A History of Tithing
Let us now see how the doctrine of tithing got started in the first place. Tithing can best be appraised by considering its historical development within the biblical records. Once this is comprehended, everything concerning tithing can then be understood.
The first striking fact concerning tithing is that the Scripture has remarkably little to say about it prior to the Book of Leviticus written in the time of Moses. The first eleven chapters of Genesis (the first book of the Bible) cover a span of some 2,000 years. While sacrifices and several other rituals are mentioned, the subject of tithing never emerged as a topic of discussion.
The initial illustration in the Bible about any tithing concerns the account of Abraham and Melchizedek in Genesis chapter 14. Following the slaughter of the kings, Abraham returned to central Palestine with his nephew named Lot, the other captives, and with a large amount of spoil that was taken from the northern kings (verses 16–17). Abraham then met Melchizedek and gave him a tenth of the spoil. "He gave him tithes of all" (verse 20). The remainder of the captured goods was given to the king of Sodom (verses 21–24).
Consider this action of Abraham. There is no agreement whatever with the law of tithing later revealed in the Book of Leviticus. Indeed, Moses required that the tithe be paid only on the increase of the land and animals (Leviticus 27:30–31). But with Abraham, he did not work to produce any of the spoil he had recovered. Spoil does not represent an increase from farms or ranches. There was no biblical teaching which showed that Abraham was required to give a tenth of the spoil to Melchizedek.
Actually, much later in the time of Moses, the Israelites were informed what should be done with any spoil they might capture from their enemies such as that which Abraham captured in his day. Such spoil was not to be tithed as shown in the law of Moses. When the Israelites obtained spoil from the Midianites, Moses insisted that the priests receive 1/500th of the goods from those who had gone to war—not 1/10th as a tithe would require (Numbers 31:9, 27–29). The Levites got more booty. They received 1/50th of the congregation’s half of the spoil (verse 30). Again, the law concerning "spoils" in war had nothing to do with the later ordained tithe.
But let us again consider the action of Abraham. If Moses was recording in Genesis a universal law of tithing when he wrote about Abraham giving a tenth of his spoils to Melchizedek, why does he depart from that very law some 400 years later with a completely different set of figures? In truth, Abraham was not following any law of tithing on spoil or on anything else. Abraham’s tenth was only in the nature of a voluntary (free will) offering of thanksgiving to God for the deliverance of his people from captivity.
If more evidence of the voluntary nature of tithing is needed before the time of Moses, the account of Jacob’s tithing provides it.
"And Jacob vowed 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 raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God ... and of all that you shall give me I will surely give the tenth unto you."
• Genesis 28:20–22 [emphasis mine]
If tithing were an inexorable law intended for all peoples and for all periods of time as many preachers state, this procedure of Jacob is truly a paradoxical case. This is because Jacob put the word "IF" into his contract he was making with God. That "IF" made the contract to be contingent on God performing something for Jacob. Jacob’s use of the word "IF" takes his contract away from being in the category of a well known universal law. No one treats known laws in such a fashion. That would be like a person saying to God: "If you bless my business during the first six days of the week, then I will close it and rest on the Sabbath." One does not slight the laws of God by putting the word "IF" at the beginning of them. But it would not be wrong to think in that fashion if a voluntary thanksgiving offering were under consideration. The "IF" in the vow makes the tenth that Jacob said he would pay to be a free will offering and his promise was even conditional. As clear as it can be, both Abraham and Jacob were the ones who set the parameters, not God!
There is further proof that tithing as a universal principle was not in force before the time of Moses. Look at the example of Jacob’s son Joseph. While in Egypt he was inspired to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams about seven full and seven lean years for harvests. As a result of Joseph’s wisdom and because the Spirit of God was in him (Genesis 41:38–39), Pharaoh made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. For seven years they gathered in the harvests and stored the grain. When the lean years came, the Egyptians used all their money to purchase some of the grain reserves (Genesis 47:14–15). They then sold Joseph all their cattle to buy the needed grain (verse 16). Finally, they even bartered their own bodies and all their land for food (verse 18–20).
This meant that Pharaoh, through the advice of the patriarch Joseph, came to possess all things found in Egypt. At this point notice what Joseph did,
"Then Joseph said unto the people, ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land. And it shall come to pass in the increase, that you shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones.’"
• Genesis 47:23–24
This command was nothing like that given by Moses some 200 years later. Moses stated that a tenth of the increase had to be set aside for the Levites. But Joseph said no such thing. He declared that two-tenths (a fifth part) was to be Pharaoh’s for his own personal use, while all the remainder went to the people. Joseph did not give any priesthood a part of the increase that some so-called universal law of tithing might require. Actually, the priests of the time had their own lands which had not been sold to Pharaoh. These produced enough food for their own sustenance and no tithes were ever exacted from them (verses 22, 26).
Joseph in his day knew nothing of any so-called universal tithing laws—simply because none existed. On the other hand, since Joseph was one who respected his father Jacob with utmost esteem, he would have known about Abraham’s tithing example and the conditional tithe of Jacob, yet in Egypt Joseph avoided using any tithe. This was not an act of disobedience because he was "a man in whom the Spirit of God is" (Genesis 41:38). Joseph said nothing about giving a tenth of the increase to any priesthood, simply because there was no universal tithing law prior to Moses.
Moses and Tithing
In the time of Moses, God finally ordained a tithing system as part of the laws he gave to Israel. There were, however, several events involving the payment of monies for sacred purposes which occurred before the introduction of tithing. It is worthwhile to consider them in this historical survey about the origin of tithing.
Just prior to Israel’s exodus from Egypt, God told them to spoil the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35). Spoil is the booty of war. Since God as Israel’s military commander had won the war over the Egyptians in Egypt, God told Israel to take the booty (the spoil) that now belonged to them. There is no evidence that the Israelites once they obtained the spoil gave a tenth of it to anyone. For one thing, there was at that time no authorized priesthood among the Israelites to take tithe on God’s behalf. And even if there were, the accumulation of these things was reckoned as spoil of war, not income or compensation. Moses ordained a different set of laws for spoil, as previously explained. Thus, the law of tithing was not in operation when the Israelites first left Egypt.
Then, about three months later at Mount Sinai, the Old Covenant with the Ten Commandments was first given to the Israelites (Exodus chapter 20). It also embraced many other laws recorded in four chapters—unto the end of Exodus chapter 23. These were laws of the Old Covenant which Israel promised to observe (Exodus 24:3–8). These four chapters contained nothing less than the basic constitution which was intended to govern Israel. The Bible calls the contents of those four chapters the Book of the Covenant. Remarkably, there is not one hint of tithing as a requirement in this basic teaching of the Old Covenant. Some might consider this an oversight on Moses’ part because there surely was a need to finance the new national existence of Israel.
True enough, Moses was well aware that the accumulation of revenues was needed to perform the Old Covenant requirements that had been recently ordained at Mount Sinai. Tithing, however, was not the method that Moses used at this early period. He had another way of securing the necessary funds to operate the civil and religious institutions associated with the new nation of Israel. Moses simply asked for some free will offerings. When Moses petitioned Israel for money to build the Tabernacle, here is what happened:
"Men and women, as many as were willing hearted, brought bracelets, and earrings, and rings, and tablets, all jewels of gold and ... the children of Israel brought a willing offering unto the Lord ... They brought yet unto him [Moses] free offerings every morning ... the stuff they had was sufficient for all the work to make it, and too much."
• Exodus 35:22, 29; 36:3, 7 [italics mine]
The Israelites had taken much spoil from the Egyptians. When it became necessary to raise funds to build the Tabernacle, Moses asked the Israelites to give free will offerings from these and other possessions. The Old Covenant society which Moses established at Mount Sinai, whether religious or secular, was supported solely (at first) by free will contributions. This is precisely the way the early Christians financed their activities (we will see this later). There was no law of tithing that was being applied in the building of the holy sanctuary (the Tabernacle). As a matter of fact, tithing was not understood as a necessary thing by Moses until almost a year later (Leviticus 27:30–33).
In concluding this historical survey, it should be noted that for the first two thousand and five hundred years of human history (as recorded in the biblical narrative) the only two instances of tithing were involving free will offerings of Abraham and Jacob. And even in the first period of the Exodus, Moses only required free will contributions from the Israelites. But true enough, a year passed in the Wilderness, then Moses saw the need for a law of tithing. Let us now look in the next chapter at the laws that Moses ordained for Israel.
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