Biblical Tithe: It’s More (and Less) Than You Think it Is
By Debbie Holloway, Crosswalk.com
I’ll be blunt: I think there might be a few too many articles on tithing in the Christian internet community.
Don’t get me wrong, I think money is a critical thing for believers to explore and discuss, and it’s no surprise to me that tithing is such a hot topic. But endless hamster-wheel repetitions of the same key phrases sometimes do more to feed our own assumptions than to actually shed light on biblical truths.
Maybe you tithe. Maybe you don’t. No matter what, this discussion isn’t about judgment. Rather, it’s a chronology of my own biblical exploration of money, Christ, Mosaic Law, Jewish nationality, and the ancient, important collection of Scriptures we call the Bible.
So, are you curious about the biblical relationship between money and Christians? About giving and tithing and what Jesus even had to say about it all? I was.
Part One: The Tithe.
“God Tells Us To Tithe.”
A tithe, as you probably know, refers to “a tenth” of something. In Genesis 14, we read an account of Abraham offering Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils their armies had won after defeating the armies of Kedorlaomer. Later, in Genesis 28, Jacob has a dream where God promises to give land, blessing, and prosperity to Jacob’s descendants. Overcome with gratitude when he wakes, Jacob promises God a tithe of all his future profits if those things truly do come to pass.
These tithes were spontaneous acts of thankfulness. It wasn’t until the time of Moses that God began requiring a tithe of the Israelite nation, and even then, there are many biblical directives on the tithe that I certainly never heard growing up in church!
For the Poor, For the Levites, and For Remembrance
Some passages detailing the Israelite tithe are Deuteronomy 12, 14, and 26. Deuteronomy 12 begins with a command that, as long as the Israelites dwell in the Promised Land, they are to worship the LORD properly and follow his instructions, including the command to tithe.
But what was the tithe, exactly?
According to Deuteronomy 14:22-29, it was “a tenth of all that your fields produce each year” – a tenth of “grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks.” This specification is echoed by Deuteronomy 26:1-15. The tithe (and there were multiple different yearly tithes) was instituted when the Israelites entered the land that God had promised them (aka The “Promised Land”) and was meant specifically to be a law tied to their residence in said land.
But why? The Deuteronomist gives three key reasons for the institution of the tithe:
1. To help feed the poor (the foreigners, orphans, and widows) in each community (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:9-14)
2. To help feed the Levites (God-appointed priests) in each community (Deut. 12:18-19; 14:27-29; 26:9-14)
3. To remember the goodness of the LORD (Deut. 12:7; 14:23, 26:1-10)
Read the passage below to see an example of the process of Israelite tithing:
“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. And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own. 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 14:22-29).
Some interesting things to note:
1. The Israelites offered foodstuffs as tithe, so that the food could be distributed to those with no land (foreigners, widows, orphans, Levites). This action symbolized how God had given land to the Israelites when they had none of their own.
2. The Israelites participated in the feasting of their own tithes! The sacrifices were presented and then eaten joyously by everyone present. This feast represented the goodness and bounty of the land God promised to the Israelites.
3. The whole tithing process (like essentially all Jewish feasts and celebrations) was enacted in remembrance of the LORD’s goodness.
These passages, by inference, also insinuate a few more things that might not initially come to mind:
1. Because of how often the Promised Land is repeated as the location for those who are commanded to tithe, it really only makes sense to deduce that those living outside the Promised Land were never under an obligation to participate in the system of the mandatory tithe. Many times, Mosaic Law dictates that the tithe was instituted as a Law because the people lived in the Promised Land.
2. Because the text so clearly specifies that tithe is meant to come from produce and livestock (because the end result of the tithe system was a great feast and other food distribution) we can infer that merchants, artisans, and other Israelites who didn’t have flocks or fields were exempt from the tithe. No instructions are given about the tithe except as it relates to animals and grown food. The Mosaic tithe is explicitly a food-based system, not an income-based system. Monetary giving, while a Scriptural concept, is totally different from the institution of tithing.
We’ve discovered some interesting ideas so far. Looking closely at the Old Testament Law, the mandatory tithe seems to be a distinctly Jewish system, for a specific time and place (the Promised Land) as a way of remembering God’s goodness and of keeping poorer members of society nourished and cared-for.
But let’s talk for a minute about another lesser-known aspect of the tithe.
“10% is the Biblical Standard of Giving.”
Have you ever heard someone say that? I have.
But did you catch above when I wrote that there were multiple yearly tithes the Israelites had to observe? Some were every year, and at least one came about every third year. Drawing from tithing references in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy which mention these tithes, it’s realistic to say that the Israelite tithing percentage was probably somewhere between 20%-25%.
Doesn’t this undermine our tendency to tout “10%” as a divine standard of giving, or even a biblical “starting point?”
Exemptions from the Mosaic Tithe
Before we move on to Jesus, I think it’s worth mentioning again that, according to the Mosaic Law, a fair amount of people were exempt from paying the tithe. This is yet another key difference in biblical tithing practices and modern day tithing rhetoric. Here is a reminder of the exempt groups:
1. Craftsman, artisans, merchants, and others who didn’t make a living off the soil and the animals
2. Widows, orphans, and foreigners
3. Levites (priests)
Indeed, those in the 2nd and 3rd categories were specifically meant to receive the tithe. These groups of people were dependent upon their community for resources, and the tithing laws ensured that they were not overlooked by their wealthier, more privileged brothers and sisters.
In the book of Micah, God takes tithing very seriously. In post-exilic Jerusalem, the Israelites had fallen away from God’s laws and were living for themselves. People like Ezra, Nehemiah and Micah were doing what they could to get Israel back on its feet, but the people were (as always) stubborn – and quick to forget about the LORD.
In an oracle from Micah chapter 3 the LORD declares that by withholding or neglecting the tithe, the Israelites are “robbing” God - and that God wants to bless them if they would just follow his commandments.
This is interesting when paired with the Deuteronomy passages, which detail the tithe being used to feed the poor. Both passages taken together infer that God stands very strongly on the side of the disenfranchised, and to withhold resources from the poor, when he tells us not to, is to “rob” God personally as well.
Part Two: Generosity
And no one is exempt from Jesus’ call to generosity.
This is where the New Testament enters our discussion. I hope at this point we have come to understand the tithe as a distinctly Old Testament, distinctly Hebrew law. But in the Kingdom he ushers in, Jesus ups the ante in a powerful way when he speaks about generosity.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24)
Jesus affirms that yes, landowning Israelites with produce are expected to tithe. But he also unequivocally states that the tithe is far inferior to laws on justice, mercy, and faithfulness – which the Pharisees have neglected.
Additionally, Jesus (and other New Testament authors) put the measuring line of financial giving on a person’s heart and not on Mosaic Law. A fascinating mini-sermon on this theme is given in Mark 12:41-44:
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything--all she had to live on."
Remember, this widow was not required, or expected, by God or the Mosaic Law to do this. She was exempt from the Mosaic tithe, because (being a woman) she could not own land and (being a widow) it is likely she lived off the generosity of family and friends.
All the same, Jesus commends her for her generosity. Her spirit, Jesus says, is exactly what the Kingdom of God should look like.
Just prior to this in Mark 12:31, Jesus says that loving the Lord your God with everything you are cannot be separated from loving your neighbor as yourself. This means that widows are blessed and bold for giving when they have nothing. This also means that the rich are expected to care for these same widows. This means that those in the Kingdom of God should never starve, because we are all called to give. (The story of the Good Samaritan is a wonderful example of this attitude of total selflessness and generosity.)
So… How Much Should I Give?
And the crowds were questioning [John the Baptist], saying, "Then what shall we do?" And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise" (Luke 3:10-11).
Well, John the Baptist (as can be seen above) prepared the way for Jesus and set the standard of giving at 50%. (You may remember that this is exactly how much Zaccheus resolves to give after encountering Jesus!)
Jesus goes even further, however. As we read earlier, he blessed the widow for giving everything she had. He told the rich young ruler to give everything he had to the poor. Now, I don’t look at these verses and interpret that literally every single person should sell everything they have and give everything to the poor. That would just create an endless cycle of poverty.
But it’s worth noting that Jesus clearly encourages boundless giving. 100% generosity. Nothing is off limits.
One the one hand, there is great freedom in this new Kingdom, because the judgment for generosity now rests with us.
“Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
However, there is also enormous responsibility. This is what Jesus had to say regarding that personal freedom:
"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.' "Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." '"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?' "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:15-21).
Just to clarify, I do not interpret these verses to mean that God strikes people dead if they get too rich, or if they’re bad sharers. The context of these verses contains multiple parables which highlight that humans have no control over the hour of their deaths, and that time and nature happen to us all without our consent.
The crucial part of the parable is the shock value; the rich man’s death is unexpected. Instead of “and he lived happily ever after, enjoying his immense wealth” – the story became, “and he died suddenly in the night, leaving a barn full of riches for nobody to enjoy.” The man had more than he needed, and he knew it. Instead of giving his excess wealth to help the community, he decided to build a bigger barn, and perpetuate his own wealth. (Kind of like when we see celebrities buying ridiculously impractical houses, or more cars than they could ever keep in use.)
Jesus shows us that God hates extravagance, and that God hates selfishness. Yes, God wants to bless us. But according to Jesus, blessings from God must then flow outward into us blessing other people.
Our freedom is one to excel in goodness and generosity. It’s not freedom to live selfishly and sinfully.
Will God Really “Throw Open the Floodgates” If We Tithe?
Maybe. Maybe not.
A wisdom principle evidenced most clearly in the book of Proverbs is that “if you perform A+B, the result is C.” A good example of this is the oft-quoted verse to “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). And there is, of course, an obvious wisdom principle at work here. When one observes the world, people, and patterns, one can see that this has the ring of eternal truth to it.
But we must admit that, sometimes, children do depart from godly training – however diligent their parents have been. We must admit that these wisdom snippets are not sure-fire solutions to everything life throws at us.
The recognition of this harsher reality doesn’t undermine God’s promises to us – because Proverbs 22:6 was never an unqualified promise from God to us in the first place! The book of Proverbs contains wise sayings, godly advice, passed down from fathers to sons in the Israelite community. Were those principles they observed based on God’s truth, and inspired by his spirit? Yes. But the books of Ecclesiastes and Job (which appear right next to Proverbs in canonical arrangement) explain to us that the world is a far more complicated, far less formulaic place. Job shows us that sometimes you do A+B and you don’t get C, you get D! Ecclesiastes says that God just wants us to do A+B and not worry about C at all.
With this principle in mind, as difficult as it is to swallow, let’s look at the verse in question that tends to get people so confident that the result of tithing will be boundless wealth and blessings:
“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" (Malachi 3:9-10)
This oracle was not made as a blatant promise to all Christians for all time.
This was God speaking through the prophet Malachi to a rebellious, post-exilic Israelite community which was struggling to reclaim identity as Jewish people in God’s Promised Land. They were ignoring God’s laws on money, sexuality, and proper worship. God wanted to bless them and restore them – but in return he wanted their love and obedience.
And most importantly, the tithe was not all God wanted from them! God required justice and mercy, as Jesus reminds the Pharisees who deign to tithe their produce but ignore the poor and oppressed in their communities. Justice and mercy are loftier pursuits, Jesus claims.
Where Does That Leave Us?
As Christians, we have a tricky line to walk when it comes to money. Biblically, the mandatory tithe is never expanded to the Christian or Gentile communities. But at the same time, we know it’s God’s heart for us to give and not withhold. In fact, it’s so much in God’s heart that even when there was a mandated tithe, it was as high as 20-25%! Today’s modern-day-Church-talk of “giving our 10% to God” seems pretty wimpy in comparison to the Mosaic Tithe, and incredibly shallow when we look at the lifestyle of giving that Jesus encouraged.
I believe Jesus taught that Christians should never live with a mindset of scarcity and anxiety. Jesus’ commands have very little to do with enforcing a specific numerical contribution to one’s local church. God’s goal is for his children to give, love, care for, and grow. Though we all have different strengths, different sized paychecks, and different needs, when we live in community and in generosity, I believe God blesses our efforts to care for each other.
All of us are sometimes the poor, the downtrodden, those who need desperately to be on the receiving end of Christian generosity.
Some of us are pastors, modern-day Levites, who rely on the generosity of (often small) parishes to support our families.
Some of us are in a lot of debt.
Some of us may be temporarily living off the generosity of our parents, or the government, or our friends.
It is my desire that every person in a safe Christian community can bold enough to call for help, and bold enough to answer when help is needed. For too long has money been a “sticky” and uncomfortable variable in our lives. There is abundance, if we foster contented hearts and learn to live with mercy and selflessness.
My final point is that, no matter what easy formula Churches latch onto, it’s honestly not that Christians have strict, or even very clear, “biblical rules” for tithing and money. It’s that Christians are called to live by a high standard of generosity.
Words matter. “A Lifestyle of Giving” paints a different picture than “Regularly Tithing.” Those words have different flavors and implications. “Regularly Tithing” means there’s a standard, a bar to reach, and unfortunately, often apathy once you get in the habit and you’re used to what it feels like to reach the bar.
“A Lifestyle of Giving” is boundless, measureless, and bottomless. It doesn’t ask, “have I checked off my to-do list?” Rather it asks, “How can I make the world better? How can I serve?”
We are creatures of habit; we thrive off rules and structures. I believe that is why we have latched onto the tithe, even after all these years having the freedom to give so much more. We are called to give food, shelter, money, words of love, prayers, and practical help. We can and are meant to live with open hands.
“In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).
Debbie Holloway is the Family Life Editor for Crosswalk.com
Publication date: October 28, 2013