Chapter 1 -
EARLY REFERENCES TO TITHING
Supporters of Christian tithing often refer to sacrificial offerings in the stories of the Biblical Patriarchs as proof that tithing is a law of God predating the Law of Moses and the Levitical Priesthood. The idea is that tithing is an eternal and universal religious law that is not tied to the people and land of Israel.
This approach is necessary if the Christian ministry is to have claim on it today. Because the Old Testament explicitly commands tithing only on the produce of the Promised Land and directs its payment solely to the tribe of Levi that claim will depend solely on New Testament support. But understanding the Old Testament provisions is essential context to any modern application of spiritual principles in the development of balanced teaching on giving to God.
Genesis 14 contains the first usually mentioned reference to tithing in the Bible. This chapter relates how four kings from the Euphrates conquered a number of cities in Syria-Palestine and took Lot, Abraham's nephew, captive. Abraham rescued Lot and took a good bit of booty. A tenth of that booty was given to Melchizedek, King of Salem, who was a priest of the Most High God. The rest of it was returned to the King of Sodom. Read the chapter.
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine: now he was a priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, "Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth: and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand...
And he gave him a tenth of all. (Genesis 14:18-20)
Abraham kept none of the recovered property so he had no increase.
By its nature, recovered stolen goods would not be considered a wage or agricultural production. By and large the goods that Abraham seized were returned to the King of Sodom. There was a cost, though. Abraham's allies and servants had eaten a part of it during the campaign, and some of them also took shares, but not Abraham. (Genesis 14:23-24) In essence this "tithe" to Melchizedek and the reward to Abraham's allies were the King of Sodom's expenses for the recovery of his property.
Abraham had no increase to tithe upon. What he gave was an offering of thanks and appreciation to God on behalf of all of them, including the King of Sodom, in the amount of ten per cent of the booty. Even if Abraham had kept it all, his donation would not be an applicable example of tithing because what was tithed on was the booty of war or the recovery of someone else's stolen property, not the increase of his flocks, fruit trees, crops or wages.
A major source of misunderstanding about tithing comes from confusing tithes with offerings. The two are very different in spiritual purpose and practical function. The tithe was always ten per cent. An offering was often ten per cent but could be less or more. The tithe was commanded. Some offerings were commanded and some were voluntary. The tithe is most often confused' with commanded offerings, specifically with the offering of first fruits.
The tithe was not a thank offering. It was an obligation to pay the non-priestly Levites ten per cent of the Israel's increase or production. A thank offering is given to God - to His priests. It is not obligatory, and the offeror determines how much he will give.
The argument that God blesses tithers in excess of what they give does not negate the fact that Abraham paid ten per cent on property that wasn't his. Remember, it did not cost Abraham anything to give a tenth to Melchizedek because he kept nothing won from the battles.
Contrast this event with David's reaction to Araunah's offer to him of a threshing floor at no cost so that David could sancti fy it as the site for the temple in Jerusalem. He refused because Araunah’s proposal because it would cost him nothing. David felt unworthy and appreciative. He wanted some meaningful way to show some measure of how he valued God’s love for him. Thus, he felt a debt of thanks to God for His Grace. (II Samuel 24:24)
The New Testament book of Hebrews, written after Levitical tithing had been in operation for centuries, refers in allegorical retrospect to Abraham's offering to Melchizedek as a tithe in chapter 7. The author of Hebrews calls this ten per cent offering a tithe and uses it as a symbolic demonstration for the superiority of the Melchizedek priesthood over the Levitical. Hebrews 7 is covered in detail later.
According to the rest of the Bible, the only way in which Abraham's offering to Melchizedek for his own and Lot's safe return resembled a tithe is that it was a tenth, which is the definition of a tithe. This specified amount is the only similarity between the clearly defined practice of tithing (as presented later in the context of the Levitical priesthood) and Abraham's gift.
To honestly determine if Abraham thought he was obeying an eternal or spiritual law of tithing, you must search the scriptures about Abraham. In examining what the Bible actually says instead of from a preconceived perspective, you will find no specific reference to tithing. There is a general reference in Genesis 26:5 to Abraham's fulfillment of "My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws," but nothing like, "And so Abraham tithed to the Lord of all his increase."
In Genesis 26 God repeats to Isaac His covenant promise, which he originally made with Abraham in chapters 12-22. This is that great Promise of Grace upon which the Christian hope is founded through the Messiah. As Paul clearly argues, in several of his letters, the Promise predates the Law of Moses.
The use of Mosaic terminology (commandment, statutes, laws, or ordinances) in describing Abraham's obedience is simply reflective of the fact that the book of Genesis was compiled in later times when the Mosaic Law was observed. It was the language used then to express Abraham's spirit of obedience of God's will.
But look through Genesis, and you will find God made few specific requests of Abraham. He was commanded to be circumcised and to father a son miraculously. Later he was told to sacrifice his only son of faith, Isaac, in a type of the Father's future sacrifice of His only begotten Son, Jesus. Otherwise, Abraham was directed to,
Walk before Me, and be blameless (KJV, perfect). (Genesis 17:1)
It is this latter command that Jesus repeats for us today in Matthew 5:48:
Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
To think of Abraham walking around with a divinely inspired law book is ludicrous. Abraham walked and talked with God, sometimes face-to-face; furthermore, he was a man who, by strong social custom, was the absolute head of his household. Abraham was his own priest. He had no need for an institutionalized legal system like the very humanly imperfect families of Israel would need later.
God spoke directly to Abraham. Most of the evidence for laws not specifically stated in the patriarchal stories relate to the Western Semitic and Amoritic social customs of Abraham's culture thousands of years ago. They do not prove the existence of some mysterious, divine code of law that pre-dated the Ten Commandments.
Later, God did institute the concept of a mediator between Himself and His people. In the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible, the Torah), He established the Levitical priesthood as His mediators to the millions who made up the nation of Israel. Abraham needed no mediator.
To reach back into the Mosaic Law and pull the law of the Levitical tithe out of its naturally balanced and functional economic structure and apply it outside of its ancient context to Christians with the pronouncement of [You sin if you don't!] is to deny the gospel victory of grace over law. (See Galatians chapters 3 and 4 and Romans chapters 3 and 4).
Today it is not only the Jews who blaspheme God's name. No, the name of God is blasphemed by Christians who seek to advance their religious causes through political legalism. They try to change the laws of the land to solve human problems instead of relying on the unlimited power of God's grace. It is the extremist Christian who would impress his imperfect beliefs into political legislation rather than let God’s love conquer all doubters.
Christians have yet to learn from the lessons of the nineteenth century when demonstrable scientific facts were rejected by religious leaders because of their association with an untried and unproven, but very threatening theory of evolution. This Christian fear of scientific truth defeated the faith of creation. As a result, the real story of God's creation remains buried almost out of reach of society. It has been obscured and ridiculed since it has been mostly left for unskilled believers and skilled unbelievers to promote Creationism in school texts.
Many so-called Christians use the works of their religion to promote Jesus instead of the sabbatical rest of grace in faith. In so doing they come under the New Testament condemnations reserved for those Jewish religious leaders who were faithless:
But if you bear the name Jew [Christian], and rely upon the Law [Bible], and boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? [brackets added]
You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you. (Romans 2:17-24)
Other than the story in Genesis 14, the Bible does not record any gifts or tithes paid by Abraham to Melchizedek or any other priest, but Abraham himself offered sacrifices to God. In fact the one Biblical custom Abraham practiced that can probably be traced back to the beginning is that of sacrificial offerings. As was the patriarchal custom, Abraham was his own priest: he was the head of the family. He both offered and consumed the offerings sacrificed in worship of God. Once, the LORD Himself was Abraham's guest. (Genesis 18)
Some have argued that Abraham's sacrifices were actually tithes since they erroneously think that tithes are the same as the offering of the first fruits.
The Levitical law of tithing was indeed derived from the concept of offering the first fruits of the ground and herds, but, as I will show in detail later, the tithe served a very different purpose than the first fruit offerings. In fact first fruit offerings continued even after tithing was practiced by Israel. They are not the same thing. Genesis 14 records Abraham's continuance of an ancient religious ritual in his sacrifices that was probably based on the concept of offering the first fruits, but it was not a legally defined tithe.
The first sacrifices recorded were offered by Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:3-5:
So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.
The hint from verse 7 is that somehow Cain had not done well. Commentators have speculated as to whether it was his attitude that was wrong, or that somehow the offering itself was faulty. There are a few ways the offering could have been faulty:
- it was an offering of vegetables instead of blood;
- or, the vegetables were the worst of Cain's harvest, so dishonoring God by not giving Him the best;
- or, Cain simply did not offer enough.
Note that there is no explicit reference to tithing here. If these offerings were tithes, then either vegetable or animal offering would have been acceptable.
As we shall see later, the Levitical tithing laws did not specify that the Israelites had to give the Levites the best tenth or even the first tenth because the tithe represented a tenth of the Promised Land’s agricultural production in all its variety of quality and quantity. It was never an offering of the first fruits. The Levites, however, were indeed required to give the best tenth of the tithes they received as a special, obligatory offering to the Aaronites, who were the priests of God. If you do not know the difference between Levites and Aaronites, you are not alone. Just keep reading.
The Levitical laws direct the payment of an undefined tenth in the case of vegetable produce, and every tenth one counted in the case of flocks. Tithes never were firstlings. Firstlings and first fruits were always offerings, even after tithing was instituted for the Levitical priesthood.
It does not seem that Abel and Cain were tithing either; they offered their first fruits.
Offering the first fruits of agricultural production was probably the earliest form of gift. Abel offered the firstlings of his flock and not each tenth one. Consequently, the best explanation is that the offering of Abel was acceptable because it foreshadowed the sacrifice of the Messiah, as the first fruits of the human family of Adam, or the ground, which is the root meaning of “Adam.”
If this is the case, then only a bloody animal sacrifice would have been acceptable to God because it looked forward to the blood of the Passover Lamb, Jesus, that covers sin. Cain, as the first born son, was the rightful heir to his father's priestly functions for the family, and he should have known that God wanted an animal sacrifice.
Thus, Abraham's ten per cent gift to Melchizedek is not a continuation of the practice of tithing from Abel because Abel did not tithe.
There is a big difference between one offering of ten percent to a priest or king and the continuous levy of a tithe of all produce as later established through Moses to support the Levites. The Mosaic ordinances provided for tithing ten per cent of every increase of the field and flock, each season, year after year. The practice of regularly paying tithes, as often taught from the pulpit, resembles the Mosaic provision for the Levitical Priesthood and not the practices of the patriarchs.
There is a critical difference between a voluntary decision to offer meaningful thanks and the obligatory payment of a legally enforceable tithe.
In the first case there is no sin if a material offering is not made: sin, if any, is found only in the possible lack of a thankful attitude. In the latter case, the payment of Levitical tithes on agricultural increase was required, and it also had to be a full ten per cent. Anything less than ten per cent was sin which incurred stipulated penalties. Even borrowing from tithes was discouraged by stiff repayment penalties.
If, therefore, a man wishes to redeem part of his tithe, he shall add to it one-fifth of it. (Leviticus 27:31)
The next reference of a patriarch offering ten per cent to God is in Genesis 28:20-22. Here Jacob made a conditional vow concerning his safe return home to the land of Canaan. He made this vow as he was literally fleeing for his life from his brother Esau to his uncle Laban in Haran. This vow was made by Jacob on his own initiative in response to God's appearance in a dream. If God would bring him back to Canaan again safely, then he would offer God a tenth of' all that he brought with him.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father's house in safety, then the LORD will be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God's house: and of all that Thou dost give me I will surely give a tenth to Thee."
Jacob made a personal, voluntary and conditional vow with God. He was not conforming to a commanded ordinance that applied impersonally to everyone under whatever conditions of life they might endure.
Jacob did not say, "God I know that You command tithing from all those who serve You, so I will serve You in that way, too." Neither did God ask Jacob to do this. He did not say to him, "Look here, I, the Almighty, am not going to bring you home safely unless you vow, right now, to pay me ten percent of everything I give you upon your return.
Jacob was aware of the covenant inheritance promises made to Abraham and to Isaac. He knew from his forebears who God was and that God was honored with an offering of first fruits. This is what Jacob offered to do - to continue what his fathers had done. If God was to be with him as He had been with them, then Jacob would give Him the offering of first fruits.
There is no clear statement as to whether Jacob tithed on a regular basis after his return. In this case it seems that Jacob paid a ten per cent customs tax when he re-entered Canaan. It was a thank offering to his God modeled on the social practices of his day. It was paid on all that he brought with him - on his cumulative compounded increase. That's hardly tithing as it is taught today. The implication is that Jacob chose to do this over and above his other offerings. God did bring Jacob home safely, but there is only quiet assumption that he paid his vow.
Jacob was his own priest. He took the pillow stone under his head and set it up as a single pillar of rock symbolizing the house of God. This stone was a type of the Messiah to come who would be the principal stone, the cornerstone or head of the comer for the future spiritual house of God, the Church.
Jesus is head of the Church just as he is head of the comer. Jacob was renamed Israel. (Genesis 32:28) He became Israel through overcoming, just as the Church overcomes with Jesus. So Jacob is a type of the Church who overcomes with the aid of her Head. The Church is the Israel of God, which is built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ in faith. (Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:l9-22; I Peter 2:4-10)
There was no temple or priesthood external to Jacob's family to receive tithes even if he paid them. He had the rights to the entire inheritance of the land of Canaan exclusively. (Read Genesis 28:10-19.) What God wanted was Jacob as His servant. This is what He got.
Clearly, the Biblical accounts do not support the belief that the righteous patriarchs regularly practiced tithing. The Biblical patriarchs did offer first fruits in accordance with ancient wisdom as later recorded in Proverbs 3:9:
Honor the LORD from your wealth, and from the first of all your produce.
The evidence in Genesis must be interpreted from the perspective of the much later Levitical ordinances in order to see if there exists any support for Christians to tithe. If you wish to believe that tithing is an eternal law that originated prior to Moses and Mount Sinai, then you must overlook the above explanations and maintain that tithing was practiced by the patriarchs. I don't think that that is a defensible position so the safest, most conservative conclusion is to ignore the patriarchal references in attempting to determine if tithing is binding on Christians.