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Old Testament Tithing

It is important to remember that tithing was a requirement under the Old Testament Law. Most people realize this; however, few people know that there were three Old Testament or Levitical tithes. The specifics of the tithes are given in the law; however, there are several examples of giving to God BEFORE the law required it... the first of which happened in the book of Genesis.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. (Genesis 4:2-5)

There is no detail as to how much of an offering was given in the story of Cain and Abel. It is interesting how God did not look on Cain's offering favorably, which was made up of some of the fruits from the soil. The distinction between Cain and Abel's offering is that Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock, whereas Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil. Abel gave to the Lord from his first and best while Cain just brought some of his crop - not necessarily his first or best crop. God did not expect a specific amount from Cain or Abel, but he expected it to come from their first and not their excess. It was never about the gift to God; it was about the heart of the giver.

The most common example of Biblical tithing used by protestant churches is the story of Abram giving ten percent to the priest Melchizedek, which is also found in the book of Genesis.

After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand. "Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. The king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself." But Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, 'I made Abram rich.' I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me-to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share." (Genesis 14:17-24)

Churches use this as an example of tithing; however, they do not point out that this is the only Biblical evidence of Abraham tithing. Abram gave ten percent of his spoils from war; however, there is no mention of Abram ever giving any of his posessions. The truth is that there was no requirement for Abram to tithe; Abram did not give the ten percent as a tithe to God - Abram gave ten percent as a gift or offering to God as thanks for helping him win the battle.

Another example given to encourage tithing is the story of Jacob promising to give God a tenth of everything God gave him, which is also found in the book of Genesis.

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth." (Genesis 28:16-22)

Jacob was leaving Beersheba and heading for Haran as directed by his mother Rebekah. Jacob was nervous about this journey, and his tithe was almost like a bargain with God. He promised to give God a tenth of everything he was given, as long as God watched over him and gave him food and clothes.

The true Old Testament doctrine of tithing is found in the law, which required the Israelites to tithe. It is important to keep in mind that the Israelites were required to pay the tithes in much the same way we are required to pay taxes today. There were three distinct tithes required by the law.

Old Testament Tithe 1: 10% to the Levites

The Levites were not given land in Israel; they were the only tribe that did not own land. The Levites were the priests and gave their lives to serve in the temple of the Lord. Since they spent their time working in the temple (Tent before the temple was constructed), they did not have the ability to raise animals or crops to eat. The Lord set up a system of tithing such that every other Israelite gave 10% of their increase to the Levites. The Levites were then to give 10% of these tithes to the highest priest, initially Aaron.

" '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.' " (Leviticus 27:30-33)

"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. From now on the Israelites must not go near the Tent of Meeting, or they will bear the consequences of their sin and will die. It is the Levites who are to do the work at the Tent of Meeting and bear the responsibility for offenses against it. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. 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.' " (Numbers 18:21-24)

This tithe was very important to the Levites, and maintaining the work required at the Lord's house. A person could hold back the tithe (which was an animal or crop) by paying 5 times the value of that tithe to the Levites. This money could then be used by the Levites to purchase food from another. It is important to note that Tithe 1 was used to sustain the Levites, who had no ability to earn money, harvest crops or raise animals.

This tithe was so important that God admonished people for holding back this tithe in the book of Malachi.

"Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse-the whole nation of you-because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the LORD Almighty. "Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:8-12)


Old Testament Tithe 2: 10% for "feasts" and to make trips to Jerusalem for sacrifice

The Israelites were required to observe certain Holy Days as outlined in Leviticus 23.  Some of these days required travelling to a specific location while most required specific foods and drinks.  The observation of these "feasts" and events would put a burrden on the Israelites, so God had them allocate ten percent of what they produced each year to set aside for this purpose.  The true purpose of this tithe was to remove the burden of the Holy Days so that the Israelites would observe them without stress.

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.  (Deuteronomy 14:22-26)


Old Testament Tithe 3: 10% every 3rd year - for local Levites, homeless, poor, widows, etc.

The following passage indicates that there was a storehouse in each town which was filled with produce to be used for the locals in need. This is not the storehouse discussed in Malachi, because Malachi talks about filling a storehouse so that there will be food in the Lord's house. This storehouse would have been in Jerusalem, and Malachi is referring to Tithe 1.

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. (Deuteronomy 14:28-29)