The only tithe commanded by G-d in the whole of Scripture is found in the Sinai covenant: the Law of Moshe. Scripture uses more than a dozen verses to describe this commandment. Let's examine this one piece by piece to see what it reveals regarding G-d's intentions.
According to Scripture, there are several different kinds of sacrifices including "peace offerings" (Leviticus chapter 3), "sin offerings" (Leviticus chapter 4), "tithes", and "first fruits" (Leviticus 2:12 and Leviticus 23:10-25). We should not confuse the "tithe" with offerings, first fruits, or other sacrifices.
Scripture is our authority so let's see what it says-
'Thus all the tithe of the Land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD'S; it is holy to the LORD. If, therefore, a man wishes to redeem part of his tithe, he shall add to it one-fifth of it. For every tenth part of herd or flock, whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD. He is not to be concerned whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it; or if he does exchange it, then both it and its substitute shall become holy. It shall not be redeemed.'" (Leviticus 27:30-33)
The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the Levites and say to them: 'When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the LORD's offering. Your offering will be reckoned to you as grain from the threshing floor or juice from the winepress. In this way you also will present an offering to the LORD from all the tithes you receive from the Israelites. From these tithes you must give the LORD's portion to Aaron the priest. You must present as the LORD's portion the best and holiest part of everything given to you.' (Numbers 18:25-29)
There are several interesting details in these verses:
- The tithe is the produce "of the land"
- of the seed of the land
- of the fruit of the tree
- of the herd or flock
- The tithe is the tenth part of the herd or flock- not the first (Lev 27:32).
- The tithe comes from the produce of the land. Potters were not required to tithe pots, miners were not required to tithe ore, and fishermen were not required to tithe fish.
- The tithe did not have to be without blemish (Lev 27:33) unlike other offerings (e.g. Lev 22:21).
- The Levi'im also tithed to the Lord from what was given to them. Their tithe was reckoned as "grain from the threshing floor or juice from the winepress" (Num 18:27).
- The Levi'im were to present the best and holiest parts to the Lord. (Num 18:29).
In regards to the "what is tithed" question, comments often arise:
"Money had not been invented yet, so they had to tithe fruit, grain, sheep, and cattle."
or other comments such as
"Sheep, goats, and the produce of the land were their forms of money, so that is what they tithed, but we earn cash now, so that is what we tithe."
Neither the Bible nor history supports ideas like this. Scripture shows us Avram and Ya'akov (both shepherds) had significant amounts of silver. It also provides other evidence that currency existed and was used before the tithe was established in the Law.
- Avimelech gives Avram 1000 shekels of silver. (Genesis 15:20-17)
- Avraham buys a piece of land from Efron for four hundred shekels of silver. (Genesis 23:16)
- Ya'akov buys a plot of ground from the sons of Hamor for a hundred pieces of silver. (Genesis 33:19)
- Yosef's brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. (Genesis3 7:28)
- Yosef's brothers came to buy grain from Egypt using silver. (Genesis 42:25)
- Yosef gives gifts to his brothers. To Binyamin, he gave 300 shekels of silver. (Genesis 45:22)
In these verses, the word "shekel" denotes a measure of weight. Notice that they were not buying and selling using sheep, goats, food, or other goods as their currency. They used hard money: silver.
Here's another interesting tidbit from history: before He commanded the tithe (in Leviticus 27), G-d required the Israelites to give a half-shekel tax for the maintenance of the Tabernacle.
Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the LORD. (Exodus 30:13)
Why would G-d command an offering of hard currency before He established the Levitical priesthood and then command "tithe of the land" afterward unless that is what He wanted? Apparently, He did not want the tithe to be in the form of currency because if G-d wants cash, He asks for cash.
The tithe G-d ordained is:
- Taken from the land; the produce of the field and trees or from flocks and herds
- Not in the form of currency
- Specifically commanded
Who gets the tithe?
If someone gives a tithe, who is supposed to receive it? Can it be just anyone? Are there any limitations on who can receive it? When we examine Scripture, we find a few different answers, and they depend on another question: which tithe, the first or second?
The typical response at this point is "The second tithe? I've never heard of a second tithe!"
The first tithe is for the Levi'im:
"For the tithe of the sons of Israel, which they offer as an offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance; therefore I have said concerning them, 'They shall have no inheritance among the sons of Israel." (Numbers 18:24)
G-d has given this tithe to the tribe of Levi because they have no inheritance in the Land. He has specifically assigned it to them.
The second tithe is different:
You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. You shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the Lord your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the Lord your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses. You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your town, for he has no portion or inheritance among you.
At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do. (Deuteronomy 14:22-29)
This second tithe must be separated after the first tithe for the Levites.
There is a seven-year cycle known to scholars as the Shemittah in which the seventh year the land is left fallow (i.e. without sowing or reaping crops). It is a Sabbath for the Land which is the key to knowing who receives which tithe and when:
"You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. (Exodus 23:10-11)
When is the tithe given?
Two passages in Scripture outline the schedule for tithing: Deuteronomy 14:22-29 and Exodus 23:10-11.
- Year 1- first tithe for the Levi'im and second tithe to be eaten before the Lord (20% total tithe)
- Year 2- first tithe for the Levi'im and second tithe to be eaten before the Lord (20% total)
- Year 3- first tithe for the Levi'im and the second tithe for orphans and widows (20%)
- Year 4- first tithe for the Levi'im and second tithe to be eaten before the Lord (20%)
- Year 5- first tithe for the Levi'im and second tithe to be eaten before the Lord (20%)
- Year 6- first tithe for the Levi'im and the second tithe for orphans and widows (20%)
- Year 7- no tithe. The land lies fallow (0%)
Each year the Levi'im get a tenth (the first tithe) to support them since they have no portion in the Land. The Lord also requires that a second tenth is taken and eaten in a feast before Him on the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th years of the Shemittah cycle. On the 3rd and 6th years, the second tithe is given to the widows, orphans, and the needy in each community.
There are two tithes commanded in Scripture:
- The first tithe is for the Levi'im (they always receive this tithe except in the seventh year of the Shemittah)
- The second tithe varies
- The tithes of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th years of the Shemittah cycle are eaten before the Lord
- The tithes of the 3rd and 6th years of the Shemittah are given to widows, orphans, and the poor
Where is tithe taken?
Does Shepherd Josiah give his lamb to Zephaniah the Levite who lives down the street?
What about the second tithe for widows and orphans? Does Farmer Ya'akov take his tithed produce to Widow Sarah?
Let's see what Scripture tells us...
Then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your G-d will choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the LORD. (Deuteronomy 12:11)
Where is this "place in which the LORD your G-d will choose for His name to dwell? It is Mount Zion where the first and second Temples once stood!
The second tithe was to be brought into the towns (Deuteronomy 14:28) to provide for the widows and orphans.
Some individuals who require tithing today will often point to Malachi 3:10 ("bring the whole tithe into the storehouse") and then claim the local church is that storehouse. However, when Malachi penned his words, where were the Israelites supposed to bring their tithes? Let's examine the Hebrew of Malachi's statement.
The Hebrew word translated as "storehouse" is אוֹצָר (owtsar Strong's #214). This word is used 70 times in Scripture and is most often used to describe a treasury, either G-d's or a king's. This treasury is not some bare-bones concrete and steel kind of warehouse or a grain silo but a place where very precious things are put on display and protected: a show place of sorts.
Where does the nation of Israel keep its most prized possessions? In the Temple! That is where the holy things of G-d are. Why would G-d want the Israelites to bring their tithes to the Temple? Malachi 3:10 provides the answer "...that there may be food in My house" the Temple. The reason is to provide for the Levi'im where they served: in the Temple.
In all of the debate and discussion that occurs around tithing, one particular question often remains unasked: why did G-d command a tithe to be given? It wasn't as though He needed it. The entire world is His! (Psalm 24:1)
There are two easy answers to this question, but there are likely many others:
Other possible reasons might include:
- It was a reminder to Israel that G-d was their provider so they would not become prideful thinking they had gained their crops or flocks by the work of their own hands. They would be reminded of His provision and blessing.
- It was an opportunity for the other eleven tribes to bless those who worked in service to G-d in the Tabernacle/Temple.
- It was a chance to reflect the generosity of G-d by giving to others who were in need.