Stealing From God
Probably no section of Scripture is more often cited in support of an alleged universal law of tithing than Malachi 3:8-10. It is a favorite text for ministers today. But in using this section of Scripture as a means to support their modern and anti-biblical "law of tithing," most preachers apply the passage entirely out of context. What does Malachi say?
"From the days of your fathers ye have turned aside from mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts."
• Malachi 3:7
Who were the people that Malachi said had turned aside from God’s ordinances? Were they the Egyptians? The Chinese or Russians? The British or Americans? Continuing in verse 7, "But ye say: Wherein shall we return?" Who is the "ye" to whom Malachi is referring? The answer is plain. It was the ancient Jewish nation existing in the time of Malachi. Verse 8: "Will a man rob God ? Yet ye have robbed me, But ye say, wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings." But who were these "robbers"? They were the people of Judah who lived in Palestine that Malachi was scolding. They had not been giving their tithe nor proper animal sacrifices for the rituals of the Temple. They were "cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation" (verse 9).
Some have expressed an absurdity that this indictment of Malachi is against the modern United States. What nonsense! Is the United States currently under a curse for not tithing? Tithing was not ordained for Americans in the first place! If such a curse is on the United States why do thousands of people from other areas of the world try desperately to come to the United States each year? Do the peoples of India, Africa and Latin America feel America is under a curse? Is not the United States of America still one of the richest and most bountifully blessed nations that has ever existed in the history of mankind? True, there are problems in our country, but which people of the world would say we have been (or are) under a curse? I know of none.
The truth is, it is not the United States or Britain and the Commonwealth that are being discussed by Malachi. His scolding for their failure to pay tithe, and their lapse in not bringing proper animal sacrifices for the ritual service of the Temple at Jerusalem, was solely and exclusively to the nation of Judah in the early fourth century B.C.E. That is what the Bible says. Some people have misapplied these scriptures to support their opinions about tithing. Malachi continues with his narrative.
"Bring ye the whole tithe into the storehouses, that there may be meat in mine house, and try me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing that there shall be more than sufficiency."
• Malachi 3:10
The tithe being discussed by Malachi is clearly the agricultural and the animal tithe of ancient Judah. The prophet is actually speaking about food, not money. Where were the storehouses located of which Malachi was talking?
They had their origin in the time of King Hezekiah back in the eighth century B.C.E. (2 Chronicles 31:4–10). An order had been given by Hezekiah to bring the tithe of the agricultural produce into the sanctuary—and the people brought such abundance that the Levites had to lay it up in heaps (verses 5–6). Hezekiah then had chambers made in the Temple to hold the surplus (verse 10). They held grain, not money.
Malachi was interested in those storehouses. He wanted the storehouses within the Temple refilled. By the way, a single complex of storage silos in Kansas would be five or even ten times the size of the silos in the Temple in Malachi’s time. It wasn’t a great abundance that Malachi was asking for. He simply wanted the normal agricultural produce to be tithed and put in the Temple in order to fill the Temple storehouses. And besides, all the tithe and offerings which were required by law (Deuteronomy 12:6) were supposed to be sent only to the Temple at Jerusalem except in the third and sixth years of a sabbatical cycle. Malachi simply wanted the silos inside the Temple refilled.
A parallel account of Malachi’s situation is found in the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah was a contemporary of Malachi.) Beginning in verse 10,
"And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them; so that the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field. Then contended I with the rulers, and said: Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together, and set them in their place. Then brought all Judah the tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries."
• Nehemiah 13:10–12
In the days of Nehemiah and Malachi there were food shortages and much poverty in Judah. See Nehemiah 5:2–6. It was in relieving that bad environment that the prophet Malachi promised the Jewish people a help from God. But the country was in bad shape. Insects had devoured much of the land. The animals were not reproducing properly. Judah was then under a curse. But Malachi promised the Jews in Palestine a relief. If they would turn from the evil ways, they were to have "more than sufficiency" (Malachi 3:10).
"And I will rebuke the devourer [the rapacious insects] for your good, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your land; neither shall your vine cast its fruit before the time in the field, saith the Lord of hosts"
• Malachi 3:11
These verses of Malachi about ancient Judah in Palestine have nothing to do with modern America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain—or any other nation. Malachi was only interested in the Jews of Palestine filling the silos in the Temple back at that time. The tithe probably represented, in our money values today, no more than a few thousand dollars of grain. After all, the Temple was very small—less than an acre in area—and if all the storehouses were filled with grain, it would have hardly equaled a fifth or tenth of produce found in one storage complex in Kansas today.
Tithing Only For the Land of Israel
Another factor that has often been overlooked concerning the biblical tithing system is the fact that it only applied to those Israelites who lived in Palestine.
"And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s: it is holy unto the Lord."
• Leviticus 27:30
Notice a major point about this tithing instruction. It said "All the tithe of the land ... is the Lord’s." This Hebrew word rendered "land" is aretz. At times the word can mean the earth (Genesis 1:1). At other times it is used with regard to a specific land or country (Exodus 3:8, 17). Many times the term, as used in Leviticus 27:30, refers specifically to the land of Israel in Palestine. See Leviticus 19:23; 20:2; 25:10, 18; 26:32, and so forth. As the Gentile nations were not given tithing laws and Levites were not instructed to go to the Gentiles and take tithe from them, the term "the land" in Leviticus 27:30 really refers to the land of Israel.
George Foot Moore, in his work on Judaism (one of the recognized authorities on Jewish religion in the time of Christ) had the following to say about the law of the tithe in Leviticus 27: "All of these applied in the letter of the law only to the land of Israel, however, at any time its boundaries might be defined" (Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, vol. II, p.71). Professor Moore went on to point out that the land of Babylon was finally accepted as part of the land of Israel—a "tithable" land—because so many Jews were resident in the area. Egypt was finally accepted as a tithable land. In the earlier time of Joseph, however, Egypt did not pay tithe as shown by the one-fifth produce which was paid to Pharaoh and the four-fifths that went to the people. The lands east of Jordan came to be acknowledged as tithable: Ammon, Moab and Syria—at least the parts of those lands that David conquered and where many Jews came to live.
Other Gentile lands, on the other hand, such as Asia Minor, Greece or Italy were not allowed as lands which could produce tithe. The produce of those lands was considered as being impure and not holy enough to support the Levitical priesthood in its function at the holy Temple. As Edersheim records, even the very dust of heathen lands was reckoned as defiled (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. I, p.9). This is why tithe was not acceptable from them.
At any rate, the strict reading of the law demanded that the tithe come only from the land of Israel—which was later interpreted to include those areas east and north of Palestine and Egypt where the populations were predominantly Jewish. All other areas were proscribed. This fact about tithing may be surprising to many Christians, but this is an actual fact that is revealed in the Law of God. Many preachers and evangelists know these facts, but they fail to tell the laity about them simply because they believe the people would not fund their churches if they were privy to these facts. But it is time for all people to know the truth of the biblical revelation. To be guided strictly by the statements of biblical law, it would be improper to pay tithe on products from the United States, Britain, or other Gentile lands.
And this does not end the story. There is yet another surprise that most Christians fail to understand. In actual fact, the Temple in Jerusalem did not get the bulk of its income for operation from the tithe that the Israelites gave on their farm produce and herds. There was another law that Moses enacted that provided huge quantities of money to Temple operations when the people were faithful in carrying out the Law of the Old Covenant. Moses also legislated that the Temple itself was to be (in a primary sense) funded from the giving of a half-shekel by every male in Israel (Exodus 30:11–16). This half-shekel was to be given each year and it was to be sent to the Temple treasury no matter where Israelites lived in the world. Let us notice this matter of funding the Temple as it must have existed in the time of Christ when Herod’s Temple was in full operation.
The Temple was responsible for bringing into Jerusalem huge quantities of monies and other contributions from Jews and even Gentiles from around the Roman and Parthian worlds. Note the words of Titus the Roman general (and later emperor) in a speech to the Jews just before the fall of Jerusalem. He called attention to the riches of the Jews at the time and how the Romans had helped them to secure those riches.
"We [Romans] have given you leave to gather up that tribute which is paid to God [the Temple tax], with such other gifts that are dedicated to him: nor have we called those that carried these donations to account, nor prohibited them; till at length you became richer than we ourselves, even when you were our enemies."
• Josephus, Wars, VI.6,2
This tribute was the annual half-shekel payment for the upkeep of the Temple which each Jewish male from twenty years of age upward had to pay each year. This money was collected from various sites all over the Roman Empire and conveyed in many instances under guard of the Romans themselves to the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This tribute alone (besides all the other offerings of money and animals, etc.) that was sent to the Temple amounted to a prodigious quantity of revenue each year. Let us try to understand how much in 1993 U.S. dollars this might have been. The coin in the fish that Peter caught had the value of one shekel (called a stater in Greek). This would pay the annual tribute for Jesus and Peter (Matthew 17:27). A stater was equal to four drachmae with each drachma being a little more in value to a Roman denarius. A denarius, according to Jesus, was what a common laborer would receive in one day (Matthew 20:2). Thus a half-shekel would equal about two days work. Since our minimum wage in early 1993 is just under $5 an hour, a twelve hour day would gain a person about $60 at the present. Thus, two such days would be $120. Based on our "work/pay" today, about $120 is what each Jewish male over twenty would have to pay each year to the Temple treasury. Since it is reasonably estimated that there would have been between 3 and 4 million Jewish males who would pay the tribute each year, this would amount to between $360 to $500 million U.S. dollars just for the half-shekel tribute alone. That is a lot of money!
It was the Sanhedrin at the Temple in Jerusalem that set the value of the half-shekel each year. The value was determined by the value of the animal sin offerings each year (Shekelim II.4). If the value of sin offering animals went up because of a scarcity, then the Sanhedrin would require more of the common currency to equal the amount of the shekel at the Temple. The standard of value was set by the Temple authorities so that God would have the same amount being given to the Treasury each year no matter what the value of coinage (either inflated or deflated). Whatever the case, there were great quantities of money coming into Jerusalem each year and this helped make the economy of Judaea and Jerusalem a very prosperous one. That wealth, however, came to an end with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. With the Temple destroyed about forty years after Christ, the Jews did not have to pay the tithe for its upkeep. They were required by the Romans to continue paying the half-shekel (now to the Roman treasury) until its rescission in 429 C.E..
Once the biblical regulations concerning the laws of tithing are understood, it can be seen how far modern Christian advocates of a tithing system for the Christian ministry have strayed from the truth. The sad thing about the matter is their attitude of carelessness with the teachings of God’s Word in this and many other matters. Their taking out of context the teachings about tithing and the first fruits to suit their own fancies should stop, and they should begin to show more respect for the actual teachings of the Holy Scriptures rather than their slipshod practices today.
The next chapter of this book concerns the teachings of the New Testament. It supports the Old Testament precisely.
Click here to order the print version of: The Tithing Dilemma
© 1976-2013 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions