A Biblical Understanding of Tithing (Part 1: Old Testament)

Tithing is a sticky subject. It’s not a particularly popular topic to preach on. Talking about giving money in general is uncomfortable. There’s always an example of a church that tries to open up people’s wallets in order to fund a bigger building, better sound system, hipper stage, and the list goes on. Usually there’s a sermon or two on the concept of sowing and reaping, with a not-so-subtle hint thrown in about giving above and beyond your means.  At least it’s for God, right?  I’m being facetious, although that is unfortunately a fairly accurate account of what occurs at many churches.

The scripture on this topic isn’t complicated. The great spiritual truths are simple. Rather than ignore this topic, let’s delve right in and talk about it. I’m not going to give you a rah-rah speech with a superficial reference to a verse taken out of context, but rather a thorough explanation of tithing and giving as taught in the Bible. As we’ll see, what is commonly called tithing in churches today really stems from misapplying scripture. The New Testament does clearly speak on financial giving, but there is a freedom and a holy purpose to giving that is often obscured when we attempt to mandate an Mosaic Law tithing system within a New Testament context.

In this post (part 1), we’ll begin by deciphering the Old Testament system of tithing under the Mosaic law.  In part 2, we’ll bridge the gap into the New Testament and see how the heart of the Mosaic Law is fulfilled when we walk by the Holy Spirit.

Tithe Means Tenth
Before we get started, we need to understand that a tithe means one-tenth, or ten percent. Some older English translations of the Bible, such at the King James Version (KJV), specifically use the word tithe.  However, in most modern translations, you’ll notice the same word is translated tenth. A tithe and a tenth are one and the same.

The Tithe of Abram and Jacob
We are first introduced to the tithe in Genesis 14:18-20, where Abraham, still Abram at this point, meets Melchizedek king of Salem after rescuing Lot and his family. As Hebrews 7:2 explains, Melchizedek in Hebrew means “king of righteousness” and king of Salem means “king of peace.”  Such a description clearly associated Melchizedek with Jesus Christ himself, although that is a topic for a different day. After Melchizedek blessed Abram, we read that Abram “gave a tenth of all” to him.  This is the first recorded tithe in scripture.

There are two things to observe here.  First, in this particular event, the tithe was a tenth of the spoils of war. Later, we’ll see that the tithe mandated in the Mosaic Law refers specifically to food, rather than money or material goods.  Second, while this sets a good example of giving, this did not occur because a command from God.  Abram gave to honor Melchizedek, rather than under compulsion.

The second mention of tithing is found later in Genesis, after Jacob fled his home.  God appeared to Jacob and promised to greatly bless him.  Upon waking, Jacob named the field Bethel and promised to give God a tenth of all that he received. “This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.” (Genesis 28:22)  Again, this sets a good example of generosity towards God, but was not a command. The specifics of tithing as a mandate are established later, after the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt.

Tithing under the Mosaic Law
All tithes under the Mosaic Law were essentially food, whether crops or animals from the herds or flocks. It was not money, since it’s specific purpose was to be eaten, as we’ll see.

“‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD. If a man redeems any of his tithe, he must add a fifth of the value to it. The entire tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the LORD. He must not pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If he does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.”‘ (Leviticus 27:30-33)

The tithe was not something offered every week or even every month.  The tithe varied depending on what year it was during a seven-year cycle that concluded in the seventh year with a sabbath rest of the entire land. We read this instruction in Exodus 23:10, “You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it.”

The tithing system was based on a three-year cycle that repeated twice before the seventh year rest. The practice of tithing in the first and second year of the three-year period differed from the third year.  This three-year cycle then repeated once more before the seventh year, when no tithe was given.

Tithing in the First and Second Year
In the first and second year of the three-year cycle, the Israelites were to bring their tithe, along with the various offerings and gifts as prescribed the the Mosaic Law, to the temple in Jerusalem. Once there, they would actually eat their tithe before God in thanksgiving and celebration for God’s provision. For these first two years, it seems that God essentially mandated a vacation holiday. They set apart their produce like we allocate savings to have a (God-centered) party with their friends and family.

But you shall seek the LORD at the place which the LORD your God will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come. There you shall bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the contribution of your hand, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. There also you and your households shall eat before the LORD your God, and rejoice in all your undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you. (Deut. 12:5-7)

“You shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.” (Deut. 14:23)

If they could not feasibly bring their tithe to Jerusalem, they were allowed to sell their tithe and then use the money received to buy whatever food they wanted once they arrived in Jerusalem. God specifically instructed in this situation to “use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice.” (Deut. 14:26)

During these festivities they were not to forget the Levites, but were to share their food with them.  Since the Levites did not have any inheritance (which means land to cultivate crops, etc.), they could not supply their own food to eat and drink in celebration before God.

Tithing in the Third Year
In the third year, rather than traveling with their tithe to Jerusalem, the Israelites were to take the tithe and put it in storage within their towns. This tithe was specifically for those who could not provide food for themselves, namely Levites, foreigners, fatherless, and widows. The tithe here was essentially a mandated tax to be used a social safety net, to ensure those who needed it did not starve.  If you did not own land, whether being a Levite, orphan, etc., you could come a eat from the storehouse.

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Deut. 14:28-29)

After the food was brought to the storehouses, the Levites were instructed to then take a tenth of this initial tithe (or a tithe of the tithe) and bring it into the Temple.  This portion was for those working within the Temple, for the “ministering priests, the gatekeepers and the singers.”  Rather than worrying about where their next meal would come from, they could focus on serving God in all that God commanded for Temple worship.

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Levites and say to them: ‘When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the LORD’s offering. Your offering will be reckoned to you as grain from the threshing floor or juice from the winepress. In this way you also will present an offering to the LORD from all the tithes you receive from the Israelites. From these tithes you must give the LORD’s portion to Aaron the priest. You must present as the LORD’s portion the best and holiest part of everything given to you.’” (Numbers 18:25-29)

“Moreover, we will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and oil. And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all the towns where we work. A priest descended from Aaron is to accompany the Levites when they receive the tithes, and the Levites are to bring a tenth of the tithes up to the house of our God, to the storerooms of the treasury. The people of Israel, including the Levites, are to bring their contributions of grain, new wine and oil to the storerooms where the articles for the sanctuary are kept and where the ministering priests, the gatekeepers and the singers stay.” (Nehemiah 10:37-39)

The Remainder of the Seven-Year Cycle
This three-year cycle described above repeated once more.  Two years in a row they would again bring their tithe into Jerusalem and eat it in celebration before God.  The year after that they would bring their tithe to the town storehouse for the needy.  The Levites would then take a tenth of that tithe for those ministering in the Temple.  So we see the three-year cycle occurs twice, covering a six-year time frame in total.  The seventh year was a year of rest, and no tithe was given since the land was not harvested.

Prophet Malachi on Tithing
Now that we understand what tithing involves, we can apply our knowledge. One of the most common verses on tithing, found in Malachi 3, is frequently cited and abused to increase financial giving. Whenever a church needs to fund a new project, you can be confident Malachi 3 will be quoted.

“Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you10 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)

Generally, this verse will be used without explaining how the tithe worked in ancient Israel. They don’t explain that the tithe was not used to pad the wallets of ministry leaders, but to fill the bellies of the hungry. They’ll say that if you don’t give money to the church you are under a curse and if you do give, God will bless you above and beyond your wildest expectations.

However, that’s now what it means at all.  God is saying here that if the Israelites begin to act obediently by providing food for the hungry, God will begin to bless them again. This is consistent with what we know about God throughout all of scripture.  When the Israelites were disobedient, God would place them under a curse in order to turn them back in repentance to Himself. The disobedience seen here in Malachi was the clear neglect of widows, orphans, foreigners, and Levites who had no land of their own.

Summary of Part 1
There are two clear purposes for tithing under the Mosaic Law.  The heart of these concepts can be easily applied within our own lives and our churches. However, as we’ve seen, the specifics of the tithing regulations are far different than anything we would normally associate with tithing. I don’t know the last time a pastor instructed his congregants to use their tithes to buy food and have a giant pot-luck feast in the church.

The two key take-aways from the Mosaic tithing system are:

  1. Tithing encouraged people to truly give thanks to God for all He gives us. God found pleasure when the people truly rested and enjoyed His provisions.
  2. God cares for the needy. He instructed that a tithe be set apart for those who could not easily provide food for themselves.

We’ll bring these concepts back around in the part 2, where we’ll begin to look at the New Testament instructions on giving.  There is a consistency between the heart of the Mosaic commands and God’s will for us in the Spirit as we’ll see.

4 thoughts on “A Biblical Understanding of Tithing (Part 1: Old Testament)

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