“Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (14:20). Here we have the first mention of a tithe in Scripture. The second occurrence is also found in Genesis (28:22), when Jacob promises a tenth to God if God brings him safely back from Paddan Aram. Even today, some churches will encourage their members to give a tenth of their income to the work of the church. Is this a scriptural principle that should be followed today?
The two occurrences in Genesis are voluntary offerings, not obligatory. Abram’s offering indicates his recognition that Melchizedek as king of Sodom was the leader of the Canaanite coalition (studies have shown that it was an ancient Near Eastern custom to give the king a tenth8) and also that this king was priest of the same God that Abram himself worshiped. Jacob’s vow was also a voluntary offering.
Though these gifts were voluntary, there is no doubt but that later Mosaic law mandated that Israelites give a tenth. Nowhere do these later laws ground the practice in the earlier events recorded in Genesis. Indeed, there is some question as to how the various tithing laws in the Torah relate to one another.
In Numbers 18:21–24 (see also Lev 27:30–33) God announces that he grants to the Levites “all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the tent of meeting” (v. 21). In the next paragraph (vv. 25–29), he tells Moses to inform the Levites that they are to take a tithe of the tithe they receive and give that to the priesthood. Here, in other words, we learn how God provided for the provision for the Levites and priests.
The book of Deuteronomy also addresses the issue of the tithe (Deut 12:6, 11, 17; 26:12–15; esp. 14:22–29), but in a way that some believe conflicts with the law as found in Numbers (and Leviticus). According to Deuteronomy 14:12–15, the tithe brought to the sanctuary would be consumed by the offerers. Either a tenth of the grain, new wine, and olive oil and firstborn of the herds and flocks were brought or, if the distance to the sanctuary was too great, these goods could be exchanged for silver and then “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” (Deut 14:26). In addition, there is the provision that every three years the tithes would not be brought to the sanctuary but stored in the various towns for the Levites, poor, and other disadvantaged people.
The early rabbis posited three different tithes (the first tithe to the Levites and priests [Num 18:21–29], the second that was used for the celebration of the worshipers [Deut 14:22–27], and a third in the third year for the Levites and the poor in the various towns [Deut 14:28–29]). Other, more modern, scholars try to reconcile these laws by positing a historical development in the tithe, but Averbeck disagrees and provides a reasonable perspective on how these laws complement each other.9 There was one tithe and that was presented during an annual festival at the sanctuary. From that tithe, resources were expended for celebration of the worshipers themselves in keeping with Numbers 18, but this would not expend more than a fraction of the tithe itself. A tithe of the tithe for the Levites would be used for the maintenance of the priests. And the tithe of every third year (the third and sixth year of the sabbatical year cycle) would be placed not at the central sanctuary, but in the local towns and used for the sustenance of the local Levites and the poor and the vulnerable.
Thus, there is no question but that the tithe was a legal requirement imposed on God’s people from the time of Moses. Those familiar with the history of the Israelite people as described in the Old Testament will not be surprised to realize that Israel did not live up to this ideal.
However, the question for the Christian today is whether the tithe is still a legal requirement. Must Christians set apart a tenth of their income for donation to the church or at least to the furtherance of the gospel?
The Gospels only mention the tithe as the practice of the Jewish people of the time. Indeed, Jesus criticizes the Jewish leaders for keeping the tithe but ignoring the broader principles of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42; see also Luke 18:12). The only other place in the New Testament where the tithe is mentioned is in Hebrews 7:1–10 where the author cites the story of Genesis 14 where Abraham pays a tithe to Melchizedek in order to argue that Jesus is the ultimate high priest.
In other words, the New Testament, after the death and resurrection of Christ, never appeals to the law of the tithe as a requirement for New Testament Christians. Averbeck points out that this observation is more than an argument from silence, since there are ample opportunities in Paul’s many appeals for Christians to be generous in their giving for him to cite the requirement of a tithe (Rom 15:25–28; 1 Cor 9:16–18; 16:1–3; 2 Cor 8–9; Eph 4:28, etc.).10
Rather than thinking that these biblical-theological observations on the tithe relieve the Christian of giving a tenth of their income to God’s work, one needs to wonder whether a tenth is sufficient. If the Old Testament believer gave a tenth, what should the Christian give who is the recipient of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus? There is no legal formula here. We should give out of our gratitude and joy in the Lord’s work in our life.
Tremper Longman III, Genesis, ed. Tremper Longman III, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 193–195.