Despite the fact that many people use the word “tithe” synonymously with any church-related giving, the word tithe literally means “tenth.”
The tithe was an obligatory offering from the law of Moses requiring 10 percent of an Israelite’s firstfruits. Because God provided the harvest, this first part was returned to him. It was a reminder to Israel that all things we have are his. It was a show of thankfulness for his provision. It also provided for the Levitical priesthood, festivals, and the needy.
Let’s look at 20 verses on tithing to give ourselves an overview on this significant practice.
Table of contents
- Tithing before Moses
- What Moses said about tithing
- How Israelites tithed
- What Jesus said about tithing
1. The first tithe (Gen. 14:19–20)
And he blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
Abram had just returned from defeating the armies of the four kings, rescuing his nephew Lot, and reclaiming his possessions, and he’s met by an enigmatic priest of God Most High named Melchizedek. The priest attributes Abram’s victory to God—possessor of heaven and earth—and he blesses Abram.
In gratitude to God’s authority and blessing, Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth of his possessions. He doesn’t do it to invoke God’s blessing; he does it in response to God’s blessing.
2. Jacob offers a tithe (Gen. 28:20–22)
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
Jacob responds to a dream he has received from God by building an altar and vowing that, in exchange for God’s care and provision, he would give God a tenth of his belongings.
3. The tithe is introduced as law (Lev. 27:30–34)
Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord. If a man wishes to redeem some of his tithe, he shall add a fifth to it. And every tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. One shall not differentiate between good or bad, neither shall he make a substitute for it; and if he does substitute for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.”
Here we see Moses giving the tithe as a law. The first 10 percent is called “holy,” or set apart, as belonging to God. The Israelites were to return to God what was already his, and in doing so, recognize the Almighty’s provision.
If for some reason someone needed to “redeem” or keep all or a portion of the goods he was to tithe, he could just give money instead. However, the cash would need to be equal to the tithe’s value, plus an extra fifth. In other words, Israelites could give 10 percent in produce, or 12 percent in cash.
When it came to livestock, a shepherd had to set aside every tenth for God. It was decided by simply counting the animals and consecrating every tenth. The shepherd was not to be deciding based on the quality of the animal.
4. Tithes established for the Levites (Num. 18:21)
To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting
The Levites served a special function in Israel; they ministered before God as Israel’s priests. At God’s command, the Levites didn’t share in the other tribes’ inheritance. The Lord was their portion and inheritance (v. 21).
Here we see the Lord establishing that Israel’s tithe would operate as payment to the levitical priests for their services.
5. The Levite’s tithe (Num. 18:26)
Moreover, you shall speak and say to the Levites, “When you take from the people of Israel the tithe that I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present a contribution from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe.”
From the income that the Levites received from the tithe, they were still responsible for giving 10 percent off the top to God.
6. Offerings and tithes (Deut. 12:5–6)
But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock.
The tithe was not a volitional offering. The 10 percent off the top belonged to God and the Israelites simply repaid it. But this wasn’t the only obligatory tithe. They also tithed to support a special jubilee festival (Deut. 12) and took a third tithe every three years to take care of orphans, widows, and the poor (Deut. 14). These mandatory offerings averaged out to about 23 percent a year.
On top of these compulsory tithes, there were regular opportunities for freewill offerings. These were generous gifts that expressed the Israelites’ gratefulness through voluntary giving in response to their devotion.
At a bare minimum, they gave 23 percent a year, but there was no ceiling on their generosity. They could—and frequently would—give exorbitantly out of their excess. In response to Moses’ call for contributions to the building of the Tabernacle, the Israelites literally gave so much that Moses had to command them to stop giving (Ex. 36:2–7).
7. Tithing for festivals (Deut. 14:22)
“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.”
By God’s design, the Israelites were a celebratory people. Part of their tithe went to preparing for festivals and celebrations!
8. Tithing for orphans, widows, and sojourners (Deut. 14:28–29)
At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
The first tithe taken annually was used to support the Levites. Every third year a special tithe was taken for the distinct purpose of supporting orphans, widows, and strangers. Baked into God’s law was a special provision to take care of the most vulnerable citizens. Interestingly enough, this included caring for people from outside of their community.
9. Bringing in the tithe (2 Chron. 31:4–5)
And he commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levites, that they might give themselves to the Law of the Lord. As soon as the command was spread abroad, the people of Israel gave in abundance the firstfruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field. And they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything.
Because we trade almost exclusively in currency, it’s fascinating to consider what it would be like in a largely cashless society. How do you tithe when tithing means setting aside 10 percent of your grain, wine, oil, honey, and produce?
Bringing in your tithe is quite an affair when you realize that it entails exacting division of actual goods and livestock, and then the responsibility of bringing them to the storehouse.
10. Nehemiah reestablishes the tithe (Neh. 10:35–37)
We obligate ourselves to bring the firstfruits of our ground and the firstfruits of all fruit of every tree, year by year, to the house of the Lord; also to bring to the house of our God, to the priests who minister in the house of our God, the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, as it is written in the Law, and the firstborn of our herds and of our flocks; and to bring the first of our dough, and our contributions, the fruit of every tree, the wine and the oil, to the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God; and to bring to the Levites the tithes from our ground, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all our towns where we labor.
Nehemiah is known for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem as part of God’s plan to restore Israel after a 70-year captivity. Preparing God’s people for temple worship in their homeland required a reorientation to the worship rhythms in the life of an Israelite.
At this point, many Israelites had lived their entire lives in captivity. And while the stories and traditions were kept alive verbally, they no longer knew what it was like to live under the law. Here we have the reestablishment of the Law in regards to offerings and tithes.
Even with this preparation, Nehemiah finds that the Levites aren’t receiving the portion of the tithes that are to be sustaining them (Neh. 13:10).
11. The principles of plenty (Prov. 3:9–10)
Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.
If the world and everything in it truly belong to the Lord, why wouldn’t this principle be true? This isn’t the only time that the Lord promises Israel that he’ll reward generosity with plenty (Deut. 15:10; Prov. 11:25; Malachi 3:8–12).
The challenge is that one must have the faith to give sacrificially to see if the Lord keeps his word.
12. The Lord requires more than regular tithes (Amos 4:4–5)
“Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!” declares the Lord God.
The Lord is angry at Israel, and Amos has come to proclaim God’s judgment against her. It doesn’t matter if the nation of Israel is dependable and exacting in the giving of their tithes and offerings if their behavior negates God’s laws.
In a passage that is thematically echoed by Jesus in Matt. 23:23, God makes it clear that stringent attention to the law in one area isn’t an excuse for license in others.
13. The robbing of God (Mal. 3:8–9)
Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, “How have we robbed you?” In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.
Throughout the Old Testament, an offering was something you gave, but the tithe was something you owed. It belonged to the Lord and it was repaid—it wasn’t a gift. On top of the importance of recognizing God’s sovereignty in the tithe, the whole priestly system relied on the tithe to stay functional.
Of particular interest here is the how the withholding of some in Israel put the whole nation at risk of God’s judgment.
14. Testing God in the tithe (Mal. 3:10–12)
Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.
In his mercy, God desperately wants to use the carrot rather than the stick. If he can, he’ll try to get his people to respond to promises of blessing for their obedience instead of having to bring the hammer of judgement down.
In verse 10, the Lord reiterates the problem; the storehouses are empty. If they would only be compliant, there would not only be a full larder, but they would experience an overabundance of provision and freedom from want. Their abundance would also be proof that God was in Israel, making them the envy of nations.
15. Giving in secret (Matt. 6:1–4)
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The terrible thing about our acts of devotion is how easy they are to twist in order to put our faithfulness on display. Once we’ve made ourselves the object and focus of our generosity, we have undermined the act.
God has always promised reward for the faithfulness of his saint, but Jesus tells us that when you draw attention to your giving, the respect and awe you’ve inspired becomes your reward—invalidating further blessing.
16. Don’t neglect the weightier issues (Matt. 23:23)
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
The picture here of the religious person carefully measuring out their spices to ensure that their tithe is exact while ignoring justice and mercy is powerful. To show concern for tithing your smallest crops while ignoring the law’s weightier concerns is shortsighted.
17. The faithful giver (Mark 12:41–44)
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Obviously, the point of this passage is in the faith of the widow to give what she had out of poverty. This is a beautiful picture of trust in God’s provision, and Christ’s response to this act of faith demonstrates God’s feelings toward our sacrifice and generosity.
What is also interesting here is the fact that Jesus went out of his way to sit and watch people give their offerings. God’s interest in our giving isn’t cursory. He recognizes more than we do how our faith is revealed in our habits of giving.
18. Tithing and justice (Luke 11:42)
But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
There isn’t parity between Matthew and Luke in everything Jesus says. But this is one of the instances where Luke also records Jesus’ words on a matter. Even to a gentile like Luke, Jesus words that we need to give and be mindful of expressing God’s love and justice is important.
19. Tithing and pride (Luke 18:9–14)
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Pharisee in this parable finds his value and justification in his devotional acts. He holds up his fasting and tithes up to God like a badge and thanks God that he isn’t like this lowly tax gatherer. As we have seen, the tithe tied Israel together. It was an offering that was common to all and was used to take care of the nation’s priests, widows, orphans, and transients. It wasn’t intended to make the giver self-righteous and prideful.
20. Tithing to Melchizedek (Heb. 7:1–2)
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace.
With this discussion on Abraham’s tithe to Melchizedek, we’ve come full circle. Moses first tells us of this tithe in Genesis, and the author of Hebrews readdresses it as he compares Christ’s ministry to the priest Melchizedek.
The author of Hebrews argues that, although the tithe was supposed to be paid to the Levites, Abraham gave a tenth of his spoils to the priest Melchizedek. And that, through this act, the Levites also metaphorically tithed to Melchizedek. Not only did the priest take a tithe from Abraham, he blessed him. Hebrew’s author says, “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. (v. 7)” The whole chapter compares the priesthood of Christ to this mysterious Old Testament character.
It’s only appropriate that the last place the tithe is mentioned it’s being used to point to Christ’s preeminence.
So what’s this mean for us?
In the end, tithing wasn’t something Israel did in the same way we mindlessly toss a gratuity down with our bill at a restaurant. It was an intentional practice through which God intended to teach Israel about his sovereign ownership of everything. Instead of being consumers of their blessings, they had to stop and think through just how much blessing they had.
Through the tithe, God took care of his people—and through the act of generous giving, God continues to bless his people.
Interested in how the early church fathers dealt with offerings and tithes? Check out the post 6 Views on Tithes and Offerings in the Early Church.