The Bible and the Buffett Rule

As research for possible future posts, I’ve been examining money matters in the bible: how money is used, what it’s worth, taxation, and tithing. The bible says a surprising amount about money and I’m enjoying the nuances between some of the Old and New Testament ideas. If you’re crazy like I am, it’s fantastic reading.

As we enter an election season in the US, tax reform is a topic that keeps coming up. One of the reforms proposed is the so-called “Buffett Rule“. Named for billionaire Warren Buffett, it centers on the idea that the wealthy shouldn’t pay less in taxes (as a percentage) than those in the lower classes. It’s an important idea and one that has many ramifications, but if you want to learn about them I recommend finding a good economics blog.

The question that I had never thought to ask was, “Does the bible support unequal taxation of the rich and poor?” Until today.

Read on for the answer.

Excerpt from US Tax Form 1040
Excerpt from US Tax Form 1040

Yes, the bible says that rich and poor people can be taxed differently. Or at least “yes” if you take a literal reading of a specific verse:

Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering of the LORD. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the LORD, to make atonement for your souls.

Exodus 30:14-15

God has led the Israelites out of Egypt and has them camped out while he explains how to build the Tabernacle and many other important aspects. In this verse, God is explaining to Moses a “census tithe” that all must pay when they are counted so that “there be no plague among them”. God wasn’t above a little protection money, it seems!

At this stage, with Moses and Aaron as heads of the Israelite proto-government this was effectively a tax. What is curious is the reading, it’s almost as if the words are reversed. The rich, it seems, may pay LESS than one-half shekel, but not more. In contrast, the poor can pay MORE, but not less. It sounds crazy, but there is no way for a rich person to ever have to pay more for this tithe than a poor person. I am pulling the wool over your eyes, a bit. Every commentator I can find says that the key to this passage is in the preceding verse:

This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary—the shekel is twenty gerahs—half a shekel for an offering to the LORD.

Exodus 30:13

That verse says that everyone has to pay the half-shekel. Perhaps a poor person could still pay more, but that’s unlikely to happen. The only conclusion we can draw is that verses 14 and 15 are an idiomatic expression that means “both pay the same” rather than what it literally says. Translation is difficult! And so are the dangers of reading random verses out of context.

Of course, we may still consider this tax unfair because it’s a higher burden on the poor than on the rich: the poor may only have a few shekels and have to tithe much of their money for food, while the rich may hardly notice the difference. The bible later prefers a percent tax, what we might call a “flat tax,” such as in Leviticus 27:

And concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, [even] of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the LORD.

Leviticus 27:32

I hope you enjoyed this little digression.  Maybe I’ll do a “Holiday” special on taxation in the bible the next time April 15 rolls around. Now, back to researching money.

Up next: What is a shekel worth, anyway?

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