Tithing in the Old Testament

'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.' (Lev 27:30–3)

Tithing (giving God a tenth of your income) is a controversial subject in the church, so it would be helpful if we understood what it involved in the Old Testament, and why it was commanded.

The Hebrew word translated 'holy' in our opening text means to be sacred; to be set apart for God. A tenth of everything the land produced, including every tenth animal, belonged to the Lord and was to be given to him.

But God is spirit (Joh 4:24); he doesn't need our money or our food. That which he commanded his people to give to him in the Old Testament was used to perform his will, and several Scripture passages tell us what the tithes were used for.

Support for the Levites

Please read Num 18:21–4.

When Israel entered Canaan they cast lots to divide up the land. The tribe of Levi received no inheritance of land among the other tribes, they were given only towns to live in and pasture lands to graze their flocks and herds (Jos 14:1–5).

God didn't want the Levites to spend time farming or growing crops, he wanted them to devote themselves to spiritual ministry, so he gave them the tithes that were presented to him as their wages, including every tenth animal. They used their pasture lands to graze the animals they were given until they slaughtered them for food.

The Lord's offering

Please read Num 18:25–32.

When the Levites received the tithes they had to give a tithe of what they'd received to the Lord, but only with respect to 'grain from the threshing-floor or juice from the winepress (v27)'. The Hebrew word translated 'or' in that verse can also mean and, which I believe is the correct translation in this case.

The Levites had to give the best part of the grain from the threshing floor and the juice from the winepress to Aaron the priest as their offering to the Lord. If they didn't do that they would die (v32). That seemed a harsh judgement, but it was because of what it symbolized.

Bread was baked from the grain from the threshing floor; wine was made from the juice of the winepress. Bread and wine—symbols of our Lord's death on the cross. And they had to offer the best part of the grain and wine to God—symbolizing the perfection of Christ who offered himself to God for the sins of the world (Heb 9:14).

Eat and rejoice

Please read Deu 14:22–6.

Num 18:21 said that the tithes the Israelites brought to the Lord were to be given to the Levites, and Num 18:15 said that the firstborn of their flocks and herds were to be given to the priests.

But the passage we've just read says that the Israelites were to eat the tithes they brought to the Lord and the firstborn of their animals as well (v23). How could they do that? How could they give them to the priests and Levites and eat them themselves?

The traditional view is that the tithe the people ate was a second tithe they took after giving the first tithe to the Levites, but I don't accept that interpretation.

If they ate a tenth of what remained after giving the first tithe to the Lord they would, in effect, be eating 9% of their yearly produce during one visit to Jerusalem. That would take a considerable length of time, perhaps more than a month, and it doesn't explain the eating of the firstborn.

An animal only gives birth to one firstborn; they wouldn't be able to give the firstborn to the priests and eat them themselves. I think a more likely explanation is that they were to eat from their tithes and firstborn in the presence of the Lord.

'Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.' (v26)

It was a family occasion: they took their tithe to Jerusalem, presented it to the Lord and ate some of it in his presence, rejoicing in all the provision he had blessed them with.

The poor tithe

Please read Deu 14:28–9.

Traditionally this was seen as yet another tithe (the poor tithe) that was given in the third year—a tithe of what was left after the first two tithes had been taken. But I believe this simply involved storing the tithe that was due to the Levites in the towns of Israel instead of taking it to Jerusalem.

Foreigners were not allowed to own land in Israel, the fatherless would have no one to provide for them, and neither would the widows.

God wanted no one to go hungry in the land he'd given to his people, so he decreed that every third year the tithe—which was normally taken to Jerusalem and distributed to the Levites from there (2Ch 31:4–21)—should be stored locally in the towns and shared among anyone who was in need. If they did that he would bless his people in all the work of their hands.

Righteous acts

All of this giving was commanded by God. So we can see that providing for those who are in full-time spiritual ministry, and giving to the poor, the needy and the hungry, are righteous acts in the sight of the Lord. In the Old Testament they were done through the tithing system; in the New Testament they are done as God moves by his Spirit in the hearts of his people.

Michael Graham
January 2006
Revised April 2019

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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