Biblical Teaching about the Tithe

March 05, 2018

by Iain Duguid

Tithes were an ancient tradition in the Bible (and more broadly in the ancient Near East). In the Book of Genesis, Abraham gave to the priest-king Melchizedek a tithe of the spoils of his war against the four kings (Gen. 14:20), while Jacob committed himself to give a tithe to the Lord of everything that he brought back with him, should he return safely from his sojourn in Paddan Aram (Gen. 28:22). In both cases, however, the tithes represent unique responses to particular providences rather than a regular, ongoing requirement for the patriarchs to give a set portion of their income to God’s work. They are more precisely vows to give to God one-tenth of the proceeds of a venture, rather than a tithe in the later sense.

Under the Mosaic economy, these voluntary offerings of a tenth were replaced by mandatory annual obligations. According to Leviticus 27:30: “Every tenth of the land’s produce, grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.” Likewise, in Numbers 18:21–24 “every tithe in Israel” is allocated to the Levites as their inheritance, as a compensation for their not being allocated a portion of the Promised Land.

The giving of tithes is assumed rather than explicitly commanded. However, the general pattern of tithes in centralized societies of the ancient Near East was as an annual tax paid to the king. It was often collected by the priests as agents of the king, and used to support the temple, which was normally a royal sanctuary belonging to the king. The tithe in Numbers 18 seems to function in a similar fashion to these “royal tithes”, since it is intended for the regular support of the servants of the Great King, the Lord himself.

A different perspective appears in Deuteronomy 14:22, where the Israelites are instructed to bring their tithe to the central sanctuary two years out of three, to be consumed as a celebratory meal. In the third year, they were to store up the food within their own towns to act as a resource from which to meet the needs not only of the Levites but also of the poor of the community. As the law stands, it only incidentally benefitted the Levites one year in three, insofar as they happened to be among the poor of the community. However, since the people would presumably be physically unable to consume 10% of their total yearly food production at the single sitting at the temple, despite their best efforts, a significant portion may have been envisaged as coming to the temple even in Deuteronomy’s version of the tithe laws.

It is because the Lord entered covenant with Israel and chose them to be his people that they were to give him tithes of all that the Promised Land produced.

The references to the tithe as an institution in the historical books reflect the realities of the monarchical and the post-exilic situation, when in addition to the priesthood there was a temple to support. This necessitated a tithe collected by the king on behalf of the temple functionaries, alongside other forms of taxation (see 1 Kings 12:4). Thus in 2 Chronicles 31:4–11, Hezekiah instructed the people to bring in their tithes, and built storehouses to contain the vast quantities that were collected. It is clear from the passage that this had not been a yearly practice on the part of the people for some time. Similarly, after the return from Babylon, Nehemiah persuaded the people to covenant together to obey God more fully, including an annual tithe to be brought to the Levites (Neh. 10:35–38). But by the time of Nehemiah 13, this provision had already fallen into disuse, and Nehemiah effectively had to begin over again (Neh. 13:4–12). No wonder that Malachi found it necessary to urge the people to bring in the full tithe to the storehouse (Mal. 3:10)! It seems that the tithe was at best practiced haphazardly through the history of Israel, which must in turn have led to great hardship amongst the Levites.

What is abundantly clear from the passages mentioned is the threefold purpose of the tithe, which was as follows:

  1. To provide for the support of those involved in full-time ministry (and of the sacrificial ministry of the temple itself);
  2. To provide for the needs of the poor in the community;
  3. To provide opportunity for celebration as God’s people together in God’s presence.

All of these obligations were expressions of the covenant relationship between the Lord and his people. The Great King had a right to demand a tithe from his people to provide for the support of his servants, the priests and the Levites. Taking care of the needs of the poor was part of the Great King’s requirement that his vassals should care for their fellow vassals, while celebrating a covenant meal together was a means of cementing the relationship between the Great King and his people.

It is because the Lord entered covenant with Israel and chose them to be his people that they were to give him tithes of all that the Promised Land produced. They did not own the land that they worked: rather, they lived as tenants in God’s land and were therefore required to render to him both the firstfruits of the land and a share of its total produce. This same collocation of the ideas of covenant and land emerges very clearly also in Malachi 3:8–12, with its assertion of blessings for obedience and curses upon the disobedient. The land of Canaan belongs to the Lord, who has given it to his covenant people. Obedience to the covenant would result in Israel experiencing the blessings of the covenant, including the fruitfulness of the land. Disobedience would lead to experiencing the curses of the covenant, namely fruitlessness for the land (see Lev. 26). One of the obligations of the covenant was annually to bring to the temple the tithe, the portion of the agricultural produce of the land which specifically belonged to the Lord.

This piece is adapted from Iain Duguid, Should Christians Tithe?: Excelling in the Grace of Giving (St. Colme’s Press, 2018). Used with permission of the publisher.

Iain Duguid

Dr. Duguid (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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