What is a Tithe?

Deductive analyses of what is a Tithe  

This discussion section centers on a deductive analyses four principle Hebrew words. We will also look at principle passages with an inductive analysis of key precepts.

Here are some key verses that lay out the concepts for tithing: Leviticus 27:30; 27:31-32; Numbers18: 21-26; Deuteronomy 12:6-17; 14:23-28; 26:12; 2 Chronicles 31:5-12; Nehemiah 10:37-38; Amos 4:4; Malachi 3:8-10. 

The term tithe that is found in Scripture (maser / asar, in the Hebrew and dekate / dekavth, in the Greek), translates into the tenth; thus, the notion that one should give ten percent of one’s monies to the church comes from the meaning of these words. The Scriptures tell us that God does not want us to do whatever we want or what seems fit. Obviously, that was not working then, just as it does not work today. So, He laid out principles for the running of the new country Israel that would provide care for the priests and those in charge. We, of course, do not live in a theocracy today, unless you live in Iran. The tithe may have been for a different purpose in the Old Testament than for the church today, but we do get key principles from these passages that translate into how best to provide for the church today, and how we can exercise good Biblical stewardship.

Giving a tithe, as history tells us, was a common practice among most, if not all, ancient Near East cultures, such as Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, and even as far east as China. For them, it was for a royal tax, and service to their gods. For the Jews, it was a sacramental tax (1 Maccabees 3:49; 10:31; 11:35, an apocryphal book). Abraham was well acquainted with it when he migrated from Ur (Gen. 14:17-20), so he gave honor and tribute to Melchizedek who was a priest of the Most High, and a mystery to us, as we do not know the details of who he was. It is almost certain that Abraham’s tithes would also have been recognized as a holy deed (Heb. 7:4).

The giving of a tenth of our goods to the church, what we call “tithing,” is a seemingly good concept, or, is it not? First, I need to point out that nowhere in the New Testament does it advocate tithing, and the Old Testament has only two narrative passages on it, along with scores of other texts that most people take out of their time context, hence, why there is so much misunderstanding on this topic. (We are never to build doctrine just on narratives—stories–because stories are illustrations and histories of the journeys of our ancestors, such as Abraham and Melchizedek. They do not necessarily represent the character or doctrine we are to follow; sometimes they do and sometimes they do not. If a guy comes up to you and says he is Melchizedek, will you empty out 10% of your savings and hand it over? Or, such as in the case with David and his affair, because David sinned, does that mean it is OK for us to have an affair? It is in the Bible, you know, to have an affair! But, the story/history of that incident is about David’s actions, good, and bad. So, be careful how you interpret Scripture; always do it in its context! In the case of tithing, we have to look at the timeline of events too! Hence, a lot of people proclaim crazy and unbiblical doctrines by arguing their viewpoint from passages out of their time context, or from silence. However, as we already saw last month, the Bible is clear as it admonishes us to be stewards, especially in the handling of our money, and it gives us a blueprint for action (1 Corinthians 9:7).

What are the Historical/Scriptural occurrences for the Old Testament tithe?

Personal offerings:

  • Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, and tithes of a tenth of ‘the heap,’ which he took from the kings with whom he fought in battle (Gen. 14:20; Heb. 7:2-6).
  • When Jacob made his covenant with God at Bethel, he also made a vow, and gave a tenth of all his property to God (Gen. 28:16-22).
  • Samuel warned Israel that the king whom they were demanding from God, would exact tithes of their grain and flocks (I Sam. 8:10-18).
  • Further examples of free-will offerings are found in Gen. 4:1-7; 8:20; Ex. 25:35-36; Deut. 12:6; 16:10-17; 1 Chron. 29:1-17; and Heb. 7:4-10).

Tithe Offerings:

  • Mosaic laws instructing the Jews how to provide for the nation and church/Temple Duet. 26:12-15.
    • The First Fruits offering: Ex. 23:16-19; 34:22-26; Lev. 2:12-14; 23:10-20; Num. 18:12; 28:26; Deut. 26:10; 2 Kings 4:42; 2 Chron. 31:5; Neh. 10:35-37; 12:44; 13:31; Prov. 3:9-10
    • The Levites’ Tithe for the priests: Lev. 27:30-33; Num. 18:21-29; Deut. 12:6-18; 14:22-29; Neh. 10:38: 18:21; Heb. 7:5
    • Temple Tax: Ex. 30:11-16; Neh. 10:32-39; 2 Chron. 31:11-12; Mal. 3:10; 12:44; 13:5, 12; Matt. 17:24-27
    • Sabbath Tax: Ex. 23:10-11; Deut. 15:1-9
    • The Poor Tithe: Deut. 14:28-29
    • Farmers’ Tax: (leaving crops un-harvested for the poor) Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-21: Ruth 2.

Principles on Stewardship and Tithing:

  • Cultural customs relating to: Neh. 10:37-38; Amos 4:4; Heb. 7:5-9.
  • The tithe was also a form of worship and dedication to the Lord: Deut. 26:12f.
  • The New Testament Tithe principles: 2 Cor. 8:12-15; Matt. 23:8-10; 23; Luke 18:12’ Heb. 7:8-9.
    • The New Testament Stewardship principles: Matt.  6: 19-34; 19:21; Mark 12:41-44; Luke 6:38; 12:15; 33; 16:11-12; 19:1-10; 21:1-4; Rom 12:6; 10; 1 Cor. 4:1-2; 8:8-15; 9:7; 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 9:6-15; Eph. 4:28; Phil. 4:19; 5:15-16; 1 Tim. 6:10; James 1:17; 3 John 2).
    • The example of the early church: Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-5:11; 11:27-30; 20:35; Rom. 15:22-29; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9; Phil. 4:14-19; 1 Tim. 6:6-19; Heb. 13:16.

What the Jewish household was required to do:

  • The Jewish household was obligated to share ten percent of their income in whatever form that would fulfill the Levites’ tithe (Lev. 27:30-32; Deut. 14:22-23; Num. 18:21).
  • Every Jewish household was obligated to make a declaration of honesty before the Lord with their giving (Deut 26:13-15). The Temple was the place to which tithes were taken (Deut. 12:5-17).
  • A fine of twenty percent had to be paid if they withheld or refused to pay what was required, in the form that was required, such as if they were required to give a sheep and they gave coins instead. Or, an extra tithe, a fifth of the sum, was demanded from those who sold their tithes, such as if you were required to give a sheep, but you sold it to your neighbor, and then refused to use the money to pay for a substitute (Lev. 27:31-33).
  • The Levites, in turn, gave a tenth of their share (not all were priests, as some served as government officials and such) to provide for the priests (Num. 18:25-32).

The tithe was gathered once a year, and then an extra tithe was gathered every third year for those in need locally (Deut. 14:22-28). (Controversy exists about this among Hebrew scholars, as some say this only happened when the need for funds increased because of the building and expansion of the Temple.) Then over time, the people in charge would overtax the people, adding extras that were not required by God, but by man’s greed (recorded in the Talmud, an ancient Jewish commentary).  

  • The Jews tithed (paid taxes) to their government, whether Babylonian, Roman or whoever were the invading rulers at the time (again a historical reference). Sometimes, evil kings took over and hoarded the funds for themselves, such as Manasseh. At other times, tithes were withheld (2 Kings 18; Neh. 13:10; Mal. 3:8). Tithes resumed in Hezekiah’s reign (2 Chron. 31:5-10) and under Nehemiah (Neh. 13:12).
  • Extra sacrificial offerings were sometimes required (2 Sam. 6; 1 Kings 6-8; 12: 25-33; 2 Chron. 31:5-12; Ezek. 45:17; Amos: 7:13; Luke 18:12)
  • The payment of an extra governing tithe/tax, as Samuel had warned would happen, and then was practiced (1 Sam. 8:15-17).

By the time of Christ, the Romans and over-eager tax gatherers greatly affected the economic life of the Jews; so, most were unable to tithe to the Temple. However, the laws regarding the tithe were still observed as shown here by Jesus (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42).

The Historical overview:

For the most part, it is difficult to give a precise reconstruction of a typical tithe from the OT, since over time the practice changed, from the desert wandering under Moses, to the period of the Judges, then the Kings, the captivities, the different localities of Judea vs. Israel, local governments, and invading governments.  In addition, there was abuse by the Pharisees (they were not fair, you see) and other leaders in charge by over-taxing. However, from Scripture, we do know what was required.

First, every year, a Jewish household gave ten percent of all of their goods or produce; this was the “Levite’s Tithe.” The Levites did not have land as the rest of the twelve tribes did (Joseph’s cut was split in two with Ephraim and Manasseh to make twelve). So, the rest of the tribes were called to support them. This was the tax to the government in order to run the office of the priesthood. Remember, Israel was a theocracy, a government run by the Church–or in their case, the priests, the Judges, and then the Kings, all of whom were under God. The countless thousands of priests were the teachers, rabbis/pastors, and government officials!

It would be like if today, the Mayor, Governor, Senate, and Congress did not represent the people by vote. Since (the rules are) all spelled out in the Law, they only sought the Will of God by examining the Scriptures. God told them what to do. So the tithe was also supporting the running of the government! We do not live in a theocracy today.

Second, the Jewish household would give another ten percent every year for the festivals and the religious sacrifices. (This is what the people were doing by dropping in coins, or bringing animals to the Temple when Jesus was there teaching. Because the leaders abused the system by selling what they were not supposed to, Jesus drove them out with a whip!) Thus, the running of the Temple/church, Sabbaths, holy days, and each one’s personal offering to God accounted for ten percent (the percentage, exact amount, and how often this was practiced is a matter of debate).

Third, the Jewish household would pay another ten percent every third year to the poor and the widows locally (again the percentage, exact amount and how often this was practiced is a matter of debate). So, if you were an OT Jew, you definitely would pay ten percent of your income, in whatever form was required to the Levites and/or the local government, to support them and the operation of the priests, Temple, and government. Then you could pay, depending on where you were in history, another ten percent to provide for the Temple, festivals, and such, plus your personal sacrifice for atonement. Then, you might be required to pay another ten percent every third year for the needy.

What does this all mean? Well, if you claim a tithe is just ten percent, you would be wrong, because there were several tithes plus freewill offerings! Also, there was the shekel temple tax, and whatever tax was required if they were occupied by a foreign power (They were occupied by the Romans, but the government was not run by the Romans. This is why Jesus said, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; in other words, pay the Romans what they ask for, and render to God the things that are required by God). In addition, if you were a farmer, you were required to leave about ten percent of your crop un-harvested, for the poor. Thus, you would have had a square field and only have harvested in a circle, leaving the corners for gleaning to the poor. The actual breakdown of the entire tithe load was around 23.3% per year, plus the atonement offerings, to which most Jewish scholars say the total could have been as high as thirty to forty percent plus, including foreign taxes. Again, scholars debate the exact percentage, amount, and how often this was practiced, but you get the picture. It was far in excess of a mere ten percent!

I find it fascinating that the base tax system in the United States is about twenty to thirty percent, and when you add income tax and the various sales taxes, we pay about twenty-five percent! But, this does not include the tithe to God, who says, Let every man bring whatever he purposes in his heart; let him do it willingly, whatever he wants to give. In the book of Acts, we find that they kept bringing so much in that they had to say, Stop, don’t bring anymore–that’s enough. So, if we did pay ten percent of our net salary to the church, we would be paying generally the same percentage as the Israelites were called to do. Remember that giving is always a freewill offering, coming from what is in our heart. It is an expression of our gratitude, worship, and love to our Lord! So, do whatever you want to do from this perspective. Exercise the good heart you have– or are supposed to have. But, beware you do not allow your pride and greed to cloud your reasoning and call! 

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:4-7).

4 thoughts on “What is a Tithe?

Add yours

  1. Hi,Greetings to you.
    I like the study on the tithes. Awesome. I copied it to my desktop for my personal study and to further teach in my small groups and in my church. I had a look on your other blogs. Its good. Further more, I like your website design. Its simple and has sober look.
    May God continue to bless you.

  2. Hello,

    Thanks for publishing this message. There are so many people who needs to hear this message on tithes because they are following after religious practices and think that they are serving GOD well, when they very well could be missing the point. I used to pay tithes by the ten percent rule but then I realized that I am a joint heir with JESUS CHRIST, so that means that not only ten percent is GOD’S but all of my money belongs to GOD, the whole 100 percent. I hear Pastors preach that if you don’t pay tithes then you would not be blessed when they should be preaching that you are blessed and blessed with a purpose to invest in The Kingdom Of GOD as GOD has placed it on your heart. We can never pay back GOD what we owe and that is the reason why JESUS CHRIST came to make us joint heirs with HIM. Praise THE LORD!

  3. Very good. But Jesus did speak of tithing in the New Testament. Specifically of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law tithing but not being merciful and just. Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

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