The question of tithing continues to be a controversial issue in the church today. Many church leaders teach that it is required for all Christians to give a tithe (one tenth) of all their income (either before or after tax), while others teach that tithing was a requirement under the Old Covenant, which is not renewed in the New Testament, and therefore is not binding on Christians.
The purpose of this article is to look at the passages in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy to determine what the tithing requirement was for the Israelites in Old Testament times. We will see that the requirement was more complicated than a simple ten percent belonging to the Lord, as there were several different tithes which were used for different purposes. For each passage it is necessary to determine what the Israelites actually were required to give, and what the tithe was to be used for, before we can decide how to apply the laws to today’s church.
Leviticus and Numbers
The setting of both the book of Leviticus and the book of Numbers was in the wilderness. At this time the Israelites had recently come out of bondage in Egypt, and were now living a nomadic life in the wilderness, dependent on God’s provision through the daily supply of manna. In this setting no provision was made for the poor, as all of the people of Israel were equally dependent on God’s supernatural provision for their daily requirements. Each of the tribes of Israel were to set up their camp in designated places, with the tabernacle in their centre. “They shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side” (Num 2:2). The remainder of Numbers chapter two gives detailed instructions of the layout of the camp. In this way, the sanctuary was in the centre, and every tribe and clan was in easy walking distance of the sanctuary.
30 All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord's; they are holy to the LORD. 31 If persons wish to redeem any of their tithes, they must add one-fifth to them. 32 All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd's staff, shall be holy to the LORD. 33 Let no one inquire whether it is good or bad, or make substitution for it; if one makes substitution for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy and cannot be redeemed.
Tithes from two different sources are mentioned here: 1) the tithe from the land; and 2) the tithe of the herd (cows) and flock (sheep and goats). The tithe from the land is from the harvest of the grain grown on the ground and from the fruit grown on the trees. So in this case the tithe is from the income, rather than the capital.
All tithes from the land are holy to the Lord because they belong to God. This is the theological basis for tithing. Because God is the Creator, all things belong to him, and are holy to him. God also sustains and is in control of his creation. Ultimately he has power over their production of food and it is He who gives wealth to his people. “Remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the power to get wealth” (Deut 8:18).
However if any wish to redeem their tithe (buy it back) perhaps after rashly making a vow they later regretted, they need to add twenty percent to its value.
The tithe of the herd (cows) or flock (sheep or goats) was the tenth animal. This tithe is of their capital, as they didn’t have to tithe the milk or the wool. The first nine animals were to be kept by their owner, and the tenth one given to the Lord. Evidently if a person only had nine animals or fewer, then he kept them all. This would ease the pressure on poorer people who only owned a small number of animals, but would impose a higher burden on the rich. Because it is impossible to divide animals into an exact ten percent, every tenth animal was given. The tithe would then work like this: if a person owned 1 to 9 animals, none was given; 11 to 19, one was given; 21 to 29, two were given; 31 to 39, three were given ... No distinction was to made over the standard of the animal. The tenth animal, whether good or bad, belonged to the Lord. They were to let the animals pass by in random order. They were not to check them before counting, so they would not be tempted to give all the sub-standard animals to the Lord. Once passed the shepherd’s staff, the animals were not to be exchanged. If anyone was caught trying to substitute an animal, then both became holy to the Lord, both will be given to the Lord.
There is no mention of any requirement of tithing any other commodity or foodstuff, like fish from the lakes or rivers, wild game, birds, or any other vegetables. It does not say in this passage what the tithe was used for, apart from it belonging to the Lord and being holy. This may mean that this passage gives the general principle of tithing and instructions to determine how the animals for all the different tithes should be selected.
21 To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for a possession in return for the service that they perform, the service in the tent of meeting. 22 From now on the Israelites shall no longer approach the tent of meeting, or else they will incur guilt and die. 23 But the Levites shall perform the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear responsibility for their own offenses; it shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations. But among the Israelites they shall have no allotment, 24 because I have given to the Levites as their portion the tithe of the Israelites, which they set apart as an offering to the LORD. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no allotment among the Israelites.
Tithes were to be given to the Levites. Only those from the tribe of Levi were permitted to approach the tent of meeting. Any other Israelite who came near to God’s presence would incur guilt and die in their uncleanness. When Israel entered the Promised Land, the Levites were given no allocation of land and therefore had no source of income or any way of growing their own food, so this tithe was their possession, in return for the service they gave to the Lord in the tabernacle. They were dependent on the tithes of the people for their living.
25 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 26 You shall speak to the Levites, saying: When you receive from the Israelites the tithe that I have given you from them for your portion, you shall set apart an offering from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe. 27 It shall be reckoned to you as your gift, the same as the grain of the threshing floor and the fullness of the wine press. 28 Thus you also shall set apart an offering to the LORD from all the tithes that you receive from the Israelites; and from them you shall give the Lord's offering to the priest Aaron. 29 Out of all the gifts to you, you shall set apart every offering due to the LORD; the best of all of them is the part to be consecrated. 30 Say also to them: When you have set apart the best of it, then the rest shall be reckoned to the Levites as produce of the threshing floor, and as produce of the wine press. 31 You may eat it in any place, you and your households; for it is your payment for your service in the tent of meeting. 32 You shall incur no guilt by reason of it, when you have offered the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy gifts of the Israelites, on pain of death.
The Levites were to receive tithes from the people, as commanded in the previous passage. Of this tithe, they were to give a further tithe to the priests, a tithe of the tithe. The priests were of the family of Aaron within the tribe of Levi (Ex 28:1). The rest of the tribe of Levi served in practical ways in the tabernacle (Num 4). The tithe for the priests is to be the best portion, set apart as an offering to the Lord, to be eaten by the priests and their households wherever they wish. This instruction only mentions tithes from grain and wine, not animals. Presumably the priests received their meat from their portions of the sacrifices (eg. Lev 6:29). Again, because they had no land allocation, they unable to grow their own food, so this tithe is again to be seen as their payment for their service in the tabernacle.
The book of Deuteronomy consists of a series of messages given by Moses to the second generation of Israelites who had grown up in the wilderness, just before they entered the Promised Land. They were soon to live a more settled life based on agriculture, and would be dispersed over a far larger area of territory. For this reason, the instructions for the tithes were modified, with provision now being made for the poor, and for people living at far greater distances from the central sanctuary.
5 But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, 6 bringing there you burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. 7 And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you.
8 You shall not act as we are acting here today, all of us according to our own desires, 9 for you have not yet come into the rest and the possession that the LORD your God is giving you. 10 When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is allotting to you, and when he gives you rest from your enemies all around so that you live in safety, 11 then you shall bring everything that I command you to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, and all your choice and votive gifts that you vow to the LORD. 12 And you shall rejoice together with your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, and the Levites who reside in your towns (since they have no allotment or inheritance with you).
This passage in Deuteronomy looks forward to the time when there will be a central sanctuary, at the place the Lord will choose. This would initially be at Shiloh, and eventually be in Jerusalem (Mt. Zion). Because many people will live at considerable distances from this point, different commandments will be necessary. All their offerings and tithes should only be brought to the central sanctuary, the place the Lord will choose. Only there they will they be permitted to eat in the presence of the Lord and rejoice, the tithe is not to be eaten in their own towns (12:17). We should notice they will bring their tithes to the Lord, and then eat them, with rejoicing, together with their families, their slaves and the Levites.
This continues from the previous passage where the overall theme is that the worship of Yahweh shall only take place in the place that the Lord will choose. They may kill clean animals and eat their meat in their own town (after pouring out the blood), but they may only eat the tithe in the presence of God at the place that he will choose (the central sanctuary).
22 Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. 23 In the presence of the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24 But if, when the LORD your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the LORD your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, 25 then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in your hand, go to the place that the LORD your God will choose; 26 spend the money for whatever you wish - oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household together. 27 As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you.
They are to bring their tithes to the place the Lord will choose as his sanctuary. There they are to eat the tithe before Lord and rejoice, which will involve worship as well as fellowship with each other. They are enjoy the presence of God and of each other, and learn to fear the Lord always.
If the people live too far away from the central sanctuary, then they should turn tithe into money by selling the grain, animals or strong drink. It is possible they would have been required to add the twenty percent for redeeming the tithe (Lev 30:33). They should then take the money to the place the Lord will choose, buy whatever they desire, and eat in presence of Lord and rejoice. In this rejoicing they are again reminded not to neglect the Levite who has no land allotment and therefore no income.
The surprising truth about this tithe is that the people ate it themselves, in a time of great rejoicing and fellowship with God and each other. With the tithe money, they could chose to buy whatever they wished to eat and drink and enjoy it while they enjoyed the fellowship with each other in the presence of the Lord. They were even permitted to use the tithe to buy strong drink, which presumably would be alcoholic. This hardly sounds like a heavy religious burden, but rather more of an invitation to a party!
28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have not allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
Every third year they were to take a tithe of their produce, lay it up within all their towns, so the Levite, stranger, fatherless and widow may have food to eat. This would become an emergency store of food for those in need, those unable to work to produce their own food. If they did this, the Lord will bless them in their labours. This tithe is specifically for the Levities, as well as the widows and orphans and others who do not have an income, like foreigners. The institution of this tithe shows the concern God has for the poor and needy, as well as for the strangers. The resident aliens would be people who were not Israelites by birth, but Gentiles who lived together with Israel and worshipped Israel’s God. So we can even see an evangelistic purpose in the tithing laws.
It is probably this tithe that the prophet Malachi referred to, when he accused the people of robbing God (Mal 3:8-12). He called the people to bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so there may be food in God’s house, the temple. The storehouse was a supply of food for the poor, the orphans and widows, to prevent them from starving. If this tithe was not brought, the poor would suffer.
12 When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, 13 then you shall say before the LORD your God: "I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with you entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments: 14 I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not removed any of it while I was unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the LORD my God, doing just as you commanded me. 15 Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors - a land flowing with milk and honey".
This instruction repeats and expands the previous instruction. Every third year, known as the year of the tithe, there is to be a tithe for the poor, the needy and the strangers. This was called the sacred portion, mentioned in a solemn declaration people made to the Lord as they showed their personal devotion to Yahweh.
Summary of the laws
As we read the Law of Moses, it is not completely clear how many tithes there were, or exactly how often each one had to be given. Many Jewish Rabbis said there were three:
1. The feast tithe, eaten by person themselves and their family in a feast at the sanctuary.
2. The tithe for the Levites, who would in turn tithe to the priests.
3. The poor tithe, to be stored up for the poor, specifically the widows, orphans and strangers
It is possible that the poor tithe was in place of the first tithe on the third and sixth year of each sabbatical period. There would have been no tithe in the Sabbath year, as no crops had been grown (Lev 25:2-7). In this case, the following pattern would be observed:
|years one and two
||the feast tithe
||the poor tithe
|years four and five
||the feast tithe
||the poor tithe
||the Sabbath year with no tithe
In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus describes the different tithes they had to give. This gives a higher expectation, with two or even three tithes paid each year:
"Besides those two tithes, which I have already said you are to pay every year, the one for the Levites, the other for the festivals, you are to bring every third year a third tithe to be distributed to those that want; to women also that are widows, and to children that are orphans." (Ant 4.8.22).
This would suggest that tithe for Levites and for festivals had to be paid every year, with an additional tithe every the third year for the poor. So in years one to six, two tithes had to be paid, making twenty percent, with an extra tithe every third year, making thirty percent.
In the apocryphal book of Tobit, he boasts in his righteousness in bringing the required number of tithes to Jerusalem: "But I alone went often to Jerusalem for the festivals, as it is prescribed for all Israel by an everlasting decree. I would hurry off to Jerusalem with the first fruits of the crops and the firstlings of the flock, the tithes of the cattle, and the first shearings of the sheep. I would give these to the priests, the sons of Aaron, at the altar; likewise a tenth of the grain, wine, olive oil, pomegranates, figs, and the rest of the fruits to the sons of Levi who ministered at Jerusalem. Also for six years I would save up a second tenth in money and go and distribute it in Jerusalem. A third tenth I would give to the orphans and widows and to the converts who had attached themselves to Israel. I would bring it and give it to them in the third year, and we would eat it according to the ordinance decreed concerning it in the law of Moses and according to the instructions of Deborah, the mother of my father Tobiel, for my father had died and left me an orphan." (Tobit 1:6-8). Evidently he brought three tithes. One was animals and food given to the priests and sons of Levi in Jerusalem. A second was money distributed in Jerusalem for six years of the sabbatical cycle, and the third was in the third year, for the orphans, widows and strangers, which they would eat together in fellowship.
What is clear was that there three tithes, although it is not absolutely clear how often each was expected to be brought. The first tithe was eaten in a feast at the sanctuary, a second was given to the Levites, who in turn tithed to the priests, and a third was given to the poor.
Application to Christian life today
In the application of the tithing laws, the tendency today is to emphasise the ten percent, while paying little attention to what the tithe was used for. I would suggest that the tithing laws teach us more of who to give to, rather stipulating how much to give.
It is difficult to justify the use the law of Moses to impose a standard requirement to give a ten percent tithe from a person’s income, as the Israelites probably had to give twenty or even thirty percent in some years. Also the tithing laws are not repeated as a requirement in the New Testament. When Paul was taking a financial offering for the poor saints in Jerusalem he failed to make any mention of tithing (2 Cor 8-9). His fundamental principle in these two chapters was that giving should be voluntary and generous. Each believer should make up his or her own mind before God how much to give, without pressure or legalism, and be generous. “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor 9:7)
When seeking to apply the law of Moses we need to avoid legalism, but also need to avoid the opposite extreme of throwing away the law altogether. Even if it is not our covenant, and not binding on Christians, the law of Moses is still part of the inspired writings of Scripture, and there is great wisdom we can draw from it and apply to today. Instead of telling us a fixed percentage to give, the laws on tithing give some helpful wisdom concerning whom could benefit from money we donate to the Lord’s work.
1. The first tithe eaten by the worshipper at the sanctuary.
The nearest equivalent to this tithe today is a believer attending church to worship God, to benefit from the teaching of the church, as well as enjoying the fellowship with other believers. Each believer receives spiritual benefit from attending church meetings, so it is right that each should contribute towards the expenses of running the fellowship. This would include the money for maintaining and heating the building, the salary of the minister or pastor, as well as money for other church events, such as celebration meals and outreach initiatives.
2. The second tithe for the Levities and priests
The Levites and priests had no other source of income, but were people who looked to God to provide their income as they served him. The equivalent today are people who are serving God in full-time ministry but who do not receive a salary. This would particularly be believers who are serving God as missionaries, whether overseas or in their own country. It is important for each believer to have a heart for missions and to take an interest in what God is doing in different nations. An effective way of doing this is to give regular support to an individual missionary or to donate to a mission agency.
3. The poor tithe
Through the reading of the law of Moses it clear that God had a special concern for the poor, the widows and the orphans, those people who for different reasons were lacking their everyday needs. Today many of the poor are in the developing countries, and need help from the more affluent western nations. One very effective way of doing this is through sponsoring a child in a developing country, especially through a Christian agency where they are providing for their physical needs, giving them an education, as well as presenting the Gospel to them and their families.
In conclusion, the tithing laws of the Old Testament teach us that when considering their financial giving, Christians should be contributing towards the running of their own fellowship, they should give to the Lord’s work in missions, and help the poor. How much they give is a decision they must make privately before the Lord, but it should be voluntary and generous as they are led by the Holy Spirit.
Ashley, T.R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1993.
Carpenter, E.E. “Tithe” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE). Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1988.
Craigie, P.C. The Book of Deuteronomy. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1976.
Harrison, R.K. Leviticus, An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Leicester 1980.
Thompson, J.A. Deuteronomy, An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Leicester 1974.
Wenham, G.J. The Book of Leviticus. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1979.