My previous blog introduced the topic of generosity. In this blog, I look at how generosity was embedded in the law of tithing.
The first incidence of tithing recorded in the Bible is in Genesis 14:18-20 after Abram (later renamed Abraham) rescued Lot who, along with the whole of Sodom, and Gomorrah, had been captured by invaders from the east. Abram ended up with the spoils of war. Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God most high, brought out a banquet of bread and wine, shared it with Abram and blessed him. Abram gave Melchizedek a tithe of all the goods he had retrieved and returned the rest to the king of Sodom, after a deduction to recompense his own men. There is no biblical record of Abraham repeating this tithe.
The second incidence is recorded in Genesis 28:20-22. Jacob apparently offered a contract, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on… (then)… of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to you’. Apparently, Jacob had adopted the eastern practice of offering a tithe to a strong king in return for protection. There is no stronger king than God! We do not know if Jacob ever kept his side of the bargain.
In the Law of Moses three tithes were commanded:
- The first tithe (Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18:21-32) was a tenth of all the annual produce or increase of the land plus every tenth animal in herd or flock that ‘passes under the rod’ at the annual count. This portion was devoted to God or ‘holy to the Lord’ and given to the Levites as their inheritance since they were forbidden to own land. The purpose of the first tithe was relationship or community with God and generosity to the Levites who had no means of providing for themselves under the law.
- The Levites were commanded to tithe out of the people’s tithe and hand it over to the priests for their sustenance This was called a heave offering or t’rumah and amounted to one tenth of the first tithe.
- The second tithe (Deuteronomy 12:6-7, 14:23) was set aside for one's household to join in the three annual worship-feasts where travel to the tabernacle (later the temple) was required. These feasts were Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Feast of Weeks or Pentecost), and Sukhot (Feast or Tabernacles or Tents or Booths). The purpose of the second tithe was generosity to give people an opportunity to ‘rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households, in which the Lord has blessed you’. Its focus was on building community.
- The third tithe (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) occurred in the third year and remained in the local community for the Levites, strangers (sojourners or foreigners), fatherless, and widows that they ‘may come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do’. The purpose of this tithe was to: (a) sustain the Levites; and (b) provide social welfare assistance to the poor. Some commentators argue that this was a separate tithe every three years, but it is plausible that this was the first tithe distributed differently each three years – see Deuteronomy 26:12. The latter interpretation certainly has support in rabbinical thought.
It appears from the biblical evidence that Israel was never very diligent in obeying the tithing laws, or any other laws for that matter. Malachi 3:8-10 records God’s challenge to the priests and people. In essence, God said, 'Stop treating My law with contempt, stop divorcing your wives and marrying heathen women who teach you to insult me by idolatry. Obey all the laws of tithing and offering and, in the context of the whole of Malachi's admonition, obey all My laws. I invite you to test Me. See if the promised blessings in Deuteronomy 28:9-14 come to pass.' Of course, they would have come to pass because God's promise of blessing was contingent only on obedience.
There is not much about tithing in the New Testament. In Matthew 23 Jesus instructed the people (who were still living under law) to do as the scribes and Pharisees taught, but not to copy their behaviour. He accused the religious leaders of the utter hypocrisy of tithing right down to their herbs and spices and obeying the detailed rules about clean and unclean animals right down to straining gnats from their drinks, but not acting in accordance with the ‘weightier’ principles of justice, mercy and faith. He told them to continue with tithing to the nth degree, but not to neglect what God had instructed in Micah 6:8.
In Hebrews 7 there is an extended reference to Melchizedek that touches on tithing. By then the New Covenant was in operation and the apostle Paul and other leaders of the early church went to great lengths to explain that the covenant of law had been replace by the 'better' covenant of grace. The line of argument in Hebrews 7 is:
- Jesus is of the order of Melchizedek (priest and king) in contrast to Aaron (priest only). Melchizedek was better than Aaron.
- Jesus is better than Melchizedek since He comes ‘not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life’.
- The ‘word of oath’ (God’s grace) is better than the law administered by priests because they have weaknesses. In contrast, Jesus ‘has been perfected forever’.
- The New Covenant of grace is better than the Old Covenant of law!
The focus of Hebrews 7 is clearly not Old Testament tithing, but what is 'better'.
This is the point from which we will start in the next blog when I'll consider how 21st century Christians might respond to the issue of generosity through tithes and offerings.
Questions for discussion
1. How much were the Israelites meant to tithe in total?
2, What were the purposes of the three tithes identified in the Law of Moses?
3. Why did Jesus call the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites (which literally means 'actors')?
4. Why did the writer of Hebrews refer to tithing in chapter 7?