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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

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It seems to have been a custom from very early times for people to give a tithe (i.e. a tenth) of their goods to God as an act of worship and thanks. In this way they acknowledged God as the supreme controller of life’s events and the sole giver of life’s blessings. The custom existed as a voluntary act of devotion long before it became compulsory practice under the law of Moses.

The Bible records two pre-Mosaic examples of tithing. Abraham, on gaining a notable victory in the land God had promised him, offered to God a tithe of the goods he had seized in battle (Genesis 14:17-24; Hebrews 7:4-10). Jacob, on fleeing for safety to a distant land, promised to give God a tithe of his possessions if God brought him back safely (Genesis 28:20-22). In both cases the offering of the tithe was an acknowledgment that God was the sovereign controller in human affairs and the giver of all gifts.

The law of Moses

Under the law of Moses, Israelites had to give to God one tenth of all crops, fruit, flocks and herds. The tenth that they offered had to be an honest sample of the whole, not an inferior portion that they had no use for themselves. When tithing animals, for example, the owner counted the animals as they passed through the gate, setting aside every tenth one for God, regardless of whether it was good or bad (Leviticus 27:30; Leviticus 27:32-33).

If people so desired, they could offer money instead of their produce or animals. The amount they paid was the value of the goods plus a fifth. This additional fifth was a sort of fine, since they were keeping for their own use something that rightly belonged to God (Leviticus 27:31).

The tithes were paid to the Levites, and so became the chief source of the Levites’ income. Since the Levites spent their time in religious service for the people, they had no time to earn a normal living. This constant income from the tithes was payment for their work and compensation for their lack of a separate tribal area in Canaan (Numbers 18:21-24).

Having received tithes, the Levites then had to pay tithes. Their income was the produce of other people’s farms, but when they offered a tenth of this produce to God, he accepted it as if it were their own. The Levites’ tithes became the income of the priests (Numbers 18:25-32).

People presented their tithes by taking them to the central place of worship, where, with their households and the Levites, they joined in a joyous ceremonial meal (Deuteronomy 12:5-7; Deuteronomy 12:17-19). If the offerers lived so far from the tabernacle (or later the temple) that transporting their goods was a problem, they could sell their tithes locally and take the money instead (Deuteronomy 14:22-27).

Every third year the offerers had to distribute this tithe (or perhaps an additional tithe) in their own locality, so that the local poor could benefit from it as well as the Levites. In this case the offerers, after distributing their tithes, had to go to the central place of worship and declare before God that they had done according to the divine command (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 26:12-15).

In addition to these compulsory tithes, there were sacrifices and offerings of various kinds. Some of these were required by law, but others were made voluntarily (2 Chronicles 31:5-6; Nehemiah 10:37-38; Nehemiah 12:44; Malachi 3:8-10). (For details see FEASTS; FIRSTBORN; FIRSTFRUITS; SACRIFICE; VOWS.)

New Testament times

In later years Jewish teachers of the law added their own laws to those given by Moses. The result was that by the time of Jesus, they had made the tithing system a heavy burden on the Jewish people. These teachers instructed Jews to keep the laws of tithing even to the smallest detail, assuring them that in doing so they would gain God’s favour. But they neither taught nor practised the more important matters of faith, love, mercy and justice (Matthew 23:4; Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42; Luke 11:46; Luke 18:12).

The New Testament does not teach tithing as a binding law for Christians. Nevertheless, it upholds the principle of proportionate giving, the amount people give depending on the amount they earn (1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 8:12-14). God wants people to make their offerings willingly and joyfully, not under compulsion or grudgingly (2 Corinthians 8:3; 2 Corinthians 9:7). But he adds the promise that they need not fear poverty if they give much, because God can increase his supply so that the generous giver still has more than he needs (2 Corinthians 9:8-10). (See also GIVING.)

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Tithes'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​t/tithes.html. 2004.
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