This last Sunday, a lady in my church gave me a blue card with some questions on it regarding tithing. Since my email to her was rather long-winded, I thought I would share some of those thoughts here.
- Verse 2 says to take “some” of the firstfruits. What happens to the rest? Is it sacrificed?
- Verse 12 talks about tithing every 3 years. What’s up with that?
The Old Testament teaching on the tithe was quite a bit more complicated than the simple 10% that is advocated these days. In fact, some estimates have the ancient Jews giving roughly 30% of their income back to God through sacrifices and other forms of worship. Nevertheless, there are three key principles that today we lump together into what we call tithing.
Firstborn. (Exodus 13:1-16) God claims for himself the firstborn male of every womb. Firstborn animals are to be sacrificed, but firstborn sons are to be “redeemed” by substituting another sacrifice or by giving roughly 10 ounces of silver to the high priests (Numbers 3).
Firstfruits. (Exodus 23:19; Deuteronomy 18:1-4 & 26:1-11) God claims the best of the first produce of the land for himself. Nowhere does he tell how much of the firstfruits belong to him. Nowhere does he say how long it takes for the “firstfruits” to end and the regular harvest to begin.
Tithe. (Leviticus 27:30-33; Numbers 18:26-29) The tithe specifically refers to a tenth of the produce and is intended to be an easily computed amount that also equalizes people of different economic status. For animals, the tithe means that as the sheep enter the pen, you simply count them off and every tenth one is set aside for the tithe. It’s probably best to understand the tithe as a method to quantify how much of the “firstfruits” should be given to God.
When Deuteronomy 26:2-15 says to take “some” of the firstfruits, what happens to the rest? This particular passage is talking about the very first crop to produce fruit after the Israelites enter the promised land. Putting some firstfruits in a basket and taking them all the way to Jerusalem is a symbolic gesture specifically for that very first harvest. The rest of the firstfruits would be handled just like the firstfruits would be at any ordinary year. How were they handled? The answer to that will also address your second question regarding the tithing every three years thing.
The tithe, the firstfruits, and the firstborn all belong to God. But God commanded them to be used together for three specific purposes:
- Celebratory worship
- Supporting the Levites (vocational ministers)
- Supporting the poor
You can see these three themes in Deuteronomy 14 which directly addresses the tithe.
From Deuteronomy 14:22-29.
Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the LORD your God always. But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice. And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.
At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
Every year, the tithe is to be enjoyed and celebrated in Jerusalem. However, the local Levites in one’s home town were to be remembered each year as well. Additionally, once every three years, a person’s tithe should not be eaten in Jerusalem but should be storehoused in his home town to take care of both the Levites and the poor.
These same three themes appear in the passages on the firstfruits and the firstborn.
(It’s also important to know that the poor people (who have no income of their own) are not commanded to tithe, but the Levites are commanded to obey all three (tithe, firstfruits, and firstborn) by giving their portion to the high priests at Jerusalem. One final thing to note is that Jesus reaffirms the tithe but never directly addresses the other two, so it seems that the tithe principle might encompass the other two.)
As I understand it, all these principles can be summarized like this.
- A portion of the first and the best of everything that enters my household should be returned to God. In our money economy, a tithe off my gross income should be considered the baseline starting point.
- My tithe should be used to directly support local vocational ministers (the Levites), to help the poor people in my town, and to give my family positive worship experiences. In a healthy church, these things can be accomplished by giving the entire tithe to the church.
- Both ministers and ministries should also “tithe upward” from their income to regional bodies.
Nevertheless, the best news about tithing should always be remembered that God promises great blessings to those who are faithful with the tithe.
…so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands…
Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.