For many people, Numbers 18:25-32 is part of an obscure and seldom read section of the Law dealing with the priests and Levites and their duties and livelihood. On the other hand, for those who have a history with the Church of God, the relevance of the passage is clear in being the apparent source of a custom known as the tithe of the tithe, where members are to give a tithe of their second tithe to support the expenses for renting halls and facilities for the Feast of Tabernacles. It is my purpose today to examine this particular passage in its near context to examine what the passage is really talking about instead.
Numbers 18 is part of the aftermath of Korah’s rebellion, where the Aaronic priesthood and the Levites were confirmed by God in an exclusive and long-lived service at God’s tabernacle and temple, which has since been superseded by the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus Christ but which nonetheless serves as a useful model of that spiritual priesthood. As a descendent of the Cohenim (the priests of Aaron), I have an great personal interest in such matters from a family history perspective, apart from its relevance, but this passage does have an intriguing relevance that is often overlooked, given the obscurity of this passage.
Numbers 18 as a whole begins with the duties of the priests and Levites, showing that Levites served over the physical duties of the temple, but that the altar and ark of the covenant, the holy things, were reserved to the priesthood, while the Levites were chosen instead of the firstborn to serve the priesthood, with the rest of Israel kept far away from the daily goings on of the tabernacle and temple (see Numbers 18:1-7).
After this Numbers 18:8-20 discusses the right of the priests to eat of the offerings given by the Israelites, expressing the commandment of God that those who are priests live by the ministry that they are called to do. Paul himself expressed this idea, even if he did not directly cite this law, in 2 Corinthians 1:1-18. It is indeed a commandment that those who preach the gospel should live by the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 9:14), and that principle is found in its greatest detail here in Numbers 18.
More intriguingly, Numbers 18 continues with a passage in Numbers 18:21-24 that the first tithe of Israel was for the support of the Levites, and not only the priests. This particular concept, and its implications, is not often sufficiently understood. It was not only the priests who were to live off of their service, but those who served as Levites, gatekeepers (security), musicians, songleaders, cooks, and those who did the physical work of setting up and taking down the tabernacle were the ones who received the tithes, and not only the priesthood. In our day and age we would probably include translators and those responsible for operating the audio/visual equipment. All of these people, who served God not only in the temple or tabernacle but in towns and cities all around Israel, were to live off of the tithes of the people of Israel. Even within the Church of God today we have a pretty clear picture of the distinction between the paid ministry, those who regularly serve the congregation, and the ordinary body of members whose concept of their spiritual obligations is pray, pay, stay, and obey. Here we see a contemporary equivalent of the model of the Aaronic priesthood, Levites, and congregation of Israel expressed in Numbers 18.
It is within this context that the Bible discusses the tithe of the tithe, in Numbers 18:25-32, which reads as follows: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “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. 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. 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. 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.’ 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. You may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward for your work in the tabernacle of meeting. 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.’ ”
This passage contains a lot of very serious information for us to ponder concerning the tithe of the tithe, in ways that are perhaps unexpected for us. First of all we see that God clearly commands that those who serve God be rewarded for it. This reward is not limited to the priests (the elites) alone, but extends to the Levites as a whole. If we assume the Levites as about 1/13 of the people of Israel, that would mean that the Levites, which made up about 7 or 8% of the population of Israel collected 10% of the resources as tithes to live on. This is a slightly better standard of living than the ordinary people of Israel, but not an extremely high standard of living relative to the ordinary Israelite (it comes out to about 30% higher than the average citizen and sojourner within Israel, assuming all are tithepayers). Levites were paid well, as religious professionals, but not paid so well that they were of a different social class altogether than the brethren they served.
We all see that this passage serves as one of the sources of our (correct) understanding that salary is to be counted as increase. God counts the salary received by the Levites (from the tithe) as being like the fruit of the land, whether wheat or wine. This means that the money received by Levites for the tithe was counted as if it were agricultural increase. Furthermore, this was counted as ordinary income, unlike the priests (who had to eat their share of the offerings in the holy place), the Levites got to eat of the tithe anywhere they chose; it counted as their ordinary income that they could use for food or other belongings. There was no limitation on where their salary could be spent as the servants of God’s house.
However, it should be noted that the Levites themselves were commanded by God to tithe of their tithe to support the Aaronic priesthood. The fact that their tithe was (presumably) in monetary amounts rather than in agricultural commodities like grain or grapes or animals was irrelevant. Just as Israel tithed to the Levites, the Levites themselves were commanded to tithe to God. God received His 10% share from everyone–no one was exempt from tithing, even if they were not farmers (as the Levites did not inherit farmland, being town and city dwellers instead). Therefore, this passage clearly supports our practice of tithing based on our increase, including money.
It is clear that the tithe of the tithe that the Bible discusses for the Levites is an entirely different concept than the tithe of the tithe that is a human tradition of the Church of God. The biblical tithe of the tithe is a way of ensuring that all are tithepayers, even if they receive tithes from the people of God for their own loyal service. In biblical society, there appears to have been no costs devoted for rental of facilities. The temple and tabernacle were owned, as were the synagogues. The early Christian church met in the houses of members (see, for example, Philemon :2), in outdoor locations where there were no synagogues (Acts 16:13), and at least once (apparently free) from a private academy (see Acts 19:9). There appeared to be no longstanding rentals, as even though the Church of God were sojourners and pilgrims in the world, they appeared to have a preference for starting out in free places and then in establishing their own internally owned meeting locations (often in homes owned by members themselves).
Clearly that is now how most church organizations operate in the present time. As a result, we have created a fairly recent human tradition to meet such logistical challenges as hall rental for the Feast of Tabernacles. There is nothing necessarily objectionable in such a tradition, so long as we admit that it is a human tradition and not a divine command. The biblical example of the tithe of the tithe refers to the fact that those who receive tithes are also commanded to pay them as well in their turn as if the tithe they received for their service were the increase from farmland and flocks. It reminds us that God expects His share from everyone, regardless of their place within the social order among His people. That’s a good lesson for us to learn even in our times.