We are studying Deuteronomy in our Bible class at church, and, somewhat to my surprise, I am finding it fascinating and edifying. We looked at the laws for tithing, contains aspects I’ve never heard in a stewardship presentation!
The question of whether we should tithe today is usually framed in terms of the extent to which we should follow the Mosaic law on the subject. Some churches teach that the command to give a tenth of your income to the Lord is still binding; others, that the percentage requirement is superseded by the New Testament principle of not giving under compulsion (2 Corinthians 9); others, that giving is a matter of Christian freedom, but 10% is a good target. But let’s see what the Mosaic law about tithing actually is (my bolds):
22 “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year.23 And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, 25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27 And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.
28 “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29 And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do. (Deuteronomy 14:22-29)
The tithe is for you? To eat? And to spend on wine and strong drink? To buy whatever your appetite craves? Not to give to the Temple? You have to go to the Temple or its environs, but once there you spend 10% of your income on a massive party for you and your household. At this celebration, you perhaps invite some Levites, who, along with the poor, receive the whole tithe every three years. But you basically have to tithe 10% of your income, but then God requires you to spend it all on yourself.
Is that right? Well, there is more to it than that. Elsewhere, Scripture says that all of the tithe belongs to the Levites to support them and their service in the Tabernacle or Temple.
21 “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting. . . . 24 For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.” (Numbers 18: 21, 24)
Apparently, the tithe belonged to the Levites, but that those who brought their offerings first held a big feast with their families. It would be difficult to spend a tenth of a year’s income on one dinner! The remainder would be given to the Levites. Every third year there would be no feast. All of the tithe would be given to the Levites and also to immigrants, orphans, and widows.
More fundamentally, the tithe belonged to the Lord. “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord‘s; it is holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30). The use of the tithe for feasting was a sacred act. It had to be done at the Temple:
17 You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present, 18 but you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your towns. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake (Deuteronomy 12:17-18).
Thus, the tithe was like the other celebratory meals connected with certain of the animal sacrifices. The meat from the animals slaughtered for peace offerings and thanksgiving offerings was shared with the priests, but then it provided a celebratory feast for the family that made the offering. The animals slaughtered for guilt and sin offerings went entirely to the priests (Leviticus 7).
I’m not sure what the implications are for stewardship programs–what applications do you see?–but something else about these feasts interest me. While the Israelites devoted 10% of their income to God, He, in turn, gives at least part of it back. The purpose is for the Israelite household to “rejoice” in His presence. Paradoxically, this rejoicing before God teaches the Israelites to “fear” Him.
So celebration, feasting, eating, drinking can be ways of honoring and learning about God. This is good to hear in this season, right after the revelry of Christmas, including that of New Year’s, is finally over. The Puritans outlawed Christmas celebrations, having problems both with the liturgical calendar and the carousing that accompanied the holiday. To be sure, too much self-indulgence can be inappropriate. But, in principle, it’s certainly fitting to “rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake.”
Our pastor and my son-in-law, who led the Bible study, showed how this law of tithing is fulfilled in the church. We give our tithes and offerings to our local congregation, whereupon we do feast in a celebration with all of the household of faith and in the presence of God. This is called the Lord’s Supper.
When we support the church with our money, we pay a pastor’s salary, provide for a building to meet in, underwrite teaching and catechesis–all of which makes it possible for us to have Holy Communion! And all that it means and gives: Christ’s Body broken for us; Christ’s blood poured out for the remission of all of our sins.
Thus, in church as in the Temple, “you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.”
Illustration by MarcoRoesler via Pixabay, CC0, Creative Commons