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6.1.24

A cursory survey of tithing in the Torah

A cursory survey of tithing in the Bible

To ‘tithe’ literally means to give one-tenth of something. Hence, for the remainder of this article, I will refer to the biblical tithe as the One-Tenth offering.


Genesis

Abraham loots his enemies during warfare, and gives one-tenth of the spoils to Melchizedek (14.18–20). These verses are recognized as a later addition to an earlier passage.

Jacob marks a location to build a shrine (Bethel; cf. Gen 31.13), and promises a One-Tenth offering when certain conditions are met (28.22). He fulfills his promise later (Gen 35.1–15). This story may have functioned as an early etiology for a shrine at Bethel, but following the collapse of the kingdom of Israel and the centralization of religion expression to Jerusalem’s temple in the kingdom of Judah, history was revised to have the shrine built by the sinful, usurper king Jeroboam (1 Kings 12.25–33).

While either story may have been intended to reflect tithing practices in Israel or Judah, neither of them is prescriptive.

The law codes in the rest of the Torah contain just a few passages concerning tithing.


Leviticus

27.30–33 — The One-Tenth offering comes from agricultural production: vegetables, fruits, cattle, and sheep. (The list is not exhaustive.) People may choose to buy back their One-Tenth, but they must pay an additional twenty percent of its value.


Numbers

18.21–32 — Verses 23b–24 state that Levites receive from the One-Tenth offering. Verses 25-32 describe how the Levites must further set aside a ‘One-Tenth within the One-Tenth’: the best tenth of the overall One-Tenth offering must be given as to Yhwh. While this passage does not provide a demonstrative list of what should be given as a One-Tenth offering (as Lev 27.30–33 did), the context leaves no conclusion other than that the One-Tenth offering is food. The One-Tenth offering is compared to the grain and wine offerings, typical food elements which are burned on Yhwh’s altar (18.27, 30; e.g. Exo 29.41; Lev 2.1–3; 23.13; Num 15.1–10; cf. Neh 13.5). That the One-Tenth offering is food is also alluded to in the reasoning given for why the Levites receive it (18.23b–24). After the exodus, the twelve tribes of Israel will invade the land of Canaan, and different regions of the land will be distributed between the twelve tribes. However, the Levite tribe will not receive any land, because their ‘portion’ is to uniquely function as Israel’s priestly class (cf. Josh 13.14). Because of this, the Levites will have essentially no agricultural production, and must rely on the rest of their nation to provide their meals. The Levites may ‘eat’ their meals taken from the One-Tenth offering ‘in any place’ (18.31).


Deuteronomy

12.1–19 — The passage contrasts illegitimate places of ritual worship against the one-and-only legitimate place. During the exodus, the tabernacle was designed to temporary, eventually to be replaced with a permanent temple. The place where this temple would be built is not named here, but in context of the larger historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible, this ‘place’ is clearly intended to be identified with the temple built in Jerusalem. For any offerings—including One-Tenth offerings—to be considered legitimate, the worshiper must given them to the Levites at the tabernacle or the temple (12.5b–6). This law indicates that the person who brought their One-Tenth offering would participate in eating it (12.7).

14.22–23 — This passage reiterates part of Lev 27.30–33. The One-Tenth offering comes from agricutural production: vegetables, wine, oil, cattle, and sheep. (The list is not exhaustive.) It also clarifies that the One-Tenth offering comes from the ‘yearly’ production of agriculture.

14.24–27 — A contingency is provided in regards to those who must travel to give their One-Tenth offering. Because the One-Tenth offering must be given at (eventually) Jerusalem’s temple, the distance to transport a One-Tenth offering may be too far for some. People in this situation may instead sell their One-Tenth locally. They must then use that money to pay for their travel to Jerusalem, where they must spend the remaining money on ‘whatever you wish’ to eat: oxen, sheep, wine, beer, or ‘whatever you desire’. (The list is not exhaustive, but it again shows the person giving the One-Tenth offering participates in eating it.)

14.28–29 — A final stipulation is given. While the One-Tenth offering is an annual offering to the temple (14.22), every third year the One-Tenth must instead be given to the offerer’s local community. It must not be given solely to Levites who live locally, but must also be distributed to immigrants, orphans, and widows.


Conclusion

The One-Tenth offering as popularly understood by Christians today is a voluntary practice—if also strongly ‘encouraged’, to the point of compulsion by guilt—where any and every individual gives up one-tenth of their income to their local church on a weekly basis (ideally). As far as the biblical narrative is concerned, the One-Tenth offering was not voluntary, was not money, and was not expected of every individual.

The Torah’s laws are presented as the national law code for the nation of Israel. In modern terms, they comprised an ancient country’s federal law. As with any country, these laws would have only applied within the jurisdiction of the Israelite kingdom. An Israelite permanently residing in Phoenicia or Assyria would not be expected to obey the Torah’s laws. And, as in nearly any legal system, many laws would have only applied under certain conditions. The laws on the One-Tenth offering repeatedly show that it came from what was produced by the agricultural industry. This, of course, suggests only those people who owned that produce were the people required to give the One-Tenth offering. At no point does the law identify the One-Tenth offering as coming from any other industry. An ironsmith, for example, would not be the sort of person required by the law to give a One-Tenth offering.

Based on the textual evidence available in the Torah, the One-Tenth offering appears to have been a social welfare program run by the national government.

Essentially, it was an ancient theocratic monarchy’s equivalent to a federal safety net, designed to ensure that people unable to provide for themselves had food to put on the table. People without stable homes, without land to produce their own food, or without ‘income’. However, it is further necessary to point out that the One-Tenth offering was not the source of income for the priests (who worked in the temple on a scheduled rotation, according to biblical and parabiblical sources outside the Torah). It did not pay for their clothes, their homes, or any other belongings, let alone the temple itself (which was a government building, centralizing ritual religious expression for the entire country). The One-Tenth offering was food.

What most Christians incorrectly call a ‘tithe’—the giving of money to their local church—is supposed to be entirely voluntary, both when the individual chooses to give, and how much they give (2 Cor 9.7). In functional terms, however, the money mentioned in such biblical texts still was not for the purpose of the minister to keep for their own use, or to pay for a building. In ethical terms, it would also require a severe lack of empathy to expect anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck to give a full tenth of their income. This would put them into a financially dangerous position.

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