Giving a portion of one's profit or the spoils of war was known in the ancient world from Greece to China. Gifts were made as religious offerings, or given to a political authority as tribute or tax. Religious and political uses often combined since it was common to associate earthly and divine authority. Donation of a tenth portion, or tithe, was common apparently because most peoples counted in tens, based on ten fingers.
Tithing first appeared in the Bible when Abraham gave one-tenth of the spoils of war to Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem ( Gen 14:18-20 ). The writer of Hebrews presumed that tithes were paid to a higher authority and inferred that there was a greater priesthood than Aaron's ( Hebrews 7:4 Hebrews 7:9 ). Tithing as a tribute to God appeared later in Genesis when Jacob promised to give a tenth to God if he returned home safely ( 28:22 ). But these tithes were spontaneous and no details were given.
The Book of Exodus required giving only firstfruits ( Exodus 23:16 Exodus 23:19 ; 34:26 ) and is not clear whether the tithe later specified the percent of the total to be given as firstfruits or was a separate gift. Sometimes firstfruits and tithing appear to be identical ( Deut 26:1-14 ), other times separate ( Neh 12:44 ).
Tithes were awarded to the Levites for their priestly service because they would not receive land in Canaan ( Num 18:19-21 ). They, too, gave a tenth of what they received (v. 26).
If a person did not want to give what he produced he could give 120 percent of its value ( Lev 27:31 ). For livestock, however, there could be no substitute. Animals passed single file under a rod dipped in coloring and every tenth one was marked. Selecting inferior animals was prohibited (vv. 32-33).
Deuteronomy instructed households to bring their tithes to the sanctuary for a joyous sacrificial meal. If it was too far, the offerer was told that the goods could be sold locally and the money used near the sanctuary to buy "anything you wish" including oxen, sheep, wine, or strong drink ( Deut 14:22-26 ). Every third year tithes remained in the hometown and were given to the Levite, alien, orphan, and widow (vv. 28-29). The offerer had to "say before the Lord" that the tithe had been properly given ( 26:13-14 ).Thus tithing taught the people to "revere the Lord" always ( 14:23 ), and supported the poor and the priests. Samuel later warned Israel that an earthly king (whom they desired against God's wishes) would require a tenth to sustain his rule ( 1 Samuel 8:15 1 Samuel 8:17 ).
The difference between instructions in Deuteronomy and Numbers led some rabbis to believe that there were two tithes each year, one for the Levite and one to be eaten before the Lord. Yet it is unlikely that the text would institute a second tithe the way it does, without introduction or clarification. Some also believed that the triennial tithe was additional, making a total of three tithes. But it is unlikely that the offerer would have to affirm that such tithe was given properly while saying nothing of the first, or primary tithe.
It is possible that there was only one tithe and that the differences in descriptions were due to changing circumstances. Numbers, written during the period of wandering, instructs the people to give their tithes to the Levites. Deuteronomy, written as Israel entered the land and began a more settled existence, required that tithes be eaten in the sanctuary (where the remaining portion was no doubt left). It seems every third year the tithe was given to the poor.
Tithing indicated Israel's devotion to God, and the people did not always give as they should. Withholding tithes and offerings was regarded as robbing God, but great prosperity was promised if they would obey ( Mal 3:8-12 ). When the people forsook worship of Yahweh their tithes went to idols ( Amos 4:4 ). Hezekiah oversaw a restoration of obedience to God during which so much was given in tithes and offerings that rooms had to be prepared in the house of the Lord ( 2 Chron 31:10-11 ). Upon return from captivity Nehemiah led another restoration and made sure tithes and offerings were collected ( Neh 12:44 ) so the Levites would not have to work in the fields ( 13:10 ).
Jesus refocused attention on inward attitudes. He criticized some who went so far as to tithe tiny grains of spice not because they tithed, but because they neglected the weightier matters of the law ( Matt 23:23 ). He regarded stewardship of finances as an indication of trustworthiness with spiritual things ( Luke 16:11 ), which were more important ( Matt 6:19-20 ).
Nowhere does the New Testament require Christians to tithe in the sense of giving 10 percent, but it does reiterate many things associated with tithing: those who minister are entitled to receive support ( 1 Cor 9:14 ); the poor and needy should be cared for ( 1 Cor 16:1 ; Gal 2:10 ); those who give can trust God, as the source of all that is given ( 2 Cor 9:10 ), to supply their needs ( 2 Cor 9:8 ; Php 4:19 ); and giving should be done joyously ( 2 Cor 9:7 ). The New Testament directs that taxes be paid to the state ( Rom 13:6-7 ), which replaced Israel's theocracy. Paul's vocabulary and teaching suggest that giving is voluntary and that there is no set percentage. Following the example of Christ, who gave even his life ( 2 Cor 8:9 ), we should cheerfully give as much as we have decided ( 2 Cor 9:7 ) based on how much the Lord has prospered us ( 1 Cor 16:2 ), knowing that we reap in proportion to what we sow ( 2 Cor 9:6 ) and that we will ultimately give account for our deeds ( Rom 14:12 ).
Brian K. Morley
Bibliography. S. R. Driver, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy; D. L. Feinberg, ZPEB, 4:756-58; G. F. Hawthorne, NIDNTT, 3:851-55; M. Wischnitzer, Encyclopedia Judiaca, 15:1156-62.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Tithe, Tithing'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".