Tithing: Enjoying one’s firstfruits with God.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 August 2019
TITHE taɪð noun One-tenth.
2. verb. Set aside a tenth of something, either as savings or as a charitable donation.
3. verb. Give [either a tenth, or any variable amount] to our church.

Most Christians define tithe as a donation to one’s church. But what we donate is pretty variable. Might be $20 a week, or $100 a month, or two hours of volunteer work (i.e. cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming the carpets, sterilizing the toys in the nursery… you do sterilize the toys regularly, right? Babies put ’em in their mouths). It’s whatever we regularly donate, although some of us aren’t all that regular about it.

But for small churches, what we collectively donate isn’t always enough to cover our church’s expenses. Nor does it allow us to give pastors a stipend, or do much charity work… or pay the utilities or rent. Which is why Christian preachers so often feel they should remind us the word “tithe” comes from the Saxon teóða, “tenth”: It means a tenth of something. And that something would be your income. Whatever your job pays you, your tithe should equal a tenth of it—and that’s what you oughta be contributing to your church.

And you need to bring your whole tithe to church. ’Cause it says so 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 preachers only quote verses 8-10, and don’t bother with verses 11-12. They should. These verses reveal the context of what the LORD actually means by מַעֲשֵׂר/mahašer, “tithe.” He’s not talking about Christians who are stingy with donations: He’s talking about Hebrews who didn’t contribute their crops to their community food closets. Old Testament 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, and hadn’t heard any of this stuff till my thirties. But it’s all in your bible, hiding in plain sight.

How the Law describes tithing.

In Genesis there are two major events where a mahašér came up:

  1. Avram gave Melchizedek a tenth of his plunder from a recent battle. Ge 14.20
  2. Jacob promised the LORD a tenth of everything the LORD granted him. Ge 28.22

Elsewhere in the bible we see Samuel’s warning that a king might demand a tenth of the Hebrews’ seed and sheep as taxes, 1Sa 8.15, 17 and an earthquake destroy a tenth of “Sodom and Egypt.” Rv 11.13

But properly, tithing got 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:
Eat 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 your tithe
because this spot your LORD God chooses for his name to live is too 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.”

Waitaminnit, you only give away your tithe every third year? The other two years, you eat your tithe?

Yep. The purpose of this tithe was so the Hebrews could celebrate the harvest God gave them. As just about every agrarian culture does. But in most of these cultures (including the middle east in the 14th century BC, when the Law was given), custom was to harvest, then party… and partying would get out of hand. People would eat way more than a tenth, and the rest wouldn’t last till the next harvest. People would stuff their faces, get stupid drunk, and misbehave. In many pagan religions, Baalism in particular, such misbehavior even got incorporated into the religion: You were meant to get wasteful and self-destructive.

So God’s tithing idea kept things from getting out of hand. No longer would you overindulge. You’d celebrate, but you’d eat no more than a tenth of your harvest. You’d celebrate near the tabernacle or temple, near a place of worship, as a reminder to stay holy, like the LORD is, and wants his kids to be.

Likewise no longer would you under-indulge. You know how some folks, out of pure stinginess, would squirrel everything away, or sell it all for profit, and enjoy none of it? Well now God required they enjoy it. They weren’t to enjoy the cold self-satisfaction of having a bigger savings account; they were to directly enjoy what God gave ’em year by year. And when the harvest was good (and God’s intent was for every harvest to be good), a tenth was no small amount. It’d be a pretty nice party.

Now it was possible your tithe would be impractically large. So God allowed for some or all to 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, sell wheat and buy wine. If you ranched but didn’t farm, sell cattle and buy vegetables. The Hebrews weren’t forced to only party with their own supply: They could buy whatever they wished. They could even buy שֵׁכָר/šekhár, “[that which gets you] drunk.” Dt 14.26 Seriously; God permitted ’em liquor. And they were allowed to celebrate the LORD with it.

Waitaminnit, you got to spend your tithe on booze? Yep.

Now, the bulk of the Hebrews were farmers and ranchers; the Levites weren’t. When God distributed Canaan among the 13 tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi got no land: They got cities, and were expected to serve Israel as God’s priests. Which meant outside their vegetable gardens, the Levites had very little food to tithe. Hence the other 12 tribes were ordered to feed the Levites from their tithes. Be generous. Let ’em celebrate with you. Don’t (as sinners so often tend to do, ’cause they expect to do stuff they’ll feel guilty for) exclude the clergy from your celebrations.

Okay, every third year: On these occasions, the Levites got the entirety of the tithe, which went into their cities’ אוֹצָר/ochár, “treasury, storage, barn, armory”—stashed so the Levites and needy could draw from it. This was part of how the Hebrews were to care for God’s priests. Plus it was welfare for 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.

You know, all the people conservative Christianists figure should get a job instead. (Or get citizenship first.)

So now that we know what the ancient Hebrews thought tithing meant, back to Malachi.

Shafting the poor.

The LORD wasn’t talking about Christians who don’t give enough money to their churches, nor even Hebrews who didn’t provide for temple upkeep. It had nothing to do with temple! It was about how there wasn’t enough food for the needy in their community food closets, ’cause people were skipping their third-year tithes.

As a result there was טֶ֙רֶף֙/teréf, “spoil[ed food],” in the treasury. Ml 3.10 Most translations miss this fact, and translate the word teréf as “food,” following the example of the KJV’s “meat.” But teréf (and its Yiddish equivalent treyf) means unclean food. God wasn’t asking for unclean food!

Yet that’s what was in the treasury at the time: The existing food was getting moldy or rotten, and unfit to eat; or it included animals which hadn’t been killed properly, or were found dead, and the stingy Hebrews donated the stuff they’d never feast upon, and figure the needy should be happy to get anything at all. You know, like when cheap Christians donate expired cans of our least-favorite soup to our own churches’ food closets.

People likewise misunderstand when God says “unclean food in my house.” Ml 3.10 We think he’s talking about temple—and pastors think he’s talking about church. He’s talking about neither. He’s referring to those city treasuries, where they kept food for the needy. But the Hebrews didn’t think of these treasuries as God’s house, which is why they donated crappy food, or not enough food, or no food. And here, God reveals through Malachi these treasuries are his. They aren’t a minor ministry, to be blown off when we’re feeling stingy. They’re how God intends to provide for the needy. aGod’s all about grace, and this act of grace to the needy is therefore a primary ministry.

And just as when we give to the needy, we’re giving to God, Pr 19.17 when we cheat the needy we’re robbing God. He commands us to do for our neighbors, and this is what we do for our neighbors? “You’ve cursed yourselves,” God informed the Hebrews, Ml 3.9 and for Jesus’s followers who figure we needn’t do for our neighbors either, we’ve kinda cursed ourselves too.

Three tithes?

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

1. A TITHE TO FEAST WITH. Like I just wrote about.

2. A TITHE FOR THE NEEDY. They way these folks interpret Deuteronomy 14, they figure every third year, the Hebrews were to actually tithe twice: One tithe to party with as usual, and one tithe to put in the treasury. They weren’t to forego their party.

Now, I just translated Deuteronomy 14.28-29 above. (Go ahead and compare it with other translations, if you wish.) Is that what the text said? It doesn’t say to bring forth two tithes, but “the whole tithe of your yield for the year.” Dt 14.28 It’s the same tithe, applied differently every third year.

3. A TITHE FOR THE LEVITES. Remember how every third year, the Levites got people’s tithes? Well this got mentioned again in Numbers:

Numbers 18.21-24 KWL
21 “To Levi’s descendants, look: I give them all Israel’s tithes as a possession,
an exchange for their service they serve, serving my meeting tent.
22 Israel’s descendants: Don’t approach my meeting tent to bring me sin—to die.
23 The Levites serve it, do service at my meeting tent, and they can bring their sin.
This is a perpetual decree for your descendants,
and in the midst of Israel’s descendants Levi does not possess a possession,
24 for Israel’s descendants’ tithe, which the LORD lifts up, is the offering I give the Levites as a possession.
This is why I say to them, “In the midst of Israel‘s descendants Levi does not possess a possession.’ ”

Since this passage was declared before Moses restated the Law in Deuteronomy, these folks assume this isn’t the same tithe as the one Moses spoke of. This, they claim, is a wholly separate yearly tithe. Supposedly the Levites got this third tithe every year: A “sacred tithe,” like the one Avram gave Mechizedek, Ge 14.20 and this is the type of tithe Christians are supposed to give our churches.

Why is this not a separate tithe? ’Cause Deuteronomy isn’t a separate command; it’s Moses repeating the same commands the LORD previously gave Israel. Deuteronomy wasn’t meant to introduce new commands, but reiterate (and reorganize) the commands of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. And the tithe Moses spoke of, is the same tithe as Numbers.

Where’d Christians get the idea there are three tithes instead of one? From the Pharisees. It’s what they taught. We find it in the apocryphal book Tobit:

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, Aaron’s descendants, at the altar.
I gave the tithe to Levi’s descendants 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
Devvora my father’s mother, for I was left an orphan by my father.

We find it in the first-century Pharisee historian Flavius Josephus:

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. Antiquities 4.8.22

And we find it in the Mishna, the second-century collection of Pharisee teachings, in the tractate Mahašerót, “Tithes.” Pharisees were ordered to give three tithes:

  1. The mahašér rišón, “first tithe,” is given to a Levite.
  2. The mahašér šení, “second tithe,” is taken to Jerusalem to be eaten solemnly.
  3. 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 Orthodox Jews still practice this.

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.

I interpret Tobit’s “I gave all the produce to the priests, Aaron’s descendants” and “I gave the tithe to Levi’s descendants” as 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 Devvora.

But 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. And missing the point; treating God’s instruction to help the needy as if 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. This is why Jesus had to rebuke Pharisees for their distorted ideas:

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 likewise skip right over the justice and love Jesus is talking about, wholly unaware these two concepts have anything to do with tithing. It’s unjust and unloving to ignore the needy. God generously provides for us because he wants us to pay this 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 more to the poor. (And often our churches give nothing to the poor either, ’cause you’d be stunned at how much we 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?

I’m not in the agriculture business, and neither are a lot of American Christians. Unless we have a vegetable garden in the backyard, we’ve 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. Why wouldn’t they be around?)

We do have income. In a sense that’s our “produce.” 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 or vacations. I’ve likewise known people who enjoy nothing. Both extremes are unhealthy.

Every so often, maybe every third month we should take that tenth 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 funding your church 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.

Bible background.