Tithing and Giving

Note:  I originally wrote this article back in February of 2012 on my old blog.  This subject came up recently in a class I was teaching, and I thought this would be a good time to post it here on my current site.  Since the main goal is to bring a clear definition to the word “tithe” I have decided to file it under my Christian Dictionary category.


There are many different types of offerings described in the Bible. In the Old Testament, instructions are given for tithes (Deut 14:22), wave offerings (Ex 29:27), burnt offerings (Lev 9:16), first fruits (Lev 23:9-14), and sin offerings (Num 29:11), just to mention a few.

In the New Testament, instructions are given for free will offerings (2 Cor 9:7), and there are many examples of being generous and sharing with others (Acts 2:44-45).

Problems and confusion come in when you mix and match the different offerings and their associated instructions, selecting which parts to keep and which parts to ignore. The purpose of this study is to examine the offering known as tithing, giving an overview of the practice as it is defined in the Bible.

Before I continue, I want to be clear about my intention in writing this. It is aimed at people who are struggling with difference between tithing under the Old Covenant, and giving under the New Covenant.  For the record, I strongly believe that giving to various causes, organizations, and individuals are all God-honoring activities, and my wife and I practice this as a part of our walk with Christ.  God is very very generous, and I believe that giving and sharing are some of the ways the children of God can reflect His generous nature through their own physical actions.

The Questions I am Answering

The questions I am hoping to answer are: What is tithing? Is it just another word for giving? Are Christians supposed to tithe? If so, how does it work? Do any (or all) of the rules for tithing in the Old Testament apply to Christians today?

Here is what I used to think and do:

We are to give God our first fruit…a tenth of our gross income. It should be the starting point, but we can and should go beyond that with freewill offerings. The tithe should be the first line item in our budget. It is a way to thank God for what he has provided for us. We are to give our tithe to our local church/assembly, or to the Christian organization or individual(s) who are “feeding” us. There are blessings that come to us when we tithe, and many times those are financial blessings that come in a variety of ways, both natural and supernatural. Tithing is a principle that precedes the Law (Abraham with Melchizidek in Genesis 14), and even Jesus told people to tithe (Mat 23). Even if someone doesn’t have enough money to pay their bills, they should still tithe on their income, and trust God or the church to help fill in the gap.

During my study of this subject, I have found that the tithe is something very different than what I just described. Giving generously is good, but it is not the same thing as tithing. I will take a few passages and point out some areas where corrections were in order for me.

My Plan

One of the first things I learned as I dug into this subject was that the biblical description for tithing is quite complex, and there is not consensus even among Jewish scholars on some of the details. I spent many hours trying to find the areas where there is the most agreement among the Hebrew scholars.

In this study, I am not attempting to explain every jot and tittle.  That would require a book rather than a blog post. Instead, I hope to give an overview that briefly explains the main points, and how those points agree with or differ from what is generally taught today.

Depending on how you count them, there are three different tithes that were used for three different purposes. First, I will cover those three different tithes.  Next I will add some additional information that I found to be helpful.

I will divide this document into the following sections:

1 – Tithe Number 1:  Levitical Tithe
2 – Tithe Number 2:  Priest Tithe
3 – Tithe Number 3:  Festival Tithe
4 – Abram and Melchizedek
5 – Jacob’s Vow
6 – Tithing in Christian History
7 – New Testament Christian Giving
8 – Summary

1 – Tithe Number 1:  The Levitical Tithe

(a tithe for support of the Levites)

Numbers 18:21-24
21 “Behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance in return for the work which they perform, the work of the tabernacle of meeting.
22 Hereafter the children of Israel shall not come near the tabernacle of meeting, lest they bear sin and die.
23 But the Levites shall perform the work of the tabernacle of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity; it shall be a statute forever, throughout your generations, that among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.
24 For the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer up as a heave offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites as an inheritance; therefore I have said to them, ‘Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.’”

Leviticus 27:30-33
30 And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD’s. It is holy to the LORD.
31 If a man wants at all to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add one-fifth to it.
32 And concerning the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD.
33 He shall not inquire whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it; and if he exchanges it at all, then both it and the one exchanged for it shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.’”

A Levite is defined as a descendant of Levi.  Levi was one of the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel, and his offspring, down through the generations were the Levites..one of the 12 tribes of Israel.  When the people of Israel came to the promised land, the Levites were not given a parcel of land as an inheritance in the land of Israel, but they were provided for by other means. Many of the different offerings that people brought to the Lord were actually used as food for the Levites. This “Levitical Tithe” is one of these offerings, along with the heave offerings, wave offerings, meat offerings, and so on.

According to the instructions in this passage, one tenth of the tither’s produce and livestock was to be set aside to provide food for the Levites. However, if the tither wanted to keep the food, he was allowed to give the value of the food in money, as long as he added “a fifth” to it (Lev 27:31). This means if you raised goats, and you wanted to keep all of them, you could give money instead of goats as long as you gave 120% of their value.

This brings up a very important thing to pay attention to.  Note that the tither can give money in place of food in this case, but he would have to pay an extra 20%. So, this tithe is not ten percent of all of your money/income. It is only ten percent of your produce and livestock (or the equivalent value of those goods in money, plus an extra 20%).

You will see below that all three categories of the commanded tithes consisted of food, not money. Money is allowed a replacement for the value of the food, but they were not commanded to give a tenth of all their money…just a tenth of the increase of their produce and livestock.

The fact that the tithe was always food is one of the keys to understanding all of this.  It is an important point to remember, and it is consistent in every passage where instructions are given, including the “mint, dill, and cumin” that Jesus mentioned in Matthew 23.  As strange as this may sound, when you hear the word tithe, you should think food rather than money.

Remember that there were many other sources of income in those days, but there are no instructions for craftsmen, for example, to give a tenth of their paycheck.  The tithe was never defined in those terms.

It is also interesting to look at the way the animals are supposed to be chosen for the tithe. Consider these two verses again from Leviticus 27 (emphasis added):

Leviticus 27:32-33
32 And concerning the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD.
33 He shall not inquire whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it; and if he exchanges it at all, then both it and the one exchanged for it shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.’”

The tither is specifically instructed not to choose the best animal, or the first animal.  Whatever animal goes under the rod in tenth place is the one that goes to the Levites. So, if the tither were to go out and pick the best cow for the tithe, then technically he would be acting in disobedience.  He has to let them walk under the rod, and then choose the tenth one, whether it is the best one or not.

Also consider that if the tither only has nine cows, then he is not supposed to give anything. If he only had a few animals, he was not required to give at all.

If you do not farm or raise livestock as your primary occupation, then you are largely exempt from this tithe except for whatever food you grow to live on. Again, there were other professions in the days when these commands were given (weavers, blacksmiths, craftsmen, laborers, etc), and there are other offerings besides the tithe that provided nearly all people the opportunity to participate in giving in some way.

How would this tithe be applied today? Farmers and gardeners would give food to the Levites for support while they are busy doing their Levitical duties in and around temple and the land of Israel. However, since there is no temple, and there are no practicing Levites, there is no one alive on earth now that can lawfully receive this tithe.

In fact, tithing is no longer observed in Judaism. You can verify this (as I did) by calling your local synagogue and asking them if they practice tithing. The answer will be no. The covenant people that received the command to tithe no longer practice tithing.

2 – Tithe Number 2:  The Priest Tithe

(the tithe given to the Priests from the Levites)

Numbers 18:25-32
25 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
26 “Speak thus to the Levites, and say to them: ‘When you take from the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them as your inheritance, then you shall offer up a heave offering of it to the LORD, a tenth of the tithe.
27 And your heave offering shall be reckoned to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor and as the fullness of the winepress.
28 Thus you shall also offer a heave offering to the LORD from all your tithes which you receive from the children of Israel, and you shall give the LORD’s heave offering from it to Aaron the priest.
29 Of all your gifts you shall offer up every heave offering due to the LORD, from all the best of them, the consecrated part of them.’
30 Therefore you shall say to them: ‘When you have lifted up the best of it, then the rest shall be accounted to the Levites as the produce of the threshing floor and as the produce of the winepress.
31 You may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward for your work in the tabernacle of meeting.
32 And you shall bear no sin because of it, when you have lifted up the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy gifts of the children of Israel, lest you die.’”

In this tithe, the Levites were to set apart a tenth of what they had received from the people in the previously mentioned Levitical tithe, and give that tenth to the priests.

A priest is defined as a descendant of Aaron. Since Aaron was a Levite, the priests are actually a subset of the Levites. They were the ones who did most of their work in the actual tabernacle.

Note that only Levites are required to give this tithe.

In contrast to the previous instructions, the Levites were told to choose the best of everything they had received from the people, and use that as a tithe to the priests.

Note the end of this passage, where there is a stern warning to the Levites regarding how this tithe is handled. This should give some perspective to the often misapplied quote from Malachi 3:8-12, where the Levites appear to be the primary focus of the rebuke.

This practice is no longer in place today for reasons similar to the Levitical tithe. There are no practicing Levites, so there is no Levitical tithe. Therefore, there is no tithe from the Levites to the priests.

3 – Tithe Number 3:  The Festival Tithe

Deuteronomy 14:22-29
22 “You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year.
23 And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.
24 But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you,
25 then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.
26 And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.
27 You shall not forsake the Levite who is within your gates, for he has no part nor inheritance with you.
28 “At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates.
29 And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.

According to this passage, this tithe is defined as another tenth of the increase of the tither’s livestock and produce that he is to set aside for specific purposes. The actual use of the tithe is described in this passage as a cycle of three years.

  • Years 1 and 2 (v 23-26): The tither is supposed to set aside a tenth of the increase of his produce and livestock, and take it with him as he goes to the place the Lord chooses. Then he and the members his household will eat it themselves. He is not to give this tithe away to anyone. If the destination is too far away, or if it is too difficult or cumbersome to transport all of the food, then he can sell it and just carry the money instead. When he arrives at the place of the feast, he can buy whatever his heart desires…even alcohol (wine). He and his family are supposed to have a celebration with this tithe, and he should also be willing share it with the Levites who are there.
  • Year 3:(v 27-28) The tither is supposed to give a tithe away to Levites, orphans, widows, and people who need help.

Here are some points to consider about the festival tithe:

1 – If we are supposed to be tithing, then it appears that we have been neglecting a large part of the instructions, especially the part about using our tithe to hold a celebration.

2 – This tithe is not money, but it can be exchanged for money to make travel easier. The actual tithe itself is actually just food from your gardens and fields.

Since Christians are not instructed to keep the feasts of Israel (Colossians 2:16), then this tithe does not apply to Christians either.

The Law was not a set of suggestions that could be modified as needed depending on the circumstances. The instructions for the tithe is a part of the Law, and it is a command for those under the Law. It makes no sense to those that are not participating in the Old Testament system of Levites, priests, and festivals because it has no purpose outside of that context.

That concludes the definitions of the three different tithes that the Lord instructed the Israelites to observe. Next is a collection of other topics that relate to the subject of tithing.

4 – Abram and Melchizedek

Genesis 14:18-24
18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High.
19 And he blessed him and said:
“ Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
20 And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
And he gave him a tithe of all.
21 Now the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the goods for yourself.”
22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth,
23 that I will take nothing, from a thread to a sandal strap, and that I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’—
24 except only what the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men who went with me: Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their portion.”

In this story, Abram has gone to battle to rescue his nephew who had been kidnapped. Abram was successful, and as part of his victory he won various spoils and captives.

In the passage above, Abram meets a priest who blesses him. Abram responds by giving the priest a tithe (tenth) of all of the spoils of the victory, and then giving the other 90 percent of the spoils to the people who went with him to battle. He kept nothing for himself.  He did not give a tenth of all his income for the year.  It as just a tenth of the spoils of the battle he won.

Since this story happened long before the Law (and the included ordinances concerning tithing) was given, this passage is sometimes used to imply that tithing is an eternal principle that exists outside of the Law and applies to us today.  There are several big problems with that logic, however.

1 – Abram was not commanded to give this tithe.
2 – Abram gave away 100 percent of his “increase.” 10% to Melchizedek, and 90% to other people.
3 – Abram did not return to Salem and repeat this offering weekly, monthly, annually, or ever again as far as we know.
4 – Circumcision also predates the giving of the Law, but circumcision is not required of Christians. So, the fact that a practice predates the Law has no bearing on whether or not it should apply Christians.

 

5 – Jacob’s Vow

Genesis 28:20-22
20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on,
21 so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God.
22 And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.”

In contrast to the commands in the law, and to the example of Abram and Melchizedek, Jacob sets the conditions of a bargain he is attempting to make with God. He is saying that if God will give him the things asks for, he will respond by giving a tenth of what he is provided with.

In my opinion, this behavior is not a standard we should emulate. We are not in a position that we make bargains with God. That is not the way our relationship with Him works.

6 – Tithing in Christian History

According to the Catholic encyclopedia, tithing was not introduced into Christianity until the sixth century. Here is a quote from the encyclopedia that shows the reason it was introduced.

In the Christian Church, as those who serve the altar should live by the altar (1 Corinthians 9:13), provision of some kind had necessarily to be made for the sacred ministers. In the beginning this was supplied by the spontaneous offerings of the faithful. In the course of time, however, as the Church expanded and various institutions arose, it became necessary to make laws which would insure the proper and permanent support of the clergy. The payment of tithes was adopted from the Old Law, and early writers speak of it as a divine ordinance and an obligation of conscience. The earliest positive legislation on the subject seems to be contained in the letter of the bishops assembled at Tours in 567 and the canons of the Council of Maçon in 585. In course of time, we find the payment of tithes made obligatory by ecclesiastical enactments in all the countries of Christendom. The Church looked on this payment as “of divine law, since tithes were instituted not by man but by the Lord Himself” (C. 14, X de decim. III, 30).
-from the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry for tithes

Tithing as we know it today in Christianity was put in place to help finance the expansion of the “various institutions” and to help support the clergy.  It was not applied to Christians because of instruction from the Lord or from scripture.  Rather, the clergy needed a way to raise funds, so they found something in the Old Covenant and applied it to the believers under the New Covenant.

Christianity survived 500+ years without putting a system of tithing on the believers.  It is only a part of the Christian tradition now because people needed money, and they found a way to get people to give more of it by choosing bits and pieces of various Old Covenant rules.

7 – New Testament Christian Giving

A full study on this topic is beyond the scope of this document. However, Paul gives us some good principles of free will giving in 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9. I will attempt to summarize it briefly below, but I encourage you to read those chapters on your own and form your own opinion. As you read, look for answers to these three related questions:

1 – What was the purpose of the giving?
2 – What is the proper motive for the giving?
3 – Were they told to give ten percent of their income to their local church body?

In 2 Corinthians, Paul was taking up a collection to help believers in Jerusalem that were facing difficult times. He was writing to the believers in Corinth to encourage them to participate in giving. They were instructed to give whatever they had decided in their hearts to give (2 Cor 9:7). They were not told to give ten percent of their income.  They were not told any amount.  They were not even required to participate.  If they chose to to join in, then they got to decide the amount themselves individually.  Rather than being threatened with a curse for robbing God (Mal 3:8), they were given an opportunity to choose to be generous.  They were specifically told not to give under compulsion or of necessity, but rather to be generous and to be happy about it.

In this example, they were sharing with believers who needed financial assistance because of severe persecution. And, though the specific details are different, the motive and spirit of the giving is very similar to what we see in Acts 2:42-47. People are taking care of one another in love for God and love for one another.

Ministers are also included as recipients of generosity at times (Galatians 6:6), though Paul himself seemed to make efforts to avoid relying on this personally (1 Corinthians 9:1-18). Using Paul as an example, there were times when he was supported by others, and there were times when he supported himself. I believe that tells us that both scenarios are appropriate, depending on the circumstances. It is good for person being ministered to to share, and it is also good for the person doing the ministering to be able to support himself if that option is available.

To sum this up, we can say that the New Testament teaches us to be generous and willing to share with each other when needs arise. And, if a man (or woman) is being used by God to pour into your life, then it is good for you to share good things with him too. We are encouraged to be generous, but none of this should be done out of compulsion, fear, or obligation.

It should be stressed again here that these practices are a completely different from tithing. Tithing has specific requirements, and specific rules for who can receive it.  Those are not present in New Covenant giving.  Giving and sharing and being generous are principles that are a part of the Christian walk. Give to those in need  Give to your church.  Give to those who minister to you.  Give as the Holy Spirit directs you.  Give freely, not as a result of compulsion or guilt.

Tithing, however, is not a part of the Christian walk. Tithing is for the age of the Law, where there were Levites, priests, and Jewish feasts and festivals.

8 – Summary

When you consider the purpose for the different tithes as laid out the Bible, you can see that these practices could not apply to Christians, especially the Gentile Christians. It was not practiced by the early church for several centuries. This accounts for the fact that instructions for tithing are absent from the Epistles, and the fact that tithing was not even included in the letter from the Jerusalem council in Acts 15:19-21.

The modern day version of tithing appears to be a mix of some parts of the tithe, some parts of other Old Testament offerings, and some parts of the New Testament concept of free will giving.

This mix has apparently evolved over time and is now part of an unbiblical tradition that is has found its way into many Christian assemblies.

It is my opinion that we should be very generous because our Father is generous.  But the practice of tithing has no modern day application anywhere.

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