Tithing is one of those things that can betray our approach to and understanding of the Old Testament if we’re not careful. It’s easy to note that it meant ten percent, assign to Israel an unconscious, semi-spiritual attitude and move on to making applications to our giving today. But as Lee Corso says, “Not so fast my friend!” The tithe is worth a deeper look.
Deuteronomy 14:22ff tells us that Israel was to give to God a tithe of their produce and flocks. That means what they gave annually would vary according to degree of prosperity they experienced, so the principle of giving as they prospered was embedded in their giving (1 Corinthians 16:2).
It’s also worth noting that although the literal meaning of the word “tithe” is tenth, God wasn’t as interested in exact mathematical precision as we might be.
For example, Leviticus 27:32 offers instruction on tithing from one’s heard and flock—how “every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord.” If a man has 20 sheep, he gives the tenth and twentieth to the Lord and that represents 10% of his flock. However, if a man had 29 sheep, then he would also tithe the tenth and twentieth to the Lord. But that’s 2 sheep out of 29 which calculates to a little less than 7%–but exactly what God asked for! So, it’s probably better to think of the tithe as a principle of giving rather than a precisely fixed amount as there was definitely some flexibility involved in it.
Israel tithed their produce and flocks every year. If they lived close enough, they hauled it up to Jerusalem and what did God do with their offering? He gave it right back to them! No, that’s not exactly right—He gave it right back to them—but requested they eat it in His presence (Deuteronomy 14:23, 16:16-17). He was their God, and they were His people and their work together in producing the harvest called for joy and celebration (v. 26). What kind of God commands does these things!
They were to share what they had with the Levites from their town (v. 27), and the same text goes on to tell us that “at the end of every three years” a tithe was stored in their towns for the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless, and the widows—in essence, all those without the ability to work the land.
Perhaps the most significant truth about the tithe is that it didn’t come close to representing the totality of giving done by Israel. They made sacrifices and offerings. They paid a temple tax (Exodus 30:13-16). They gave the first-born of their flocks (Deuteronomy 15:19), and the first fruits of their fields (26:1ff). They forgave debts (15:1-6) and loaned money to the poor (v. 7-11). They left the corners of the field unharvested and didn’t pick their trees and bushes a second time so the poor would have something (Deuteronomy 24:19-21). They generously supplied slaves who had worked for them with enough for them to start on their own (15:12-18). They didn’t harvest their fields in Sabbatical years (Leviticus 25:1-7). Have I mentioned the free-will offerings (Leviticus 22:23)? So away with the notion that Israel’s giving topped out at ten percent. They were a generous people!
And how did that come about? They learned it from God!