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The Origin and Definition of Tithing
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD revised Feb 2007
From his book, “Should the Church Teach Tithing?”
What is a biblical tithe?
The word is so common among conservative Christians that everybody thinks that he or she knows exactly what it means. However, a serious problem with understanding tithing appears at the very beginning of this book because of the serious disagreement about the definition of “tithe.” The Hebrew and Greek words for “tithe” both simply mean “a tenth.” However, beyond this simple definition, much difficulty exists in defining the contents of the tithe. If a legal court case were being held, a working definition would have to be agreed upon by all involved parties before the presentation of a case could proceed. However, since this is not possible, four definitions of “tithe” will be presented. Although many contend for the third definition, this book will use the fourth, Mosaic Law definition. Even this choice of a working definition will be of great concern to many because of long-standing traditional ideas of the content of the tithe.
The Pagan and General Definition
The first definition of “tithe” is a general all-inclusive definition which is not used in the main portion of this book. The Encyclopedia Americana defines the general tithe as “the tenth part of produce or other income, paid voluntarily or under the compulsion of law for the benefit of religious institutions, the support of priests and pastors, and the relief of those in need.” This definition does not distinguish between ecclesiastical tithes from church laws, personal tithes from trade and agricultural tithes.
Encyclopedia of Religion, “In the ancient Near East lie the origins of a sacred offering or payment of a tenth part of stated goods or property to the deity. Often given to the king or to the royal temple, the ‘tenth’ was usually approximate, not exact. The practice is known from Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, Greece and as far to the west as the Phoenician city of Carthage.”
Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, “A 10th part of one’s income consecrated to God. The separation of a certain proportion of the products of one’s industry or of the spoils of war as tribute to their gods was practiced by various nations of antiquity. The Lydians offered a tithe of their booty (Herod. I, 89). The Phoenicians and Carthaginians sent a tithe annually to the Tyrian Hercules. These tithes might be regular or occasional, voluntary or prescribed by law.”
This general tithe is of pagan origin and precedes the Mosaic Law’s tithe by many centuries. In Genesis 41:34 Joseph encouraged the Egyptians to double their tithe in order to cover the lean years. In Genesis 14 Abraham was obligated to pay a tithe from the spoils of war in obedience to the Arab war custom. In New Testament times the Roman Empire received the first tithe of ten percent of grains and twenty percent of fruit trees from its conquered subjects, including Judah.
Although an additional full ten percent “spoils of war” tithe was not incorporated into the Mosaic Law, an additional one percent is mentioned in Numbers 31:25-47. Almost every theological commentator discusses this ancient custom in Genesis 14:21, which links it to the tithe in verse 20.
The Tithe as a General Offering
A second definition of “tithe” is most common among moderate and liberal churches which equate tithes with free-will offerings. Members are urged to begin with a small percentage of giving and gradually increase the percentage according to their ability. Among these churches there is little or no reference to an exact compulsory giving of ten percent from gross income as a legal requirement. Since many of the liberal churches assign Adam through Moses to mythology and believe the Pentateuch was written after the exile, they usually base their approach to giving on general principles rather than specific texts.
Also, many who hold this position prefer to use “tithe” to refer to “net” income with certain limitations. They are more likely to say that the poor are not required to give tithes and that tithes are only required from those who make a profit from their labor. They also are more likely to say that church support is not required from those on bare government pension or welfare. The parents’ first duty is to provide essentials of food, clothing, and housing for their family.
The Tithe as Ten Percent of Gross Income
A third definition of “tithe” is taught among many more conservative and fundamental churches. For these churches “tithe” refers to ten percent of “gross” income and is an expectation from all economic classes, both rich and poor alike. In addition to paying salaries of gospel workers and providing social programs, some smaller churches also use the tithe for building funds and payment of all church debts. Their position insists that the tithe is an unchanging biblical standard, or eternal moral principle, which reflects the character of God, preceded the Mosaic Law and was, therefore, not abolished by the Mosaic Law. Exact tithing of ten percent of one’s gross income should be observed by all Christians, and free-will offerings are to be given in addition to the mandatory tithe. Without exception, the tithe must be returned to God first, while other necessities such as shelter, child care, medicine, food, heat, and clothing must be given less priority. The church is obligated to teach tithing because it is a biblical command.
This common conservative definition is rejected and refuted in this book because it fails to consider the correct definition, the purpose, and limitations of the biblical tithe. As mentioned in the introduction, this book deliberately uses many conservative evangelical sources in an attempt to demonstrate that this definition is both legalistic and harmful to the church which should be using much better New Covenant principles.
The Tithe as an Old Covenant Ordinance for Israel
The fourth definition of “tithe” is the precise and narrow Scriptural definition as given in the Mosaic Law in the Old Covenant. The biblical tithe was an ordinance of the Mosaic Law for the use and benefit of national Israel under the Old Covenant. The full tithe was given to the tribe of Levi, first, in exchange for his loss of land inheritance in Israel and, second, because of his servant service to his brothers in the Levitical house of Aaron who alone served as priests. A tenth of the first tithe was, in turn, given by the Levites to the priests who ministered at the altar.
The basic tithe was not to be used for building houses of worship. Since pagan dust defiled, the original tithe consisted solely of the increase of land produce from God’s sanctified land of Israel and from the increase of animals herded on the land of Israel. Although the tithe could be exchanged for its monetary value, the tithe itself never consisted of money! A second (and third) tithe was also given to provide food for festival occasions, and to provide welfare food for widows, fatherless, orphans and needy strangers in Israel.
The Contents of the Tithe
A surprising biblical fact is that the poor did not pay tithes, but, instead, received from the tithe. A separate chapter on the poor discusses this truth. This fact is made especially clear in the gleaning laws and in the purpose of the tithe. Jesus did not tithe, nor did he sin by failing to tithe because he was poor and did not own land or herd animals for his sustenance. The poor were only expected to give free-will offerings to the best of their ability.
From the list in this chapter it is easy to demonstrate that the contents of every recorded tithe found in the Mosaic Law is only from landowners and herdsmen of the land of Israel. This was a totally unexpected, yet very clear, truth about tithing that Bible study with an exhaustive concordance revealed. Also, strange as it may seem, Scriptural tithing was only intended for a society sustained almost wholly by agricultural crops and animal herds.
Biblical society included the following occupations: bakers, candle makers, carpenters, clothing makers, hired farm workers, hired herdsmen, hired household servants, jewelry craftsmen, masons, metal craftsmen, musicians, painters, perfume makers, physicians, sculptors, soldiers, tanners, teachers and tent makers. Yet NONE of these professions or products from these professions are included in any list of tithes or tithing! Why not? These sources provided much of the money for head taxes, temple taxes, tribute to foreign conquerors and, of course, free-will offerings. It is inconceivable to think that God simply forgot to include them in the many lists of items to be tithed.
We must also remember that the Mosaic Law of the ‘firstborn’ would drive all except the firstborn in a family with four sons off the land within 2-3 generations because the firstborn was to get a double portion of the land inheritance (Deut. 21:17). Those with plots of land too small to sustain a family had to sell their portion to their relative with the larger inheritance. Next, they would work as hired hands on their relatives’ land or move to town and take up a trade. For example, a 1000 acre plot would be divided by four sons into plots of 400; 200; 200; and 200 in the first generation; 160; 80; 80; and 80 after two generations; 32; 16; 16; and 16 after three generations. Thus, continually sub-dividing the land would keep the land-tithe the same, but would seriously reduce the amount of persons paying land-tithes.
Tithe Texts Which Reveal Its Limited Contents
Lev. 27:30, 32 And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD’s. It is holy to the LORD…. And concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatsoever passes under the rod, the tenth shall be holy to the LORD.
Num. 18:27 And this your heave offering shall be reckoned to you, as though it were the grain of the threshing-floor, and as the fullness of the wine-press.
Num. 18:28 Thus you also shall offer a heave offering to the LORD of all your tithes, which you receive of the children of Israel; and you shall give thereof the LORD’s heave offering to Aaron the priest.
Deut 12:17 You may not eat within your gates the tithe of your grain, or of your wine, or of your oil
Deut. 14:22 You shall truly tithe all the increase of your seed, that the field brings forth year by year.
Deut. 14:23 And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name, the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the first offspring of your herds and of your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.
Deut. 26:12 When you have made an end of tithing all the tithes of your increase [produce: NIV, RSV] the third year, which is the year of tithing, and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within your gates, and be filled.
2 Chron. 31:5 And as soon as the commandment was circulated, the children of Israel brought in abundance the first-fruits of grain, wine, and oil, and honey, and of all the increase of the fields; and the tithe of all things they brought in abundantly.
2 Chron. 31:6 And concerning the children of Israel and Judah, that lived in the cities of Judah, they also brought in the tithe of oxen and sheep, and the tithe of holy things which were consecrated to the LORD their God, and laid them by heaps.
Neh. 10:37 And that we should bring the first-fruits of our dough, and our offerings, and the fruit of all manner of trees, of wine and of oil, to the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God, and the tithes of our ground to the Levites, that the same Levites might have the tithes in all the cities of our tillage.
Neh. 13:5 And he had prepared for him a great chamber, where previously they laid the grain offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the grain, the new wine, and the oil, which was commanded to be given to the Levites, and the singers, and the porters, and the offerings of the priests.
Mal. 3:10 Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat [food] in my house.
Matt. 23:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin….
Tithing Was Not an Eternal Moral Principle
A tradition is not automatically an eternal moral principle merely because is it very old, very common and very widespread. The fact that tithing was common in much pagan worship before the Bible was written does not make it a moral principle. Idolatry, worship of astrological bodies, child sacrifice, temple prostitution, witchcraft and necromancy are equally very old, very common and very widespread in pagan cultures. The practice of giving is found in natural law, but an exact percentage is not.
Tithing Was Not a Minimum Required from All Old Covenant Israelites
Only those Israelites who earned a livelihood from farming and herding inside Israel were required to tithe under the Mosaic Law. Their increase came from God’s hand. Those whose increase came from their own crafts and skills were not required to tithe products and money. The poor and needy who did not tithe and received from the tithe gave freewill offerings.
Tithes Were Not the Same as First-fruits
The first-fruit was a very small amount of the first crop harvest and the first-born was the first offspring of animals. The first-fruit was small enough to fit into a hand-held basket (Deut. 26:1-4, 10; Lev. 23:17; Num. 18:13-17; 2 Chron 31:5a). First-fruit and first-born offerings went directly to the Temple and were required to be totally consumed by ministering priests only inside the Temple (Neh. 10:35-37a; Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 18:4).
Tithes Were Not from Money
One argument to support non-food tithing is that money was not universally available and barter from food must have been used for most transactions. This argument is not biblical. Genesis alone contains “money” in 32 texts and the word occurs 44 times before the tithe is first mentioned in Leviticus 27. The word shekel also appears often from Genesis to Deuteronomy.
In fact many centuries before Israel entered Canaan and began tithing food from God’s Holy Land money was an essential everyday item. For example money in the form of silver shekels paid for slaves (Gen 17:12+); land (Gen 23:9+); freedom (Ex 23:11); court fines (Ex 21 all; 22 all); sanctuary dues (Ex 30:12+); vows (Lev 27:3-7); poll taxes (Num 3:47+), alcoholic drinks (Deu 14:26) and marriage dowries (Deu 22:29).
According to Genesis 47:15-17 food was only used for barter after money had been spent. Banking and usury laws exist in God’s Word in Leviticus even before tithing. Therefore the argument that money was not prevalent enough for everyday use is false. Yet the tithe contents never include money from non-food products and trades.
Examples of Many Authorities Who Agree on This Definition of Tithe
Anchor Bible Dictionary, ‘tithe,’ C. Early Judaism and Christianity, says, “Whereas in the OT tithes apply to specific agricultural products, rabbinic and patristic exegesis tends to include all agricultural products, and eventually [much later] all forms of income as subject to the tithe.”
Alfred Edersheim: “And it is remarkable, that the Law seems to regard Israel as intended to be only an agricultural people—no contribution being provided for from trade or merchandise.”
Fausset’s Bible Dictionary: “The tithe of all produce as also of flocks and cattle belonged to Jehovah.”
Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary: “The law of Moses prescribed tithing in some detail. Leviticus 27:30-32 stated that the tithe of the land would include the seed of the land and the fruit of the tree. In addition the Hebrew people were required to set apart every tenth animal of their herds and flocks to the Lord…. Nowhere does the New Covenant expressly command Christians to tithe…”
The New Catholic Encyclopedia: “In the Deuteronomic Code the tithe is limited to grain, wine, and oil (Deut. 12:6, 11, 17; 14:22). These texts more or less equate the tithe with other ritual offerings and sacrifices.”
The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary: “The tenth of all produce, flocks, and cattle was declared to be sacred to Jehovah by way, so to speak, of rent to Him who was, strictly speaking, the Owner of the land, and in return for the produce of the ground…. Although the law did not specify the various fruits of the field and of the trees that were to be tithed, the Mishnah (Maaseroth 1.1) includes ‘everything eatable, everything that was stored up or that grew out of the earth….’”
 Encyclopedia Americana, 1996 ed., s.v. "tithe.”
 From Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliad, editor, 1987, s.v. “tithe.” Reprinted by permission of the Gale Group.
 John D. Davis, ed., Westminster Dictionary of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), s.v. “tithe.”
 Taken from Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, editors, Moody Press, 1972. Used by permission. Concerning “2 Chron. 31:6,” “The tithe of holy things may be a general term for the token percentages of certain offerings that became the property of the priests (Num. 18:6; cf. Lev. 6:16-7:36).” While several commentaries call this a scribe’s insertion, the RSV omits the second word, tithe, in the text altogether.
 Alfred Edersheim, The Temple, Its Ministry and Services, Wm. B. Eerdmann’s, Grand Rapids, chap. 19, p. 379.
 Andrew Robert Fausset, Fausset’s Bible Dictionary, CD-ROM (Seattle: Biblesoft, 1999), s.v. “tithe.”
 Roland F. Youngblood, ed., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Copyright: 1986) CD-ROM (Seattle: Biblesoft, 1999), s.v. “tithe.”
 David I. Eggenberger, ed., New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), s.v. “tithe.”
 Taken from New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Merrill Unger, Moody Press, 1986, s.v. “tithe.” Used by permission.
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