Posted by: Curtis W. Lindsey | February 1, 2011

Tithing in the Old Testament

A Biblical Theology of Tithing 1 of 2

I’ve had the recent occasion to research a biblical view of tithing from the Old and New Testaments as well as how it relates to the present-day believer.  Here is part one of my conclusions.

Introduction: The Reason for Giving
The English word “tithe” comes from words in Hebrew and Greek meaning “a tenth.”  Israel was one among many ancient civilizations that instituted a system of giving.  However, what distinguishes Israel from her neighbors is that Jewish tithing was based primarily on theological considerations and less on material need or social welfare concerns.  The Bible repeatedly claims that everything belongs to God (Pss 24:1–2; 50:10).  Therefore, giving is not based on God’s need but on the giver’s recognition of God’s sovereignty and providence.

Tithing in the Old Testament
The Old Testament, as we might expect, is full of instruction related to the tithe.  The tithe was one of many types of “offerings” (Exod 35:29; Deut 12:6, 11).  Although it is debated, it seems that the Old Testament details not just one tithe, but three separate tithes required of Israel.  The first tithe (Lev 27:30–33; Num 18:25–29) was the first tenth of “the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree” (Lev 27:30) and also a tenth of the livestock (1 Sam 8:15, 17).  It was a recognition of God’s provision as well as a means for supporting the Levites, priests, and the government.  The second tithe (Deut 14:22–27) was kept for the family’s celebrations.  The third tithe (Deut 14:28–29; 26:12–15) was only given every third year and helped support the Levites, widows, orphans, and sojourners in the land.  This could have added up to almost thirty percent of their income.

Two Old Testament passages refer to a “tithe” before the giving of the Mosaic law.  Abraham, after his victory to rescue Lot, spontaneously gave a tenth of his spoils of victory to Melchizedek (Gen 14:17–24).  Likewise, Jacob vowed to God that if God allowed Jacob to prosper, Jacob would give a full tenth to God (Gen 28:20–22).  Although Abraham and Jacob gave a “tenth,” it is difficult to say this is an example of giving as later outlined by the Mosaic law.  After all, the giving of a “tenth” is attested outside of ancient Israel.  Furthermore, Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils of war, a gift not attested in the law.

In Malachi 3:8–12, the Lord rebukes Israel for they are “robbing” God through the neglect of their tithes.  To hold back the “tithes and contributions” (v. 8) was to bring a curse (v. 9) and the destruction of vineyards (v. 11).  This punishment was the result of Israel’s rejection of the Mosaic Covenant, an action that was explicitly detailed to bring just such a curse (Deut 28:15–68).

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