An Overview of Tithe Texts in the English Bible
by Larry Downing | 06 October 2019 |
Dr. Jack Hoehn, and the other delegates to the September 15, 2019, Upper Columbia Conference (UCC) Constituency Meeting, learned that the General Conference (GC) did not approve of the UCC’s adopting its own constitution. It was, and is, the GC’s intent and desire that local conferences accept the General Conference model constitution.
In a September 15, 2019, letter published by Adventist Today under the heading “‘Roll Over and Play Dead’ – General Conference to the Conferences,” Jack expressed his dissatisfaction with the GC expectations. In his letter he drew attention to a new addition to the GC Constitution and Bylaws that was voted at the 1985 General Conference Session. He quotes No 4. (p. 46) of this document:
“…it shall be the duty of the churches in the Conference to adopt the tithing system of the Bible.”
Hoehn’s response: “But what is new in the GC ‘Model Constitution’ is that it gives the GC, not the local conference, the authority to set how much of our tithes they are to be given (p. 45). How nice for them.”
Yes, Jack, how nice for them! However, the mandate prescribed in the GC Constitution that it is the duty of Adventist churches to adopt the tithing system of the Bible may not be the gravy train they expect. One can assume that when the GC Constitution states it is the duty of each church to adopt the tithe model found in the Bible the GC expects each church to promote tithe paying among its members. Be assured the GC affirms that the biblical teaching is that 10% of one’s increase is tithe. The tithe is to be given to the church; the church passes the total tithe donation to the local conference; the local conference, according to a pre-established formula, passes a portion of the tithe to the union conference. The union conference passes on another portion of the tithe to the division and the division passes on a portion of the tithe to the General Conference. Mixed among all of these various transfers is Article 4 of GC Constitution stating that each church is to adopt the tithe system found in the Bible.
What follows below is a list of all the biblical tithe texts. Even a cursory examination of these texts opens the possibility that scripture does not present a constant understanding of what tithe is and what are the proper uses for the tithe. One will find divergent statements about tithe, its use, and the recipients. This may lead the reader to question whether a simple, clear answer exists that can solve the tithe conundrum: what is the biblical understanding of what defines For what purposes may tithe be used? To whom shall tithe be paid? We’ll begin at the beginning—Genesis. (All Biblical quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version and will be in bold.)
Genesis 14:19, 20:
He (Melchizedek) blessed him (Abram) and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.
The above, often quoted to support paying tithe, opens to us a precarious journey. Who was Melchizedek? We are told in the previous verses that he was a priest of God. In his age there was a proliferation of gods. Was this man a follower of Yahweh or another god? The text does not state that Abram gave the foreign priest tithe; he gave the priest a tenth. Was this Melchizedek’s cut? By definition, tithe is a tenth, but not every tenth is, in the cultic sense, a tithe. There are no definitive biblical answers to these questions. We can offer interpretations and form our conclusions, but that is what we will have—our conclusions.
…And this stone, which I (Jacob, have set up for a pillar shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.
The above passage records Jacob’s dream at Bethel. When the dream concluded, Jacob made a sacred promise. There is no record of what was done with the tithe, nor are we told information about the receiver. The sanctuary and priesthood did not exist. We are left to speculate who received Jacob’s tithe and for what purpose it was given.
All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord. If persons wish to redeem* any of their tithes, they must add one-fifth to them. All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth** one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. Let no one inquire whether it is good or bad, or make substitution for it; if one makes substitution for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy and cannot be redeemed.
The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 818) states “…redeemed is not a question of withholding and later adding a fifth—it is a question of paying in kind—i.e., if the crop is wheat and one is paying in barley or paying an equivalent amount of money. Grain or barley could be redeemed, not livestock.”
Rabbinical writers give the following explanation: When one was about to pay tithe, the young of the flock or herd were put into a pen. A narrow opening was left to allow one animal at a time to exit. The tithe payer stood outside the gate and when the door was opened the young would run to the mother and the tithe payer would mark every tenth one. That tenth one became tithe.
To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for a possession in return for the service that they perform, the service in the tent of meeting. From now on the Israelites shall no longer approach the tent of meeting, or else they will incur guilt and die. But the Levites shall perform the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear responsibility for their own offenses; it shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations. But among the Israelites they shall have no allotment, because I have given to the Levites as their portion the tithe of the Israelites, which they set apart as an offering to the Lord. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no allotment among the Israelites.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘You shall speak to the Levites, saying: ‘When you receive from the Israelites the tithe that I have given you from them for your portion, you shall set apart an offering from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe. It shall be reckoned to you as your gift, the same as the grain of the threshing floor and the fullness of the wine press. Thus you also shall set apart an offering to the Lord from all the tithes that you receive from the Israelites; and from them you shall give the Lord’s offering to the priest Aaron. Out of all the gifts to you, you shall set apart every offering due to the Lord; the best of all of them is the part to be consecrated.’ Say also to them: ‘When you have set apart the best of it, then the rest shall be reckoned to the Levites as produce of the threshing floor, and as produce of the wine press. You may eat it in any place, you and your households; for it is your payment for your service in the tent of meeting.’”
The Levites were the recipients of Israel’s tithe. The priests were Levites, but not every Levite was a priest. Was every Levite entitled to receive tithe? What about those who married outside the clan, produced children and those children had children? Were all the progeny considered Levites? If so, were they entitled to the tithes? We also note that the tithes were transportable; the household could select its own tithe consumption location—and in this passage, tithe is consumable.
But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you.
You shall not act as we are acting here today, all of us according to our own desires, for you have not yet come into the rest and the possession that the Lord your God is giving you. When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you, and when he gives you rest from your enemies all around so that you live in safety, then you shall bring everything that I command you to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, and all your choice votive gifts that you vow to the Lord. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you together with your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, and the Levites who reside in your towns (since they have no allotment or inheritance with you).
The texts above include tithes and donations. Tithes are to be associated with a specific place, of God’s choosing. Note that the family is included, along with male and female slaves and the Levites who live in the towns. How did the Levites react when they learned they were counted among male and female slaves?
Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they would of gazelle or deer. The blood, however, you must not eat; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. Nor may you eat within your towns the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, the firstlings of your herds and your flocks, any of your votive gifts that you vow, your freewill offerings, or your donations; these you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God at the place that the Lord your God will choose, you together with your son and your daughter, your male and female slaves, and the Levites resident in your towns, rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God in all your undertakings. Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land.
The Israelites were not to eat the tithe* of the grain or wine or oil, or the firstborn of the flocks or votive offerings, which were vowed, or freewill offerings** in the town. These items were to be eaten in the place God had chosen. The command is to come to that place and rejoice.
*The SDA Bible Commentary (Vol 1, p. 995) declares the tithe in this passage cannot be the first tithe; the first tithe was to be used only for the support of the Levites—Numbers 18:24 is listed as evidence, along with Deuteronomy 14:22-29. These passage, posit the commentary, explain the second tithe. As we shall find below, the context of these verses does NOT support the commentary’s position. Scripture does not know about a second tithe; commentators, however, do.
**Votive Offerings: cf. Leviticus 17:28; Numbers 18:4. The votive offerings were exclusively Jehovah’s.
Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. But if, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you. Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
Give thought to the implications that lie within the above passage: take your tithe to the place the Lord designates. You eat it and enjoy and learn. Then follows the unique twist: suppose it is inconvenient to haul the grain to the designated place? Not a problem. Turn the product into cash, take that loot and buy with it whatever turns you on! An ox or sheep? Right on! Wine or strong drink? Go for it! Oh, don’t forget to include the Levites who live in your town. Fair enough. There is more. Every third year involves separate responses.
No surprise that this passage is not included among the documents from the GC advocating faithful tithe practices. Could make life more interesting, however, if our pastors promote the admonitions found in this passage.
Some people propose that the tithe in this passage is the second tithe. This conclusion is an interpretation. The text speaks of tithe, not second tithe. Literalist, be faithful to your statement: it is tithe!
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the Lord your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments: I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not removed any of it while I was unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God, doing just as you commanded me. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.
This text presents textual challenges to those who conclude that tithe is to be given only to the “storehouse,” and that that storehouse is the conference. Scripture does not support this conclusion.
2 Chronicles 31:5-13:
As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything. The people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been consecrated to the Lord their God, and laid them in heaps. In the third month they began to pile up the heaps, and finished them in the seventh month. When Hezekiah and the officials came and saw the heaps, they blessed the Lord and his people Israel. Hezekiah questioned the priests and the Levites about the heaps. The chief priest Azariah, who was of the house of Zadok, answered him, “Since they began to bring the contributions into the house of the Lord, we have had enough to eat and have plenty to spare; for the Lord has blessed his people, so that we have this great supply left over.”
Then Hezekiah commanded them to prepare store-chambers in the house of the Lord; and they prepared them. Faithfully they brought in the contributions, the tithes and the dedicated things.
This passage inaugurates the establishment of the storehouse for storage of the tithes that the people brought forward. There is no special significance associated with the storehouse; it was a place to keep grain.
Note what is reported: People honored the law and began to contribute to the priests and Levites. Hezekiah noted the excess. The priests and Levites assured Hezekiah that they had enough to eat.
I Samuel 8:15-17:
He (the king) will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.
When the people request a king, like the other nations, Samuel responds that the king will take a tithe as his due. It does not appear this is a tithe, in a religious sense. It has been proposed that when the monarch was established, the king was responsible for the support of the temple.
…and to bring the first of our dough, and our contributions, the fruit of every tree, the wine and the oil, to the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God; and to bring to the Levites the tithes from our soil, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all our rural towns. And the priest, the descendant of Aaron, shall be with the Levites when the Levites receive the tithes; and the Levites shall bring up a tithe of the tithes to the house of our God, to the chambers of the storehouse. 39 For the people of Israel and the sons of Levi shall bring the contribution of grain, wine, and oil to the storerooms where the vessels of the sanctuary are, and where the priests that minister, and the gatekeepers and the singers are. We will not neglect the house of our God.
Nehemiah 10 is a record of the people’s promises to live according to God’s commands. They promise, among other things, to bring to the Levites tithe from the ground. The Levites, in turn, were to bring up a tithe of the tithes to the storage rooms in God’s house. The “tithe of the tithes” is not a second tithe. The rabbis referred to the 10th of the 10th as a demi-tithe. When a farmer loaded his wagon with grain to be taken to market, he might grab a handful, cast it about on the ground, and call that cast-away portion the demi-tithe. There is no record of what was to become of the tithe of tithe after it was put into the storehouse.
On that day men were appointed over the chambers for the stores, the contributions, the first fruits, and the tithes, to gather into them the portions required by the law for the priests and for the Levites from the fields belonging to the towns; for Judah rejoiced over the priests and the Levites who ministered.
The above passage reports that men were appointed to implement the requirements of the law as stated in Nehemiah 10.
Nehemiah 13:5 & 12
…prepared for Tobiah a large room where they had previously put the grain offering, the frankincense, the vessels, and the tithes of grain, wine, and oil, which were given by commandment to the Levites, singers, and gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests.
Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain, wine, and oil into the storehouses.
Come to Bethel—and transgress; to Gilgal—and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days;…
Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.
This is the classic tithe text quoted by church administrators and others. The question is, if there are two tithes, which tithe is here being encouraged?
I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.
The Pharisee, in his prayer, boasts that he paid tithe of all he receives, not on his increase only.
And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to collect tithes[a] from the people, that is, from their kindred, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man, who does not belong to their ancestry, collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior.
The record of Abram’s interaction with Melchizedek (Abram gave the priest ten percent of the spoils: a tithe) is the final reference to tithe we find in scripture. The New Testament is strangely silent when it comes to paying a faithful tithe. Absent is the moralism that tithe reminds that all blessings come from the Lord; the giver only returns a portion of what is the Lord’s. We look in vain for a call to be faithful in contributing tithe that will support the congregations.
Paul allowed several opportunities to pass when he might well have encouraged people to pay their tithe. He did command that one is to lay by in store as the Lord has prospered (1 Cor. 16:2). Why no mention of tithe? He spoke of the workman being worthy of his hire. Why not say something like, “As you know, the tenth belongs to the worker”?
An examination of the above biblical texts provides the reader with a wide spectrum of exegetical options. We find passages that contradict one another. There are numerous unanswered questions. We look to find definitive conclusions or formulas that provide us the final word on what and how we are to tithe, what tithe is to be used for and who is the arbiter of the tithe matters.
The tithe conundrum is evident when we read in an official church document, such as the GC Constitution, that Adventist churches are to follow what the Bible teaches about tithe. The question then: Which tithe passage do you want us to follow? If left to our own devices, we might, in our confusion, select the passage that commands we throw a bash and invite our neighbors. Live it up, and, as an aside, remember to invite the preachers. Any takers?
Lawrence Downing, D.Min, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.