Tithing in the Old Testament

We are regularly reminded of only one Old Testament scripture on tithing, Malachi 3:8.  Since this verse is addressed to the nation of Israel, and admonishes them to obey the laws on tithing set down in the Pentateuch, I began to wonder what it was that God had said to Israel about tithing.  So after a bit of searching with E-Sword (great program) I found lots of interesting things that I had never heard before.  Let’s start with a review of Malachi 3:8:

3:8 Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions.  9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.  10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.  11 I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts.  12 Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts.

Interestingly, the tithe referred to here is food.  As we read through the verses on tithing we will see that God defined the tithe as a tenth of the increase of the land.  Next we see that God is speaking to the nation as a whole,  He will bless the whole nation of Israel, which He certainly did at times.  The nation being addressed at this point was the remnant that had come back to Jerusalem after the exile

But back to the topic:  what does the Old Testament say about tithing?   Starting in Leviticus:

Lev 27:30  ‘Thus all the tithe of the land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD’S; it is holy to the LORD.
Lev 27:31  ‘If, therefore, a man wishes to redeem part of his tithe, he shall add to it one-fifth of it.
Lev 27:32  ‘For every tenth part of herd or flock, whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD.
Lev 27:33  ‘He is not to be concerned whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it; or if he does exchange it, then both it and its substitute shall become holy. It shall not be redeemed.’”

So Israel tithes on the increase of the land.  What about the  results of buying and selling, or profits from manufacture of goods?  One would assume so, since we are taxed on them, but Jewish commentary indicates that other activities were exempt.  This would go along with the purpose of the tithe, which was to provide for the poor, the Levites, and the feasts.  These three purposes needed primarily food.

Leviticus says nothing more on the the tithe.  We have to go to Numbers 18:

Num 18:20  Then the LORD said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land nor own any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the sons of Israel.
Num 18:21  “To the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting.

Num 18:24  “For the tithe of the sons of Israel, which they offer as an offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance; therefore I have said concerning them, ‘They shall have no inheritance among the sons of Israel.’”
Num 18:25  Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
Num 18:26  “Moreover, you shall speak to the Levites and say to them, ‘When you take from the sons of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present an offering from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe.
Num 18:27  ‘Your offering shall be reckoned to you as the grain from the threshing floor or the full produce from the wine vat.
Num 18:28  ‘So you shall also present an offering to the LORD from your tithes, which you receive from the sons of Israel; and from it you shall give the LORD’S offering to Aaron the priest.
Num 18:29  ‘Out of all your gifts you shall present every offering due to the LORD, from all the best of them, the sacred part from them.’
Num 18:30  “You shall say to them, ‘When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be reckoned to the Levites as the product of the threshing floor, and as the product of the wine vat.
Num 18:31  ‘You may eat it anywhere, you and your households, for it is your compensation in return for your service in the tent of meeting.
Num 18:32  ‘You will bear no sin by reason of it when you have offered the best of it. But you shall not profane the sacred gifts of the sons of Israel, or you will die.’”

Here we learn that the tithe went to the Levites because they were given no land in Israel on which to raise food.  They were to depend on the tithe.  We also read about a tithe of the tithe that goes to the High Priest, which is the family of Aaron.  We have no earthly parallel in the church  for Aaron, for our high priest is Christ Jesus, but we make a parallel by giving the administration of the Foursquare denomination a tenth of what the local churches receive.

That’s all Numbers has to say about the tithe so we move on to Deuteronomy, which has three segments of instruction on the tithe:

Deu 12:5  “But you shall seek the LORD at the place which the LORD your God will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come.
Deu 12:6  “There you shall bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the contribution of your hand, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock.
Deu 12:7  “There also you and your households shall eat before the LORD your God, and rejoice in all your undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you.
Deu 12:8  “You shall not do at all what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes;
Deu 12:9  for you have not as yet come to the resting place and the inheritance which the LORD your God is giving you.
Deu 12:10  “When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security,
Deu 12:11  then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your God will choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the LORD.
Deu 12:12  “And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance with you.
Deu 12:13  “Be careful that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every cultic place you see,
Deu 12:14  but in the place which the LORD chooses in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you.
Deu 12:14  but in the place which the LORD chooses in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you.
Deu 12:15  “However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your gates, whatever you desire, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and the deer.
Deu 12:16  “Only you shall not eat the blood; you are to pour it out on the ground like water.
Deu 12:17  “You are not allowed to eat within your gates the tithe of your grain or new wine or oil, or the firstborn of your herd or flock, or any of your votive offerings which you vow, or your freewill offerings, or the contribution of your hand.
Deu 12:18  “But you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God will choose, you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all your undertakings.

The tithe is to be brought to the place (eventually Jerusalem) chosen by the Lord and offered there only.  The law on tithing was not in effect until the Israelites were in the promised land.

 Deu 14:22  “You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year.
Deu 14:23  “You shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.
Deu 14:24  “If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the LORD your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the LORD your God blesses you,
Deu 14:25  then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.
Deu 14:26  “You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.

The tithe was brought to Jerusalem in the form of either the increase of the land itself, or the proceeds from the sale of a tenth of the increase.  This tithe was brought to the feasts, of which there were three each year, to be used to have a feast.  After all,  what would a feast be if there were nothing to feast on?  (Please pay no attention to the mention of wine or strong drink in the list of “whatever your heart desires” :)

Deu 14:27  “Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your town, for he has no portion or inheritance among you.
Deu 14:28  “At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town.
Deu 14:29  “The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.

This is the first mention of there being a three year cycle to the tithes.  There has been a lot of confusion over whether the tithe for the poor and the Levite in the third year was a second tithe that year, or if it took the place of the feast tithe.  Different teachings at different times held that this was a second tithe, or even that there were three tithes each year, but this is not what these verses say.  There were two three year cycles of one tithe per year, and in the seventh year there was no tithe, for the law commanded that in the seventh year the land was not to be planted or harvested.  The three year cycle is again discussed in chapter 26:

Deu 26:12  “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.
Deu 26:13  “You shall say before the LORD your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion from my house, and also have given it to the Levite and the alien, the orphan and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed or forgotten any of Your commandments.
Deu 26:14  ‘I have not eaten of it while mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor offered any of it to the dead. I have listened to the voice of the LORD my God; I have done according to all that You have commanded me.
Deu 26:15  ‘Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground which You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers.’

After the Israelites pay their tithe, they say a prayer dictated to them by God Himself indicating that they have followed the law that God gave them, and they ask for God’s blessing on their land.  So they are without excuse when Malachi prophecies to them God’s word that He will open the floodgates of heaven for them, because they have been saying these very words every third year.  They already knew the prophecy, Malachi was only reminding them.

What of the temple at Jerusalem and its financing?  It was not paid for with tithes.   The first temple, which was the tent Moses built in the wilderness, was indirectly financed by the Egyptians, for it was the gold that the Israelites took from the Egyptians when they left Egypt that the Israelites brought to Moses as gifts with which to build.  The Solomon’s temple was built using the treasure accumulated by his father David.  It’s not clear but it looks like the temple was restored by the Israelites returning from exile with contribution. Herod’s temple was built by Herod.

Today we build large buildings with our tithes.  If our economy becomes as bad as I and others think it will become, many of these monuments will go back to the bank.  Will the real church continue without these edifices? Of course.  The early church had no big buildings.  Not until Christianity became the state religion under Constantine were there such things, yet the church thrived.  In fact, the decline of the church into a political organization began with Constantine and large buildings.  Perhaps that was a coincidence, but I think that having to manage a church body while protecting a large mortgage must pull your eyes away from Christ and on to the waves rising high about you.  Suddenly you have a sinking feeling.  Paul advised us in I Corinthians 7  that if we wanted to be in ministry we should even think twice about marriage.

Finally,  it is interesting to read Malachi 3:8 in context, for if you start at the beginning of the book you find that it is addressed to the priests, not the people.  It addresses the wrongs that the priests are committing with regard to the temple services: bringing blemished animals as sacrifices, divorcing their wives, showing partiality.  Only when we get to verse 3:9 does he say “the whole nation of you”.  But “nation” is not necessarily the nation of Israel.  The word can mean “group” or “herd”.  Strong’s defines it thus:

H1471
גּי    גּוי
gôy  gôy
go’ee, go’-ee
Apparently from the same root as H1465 (in the sense of massing); a foreign nation; hence a Gentile; also (figuratively) a troop of animals, or a flight of locusts: - Gentile, heathen, nation, people.

It would follow from the fact that the whole book up to this point addresses the priests, that “nation” means the troop of priests.  If it were the priests that Malachi is speaking to here about not bringing the tithe into the temple then probably they were taking it home for themselves and not sharing it with the poor or not providing for the daily sacrifices with it.

If this is the case then the use of Malachi 3:8 is inappropriate when used to chastise church members for their lack of tithing.  There are better verses to use, such as Deuteronomy 26:12-15, or perhaps we should just pray that the Lord touches people’s hearts to meet the needs of the work that He is wanting to do.

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