This is the second post in a series on tithing, as it’s taught in many churches today. This series examines all 17 Bible passages which speak of tithing, and is taken from a term paper I wrote in 2006. The first post included the series outline and an introduction, and covered the two passages where tithing was mentioned prior to the Law of Moses (Genesis 14:8-24 and 28:8-22). This post will examine how tithing was prescribed and practiced under the Mosaic Law (in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). My references will be included in the final post.
II. Tithing Prescribed Under Mosaic Law
Kent Hughes, a Senior Pastor, Bible commentator, and author, writes in his book, “Disciplines of a Godly Man” (2001): “There is some confusion today about what it was that God actually required from His people in the Old Testament. Most think it was something like 10 percent, which is a woeful misconception. Actually there were multiple mandatory giving requirements in Israel which came to considerably more” (p. 192). We will later see that there were at least three separate tithes.
Passage 3: Leviticus 27:30-33
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 to the LORD. If a man wants at all to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add one-fifth to it. And concerning the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD. He shall not inquire whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it; and if he exchanges it at all, then both it and the one exchanged for it shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.
Looking at the context, God was giving Moses laws which were to come into effect when they came into the Promised Land (25:2). In fact, the tithe spoken of here was called “the tithe of the land.” These commands were given while Moses was on Mount Sinai (27:34).
Of all the instructions on tithing in the Mosaic Law, this one appears to be the most general, perhaps even an introduction. Still we can observe several details in this passage, which indicates two types of tithes. The first type of tithe came from the land, either from seeds or from the fruit of trees. It was holy to the Lord. If a person wanted to redeem it, presumably for money, he had to add another 20% of the value to his tithe. The second type of tithe was from herds or flocks of animals. The tenth animal which happened to pass under the rod would be holy to the Lord, even if it was of bad quality.
Monetary tithes were obviously not encouraged. In fact, a monetary tithe had to be 12%. Those who say they tithe today, but do so in money, fall short of this tithing law by 2%. Those who have a garden, but do not tithe on their crops, also fail to keep this law. Those who say the tithe has to be the best 10% apparently have the “first fruits offering” in mind, but these are not the same. These are not the only areas where they fall short of the tithing laws, as we will continue to see.
The tithing laws given through Moses were for a specific nation, in a specific situation, and for a specific purpose. We will see in the next four passages who these tithes were to go to. At the end I will give a summary.
Passage 4: Numbers 18:21-32 (TITHE #1, Parts A and B)
(Tithes for Support of the Levites) Behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance in return for the work which they perform, the work of the tabernacle of meeting. Hereafter the children of Israel shall not come near the tabernacle of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall perform the work of the tabernacle of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity; it shall be a statute forever, throughout your generations, that among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer up as a heave offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites as an inheritance; therefore I have said to them, ‘Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.’
(The Tithe of the Levites) Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak thus to the Levites, and say to them: ‘When you take from the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them as your inheritance, then you shall offer up a heave offering of it to the LORD, a tenth of the tithe. And your heave offering shall be reckoned to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor and as the fullness of the winepress. Thus you shall also offer a heave offering to the LORD from all your tithes which you receive from the children of Israel, and you shall give the LORD’s heave offering from it to Aaron the priest. Of all your gifts you shall offer up every heave offering due to the LORD, from all the best of them, the consecrated part of them.’ Therefore you shall say to them: ‘When you have lifted up the best of it, then the rest shall be accounted to the Levites as the produce of the threshing floor and as the produce of the winepress. You may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward for your work in the tabernacle of meeting. And you shall bear no sin because of it, when you have lifted up the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy gifts of the children of Israel, lest you die.’
The tithes of the Israelites became the Levites’ inheritance. The Levites were responsible to minister in the tabernacle, and could not own land, which gave them limited means of income. God meant for their support to come from those they ministered to. Before giving their tithes to the Levites, the Israelites were to offer them up as a heave offering. The tithes were elevated before the altar, and were presented with an up and down motion (cf. Exodus 29:27, Leviticus 7:34, Numbers 15:20-21).
All the priests were Levites, but not all the Levites were priests. That’s why the Levites also paid a tithe of what they received to the priests (Numbers 18:25-31). They tithed grain and wine, not money. The Levites gave a tenth of the people’s tenth directly to Aaron. Unlike the tithe of the herds in Leviticus 27, they had to give the very best 10%. They were free to consume the other 90% together with their families, as a reward for their service. We don’t see that the priests tithed at all. According to Strong’s Concordance (2001),
“While all the priests had to be from the tribe of Levi, inheriting their office through their fathers, not all Levites could function as priests. For one thing, there were too many of them. Also, some were needed to work in the tabernacle, and later the temple, as maintenance and cleanup people, something that is readily understandable when one thinks of all that was involved in the sacrificial system. The Levites actually lived in various parts of Israel, and they were the welfare responsibility of the Israelites among whom they lived… The Levites, then, were to tithe the tithe they received, giving their own tithe from what they received from the people to the Lord. Part of that tithe was to be a terumah or “heave offering” to the priests, the descendants of Aaron.”
According to Numbers 35:1-8 (cf. Joshua 21), the Levites were given cities to live in, from each tribe of Israel. They were given a total of 48 cities, and could dwell in them together with their animals.
Passage 5: Deuteronomy 12:5-19 (TITHE #2)
But you shall seek the place where the LORD your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place; and there you shall go. There you shall take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, your vowed offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. And there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households, in which the LORD your God has blessed you. You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes— for as yet you have not come to the rest and the inheritance which the LORD your God is giving you. But when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you dwell in safety, then there will be the place where the LORD your God chooses to make His name abide. There you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, and all your choice offerings which you vow to the LORD. And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion nor inheritance with you… You may not eat within your gates the tithe of your grain or your new wine or your oil, of the firstborn of your herd or your flock, of any of your offerings which you vow, of your freewill offerings, or of the heave offering of your hand. But you must eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God chooses, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all to which you put your hands. Take heed to yourself that you do not forsake the Levite as long as you live in your land.
This passage gives instructions for a second tithe to be given by the Israelites, known as the “Festival tithe.” It was to come into effect some time later, after they crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land. During that time they were to go to Jerusalem at the assigned times to celebrate. The expenses for these festivals were met by this second tithe and various offerings. They were to eat at least part of the tithe, which was said to be of grain, wine, and oil. They were also reminded of the importance of always taking care of the Levites.
This was a time of rejoicing in God’s chosen place. The tithe had to be consumed there, and not at home. They were to go with their families, their servants, and any Levites who dwelled within their gates. Nathan Foy (2006) speculates, “The ones to raise animals and grow plants were probably the richer people of that day, since the Bible says ‘all who were in their gates.’”
Kent Hughes (2001) says regarding this tithe, “According to Deuteronomy 12…another 10 percent had to be given for an annual celebration-feasting with one’s family, friends, and servants.” He adds that the purpose of this second tithe “was to build religious celebration and mutual community in God’s people” (p. 192-193).
Russell Kelly (2006) links it with the three annual festivals in Jerusalem, the Feasts of Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles (Exodus 23:14-19, Deuteronomy 16:1-17). He says, “According to Deuteronomy 12 and 14, the second religious tithe, called the ‘feast tithe,’ was eaten by worshipers in the streets of Jerusalem during the three yearly festivals.”
Passage 6: Deuteronomy 14:22-29 (TITHE # 2 repeated, TITHE #3 introduced)
You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. You shall not forsake the Levite who is within your gates, for he has no part nor inheritance with you.
At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.
The first part of this passage (14:22-27) repeats the second tithe outlined in Deuteronomy 12. The firstborn of their herds and flocks were part of the tithe. Their tithe could be sold for money in case long travel was necessary. This relieved them of the burden of transporting large numbers of animals and produce. At the destination where God placed His name, the money would then be spent on food for each family to consume. Money was not presented to the Levites as a gift.
The last part of the passage introduces a third tithe, to be set aside every third year for the strangers, the fatherless, widows, and Levites living within the gates of the Israelites. There was a blessing attached to this tithe. As Kent Hughes (2001) points out, “This tithe averaged out to 3.3 percent yearly, “thus bringing the total to over 23 percent per year” in tithes required by the Israelites (p. 192-3).
Strong’s Concordance (2000) confirms that this tithe, like other tithes, was made up of farm produce, rather than money. Russell Kelly (2001) says that not everyone was required to tithe. He cites a noted authority on Judaism, Alfred Edersheim, as saying that tithing in Israel was not universal, “because it did not apply to crafts and trades” (p. 247).
Passage 7: Deuteronomy 26:12-15 (TITHE #3 repeated)
When you have finished laying aside all the tithe of your increase in the third year—the year of tithing—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your gates and be filled, then you shall say before the LORD your God: ‘I have removed the holy tithe from my house, and also have given them to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. I have not eaten any of it when in mourning, nor have I removed any of it for an unclean use, nor given any of it for the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the LORD my God, and have done according to all that You have commanded me. Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the land which You have given us, just as You swore to our fathers, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”’
This command was also given before the Israelites had actually come into the Promised Land (26:1), and repeats the third tithe given earlier. Here it is called “the year of tithing.” Again the recipients are said to be the Levites, strangers, orphans, and widows. The person tithing needed to be able to say that he had done so according to the correct procedure. He could then pray that his people and land would be blessed.
Russell Kelly (2006) notes that it is “wrong to teach that the poor in Israel were required to pay tithes. In fact, they actually received tithes! Much of the second festival tithe and all of a special third-year tithe went to the poor. In fact, many laws protected the poor from abuse and expensive sacrifices which they could not afford…” He adds that false assumptions on tithing would be minimized if we don’t ignore “the very plain definition of tithe as food from farm increase or herd increase.”
SUMMARY: Looking carefully at the tithes outlined in the Law of Moses, it is apparent that there were three different tithes:
 The first tithe is described in Numbers 18:21-32, and has two parts. The first part (18:21-24) tells of the tithes given to the Levites as their inheritance, since they had no land inheritance. It amounted to 10% of one’s livelihood. The second part (18:25-32) shows the Levites tithing from this amount to Aaron for the priesthood.
 The second tithe is described in Deuteronomy 12:5-19, and repeated in Deuteronomy 14:22-27. This tithe supported the annual feasts. It was to be taken to Jerusalem and consumed there. The Levites only got a small portion of this tithe, which made up an additional 10% of one’s livelihood.
 The third tithe is detailed in Deuteronomy 14:28-29, and repeated in Deuteronomy 26:11-13. It didn’t go primarily to the Levites, but to the needy. It was given every three years, during the “year of tithing,” and was designated for strangers, orphans, widows, and Levites, those who could not provide for themselves. It averaged out to 3.3% of one’s livelihood annually.
Therefore, those who were eligible to tithe needed to set aside an average of 23.3% of their livelihood each year just to fund the tithes for the Levites, the feasts, and the needy. Kelly (2006), Hughes (2001), and Foy (2006) all agree on this figure, and the fact that there were three tithes required of the Israelites. They also affirm that the tithes consisted of crops and herds.
Russell Kelly (2006) indicates just how restrictive tithing was under Mosaic Law:
“True biblical tithes were always: (1) only food, (2) only from the farms and herds, (3) of only Israelites, (4) who only lived inside God’s Holy Land, the national boundary of Israel, (5) only under Old Covenant terms and (6) the increase could only come from God’s hand.”
Therefore, (1) non-food items could not be tithed; (2) clean wild game animals and fish could not be tithed; (3) non-Israelites could not tithe; (4) food from outside the land of Israel did not enter the Temple; (5) legitimate tithing did not occur when there was no Levitical priesthood; and (5) tithes did not come from what man’s hands created, produced or caught by hunting and fishing.
Nathan Foy (2006) paints the picture in personal terms:
“To tithe according to the Old Testament you would have to give up your job and farm so you could raise animals and grow crops to tithe with. You’d have to find some Levitical priests to give your tithe to. You would have to celebrate the Old Testament festivals and eat your tithe in the presence of the Lord. For 2 years you would have to give 20% of your herds and crops to God and on the 3rd year you would have to give another 10% to the poor, [totaling] 30% in tithe[s] that particular year. If you do all this you will be keeping the law of tithing totally.”
In Part 3, we will look at how tithing was enforced by a king (Hezekiah), a reformer (Nehemiah), and two prophets (Amos and Malachi).
All posts from this series, and on the subject of tithing, can be found here.