Tithing in the Old Testament

Tithing is a controversial subject in the Church, so I think it would be helpful if we understood what it involved in the Old Testament and why it was commanded. Instructions about tithing are found in several parts of the Law.

'A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. If a man redeems any of his tithe, he must add a fifth of the value to it. The entire tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd's rod—will be holy to the Lord. He must not pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If he does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.' (Lev 27:30–33)

The Hebrew word translated 'holy' in these verses means to be sacred; to be set apart for God. A tenth of everything the land produced, including every tenth animal, belonged to the Lord and had to be given to him.

But God is spirit (Joh 4:24); he doesn't need our money and he doesn't eat our food. That which he commanded his people to give to him in the Old Testament was used to perform his will, and Num 18:21–32 tells us what the tithes were used for.

Support for the Levites

'I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the Tent of Meeting.

'They will receive no inheritance among the Israelites. Instead, I give to the Levites as their inheritance the tithes that the Israelites present as an offering to the Lord. That is why I said concerning them: "They will have no inheritance among the Israelites." ' (Num 18:21, 23b–24)

When Israel entered Canaan they cast lots to divide up the land. The tribe of Levi received no inheritance of land among the other tribes: they were given only towns to live in and pasture lands to graze their flocks and herds (Jos 14:1–5).

God didn't want the Levites to spend time farming or growing crops, he wanted them to devote themselves to full-time spiritual ministry, so he gave them the tithes that were presented to him as their wages, including every tenth animal. They used their pasture lands to graze the animals they were given until they slaughtered them for food.

The Lord's offering

The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the Levites and say to them: "When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the Lord's offering. Your offering will be reckoned to you as grain from the threshing-floor or juice from the winepress. In this way you also will present an offering to the Lord from all the tithes you receive from the Israelites. From these tithes you must give the Lord's portion to Aaron the priest. You must present as the Lord's portion the best and holiest part of everything given to you."

'Say to the Levites: "When you present the best part, it will be reckoned to you as the product of the threshing-floor or the winepress. You and your households may eat the rest of it anywhere, for it is your wages for your work at the Tent of Meeting. By presenting the best part of it you will not be guilty in this matter; then you will not defile the holy offerings of the Israelites, and you will not die." ' (Num 18:25–32)

When the Levites received the tithes they had to tithe to the Lord as well, but only with respect to 'grain from the threshing-floor or juice from the winepress (v27)'. The Hebrew word translated 'or' in that verse can also mean and, which I believe is the correct translation in this case.

The Levites had to give the best part of the grain from the threshing floor and the juice from the winepress to Aaron the priest as their offering to the Lord. If they didn't do that they would die (v32). That seemed a harsh judgement, but it was because of what it symbolized.

Bread was baked from the grain from the threshing floor; wine was made from the juice of the winepress. Bread and wine—symbols of our Lord's death on the cross. And they had to offer the best part of the grain and wine to God—symbolizing the perfection of Christ and the offering of himself for the sins of the world (Heb 9:14).

Eat and rejoice

Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always. But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the Lord your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the Lord will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the Lord your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice. (Deu 14:22–26)

Num 18:21 said that the tithes the Israelites brought to the Lord were to be given to the Levites, and Num 18:15 said that the firstborn of their flocks and herds were to be given to the priests.

But the above passage says that the Israelites were to eat the tithes they brought to the Lord and the firstborn of their animals as well (v23). How could they do that? How could they give them to the priests and Levites and eat them themselves?

The traditional view is that the tithe the people ate was a second tithe they took after giving the first tithe to the Levites, but personally I don't accept that interpretation.

If they ate a tenth of what remained after giving the first tithe to the Lord they would, in effect, be eating 9% of their yearly produce during one visit to Jerusalem. That would take a considerable length of time, perhaps more than a month, and it doesn't explain the eating of the firstborn.

An animal only gives birth to one firstborn; they wouldn't be able to give the firstborn to the priests and eat them themselves. I think a more likely explanation is that they were to eat from their tithes and firstborn in the presence of the Lord.

Deu 14:26 says: 'Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.' It was a family occasion: they took their tithe to Jerusalem, presented it to the Lord and ate some of it in his presence, rejoicing in all the provision he had blessed them with.

The poor tithe

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deu 14:28–29)

Traditionally this was seen as yet another tithe (the poor tithe) that was given in the third year—a tithe of what was left after the first two tithes had been taken. But I believe this simply involved storing the tithe that was due to the Levites in the towns of Israel, rather than taking it to Jerusalem.

Aliens (foreigners) were not allowed to own land in Israel; the fatherless would have no one to provide for them, and neither would the widows.

God wanted no one to go hungry in the land he'd given to his people, so he decreed that every third year the tithe—which was normally taken to Jerusalem and distributed to the Levites from there (2Ch 31:4–21)—should be stored locally in the towns and shared among anyone who was in need.

If they did that he would bless his people in all the work of their hands (Deu 14:29b).

Righteous acts

All this giving was commanded by God. So we can see that providing for those who are in full-time spiritual ministry, and giving to the poor, the needy and the hungry, are righteous acts in the sight of the Lord. In the Old Testament they were done through the tithing system; in the New Testament they are done as God moves by his Spirit in the hearts of his people.

Michael Graham
January 2006

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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