By H.L. Bruce
The subject of the tithe is one that makes its way into numerous religious discussions. Some have used the idea of tithing to extract money from the public in general as well as to increase the contribution in churches throughout the land. Many assume that they know what the Bible teaches about the tithe while disseminating improper information with regard thereto.
The custom of giving the 10th part of the products of the land and of the spoils of war to priests and kings (1 Macc. 10:31; 11:35; 1 Sam. 8:15-17) was a very ancient one among most nations. That the Jews had this custom long before the institution of the Mosaic Law is shown by Gen. 14:17-20 (cf. Heb. 7:4) and Gen. 28:22. Many critics hold that these two passages are late and only reflect later practice of the nations; but the payment of the tithe is so ancient and deeply rooted in the history of the human race that it seems much simpler and more natural to believe that among the Jews the practice was in existence long before the time of Moses.
In the Pentateuch we find legislation as to tithes in three places. (1) According to Lev. 27:30-33, a tithe had to be given of the seed of the land, i.e. of the crops of the fruit of the trees, e.g. oil and wine, and of the herd or the flock (cf. Deut. 14:22-23; 2 Chron. 31:5-6). As the herds and flocks passed out of the pasture they were counted (cf. Jer. 33:13; Ezek. 20:37), and every 10th animal that came out was reckoned holy to the Lord. The owner was not allowed to search among them to find whether they were bad or good, nor could he change any of them; if he did, both the chosen and the one for which it was changed were holy. Tithes of the herds and flocks could not be redeemed for money, but tithes of the seed of the land and of fruit could be, but a 5th part of the value of the tithe had to be added. (2) In Numbers 18:21-32 it is laid down that the tithe must be paid to the Levites. (It should be noted that according to Heb. 7:5, `they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood . . . takes tithes of the people.’ Wescott’s explanation is that the priests, who received from the Levites a tithe of the tithe, thus symbolically received the whole tithe. In the time of the second temple the priests did actually receive the whole tithe. In the Talmud it is said that this alteration from the Mosaic Law was caused by the sin of the Levites who were not eager to return to Jerusalem, but had to be persuaded by Ezra – see Ezra 8:15.) The Levites were to receive the tithes offered by Israel to Jehovah because they had no other inheritance, and in return for their service of the tabernacle (Numbers 18:21-24). The tithe was to consist of corn of the threshing floor and the fulness of the winepress (v. 27), which coincides with seed of the land and fruit of the trees in Lev. 27. The Levites, who stood in the same relation to the priests as the people did to themselves, were to offer from this their inheritance a heave offering, a tithe of a tithe, to the priests (cf. Neh. 10:39), and for this tithe they were to choose the best part of what they received. (3) In Deut. 12:5, 6, 11, 18, (cf. Amos 4:4) it is said that the tithe is to be brought `unto the place which Jehovah your God shall choose out of all your tribes, to put His name there,’ i.e. Jerusalem; and in vs. 7, 12, and 18 that the tithe should be used there as a sacred meal by the offerer and his household, including the Levite within his gates. Nothing is said here about tithing cattle, only corn, wine and oil being mentioned (cf. Neh. 10:36-38; 13:5-12). In Deut. 14:22-29 it is laid down that if the way was too long to carry the tithe to Jerusalem, it could be exchanged for money, and the money taken there instead, where it was to be spent in anything the owner chose; and whatever was bought was to be eaten by him and his household and the Levites at Jerusalem. In the third year the tithe was to be reserved and eaten at home by the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless and widow. In 26:12-15 it is laid down that the third year, after this feast had been given, the landowner should go up himelf before the Lord his God, i.e. to Jerusalem, and ask God’s blessing on his deed . . . .
There is thus an obvious apparent discrepancy between the legislation in Leviticus and Deut. It is harmonized . . not only theoretically but in practice, by considering the tithes as three different tithes, which are named the First Tithe, the Second Tithe, and the Poor Tithe, which is called the Third Tithe. According to this explanation, after the tithe (the First Tithe) was given to the Levites (of which they had to give the tithe to the priests), a Second Tithe of the remaining nine-tenths had to be set apart and consumed at Jerusalem. Those who lived far from Jerusalem could change this Second Tithe into money with the addition of a 5th part of its value. Only food, drink or ointment could be bought for the money (cf. Deut. 14:26). The tithe of cattle belonged to the Second Tithe. In the third year the Second Tithe was to be given entirely to the Levites and the poor. But according to Josephus the Poor tithe was actually the third one. The priests and Levites, if landowners, were also obligated to the poor tithe” (I.S.B.E., Vol. 5, page 2988).
Contrary to what some have thought, the Jews did not pay one tithe from which was extracted their many taxes, religious and secular. Their multiple tithe plus fractional tithes would easily elevate their overall religious and secular taxes to the excess of thirty per cent of their gross income. Their resourcefulness and liberality was certainly to be commended and admired.
Where does all this leave us? Are we to conclude that we are to imitate the Jew? Are we to preach tithing? If a person fails to tithe are we to keep after that person until they give up and start tithing to get us off their back? Thoughts along this line indicate that tithing is not in perspective in our thinking.
Brother G.C. Brewer, with but few exceptions, expressed this writer’s sentiments when he wrote, “In an effort to get Christians to give of their means to carry on the work of the Lord, some preachers insist that the Law of the tithe is binding upon us – that is, that the Lord requires us to give one-tenth of all we make. They point out that this law antedated the Mosaic code and was not, therefore, abolished with that code. It is true that Abraham gave a tenth, and this may prove that the custom then prevailed, but we do not need to argue about whether or not this was abolished with the Mosaic law . . . We are not treated as slaves, but as sons. We serve not through fear but through love. Our gifts are not extractions, but free-will offerings, cheerfully given. We give not a meager percentage of our income, but we give ourselves, soul and body. The limit of our service is not the limit of the law’s demands, but the limit of our ability. The very fact that we argue about tithing shows that we do not know the gospel or that our hearts are not in tune with its principles. If a man does not give and sacrifice for the cause of the Lord, he does not need an application of the law of tithing. He needs to be converted. When people first give themselves to the Lord, they will then give their money to support his cause according to the will of the Lord (2 Cor. 8:5).
“Those who contend against tithing in order to defend or justify parsimonious and covetous brethren in doing nothing worthy to be called giving are worse deluded than the man who preaches the law of tithing. The man who preaches the tithing as a law is guilty of error; but the man who preaches against it for the above purpose is guilty of the blood of his fellow men. They are all condemned along with murderers and drunkards” (Gospel Advocate, April 14, 1932).
In answer to “How Should a Christian Give?” Brother Batsell Baxter gave this answer: “`And ye are not your own; for ye are bought with a price’ (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Christians are `stewards of the manifold grace of God’ (1 Pet. 4:10). ‘Ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s’ (1 Cor. 3:23). `Let a man so account us, as ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Here, moreover, it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful’ (1 Cor. 4:1-2). Does someone say that Paul is speaking only of himself here? Continuing the same trend of thought, he says in verse 16: `I beseech you therefore, be ye imitators of me.’
“How did New Testament Christians give? Concerning the plea of Agabus for the famine-endangered Christians at Jerusalem, `the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren that dwelt in Judea’ (Acts 11:29). `He that giveth, let him do it with liberality’ (Rom. 12:8). Speaking about the collection for the poor saints in Judea; `Upon the first day of the week let each one of you lay by him in store’ (1 Cor. 16:1-2). Concerning the same collection: `Let each man do according as he hath purposed in his heart’ (2 Cor. 9:7)” (Gospel Advocate, April 21, 1932)
We urge our readers to read the New Testament for instruction as to how to give. It contains the teachings of Christ. For by it we will be judged when the Lord comes again.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 37, pp. 603-604
September 20, 1979