This will be the first installment on a series on giving. I pray that we all will be blessed by what the Word of God’s teaches us about giving. First we need to take a look at a few concepts before taking a deeper look. The first thing we will discuss is tithing.
Because tithing can be a very touchy subject within the church, we’ll approach it in a very biblical and systematic way. We will first take a look at what a “tithe” really is, and then we will examine what the Old Testament actually teaches about the subject.
What is the “tithe”?
The word “tithe” simply means “a tenth” or “tenth part”. It can be a tenth of agricultural produce or income that is offered to God or paid as a tax for the support of a ruling priesthood. Tithing was not just a concept that was only known to the Israelites, in fact many pagans incorporated tithing into their worship.
In our discussion on tithing, we will focus on what God has commanded in the bible.
When was tithing commanded in the bible?
There were actually several tithes that the Israelites were required to pay.
In Leviticus 27:30-32 we read, “Thus all the tithe of the land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord. If, therefore, a man wishes to redeem part of his tithe, he shall add to it one-fifth of it. For every tenth part of herd or flock, whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD.”
In Numbers 18:21-32, regarding the same tithe we read:
To the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting. The sons of Israel shall not come near the tent of meeting again, or they will bear sin and die. Only the Levites shall perform the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity; it shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the sons of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the sons of Israel, which they offer as an offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance; therefore I have said concerning them, they shall have no inheritance among the sons of Israel. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, moreover, you shall speak to the Levites and say to them, when you take from the sons of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present an offering from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe. Your offering shall be reckoned to you as the grain from the threshing floor or the full produce from the wine vat. So you shall also present an offering to the LORD from your tithes, which you receive from the sons of Israel; and from it you shall give the LORD’S offering to Aaron the priest. Out of all your gifts you shall present every offering due to the LORD, from all the best of them, the sacred part from them. You shall say to them, ‘When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be reckoned to the Levites as the product of the threshing floor, and as the product of the wine vat. You may eat it anywhere, you and your households, for it is your compensation in return for your service in the tent of meeting. You will bear no sin by reason of it when you have offered the best of it. But you shall not profane the sacred gifts of the sons of Israel, or you will die.
God appointed the Levites to be the priests of Israel. They were to run the temple and lead the nation of Israel in its judicial and governmental functions – since Israel was a theocracy (a nation governed by God). They had no other occupations and did not receive an inheritance of land like the other tribes (cf Leviticus 14:27). Consequently, the tithe that we see in the two passages above served to support the Levites – the same way a portion of our income taxes support our elected officials and civil servants in the United States. This tithe was due every year to support those who ran the government.
We read about another tithe in Deuteronomy 12:10-11, 17-18:
When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security,then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your God will choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the LORD… You are not allowed to eat within your gates the tithe of your grain or new wine or oil, or the firstborn of your herd or flock, or any of your votive offerings which you vow, or your freewill offerings, or the contribution of your hand. But you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God will choose, you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all your undertakings.
We also see the same command reiterated in Deuteronomy 14:22-26:
You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. 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. If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the LORD your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the LORD your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.
This second tithe was designed to support all of the national religious festivals that God would later ordain to take place in Jerusalem (“the place in which the Lord your God will choose for His name to dwell”). As John MacArthur states so well, “The second tithe was for the sake of the Jews’ national religious worship, and it also promoted national unity and fellowship” (Whose Money Is It, Anyway?, pp 106-7). This was also an annual offering.
There is a third tithe that is listed in Deuteronomy 14:28-29, “At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.”
Again, we find the same command in Deuteronomy 26:12, “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.”
This is commonly referred to as the “welfare tithe”. As we can see from the passage, every third and sixth year (of the 7-year sabbatical cycle) they were to bring a tenth of their produce from that year to the town storehouse. This offering went to support those who were not able to provide for themselves; orphans, widows, immigrants and the Levites.
Tithing is definitely something that was commanded in the bible. We weren’t even able to get passed the first five books of the bible without coming across numerous guidelines regarding tithing.
Since there was more than one tithe commanded, how much did each Israelite have to pay?
As we can see, there were actually three “tithes” that the nation of Israel was commanded to give.
- To support the religious and governmental leaders (Levites) – 10% each year.
- To support the national religious feasts and festivals held annually in Jerusalem – 10% each year.
- To support those who were unable to provide for themselves (widows, orphans, immigrants, etc) – 10% every 3rd and 6th year (in the 7-year cycle).
This averages out to about 23.33% in taxes or “tithes” each year!
There were also other taxes commanded in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 19:9-10 we read, “Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God.”
This has been referred to as a profit-sharing tax. Here the Israelites were commanded to not harvest their field up to the very corners, nor to pick up fruit that had fallen, but to leave it for immigrants and others in need (we can see this is practice in Ruth 2:8-23).
Exodus 23:10-11 gives us another command that God gave regarding harvesting; “You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.”
God commanded that every seventh year the people had to allow their fields to rest. This was so the needy could gather whatever was left, and seemed to serve as a benefit to the soil as well. The implication of this command was that the people were not able to earn any money through farming crops nor were they able to harvest for their own sustenance. This meant that they had to be careful to store up what they needed in the previous year(s).
Every male over the age of 20 was required to pay a temple tax as commanded in Exodus 30:13-14, “This is what everyone who is numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as a contribution to the Lord. Everyone who is numbered, from twenty years old and over, shall give the contribution to the Lord.” (cf Matthew 17:24)
It has been estimated that these last few taxes bring the average to over 25% per year! – far more than the 10% that we are used to hearing about. This percentage is pretty close to what many around the globe pay in taxes to support their governments. Keep in mind that these were not voluntary gifts to God, but requirements to fund the government of Israel. The confusion is usually made because Israel was a theocracy (again this simply means that God was their ruler and they had no earthly king) and the priests served as the government officials.
***So, what we see in the Old Testament is that the tithe was the national income tax of Israel. Those taxes supported the government, national festivals and the needy. As we will see in another article, the people gave voluntary, sacrificial, heartfelt gifts on top of the tithes and offerings listed above (cf Exodus 36:3-7).***
Ultimately, if we desire to be faithful to God in our giving we need to understand what He really commands from us. Over the next few days we will look at these topics in more detail:
- What does the New Testament teach about tithing?
- What about the instances of tithing that pre-date the Law of Moses?
- A closer look at the situation in Malachi’s day!
- What does the bible teach about voluntary, heartfelt giving?
Hopefully, at the end of this series we will all have a better understanding on what the bible really teaches about giving for all Christians.
Do you have any questions on tithing or giving that you would like to be addressed in this series? Do you have any questions on anything in this article? Feel free to leave a comment below.