[Note: Some time ago, a reader of this blog requested that I deal with the question of tithing for Christians today. It has taken me some time to ponder the issue, but today I am posting the historical introduction to tithing, examining the common proof texts used for tithing and placing them in a context that shows both the agricultural nature of tithing as well as the fact that tithing was designed to support the Levites and provide for the poor and needy, not to support a corrupt elite establishment of priests without a greater concern for the needy within the community of Ancient Israel. This first part of this two-part series looks at the historical context of the doctrine of tithing as it appears in the Hebrew scriptures (and one scripture in Matthew). The second part will speculate on why tithing is not mentioned after the book of Matthew and will examine in greater detail how the early Christian church addressed the needs that were covered by the tithing system of ancient Israel.]
The quintessential proof text concerning tithing is located in Malachi 3:8-12, which reads: “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such a blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it. And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, so that he will not destroy the fruit of your ground, nor shall the vine fail to bear fruit for you in the field,” says the Lord of hosts; “and all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land,” says the Lord of hosts.
This is the second to last place that tithing is explicitly referred to in scripture. In the entire Renewed Covenant Scriptures there is not a single reference to the practice of tithing within the early Church of God , an omission that is very puzzling. To be sure, there are other laws of God that are not mentioned there, such as bestiality, but they are generally straightforward and minor laws, rather than fundamental doctrines of churches. Given the extensive concern of the early New Testament church with aid given to the poor and needy, as well as occasional mentions of the support that was due from members, the fact that any argument about tithing in the early church is an argument from silence (whether it opposes or supports the practice in the contemporary Church of God) ought to give us some pause.
At least some of the possible reasons why there are no references to tithing in the Renewed Covenant scriptures are contained in this particular proof text, though to my knowledge this is not generally acknowledged. Let us comment at the outset that for an ancient Israelite not to tithe was to rob God. God had clearly ordained that the tithes were to support the Levites and their service in the temple, and that the Levites themselves were to give a tithe of the tithe to support the priesthood. We will talk about this later, as it is an often misunderstood aspect of the tithing system of ancient Israel. Let us note that the whole nation of Judah was to bring the tithes into the storehouse of the temple, so that there was food in the house of God (in other words, the temple). We should note at the outset that what is being supported here in Malachi is the Levitical system as well as the temple and sacrificial system. Clearly there is no temple to store the tithes of the brethren and there are no biblically recognized Levites to store up the tithes.
Nonetheless, let us recognize that God considered the tithe His property. It was not the property of the Levites (much less the priestly elites) who received it, but the property of God. It was the duty of the people of Israel to support the poor and needy as well as the priests (indirectly) and the Levites (directly). But those tithes did not belong to the temple establishment. However, God promised agricultural blessings (which may be symbolic of economic wealth in general) to those who paid what they owed to God. One of the barriers, of course, to tithing was the corruption of the priestly system of Israel, but it is this element that has gotten very little commentary when it comes to the use of Malachi as a tithing prooftext without an examination of the greater context.
In order to gain this understanding of the problem of priestly corruption, let us view Malachi 2:1-9, which reads: “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you. If you will not hear, and if you will not take it to heart, to give glory to My name,” says the Lord of hosts, “I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have cursed them already, because you do not take them to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your descendents, and spread refuse on your faces, the refuse of your solemn feasts; and one will take you away with it. Then you shall know that I have sent this commandment to you, that My covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord of hosts. “My covenant was with him, one of life and peace, and I gave them to him that he might fear Me; so he feared Me and was reverent before My name. The law of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips. He walked with Me in peace and equity, and turned many away from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says the Lord of hosts. “Therefore I have also made you contemptible and base before all the people, because you have not kept My ways, but have shown partiality in the law.”
Here we see a serious problem. The priests of ancient Israel were supposed to instruct the ordinary believers in how to obey and follow God’s ways. They were, however, more concerned with their own wealth and power and prestige than with instructing believers about the law, and perverting justice to favor their friends and their own interests rather than the interests of truth and justice. For this reason, like many ministers and preachers today, the priests were thought of during the Second Temple period as corrupt and contemptible and base (for so they were). We must therefore, even within the text of Malachi, view the concern about tithing as a part of a larger dynamic, especially if we see the same dynamic present within the Church of God today. Part of this dynamic was corrupt and greedy priests seeking to exploit their position within the religious hierarchy for their own personal prestige and financial benefit, and part of it was the resistance of ordinary citizens to pay their tithes in part due to the corruption of the priests, as well as their own greed. What Malachi does is promise judgment and condemnation on both the priests and the people who disobey their parts of the law, as well as promising blessings on those who obey. It is a particularly difficult thing to “do your verse” when other people are not doing theirs, but that is the divine command here.
Let us make the connection between the corruption of the priests and the analogous corruption of the modern Church of God plain. It is commonly thought that the tithe of ancient Israel was to be paid to priests (the religious elites), and in those churches that preach tithing the most strenuously, the end result is generally to support a well-paid elite ministry. However, this is not what tithing was actually about. Let us turn from the prooftexting of Malachi to examine the actual laws of tithing in the Bible, and how the use of tithes to support only a priestly elite itself was condemned by God through Nehemiah, so that we may better place our own tithing practices within the proper biblical context.
The first mention of tithing in the Bible is in Genesis 14:20, when Abraham tithed to the enigmatic priest-king Melchizedek after defeating the armies of four powerful Mesopotamian kings. It is significant to the purposes of our discussion that this was long before the establishment of the Aaronite priesthood, and also that this passage is used to defend the sinless and eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ (it should be noted that no one aside from Jesus Christ currently meets the standard of being a priest in the order of Melchizedek, and that no one will until the resurrection, at which point all believers will meet that standard). We next hear of tithing in the account of Jacob, where in Genesis 28:20-22 Jacob promises at Bethel that if God preserves him economically that he will pay a tithe to God.
These passages preserve an essential truth but also provoke questions. For one, there was no recognized priesthood (aside from the rare presence of a possibly divine priest like Melchizedek). The book of Genesis does not provide any information on how and to whom the tithe was paid. Nonetheless, it does suggest that this was a recognized law of God long before the so-called Mosaic covenant in Mt. Sinai. We hear explicitly of tithing with regards to Abraham and Jacob, and infer that Jacob learned it through Isaac, and that the law was therefore passed down from the family of the patriarchs, even though we do not know exactly how the law was administered in the absence of a recognized priesthood and religious hierarchy. Since we have no divinely inspired hierarchy today, and the temple establishment is likewise absent (and has been for over 1900 years), we are therefore in an analogous position ourselves to that of the partriarchs being sojourners and outsiders (a fact which the author of Hebrews makes plain).
It is a curious truth that the tithe in the Bible refers exclusively to agricultural products, where it is often connected with the firstfruits and firstborn of the land and of animals. Leviticus 27:30:33, the last law of Leviticus, reads: “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. If a man wants at all to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add one fifth to it. 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. He shall not inquire whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it; and if he exchanges it all, then both it and the one exchanged shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.” Those who preferred to keep the wheat or other crop for themselves and pay their tithe in money had to pay the 20% penalty of thievery to do so. And no one was allowed to exchange the tithe of the animal, for if he tried, the original animal and the attempted exchanged animal both became holy to God and His property. Interestingly enough, it was the tenth animal, not the first, that went to God in the tithe, showing that God got his 10% after the needs of the farmer were taken care of, not before.
It is in this same agricultural sense that tithes were given to the Levites in Numbers 18:21-24, which reads: “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. Hereafter the children of Israel shall not come near the tabernacle of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. 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. 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.” We see that this heave offering is again an agricultural offering, and that as a result of having performed the mundane duties of singing or cooking or guarding within the tabernacle or temple that the Levites were to receive the tithe. The tithe was not to support the priestly elites (who ate from the offerings at the altar), but rather to support a landless group of servants to God’s temple and tabernacle establishment. The Levites were to be given a tithe of agricultural products so that they could eat without having to farm, so that their time could be spent in teaching the law to Israel in the towns and cities or in serving at the temple and tabernacle. It was not so that priests could get rich or get fat (see 1 Samuel 2:22-36) off of serving themselves while only pretending to serve God.
Though I have already talked at some length elsewhere about the tithe of the tithe , it is worthwhile to do so again briefly here within context. It is the corrupt practice of some to seek to use Numbers 18:25-32 to support people giving an additional percentage of their income to religious establishments to pay for expenses, but in the Bible the tithe of the tithe was paid by the Levites to the priests, whether in money or in agricultural products, as it is written: “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 the 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 eave 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.’ “ “ Here we see that the tithe was agricultural products, that the Levites themselves tithed to the priesthood from the best (not every tenth one, unlike the people) of the tithe, and that the tithe was their food, and wages, for the service they offered in the temple and tabernacle system.
Likewise, when we read about the second tithe, it is also phrased primarily in agricultural terms and only secondarily in monetary terms, and there (as in Leviticus 27, but without the penalty) money is the means of exchanging the agricultural produce, and not the way that the tithe is calculated in the first place. As Deuteronomy 14:22-29 reads: “You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat it 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 of your flocks, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. 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, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses. 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. You shall not forsake the Levite who is within your gates, for he has no part nor inheritance with you. At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce and store it within your gates. 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.”
Let us reflect on this passage a little. We have already seen in Leviticus 27 that one tithe was to be given to the Levites as their wages and that they were to tithe to the priests from that as if it were the fruit of the land (which, being Levites, they did not have to give). Here in Deuteronomy 14, though, we see that the “second” tithe was also an agricultural tithe, since the Levites did not pay it, since they were not landowners in ancient Israel. It may be inferred from this that wages were not tithed on in ancient Israrel, because it is only agricultural products that are given as a tithe, and it is only if the place is to far to bring the fruit of the land that they may be exchanged (in the case of the second tithe) for money to pay for travel and for food and wine at the place where God has set his name. Clearly, this has implications for our current tithing practice. Interestingly enough, in the third year there was a tithe collected from landowners for the Levites, the resident aliens, the widows and the fatherless so that they were able to enjoy the feasts in Shiloh or Jerusalem.
Additionally, when we see the third tithe/tithe of the third year (of which there is some dispute as to its collection and meaning), in Deuteronomy 26:12-15, we see a connection with both the blessings promised for obedience to the tithing law in Malachi as well as the concern for the tithe to support the economically vulnerable Levites and the poor and strangers, not to support a priestly elite. This law, like the tithing law in Leviticus 27, is not coincidentally the final law in Deuteronomy as well. It reads: “When you have finished laying aside all the tithe of your increase in the third year—the year of tithing—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your gates and be filled, then you shall say before the Lord your God: ‘I have removed the holy tithe from my house, and also have given them to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. I have not eaten any of it when in mourning, nor have I removed any of it for an unclean use, nor given any of it for the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the Lord my God, and have done according to all that You have commanded me. Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the land which You have given us, just as you swore to our fathers, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Here again we see that the purpose of the tithe was not to support a privileged elite but rather to provide for those who were poor and marginalized and were not able to enjoy the benefits of landownership. Additionally, we see that the Bible over and over again comments on the agricultural nature of the tithes—that the tithes were in either harvested plants or the animals of one’s herds. We should expect to see this specificity to agriculture as well as the concern for common Levites (and not elite interests) maintained when we read of the tithe discussed elsewhere in scripture. And that is precisely what we find, to give one example, in Nehemiah 13:4-14. Here we see that tithing broke down in large part (as was the case in Malachi) because of the corrupt dealings of the priesthood. Nehemiah 13:4-14 reads: “Now before this, Eliashib the priest, having authority over the storerooms of the house of our God, was allied with Tobiah. And he had prepared for him a large room, where previously they had stored the grain offerings, the frankincense, the articles, the tithes of grain, the new wine and oil, which were commanded to be given to the Levites and singers and gatekeepers, and the offerings for the priests. But during all this I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Then after certain days I obtained leave from the king, and I came to Jerusalem and discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, in preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God. And it grieved me bitterly; therefore I threw all the household goods of Tobiah out of the room. Then I commanded them to cleanse the rooms; and I brought back into them the articles of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense. I also realized that the portions for the Levites had not been given to them; for each of the Levites and the singers who did the work had gone back to his field. So I contended with the rulers, and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together and set them in their place. Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain and the new wine and the oil into the storehouse. And I appointed as treasurers over the storehouse Shelemiah the priest and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites, Pedaiah; and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for they were considered faithful, and their task was to distribute to their brethren. Remember me, O God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of My God, and for its services!”
Let us reflect at least briefly on this passage. Here again we see the agricultural nature of the tithe, and that the first tithe was to support the service of the fairly ordinary Levites, who were to be dedicated to guarding the temple and providing music, so that they did not have to work at their own fields to provide themselves food to eat. It is a biblical principle (which we will discuss further in the Renewed Covenant scriptures) that those who serve the people of God are to enjoy the fruits of their service. It is a wicked and corrupt establishment, whether in ancient Israel or today, that provides for only the elites and not for those less notable or powerful or privileged servants of the people of God. A godly establishment, such as Nehemiah’s efforts, provides for all the servants of God to be able to eat and devote themselves to service. Let us reflect upon this application of the principle of tithing to see whether our own tithing principles are more like Eliashib the corrupt and worldly priest or the godly Nehemiah. But even here, the tithing is strictly agricultural. Nowhere to we read of artisans or merchants being called to bring a tithe of their profits (much less their income) to the house of God—that would presumably have been their own offering, though.
And it should therefore not surprise us that the lone reference to tithing in the Renewed Covenant Scriptures also refers to the tithing of agricultural products. As Matthew 23:23 reads: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” Here again we see tithing in relation to agricultural products, among the smallest seeds of the field, and here again (as in Malachi), we see that tithing is noted as a command (albeit within agricultural boundaries), and again, as in Deuteronomy, Nehemiah, and Malachi, tithing is connected with questions of justice and equity. We are therefore faced with several serious questions. Why is tithing not mentioned in scripture as the practice of the early Church of God? Did the early Church of God fulfill the needs that the tithe was designed for? If so, how? Let us turn to these questions now, as they force us to wrestle with the difficult question of the relevance of the tithing principle for Christians today, as well as the larger questions of justice and equity that are attached to the tithing law in ways that few people who preach about tithing seem to understand.
 There is one notable reference to tithing in Matthew 23, which will be discussed later on.