Tithing in the Bible

Tithing in the Bible April 10, 2024

In the first installment of this series, we looked at giving from a Biblical perspective. Rather than sort through the typical verses about how to give, we reviewed the reasons why giving is relevant for God’s people. From the all-important idea of tribute to the way that ministry functions this side of heaven, giving financially is an essential aspect of the spiritual work of God’s people. As God gives us all, He also asks us for all. While giving is certainly not all about money, we can’t eliminate it from the conversation, either.

In this installment, we will look at tithing: what it is, the different types of Biblical tithes, and what aspects of tithing are relevant for Christians today.

Wheat field, cropss
Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/selective-focus-photography-of-wheat-field-265216/

What is a tithe?

Tithing is the principle of paying one-tenth (ten percent) of one’s income. It is a Biblical principle. For the excessive fuss we make over tithing, it’s a form of giving. Found throughout the ancient world, tithing is an ancient form of taxation. In connection with the Old Testament temple, it served to keep the basic temple work functioning and compensate the Levites.

The Levites were the priestly class of Israelites who worked to keep first the tabernacle and later the temple functional. Unlike the other tribes, the Levites did not receive a land inheritance. Instead, God Himself was their inheritance. The people of Israel were to provide for the Levites as they performed their spiritual service. Instead of relying on Israel to do the right thing on their own (they weren’t going to do so), God put a system in place to ensure Kingdom work continued. There were many aspects to God’s system, but the most foundational way Kingdom work found its completion was through tithing.

The first (annual) tithe

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. (Leviticus 27:30)

Every year, Israel paid the first tithe on every profit in the nation: grain, cattle, fruit, etc. Such was an obligatory commandment, one required of the entire nation.

Were tithes only crops?

Many think tithes were only crops. It’s probably true that tithes were often crops. As we discussed in the last article, exchange was a common form of currency. Bringing crops was an easy way for people to cover their tithes. It was also functional for the Levites, who didn’t own their own land. Rather than having to grow all their own food, tithes provided a way for the Levites to meet their own needs.

But tithes weren’t only crops. There are also instances where someone would “redeem” their tithe and cash was accepted. Cash tithes incurred anywhere from a 2% to a 5% fee:

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. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. No one may pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.’”(Leviticus 27:30-33, NIV)

The reason for the redemption fee isn’t clear, but it’s probably because offering cash was inconvenient for the Levites. The opposite of today (obviously leaders can’t pay the church electric bill with a bushel of wheat), the Levites would have to find food or other goods on their own, thus taking them away from their divine work.

A national program

Some assume the leaders of Israel were exempt from tithing. Actually, the Levites also tithed, paying their tithes to the High Priest.

The second tithe

The second tithe was on three specific items: grain, wine, and olive oil. It was required the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of a seven-year cycle. The specifications are found in Deuteronomy 14:22,24-27:

Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and olive oil…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. (NIV)

It was difficult to find a specific reason for this tithe. Some commentators believe it had to do with the sanctity of the land. Others believe it’s a reference to the first tithe with more specific requirements. Other theories include it might have been on higher cash value crops, common crops, or had something to do with the planting cycle. Whatever the reason, the second tithe was frequently redeemed for cash (with a fifth added to the value) and observed throughout Israel, for the sake of distance. The redemption had to be used for specific purposes, and as in all things, the people had to consider and include the Levites in the process.

The third tithe

Every third and sixth year, Israel acknowledged a third type of tithe. Deuteronomy 26:12 tells us the following:

When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. (NIV)

Also known as the “poor man’s tithe,” the third tithe was an additional ten percent of produce give to the Levites again and to the poor of Israel. It was paid on crops grown in Israel. In the seventh year, the third tithe included crops from Jordan and Egypt.

Is tithing for today?

There’s nothing anywhere in the Bible that specifies tithing is a requirement for salvation. Nobody will go to hell for refusing to tithe. Likewise, we aren’t under a curse if we don’t tithe, because we aren’t under the Old Testament law as Christians. If anyone says your salvation lies in tithing or you’re cursed if you don’t do it, they are teaching in error.

Jesus and tithing

There’s also a few other things to say in favor of tithing. For one, Jesus spoke positively about tithing:

“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. (Matthew 23:23, NIV)

It’s important to say that yes, we should take interest in mercy, justice, and faithfulness. Jesus isn’t downplaying those aspects of our faith. But He’s also not saying we should neglect the finer points of financial giving, either. Jesus isn’t encouraging us to take on social causes and ignore the house of God. He just wants us to have our priorities straight.

Good stewards

Another important point to consider is that the Scriptures tell us to be good stewards with our resources. Tithing, as a form of giving, is an example of good stewardship. It proves we can be responsible with our finances and do our part to ensure the Kingdom continues, no matter how much or how little we have.

Living by the Gospel

Third, the tithe system, in large part, was for the benefit of the Levites. Leaders in the New Testament would have understood their position in a like manner. While there’s nothing wrong with supplementing income, 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 indicates Christians should also support their leaders, much as the Israelites supported the Levites:

Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (NIV)

If everyone offers their tithe, it ensures the work of the Kingdom will continue.

Tithing in a modern context

We no longer live in a world dominated by farming. Bringing crops to church isn’t reasonable. The need for the second and third tithes wouldn’t apply in modern society, if for no other reason they are too specific. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with using a tithing model as a starting point for giving. I describe the tithe as one’s “Kingdom tax.” If we all pay our Kingdom tax, it enhances the life of the Kingdom.

Let’s also consider that it’s great to go beyond the immediate tithe and give above and beyond in different ways. We can tithe on goods, donate food or other goods for our leaders or for the poor, and donate cleaning products or other items to our churches (donate every tenth roll of paper towels, toilet paper, or cleaning supplies). God encourages us to be a generous people, and through tithes, Malachi 3:10 tells us to “test God:”

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 there will not be room enough to store it. (NIV)

This process of blessing starts with every tithe.

About Lee Ann B. Marino
Dr. Lee Ann B. Marino, Ph.D., D.Min., D.D. (”The Spitfire”) is “everyone’s favorite theologian” leading Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z as apostle of Spitfire Apostolic Ministries. Her work encompasses study and instruction on leadership training and development, typology, Pneumatology, conceptual theology, Ephesians 4:11 ministry, and apostolic theology. She is author of over thirty-five books, host of the top twenty percentile podcast Kingdom Now, and serves as founder and overseer of Sanctuary International Fellowship Tabernacle - SIFT and Chancellor of Apostolic University. Dr. Marino has over twenty-five years of experience in ministry, leadership, counseling, mentoring, education, and business. You can read more about the author here.

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