A CLOSER LOOK AT TITHING
By: Victor T. Stephens
"People often claim to hunger for truth, but seldom like the taste when it's served up."
~ George R.R. Martin
Abram's Tithe to Melchizedek
We have learned that the Bible presents no accounts of Adam and Eve and their sons, Abel and Cain, as having paid tithes. It was clearly demonstrated that neither the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" nor "fat portions" of livestock are legitimate paradigms for a biblical tithe. The first time tithing is actually mentioned in the Bible is in the fourteenth chapter of Genesis where Abram, later known as Abraham, gave a tithe to Melchizedek.
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said: "Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand." And he gave him a tithe of all. (Gen. 14:18-20)
Returning from his victory over the enemy kings along with the spoils, Abram is joined by king-priest Melchizedek in the valley. Melchizedek presented Abram bread and wine to invigorate and reward him and his fellow men; and bestowed a blessing on Abram in the name of "God Most High". In response, Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth (of the spoils).
Since Abram predated Moses by about 400 years, proponents of tithing use this passage to contend that Abram obeyed a perpetual law of tithing. Allegedly, this law was codified when the nation of Israel was established. Genesis 14:18-20 is then coupled with the following verse:
They answered and said to Him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham." (John 8:39)
Tithing churches reason that since Abram gave a tithe to Melchizedek and Christians are descendants of Abram, then tithing is still a continuing obligation for new covenant believers. While that may seem like an attractive conclusion, it is fraught with terrible exegesis and unbiblical assumptions. This further indicates that most churches today are ignorant or confused about the history of tithing.
One component of proper biblical exegesis involves understanding the distinctions between God's commandments and the traditions of men. A close and careful examination of Scripture will confirm that tithing prior to the Mosaic Law has its origins rooted in traditional pagan practice.
Let's take a closer look at Pre-Mosaic tithing by firstly defining the word "Tradition":
"The passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially by oral communication."
(The American Heritage Dictionary, p. 1829)
Not all traditions are inherently evil. However, there are some unhealthy and prejudicial traditions within Christianity that leaders in the church are passing off as the Word of God. These traditions have a tendency to produce legalistic repression, disobedience and dishonor to God's Word. Man's traditions as it pertains to biblical doctrine must not be equal to or elevated over scriptural truth. God requires us to only adhere to that which is in fact biblical; not customs and traditions of men that supersede application of Scripture. Failing to grasp these distinctions leads to a faulty interpretation of the Bible.
Such is the case with pre-law tithing. An investigation into the historical background of tithing will show that the giving of tithes was not an unspoken sacred principle that was enacted by God prior to the Mosaic Law. Rather, it is well attested that tithing began as a man-made tradition that was practiced by many ancient pagan nations throughout the Middle East.
During biblical times, the vast majority of people counted in tens; and thus, tithes were given voluntarily and were customarily connected with a sacrificial system to pay tribute to pagan deities and to those of higher authorities such as kings (1 Sam. 8:15-17).
"He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants." (1 Sam. 8:15)
The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Douglas, Hillyer, Bruce [Editors]) states:
"The custom of tithing did not originate with the Mosaic Law, nor was it peculiar to the Hebrews. It was practiced among other ancient peoples." (Tithes, p. 1572)
The Baker Theological Dictionary of The Bible (Walter A. Elwell [editor]) states:
"Giving a portion of one's profits or the spoils of war was known in the ancient world from Greece to China. Gifts were made as religious offerings, or given to a political authority as tribute or tax. Donation of a tenth portion, or tithe, was common apparently because most people counted in tens, based on ten fingers.” (Tithe, Tithing, p.779)
Regarding Abram's tithe to Melchizedek, Henry Sayce states:
"This offering of tithes was no new thing. In his Babylonian home Abram must have been familiar with the practice. The cuneiform inscriptions of Babylonia contain frequent references to it." (Henry Sayce, "Patriarchal Religion", Page 175)
Gaston Maspero (1846-1916) states:
"The gods of the side which was victorious shared with it in the triumph, and received a tithe of the spoil, as the price of their help." ("The Struggle of the Nations", page 91)
The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Vol. 4 E points out a number of accounts of pagan tithing:
1. "... (the sun-god) Shamash demands the tithe..."
2. "...why do you not pay the tithe to the Lady-of-Uruk?"
3. "four minas of silver, the tithe of [the gods] Bel, Nabu, and Nergal..."
4. "...the tithe of the chief accountant, he has delivered it to [the sun-god] Shamash."
5. "...he has paid, in addition to the tithe for Ninurta, the tax of the gardiner."
As history has shown, many people who tithed believed in pagan gods. This was their custom during that time period. Since Melchizedek was a King-Priest, Abram … responding to ancient custom, gave a gratuity (freewill gift) of thanksgiving to show appreciation to the one true God for leading him to a miraculous victory over his enemies; and thus, rescuing his nephew Lot. In addition, Abram was acknowledging the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood on account tithes were given to greater authorities. For further proof that Abram was not following an eternal law, let's take a look at Numbers 31:25-31.
Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: "Count up the plunder that was taken -- of man and beast --- you and Eleazar the priest and the chief fathers of the congregation; and divide the plunder into two parts, between those who took part in the war, who went out to battle, and all the congregation. And levy a tribute for the LORD on the men of war who went out to battle: one of every five hundred of the persons, the cattle, the donkeys, and the sheep; take it from their half, and give it to Eleazar the priest as a heave offering to the LORD. And from the children of Israel’s half you shall take one of every fifty, drawn from the persons, the cattle, the donkeys, and the sheep, from all the livestock, and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the tabernacle of the LORD." So Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the LORD commanded Moses.
Here we have another account where spoils were given to a priest. A close examination will show a key distinction between Abram's tithe to Melchizedek in comparison to the quantity of spoils that God has commanded in this passage.
Following the Israelites victory over the Midianites, God arranges the precise distribution of spoilage. If we do the mathematical calculations, we will learn that God required the soldiers to give point two percent (.2%) of the spoils to Eleazar the priest. The Israelites who did not participate in battle were required to give two percent (2%) to the Levites.
If Abram was following a universal law when he gave a tithe of spoils to Melchizedek, then God would have commanded a tithe in this account. The computational dissimilarities between Abram's tithe to Melchizedek and the account here in Numbers 31:25-31 not only confirms that tithing is not a universal law, but it also demonstrates that tithing was by no means a minimum or blanket standard of giving. Moreover, this further confirms that Abram was following ancient custom when he gave a tithe to Melchizedek.
I find it fascinating that tithing proponents will continually refer to Abram's tithe to Melchizedek, but will conveniently evade Numbers 31:25-31. If the calculations resulted in ten percent rather than point two percent, we can rest assured that proponents of tithing would reference this account on a regular basis.
Since it has been proven that Abram was following an ancient customary practice, let's now take a closer look at John 8:39. Did the "works of Abraham" include tithing? Let’s first consider Galatians 3:6-9.
just as Abraham "believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, "In you all the nations shall be blessed." So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham. (Galatians 3:6-9)
Here, we see that those who "believe" or have the "faith" of Abraham are considered Abraham's children. Let's now observe Hebrews 11:8.
"By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going." (Hebrews 11:8)
Here, we see that it was the obedience of faith that motivated Abraham to leave his home and seek out a new destination under the guidance of God. Thus, in the proper context of Galatians 3:6-9, John 8:39-40, and Hebrews 11:8, we can conclude that it is those that have the faith and obedience of Abraham who are considered Abraham's children. Notice that tithing was not mentioned in the Genesis account as a condition for being obedient to God; and thus, was not a requirement to be regarded as a child of Abraham.
In light of these overwhelming biblical facts, we should be able to clearly understand that Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek cannot be legitimately argued to represent an unending spiritual tithing law in today's church age.