Tithing in the Old Testament

By: G. Ernest Thomas

The writers of the Old Testament knew human nature. They were individuals who had observed that material goods often become a barrier which separates a man from his God. While certain passages indicate that the laws of tithing were designed to support the priesthood and the temple, there are many others which suggest that tithing was regarded as an essential law of God because it was the means by which God’s presence could be known and experienced. Money and material goods stood between men and their God in Old Testament times as they do today. Tithing was an acknowledgment of God’s creating and sustaining providence. It became an essential practice for faithful observers of the Law.

As far back as the story of Cain and Abel there is a suggestion that loyalty to Jehovah required an offering of material goods in acknowledgment of His goodness. In the fourth chapter of Genesis we read: “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Gen. 4:3-5).

The Old Testament does not indicate what it was which made Cain’s gift unacceptable. We must conclude that his offering was blighted by legalism. He had chosen fruits and vegetables which were of poor quality, or of imperfect form; or he had been beggarly in the amount which he was prepared to sacrifice. The passage suggests that the offerings which were brought by the brothers were to acknowledge the goodness of Jehovah and to express thanksgiving to Him for His daily mercies.

This is the earliest mention in the Old Testament of men who brought portions of their increase and laid them upon the altar. It sets the standard for a majority of the teachings concerning tithing which were to
appear during the centuries which followed. For every passage in which tithing is made to appear a legalistic transaction to satisfy either the stern demands of a cruel God, or the need for money to support the temple, there are many more chapters in which tithing is interpreted as an act of worship and praise, prompted by an awareness of the continued mercies and gifts of Almighty God.

The first specific mention of tithing in the Old Testament occurs in the narrative which tells of the gift which Abraham brought to the altar. Melchizedek was then the “priest of God Most High.” After a great victory over the king of Sodom, Abraham received wide acclaim for his conduct in battle. But Abraham was not interested in personal triumphs; he gave the honor for the victory to Jehovah. In recognition of the divine aid “he gave him a tenth of everything,” the writer declares in Genesis 14:20. So the Jewish tithe was born!

No scholar has been able to explain satisfactorily how Abraham decided upon the tenth as a proper amount to acknowledge Jehovah’s mercies. Possibly he was influenced by the fact that the people of Babylonia and Assyria were required to give a tenth of their possessions as a sacrifice to their gods. But the loyalty of Abraham must have come as a result of an awareness that worship of Jehovah required a worthy sacrifice on the part of the one who was seeking His presence. Whatever may have been his reason, it appears
that Abraham considered the bringing of the tenth as basic to the worship of God.

By the time of Moses the tithe was recognized by every son of Israel as a standard of giving. The holy experience on Mt. Sinai brought into being not only the Ten Commandments to guide the people, but it brought a fully formed law of tithing which was from then on to be observed by all faithful Hebrews.

“All the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord” (Lev.27:30).

Those in our day who are interested in the tithe as an act of devotion sometimes fail to recognize the fact that Old Testament tithing did not end with the giving of a tenth. Shortly after the children of Israel settled in the Promised Land a second tenth came to be recognized as an act of worship. This second tenth was brought to an annual gathering of the people for an occasion which might be likened to our Thanksgiving Day. The writer says: “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed, which comes forth from the field year by year. And before the Lord your God, in the place which he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstlings of your herd and flock; that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always” (Deut. 14:22-23).

The Thanksgiving celebration was not held annually at the same geographical location until the Temple was erected in Jerusalem. Before that time the festival of thanks was observed in separate places throughout the land, and the festival became a time when such portions of the countryside were more
completely dedicated to Jehovah. It was evidently an occasion of great joy and of family reunion. In the twelfth chapter of Deuteronomy it is stated: “But you shall seek the place which the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there; thither you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offering that you present, your votive offerings, your free-will offerings, and the firstlings of your herd and of your flock; and there you shall eat it before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deut. 12:5-7).

Yet the giving of the faithful Hebrew did not end even with the two-tenths which included the general tithe and the thanksgiving tithe. Every third year the people were asked to bring a third tithe to care for the needy. The writer of Deuteronomy describes it as follows:

“At the end of every three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce in the same year, and lay it up within your towns; and the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the
sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do” (Deut. 14:28,29).

The Old Testament offers no easy way by which an individual may pay his obligations to God. Those who would criticize the tithe in the Law as requiring more of a sacrifice than they feel they can make have often
failed to recognize that the Old Testament tithe included two-tenths for each of two years, and three-tenths for the third year. Many Christians who try to avoid the implications of tithing in our generation are troubled less by the legalism of tithing than by the cost and sacrifice which it involves.

Tithing is written unmistakably into the life of the people of Old Testament times. To read the books of the Law and the Prophets is to hear the voice of challenge to the dedicated life, which calls for tithing as the only adequate measure of the stewardship of material goods.

Tithing Is Thanking God

Certain principles become evident from an examination of the Old Testament teaching about the tithe. They are unmistakable as a guide for those who are willing to recognize the principle of the tithe as pertaining to the experience of Christians in this generation.

First, tithing was not evolved in the Old Testament as a means to support the temple, the priesthood, or the civil government. In the years beginning with Saul, David, and Solomon, the tithes were used for that purpose, but the direction in which the money went was not primary in the growth of the tithing idea. Tithing was developed as a principle of religious devotion, as a way of thanking God for His goodness, and of acknowledging man’s dependence upon the creative and sustaining providence of Jehovah.

The Book of Deuteronomy gives keen insight into the spirit of the people who felt that Jehovah was the most important fact in their lives. As a part of his worship, a faithful Israelite would come before the priest and say: “I declare this day to the Lord your God that I have come into the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us” (Deut. 26:3). Then, after presenting the gift of the tithes, the worshiper went on: “We cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our afflictions, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which thou, O Lord, hast given me. And you shall set it down before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God; and you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (Deut. 26:7-11).

It must be admitted that tithing was not always kept on that high plane throughout the Old Testament. Sometimes it became a legalistic transaction by which the giver hoped to win the friendly concern of Jehovah. The tithe became at times an act of bargaining in which the tither expected definite returns from his gifts. The experience of Jacob at Bethel was marred by that kind of unworthy bargaining. We read: “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will
give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee” (Gen. 28:20-22).

Such unworthy attitudes are not numerous in the Old Testament. For the most part the tithe was given to acknowledge the continued blessing of a loving God.

The heart of the tithing practice ceases to beat with pulsating life whenever the fundamental fact of worship is neglected. Tithing is simple in its purpose and form. It is an act of devotion by which God’s grateful children acknowledge His unbounded providence by setting aside one-tenth of what God has given to them.

Giving Should Involve Sacrifice

Second, the tithing passages in the Old Testament emphasize the fact that the giving involves a sacrifice. Many Christians in this generation make meager gifts to God and to His Church. They make no sacrifice, and give with no system. In the teaching of the Old Testament, tithing required that the believer give the best that he possessed and in an amount which constituted a sacrifice.

There is a reminder of this aspect of tithing in many of the commandments which are set forth in the Book of Leviticus. In the instructions to the family of Aaron we read: “When any one of the house of Israel or of the sojourners in Israel presents his offerings, whether in payment of a vow or a freewill offering which is ordered to the Lord as a burnt offering, to be accepted you shall offer a male without blemish, of the bulls or the sheep or the goats. You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you. And when any one offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, to fulfil a vow or as a freewill offering, from the herd or from the flock, to be accepted it must be perfect” (Lev. 22:18-21).

A nobler expression of the accepted Hebrew idea that the tithe must include the best which the worshiper possessed is seen in the words which King David spoke to a priest: “Neither will I offer burnt-offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (II Sam. 24:24). It was evident that David had been brought up in an Old Testament tradition which made the tithes and offerings which were brought to Jehovah of such a nature that they required sacrifice.

Tithing Receives God’s Blessing

Third, the Old Testament leaves no reader to doubt that there are rewards available for those who tithe. The passages devoted to tithing indicate that the rewards are both material and spiritual. The unavoidable
conclusion is that the principle of tithing reaches deeply into the life of the universe, and finds a response in the laws of God. The tither is blessed beyond those who use God’s gifts without admitting that all such
treasures constitute a sacred trust.

The narrative in Genesis in which Abraham places his tithes before Jehovah is followed by a passage in which the patriarch is assured of divine interest and blessing. “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him. ‘So shall your descendents be'” (Gen. 15:1-5).

The promised rewards of the stewardship life are evident in the Book of Proverbs also, when the reader is reminded to “Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty” (Proverbs 3:9-10).

The tithing message in the Old Testament is accompanied by recurring assurances that blessings will return to the life of the tither to enrich him in ways beyond his expectation. Sometimes those blessings are in the form of material welfare but more often the tither receives that wondrous sense of the divine presence which makes him triumphant in every experience of daily living.

From the early chapters of Genesis to the last verses in the Book of Malachi, the Old Testament sets forth the expectancy and urgency of tithing. It is not enough to say that people of Old Testament times tithed;
it is more nearly accurate to declare that an imperative compulsion was placed upon the Old Testament people to tithe. The origin lay in a desire to find a more worthy way to express gratitude to Jehovah for His goodness, and the end result was a faith which, though often placed in the crucible of suffering and trial, remained across the ages to enrich the religious heritage of mankind.

Tithing is an inseparable part of the total heritage of the Jewish faith, that faith which became the foundation for the Christian revelation and hope. When we study the Old Testament we rediscover the tithe as a minimum acknowledgment of the bounteous goodness of a loving God.

(The above material was taken from the book Spiritual Life Through Tithing.)

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