TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

28 February 2017

Tithing: Enjoying one’s firstfruits with God.

How an ancient Hebrew harvest celebration got turned into giving a tenth of our income to our churches.

Tithe /taɪð/ n., adj. One-tenth.
2. v. Set aside, or give, a tenth.
3. v. Donate [a tenth of one’s income] to one’s church.

Most Christians define tithe as a donation to one’s church. Usually money, but sometimes our time, and sometimes various other items. The amount doesn’t necessarily equal a tenth of anything, which is why Christian preachers so often feel they should remind us “tithe” comes from the Saxon teóða/“tenth”: If you’re giving less than an actual tenth, it’s not really tithing.

This is because they insist it’s important we bring our whole tithe to church. ’Cause it says to in the bible.

Malachi 3.8-12 KWL
8 “Does any human cheat God like all of you cheat me?
You say, ‘How do we cheat you?’ In tithes. In offerings.
9 You’ve cursed yourselves. The whole nation is cheating me.
10 Bring your whole tithe to my treasury: There’s unclean food in my house!
Please test me in this,” says the LORD of War.
See if I don’t open heaven’s floodgates and pour down blessing till you overflow.
11 I rebuke the blight for you: It won’t ruin your crops.
It won’t kill the vines in your field,” says the LORD of War.
12 “Every nation will call you happy,
and consider you a land of delight,” says the LORD of War.

Most of ’em only quote verses 8–10. They don’t bother with verses 11–12. They should; those verses reveal the context of what the LORD actually meant by mahašér/“tithe.” He wasn’t talking about Christians who don’t contribute enough to our churches. He was talking about Hebrews who didn’t contribute enough to their community food closets. There was teréf/“spoil[ed food]” in his house. A fact most bibles tend to mistranslate “that there may be meat in mine house,” as the KJV has it: Teréf or the modern Yiddish word treyf, means unclean food—and God wasn’t asking for unclean food! But he did want food. ’Cause tithing was about food.

I know: You might never have heard this idea before. You’d be surprised how many Christian pastors are totally clueless about this fact. I grew up Christian, yet hadn’t heard any of this stuff till my thirties. But it’s all in your bible, hiding in plain sight.

Tithing, in the Law.

In Genesis there are various events where a mahašér/“tenth” comes up. Like when Avram gave Melchizedek a tenth of his plunder from a recent battle. Ge 14.20 Or when Jacob promised the LORD a tenth of everything he granted. Ge 28.22 We see other tenths in the scriptures: The king (hypothetically) demanding a tenth of the Hebrews’ produce in taxes, 1Sa 8.15, 17 and an earthquake destroying a tenth of “Sodom and Egypt.” Rv 11.13

But the concept of tithing gets defined by Moses in Deuteronomy 14. Big long quote time:

Deuteronomy 14.22-29 KWL
22 “Tithe, tithe all the produce of the seed which went into your field, year by year.
23 Eat it in your LORD God’s presence, at the spot he chooses for his name to live:
The tithe of your grain, new wine, oil, the firstborn of your oxen and sheep.
Through this, you learn to revere your LORD God daily.
24 When the road’s too long for you, so you’re not able to carry it—
because this spot your LORD God chooses for his name to live is far from you—
25 when your LORD God blesses you, you may take silver instead.
Hold the silver in your hand. Walk to the place your LORD God chooses for himself.
26 Take the silver to buy anything your soul craves:
Oxen, sheep, wine, liquor, anything your soul asks for.
Eat it there, in your LORD God’s presence. Rejoice, you and your household.
27 And don’t neglect the Levites who live inside your city gates.
(For no land was given them as a portion or possession with you.)
28 “At the end of the third year, bring out the whole tithe of your yield for the year.
It’ll stay within your gates. 29 The Levites get it.
(For no land was given them as a portion or possession with you.)
Foreigners, orphans, widows within your gates: Come and eat! Don’t be hungry.
Because of this, your LORD God will bless you in all the handiwork you do.”

Wait, you eat your tithe? Yep.

The purpose of this tithe was so the Hebrews would celebrate the harvest God gave them. As just about every agrarian culture does. But in most of those cultures (including the 14th century BC, when the Law was given), the custom was to harvest, then party… and then the partying would get out of hand. People would stuff their faces, get stupid drunk, and misbehave. In many pagan religions, this misbehavior even got incorporated into the religion. But I already discussed that elsewhere.

This tithing idea kept things from getting out of hand. No longer would you over-indulge: You’d celebrate, but you’d consume no more than a tenth of your harvest. And you’d celebrate near the tabernacle or temple, near a place of worship, as a reminder to stay holy, like the LORD wanted.

Likewise no longer would you under-indulge. Some folks would, if they could, squirrel away the entire crop in the barn, or sell everything for profit, and enjoy none of it. Well, they were to enjoy it. And when the harvest was good (as God intended), a tenth would be no small amount. It’d be a pretty nice party.

Unless it was an impractical amount to bring to temple—as it oughta be, if God was generous that year. So some or all could be exchanged for cash, and cash could be exchanged for whatever else one might want to purchase. Which was handy for those Hebrews who didn’t grow a diversity of crops: If you only grew wheat and not grapes, but you wanted wine, go ahead and buy wine. If you ranched but didn’t farm, you could buy vegetables. The Hebrews weren’t forced to only party with their own produce: They could buy whatever they wished. (Even šekhár/“[that which gets you] drunk,” which I translated “liquor.” Dt 14.26 Seriously.) And celebrate God with it.

Now, they weren’t to leave the Levites out of the celebration. When God distributed Canaan among the 13 tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi didn’t get land. They were to live in cities, and serve Israel as God’s priests. Not as farmers—which meant outside their vegetable gardens, they’d have little food to tithe. Hence the Hebrews were ordered to feed the Levites from their tithes. Be generous. Celebrate with them. (And like I said, God was mitigating the festivities: The priests were also there to keep the partiers from going too far.)

And every third year, give the Levites the whole tithe. It’d be kept within the city treasury, and the Levites and needy could draw from it. This was how the Hebrews were meant to take care of God’s priests, plus any other needy people in their community, such as

  • Widows, whether by virtue of their husbands dying, or abandoning them;
  • Orphans, i.e. any child who lacked a parent or family;
  • foreigners, anyone who might travel past the city, or flee there for refuge.

When the Hebrews got greedy, didn’t contribute their tithes to the food closet, and let the Levites go without, it was a sign they cared neither about God, nor his priests. And that’s the situation the LORD brought up in Malachi.

Three tithes?

First time I taught on this subject, I got an objection from someone who claimed the Deuteronomy description of tithing only referred to one kind of tithe. There were, he claimed, three kinds of tithing found in the bible.

A tithe to feast with. Like I said.

A tithe for the poor. They way these folks interpret Deuteronomy 14, they figure every third year, the Hebrews were to actually tithe twice:

  • Take one-tenth of the crops and party with it as usual.
  • Take a second tenth of the crops and put it in the storehouse.

Not forego their party every third year, and give the whole to the Levites.

Now, you just read Deuteronomy 14.28-29. Is that what the text said? (Go ahead and check it out in a few other translations.) It doesn’t say to bring forth two tithes, but “the whole tithe of your yield for the year.” Dt 14.28 Yet this is what they claim.

A tithe to the Levites. Remember how every third year, the Levites got people’s tithes? Well this got mentioned in Leviticus 18.21-24. And since the commands in Leviticus were declared before Moses restated the Law in Deuteronomy, people assume they’re not talking about the same tithe. This, they claim, is a wholly separate yearly tithe.

Supposedly the Levites got a tithe every year. People call it “the sacred tithe.” They claim it’s what people gave the priests for their service in temple. That it’s functionally the same as when Avram gave a tithe of his plunder to Melchizedek. Ge 14.20 And it’s also functionally the same as when Christians give a tithe of our income to our churches.

Why are they wrong? ’Cause Deuteronomy wasn’t a new, separate command. It was Moses repeating the same commands the LORD had previously given Israel—but organized a little better, ’cause the previous commands had been issued as they were needed, and in no particular order. When Moses spoke about tithing in Deuteronomy, he never spoke about three tithes. Just the one. For there is only one.

So according to these folks, the Hebrews didn’t just tithe a tenth of their crops. They tithed two-tenths… and every third year, three-tenths.

Where’d they get this idea? The Pharisees.

First we’ve got first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In his Antiquities, he rewrote the bible for Romans who were unfamiliar with the stories, and of course included his Pharisee spin on everything. And Josephus claimed there were three tithes in the Law:

Besides those two tithes, which I have already said you are to pay every year, the one for the Levites, the other for the festivals, you are to bring every third year a third tithe to be distributed to those that want; to women also that are widows, and to children that are orphans. Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.22 

Next we have the Mishna, the second-century collection of Pharisee teachings. In the tractate Mahašerót/“Tithes,” Pharisees were instructed to give three tithes. The mahašér rišón/“first tithe” is given to a Levite, the mahašér šení/“second tithe” is taken to Jerusalem to be eaten solemnly, and every third and sixth year of a Sabbath-year cycle, the mahašér šení is replaced with the mahašér aní/“charity tithe,” and given to the needy. Today’s Jews still practice this.

And last, we have the apocryphal book Tobit, in which Tobit gave three tithes:

Tobit 1.6-8 KWL
6 I frequently went to the feasts in Jerusalem alone,
just as it’s written, in a command for all Israel for this age.
I brought the firstfruits, the tithes of the harvest,
and what I had of the first sheep-shearing.
7 I gave all the produce to the priests, the descendants of Aaron, at the altar.
I gave the tithe to the descendants of Levi who served in Jerusalem.
Each year I sold a second tithe, and went and spent it in Jerusalem.
8 And a third I gave to whoever it seemed right, just as Devvora commanded
—my father’s mother, for I was left an orphan by my father.

(The NRSV has it that Tobit “distributed” his second tithe, making it sound like he didn’t spend it on himself, despite what was commanded in Deuteronomy.)

I figure “I gave all the produce to the priests, the descendants of Aaron” and “I gave the tithe to the descendants of Levi” is Hebrew poetry; Tobit didn’t give two tithes to the priests and Levites. Some folks figure likewise; that Tobit actually gave four tithes in total. As for his third tithe, it wasn’t the every-third-year tithe to the needy: It was a special command of his grandmother.

Tobit’s whole deal was he didn’t worship like the rest of the people in his tribe of Naphtali. They sucked. They worshiped the gold calf at Dan. Tb 1.4-5 Whereas Tobit went to Jerusalem to worship the LORD, and not only did he bring his tithe, he brought extra tithes. (Context, folks. It counts for the apocrypha too.)

The Pharisees pointed to the third-century-BC Tobit as evidence they oughta tithe twice. And sometimes thrice. Clearly this is yet another case of the Pharisees going overboard.

But the reason Christians never identify this Pharisee teaching as the error it is, and keep spreading it around as if it’s a valid interpretation of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is because of our culture’s interpretation of what “tithing” is: It’s giving to your church. Giving 10 percent of every paycheck. Some pastors demand it be 10 percent of the gross amount: Doesn’t matter what the government deducts for taxes and Social Security and child support, and if you only tithe the net you’re robbing God, and then he won’t rebuke the devourer, and you’ll never realize why everything is so expensive.

And other such things to make it crystal clear: God’s running a protection racket. Pay up, or you’ll find… well, we’ll call them “accidents.” Hey, accidents happen, right? Now, start tithing and you’ll find they happen way less often. I’m not kidding; plenty of churches teach we’re apparently paying the rent on our hedges of protection.

But what Malachi makes plain is the LORD wasn’t upset with the non-tithing Jews for his own sake. He was upset because the needy were going without. The food in his pantry was going rotten.

The Pharisees had likewise made tithing all about paying God off, and not about helping the unfortunate. This is why Jesus had to rebuke them:

Luke 11.42 KWL
“But how sad for you Pharisees: You tithe mint, rue, all your herbs—
yet God’s justice and love escapes you.
You have to do the one; don’t neglect the other.”

Christians skip right over the justice and love, wholly unaware these two concepts have anything to do with what tithes are really about. It is unjust and unloving to ignore the needy. God has provided for us so generously because he wants us to pay that generosity forward. Not think in terms of, “I made $300 this week, so I owe God $30,” and give that to our churches, and nothing to the poor. (And often our churches give nothing to the poor either, ’cause you’d be stunned at how much they gotta pay for rent and electricity.)

We dismiss love and justice as if they’re nice but unrelated, and fixate on the money: “See? Jesus said we still have to tithe. So it’s not just an Old Testament idea which passed away with the old dispensation. Keep giving money to your churches, folks! Bring the whole tithe to the storehouse.” Just like the Pharisees, God’s justice and love escapes us. An unhealthy dependence on Mammon will do that.

Our proper takeaway.

What do we, as Christians, take from these passages?

Well, I’m not in the agriculture business. Neither are a lot of American Christians. Unless we’ve got a vegetable garden in the backyard, we have no produce to tithe from. Nor Levites to support; most of us are gentiles, and have no priestly tribe nor caste nor nothing. We do have pastors and ministers; when it’s time to rejoice, we oughta have them around so they can rejoice with us. (Ideally, they’re our friends already, so why wouldn’t they be around?)

We do have income. In a sense, that’s our “produce.” Our firstfruits. We get paychecks as the fruits of our labor. And we should take a part of those paychecks—set aside a tenth part of our budget—and enjoy ourselves with it. After all, our purpose in life isn’t just to toil, toil, toil, and save, save, save. God didn’t create us to be wage slaves, nor misers. God blessed us with income. Rejoice with it!

In moderation, of course. I’ve known folks who blow a crazy amount of money on entertainment. I’ve likewise known people who enjoy nothing. Both extremes are unhealthy.

Every so often, maybe every third paycheck, we should take that money we’d otherwise fritter on ourselves, and give to the needy. Share our blessings with those who aren’t so blessed. Look out for the poor in our communities, and make sure their needs are met. Make sure their stomachs aren’t empty. Let that be our entertainment for the month: Rejoicing with those whom we’ve given help, and hope.

Conservatives and progressives can debate about how far we should get the government involved. But regardless of where you fall on that issue, feed the hungry. Doesn’t matter whether they’re working or not. Jesus expects it of his followers, Mt 25.35, 40 so that part isn’t up for debate.

What about our churches? Well of course we should contribute to their upkeep. Make sure the pastors get paid, ’cause they’re worthy of it. Lk 10.7, 1Ti 5.18 But that has nothing to do with tithing. In fact, the New Testament principle about providing for our churches is that we don’t merely give tithes: We give everything. Ac 2.44-45, 4.32-35 Which merits a whole ’nother article.