah is, theologically speaking, fulfilled in the New Covenant: Christ is lamb of God torn to pieces by wild animals in the field, and if that were all there was to it, we would not be able to eat of Him. Beyond this, though, Christ is God’s tithe-lamb, torn sacrificially by God Himself, so that he is a clean Tereph. Thus, we are required to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Though we were once made unclean by eating at the table of demons, we have been washed and are now permitted to eat of the holy things (cp. Lev. 22:4-8).

Like Joseph, Christ is alive. Hosea 6:1-2 brings the tearing of prey into connection with resurrection. Hosea exhorted Israel to return to the Lord: He has torn, but He will revive and raise us on third day (v. 2). Christ, the True Israel, was torn, but revived. He was torn by beasts, but, as a descendent of Judah He devoured His enemies, was raised up and exalted, like Joseph, to be ruler over all.