The Spirit of the Tithe: It Was Never About Money
Author: Joshua Tilghman
For many religious institutions, tithing is a big issue today. I can understand why. Many of these religious institutions are quite wealthy, and to maintain that wealth, tithing is necessary. But what is the real spirit of the scripture when it comes to the issue of tithing? Does the scripture really teach that God demands a tenth of our income? The answer may surprise you.
Let’s begin with Abraham. Many are taught that Abraham tithed, but nowhere in the Bible does it give any indication of this. The idea is really quite silly. In a single recorded incident Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe on the spoils of war. For some reason, religious leaders often equate this with the modern idea of tithing on paychecks. In Abraham’s case, the spoils of war had nothing to do with Abraham’s income. This voluntary offer on the part of Abraham certainly didn’t set any tithing precedent, either; hundreds of years later, when Moses stated that the Israelites were to give Levites a small portion on the spoils of war, it wasn’t even close to ten percent. And how does an entire nation giving some of the spoils of war away equate to an individual tithing on their weekly or monthly income?
Here is something else to consider: What would Abraham’s regular tithes be used for? To go to the local ziggurat building fund? In Abraham’s day, a ziggurat was a rectangular, tiered temple built by the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, but I don’t think Abraham would have had much use for that! As we’ll discuss shortly, the purpose of tithing was providing food for all the Israelites. But in Abraham’s day there were no Israelites.
I have heard some use Jacob’s vow to God as setting a precedent to tithing. But this doesn’t make sense either since Jacob’s vow was conditional. Besides, if you do decide to tithe based on the condition of getting bountifully blessed by God, you might be in for a shock. Jacob surely had no life of luxury after making his conditional promise to God. In fact, he had a hard life. He even tells the Pharaoh of Egypt near the end of his life that his years had been “…few and evil…” (Gen. 47:9). You can hardly blame him for such a statement. While God blessed him with a big family, that family often brought hardship and shame to his life. He also lost a son (even though he found him later), lived through some pretty harsh times (like extreme famine), and never lived in a permanent location.
Now let’s go to the Torah where the law of tithing originated. First off I want to say that money wasn’t the issue-crops and livestock were. More specifically, community survival was the issue. There are four types of tithes mentioned in the Torah. The first tithe dealt with those who owned land and raised crops. Ten percent of the raised crops were to go to the Levites. Be reminded that this tithe only dealt with those who raised crops. No money was involved. This tithe was also only required for six years out of a seven-year cycle, and those who did not own land, such as the poor, were not required to give this tithe.
The next tithe I want to speak about involved setting aside food for those in need. It was only required on the third and sixth year out of the seven-year cycle. Deuteronomy 14:28-29 states:
“At the end of three years thou shalt bring forth all the tithe of thine increase the same year, and shalt lay it up within thy gates: And the Levite, (because he had no part nor inheritance with thee,) and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which are within they gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the LORD they God may bless thee in all the work of thine hand which thou doest.”
I have included the above scripture because it reveals something that many religious leaders today never consider. Piggybacking on the first tithe that I mentioned, the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger probably didn’t have the means to produce crops. Therefore, they did not pay tithes. Besides, this second tithe that I mention was brought to the storehouse for them.
The third type of tithe I want to mention was set aside for annual festivals. Basically this was a party tithe. Everyone had to put away a tenth of their income (after the first tithe) for the purpose of a feast day. The Bible also clearly states that it was okay to drink “strong drink” (beer) during this feast day. Party indeed! How would your religious leader feel about a portion of your tithe being set aside so that you can drink a six-pack and grill a filet mignon once a year on church property?! Maybe this scripture is the reason why some Rabbi’s don’t consider it a sin to get drunk on this feast day?
The last tithe I mention involved only the Levites. They were required to give ten percent of their best to the priest.
So what was the real spirit of tithing? I can honestly say it is one of the most beautiful examples of community love I can think of. Rather than being a way to amass wealth for church programs, buildings, and high-dollar salaries, it was a practical way to take care of the community. The Levites, the priest, the widows, the orphans, the poor, and even the stranger would have all benefited from the Torah tithe. Many times today tithing is done out of an attitude of obligation, but this should never be the case. Tithing has always been about physical provision for the community as a whole. If a religious leader states that tithing on your yearly income is a requirement by God, they are certainly not getting this teaching from the Bible. Instead it’s a part of their man-made religious program. Religion can only direct us to connect with God on the outside. Religion teaches humanity that God is “out there” and we have to reach out to him. This is why some religious leaders teach that tithing will bless you (Malachi 3:10 anyone?). But they misunderstand the entire concept of Biblical tithing and God. The Bible teaches us to connect to God on the “inside,” for this is the only place God can be found. That’s why Jesus stated the Kingdom of Heaven was within us.
In conclusion I want to say that giving is a wonderful thing. We should all be willing to give, especially out of our abundance. But we should never be coerced into tithing on our paychecks because God requires it. He most certainly does not. I would also like to add that most religious leaders who teach tithing is necessary are probably only teaching what they were taught. Education is the key. Feel free to use this article to help spread the word.