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
Jacob's Tithing Vow
The second Pre-Mosaic reference to tithing occurs in Genesis, chapter 28. On his journey to Haran, Jacob is detained by a dream in the city of Luz. In the dream, God renewed the Abrahamic Covenant with Jacob. In this manner, God confirmed to Jacob that he was chosen to bring forth the covenant blessings. Jacob awakens in fear and promptly erects an altar and gives a sacrifice of oil to God. Upon making the sacrifice, he vows to give God a tenth.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God's house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You."
This is another favorite passage of Scripture that church leaders use to support pre-law tithing. Christians are taught that Jacob, like his grandfather Abram, was following an everlasting tithing law. Special attention is placed on Jacob's statement "and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth" to support tithing on all forms of income, especially money.
In their efforts to promote tithing prior to the Mosaic Law, leaders in the church have overlooked a vital point in Genesis 28:20-22 that introduces additional irrefutable evidence that tithing was not commanded by God. Moreover, a more in-depth analysis of this passage illustrates why money was not included in the Mosaic tithing laws (Lev. 27:30-32). How so? Let's first take a closer look at a key word in the above passage: The word "vow" ("Then Jacob made a vow...."). What is a vow? The definition of a vow is:
"A solemn promise or pledge that binds a person to perform a specific act or to behave in a certain manner. All vows were made to God as a promise in expectation of His favor or in thanksgiving for His blessings. Vowing was voluntary. But after a vow was made, it had to be performed (Deut. 23:21-23; Eccl. 5:4-6)."
(Illustrated Dictionary of The Bible, Herbert Lockyer, Sr. [Editor], p.1088)
Let's also note some key supporting biblical text:
1. "When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you. But if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be sin to you."
2. "If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth." (Numbers 30:2)
3. "When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed -- Better not to vow than to vow and not pay." (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5)
As we can see from the above definition and verses, a vow is not a response to a command, but a voluntary promise of one's free will. In the same manner as Abram, the tithe that Jacob vowed to give was a voluntary gratuity based in accordance with the customs during that time period. If tithing was commanded prior to the Mosaic Law, then it would seem unreasonable for Jacob to make a vow if the tithe already belonged to God. He would have been duty-bound to pay a tithe to God without any choice in the matter. According to the definition of a "vow", it was only after Jacob made the promise to give a tenth that his vow became binding.
Let's look at this further: Sin is explained in God's Word as transgression of the law of God (1 John 3:4) and rebellion against God (Deut. 9:7; Joshua 1:18). Now, according to Deuteronomy 23:22, if Jacob chose to refrain from making a vow to give God a tenth, he would have not been guilty of sin. Therefore, tithing was not commanded by God prior to the Mosaic Law since sin constitutes breaking God’s law. This fact provides blistering evidence against pre-law tithing advocates.
At this point, someone may say, "If tithing was not commanded before the Mosaic Law, then how did tithing become law?" What a brilliant question. The answer lies in the fact that there is a direct connection between Jacob's tithing vow and the Mosaic Law of tithing.
Since God promised Jacob that He would care for him and give him and his descendants the land of Canaan, Jacob vowed to give the Lord a tenth. On account that a vow becomes an obligation once it is made, Jacob's vow to give a tithe became a requirement. "A requirement of what?" one might ask. Was it monetary income? Absolutely not! Jacob vowed to give a tenth from the land since this is what God promised him and his descendants. Consider the following passages:
1. And behold, the LORD stood above it and said: "I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you." (Gen. 28:13-15)
2. Then God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, "Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name." So He called his name Israel. Also God said to him: "I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body. The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land." Then God went up from him in the place where He talked with him. So Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He talked with him, a pillar of stone; and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Bethel. (Gen. 35:9-15)
3. "See, I have set the land before you; go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to your fathers -- to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- to give to them and their descendants after them." (Deut. 1:8)
4. "And you shall go to the one who is priest in those days, and say to him, 'I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the country which the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.'" (Deut. 26:3)
Jacob never inherited the Promised Land on account that he died before the conquest of Canaan. That being the case, it should be clear that he never paid the tithe. On account that Jacob's vow was still binding, God held Jacob the nation (Israel, Gen. 35:10) responsible to fulfill the tithing vow that was promised by their father. Thus, we have the enactment of the law of tithing.
Since Jacob vowed to give a tenth of the land, the law of tithing was applicable exclusively in the land of Israel. There are no scriptures in the Bible that indicate Israel ever tithed outside their borders.
Jacob's Tithing Vow and the Mosaic Law of Tithing
On account that many people don't understand the full context of Jacob's vow, it is understandable that some readers might have difficulty grasping the impression that God would hold the nation of Israel responsible for fulfilling a vow made by Jacob. That said, let's further analyze this issue. We will begin by looking at Genesis 15:18-21.
On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: "To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates -- the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Gen. 15:18-21)
As previously noted, when God formed a covenant with Abram, He promised Abram's descendants the land of Canaan. Thus, God's covenant promise to Abram, Isaac, Jacob, and Israel was a continual and communal promise rather than an individual oath to Jacob. Let's take a look at Genesis 28:14:
“Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 28:14)
Take note that God refers to Jacob as a nation ("You shall spread abroad") rather than a sole individual. Thus, when Jacob made his vow to God to give a tenth, he was making this vow for himself and his offspring. As a result, since Jacob vowed to give God a tenth of the land, a binding and continual agreement was made that was passed down to Jacob's descendants. God fulfilled His promise to Jacob by giving his children (Israel) the land. Similarly, God enacted the law of tithing as a means of fulfilling Jacob's vow.
Let's refer back to Jacob's tithing vow and compare it with the vows spoken of in Leviticus 27. This chapter administers directions for the payment of personal vows. If we read the entire chapter, we will discover that vows were redeemable. Consider the next four passages:
1. "If it is an animal that men may bring as an offering to the LORD, all that anyone gives to the LORD shall be holy. But if he wants at all to redeem it, then he must add one-fifth to your valuation." (Lev. 27:9, 13)
2. "And when a man dedicates his house to be holy to the LORD, then the priest shall set a value for it, whether it is good or bad; as the priest values it, so it shall stand. If he who dedicated it wants to redeem his house, then he must add one-fifth of the money of your valuation to it, and it shall be his." (Lev. 27:14-15)
3. "But if he dedicates his field after the Jubilee, then the priest shall reckon to him the money due according to the years that remain till the Year of Jubilee, and it shall be deducted from your valuation. And if he who dedicates the field ever wishes to redeem it, then he must add one-fifth of the money of your valuation to it, and it shall belong to him. But if he does not want to redeem the field, or if he has sold the field to another man, it shall not be redeemed anymore ...” (Lev. 27:18-20)
4. "But the firstborn of the animals, which should be the LORD's firstborn, no man shall dedicate; whether it is an ox or sheep, it is the LORD's. And if it is an unclean animal, then he shall redeem it according to your valuation, and shall add one-fifth to it; or if it is not redeemed, then it shall be sold according to your valuation." (Lev. 27:26-27)
From these four passages we see that animals, houses, and fields that were vowed to the Lord could be redeemed for its value plus one fifth. That said, let’s now consider Leviticus 27:30-31 concerning the tithe.
"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." (Lev. 27:30-31)
Now … take note that the tithe is handled in the same manner as a vow. Leviticus 27 states that if a vow was promised to the Lord and the person making the vow chose to redeem his vow, they were required to add a fifth to its value. Thus, this proves that the tithe under the Mosaic Law originated as a vow. It was Jacob's covenant vow that he made to the Lord in Genesis 28:20.
After the conquest of Canaan, God's promises to Jacob were fulfilled; and thus, the law of tithing commenced as a means of fulfilling Jacob's vow to God. Recall, God's promises to Jacob were given to him as an individual and as a nation (Israel). Similarly, Jacob's promise to give a tenth to God was an individual and nationwide vow. Thus, Jacob's descendants (Israel) fulfilled Jacob's vow.
In summary, tithing began as a man made custom that was practiced by many nations during ancient biblical times. It was designed to pay tribute to pagan gods, kings, and the one true God worshiped by the Hebrews. Due to Jacob's vow, tithing was initiated into law. Since there is no similarity and conformability between pre-law tithing and today's tithing doctrine, it should therefore be refuted as false doctrine.
A Different Point of View Regarding Jacob's Tithing Vow
This segment is not an essentiality of agreement for unity of the faith. However, I believe it is a thought worthy point of our study.
There are many biblical scholars who recognize that the account of Jacob's tithing vow does not justify monetary tithing as a law under the new covenant. However, they have a point of view of this narrative that is not shared by this author. Their various beliefs range from: a. Jacob lacked faith. b. Jacob was bargaining with God. c. Jacob was being deceptive with God when he made his tithing vow. They base their perspective upon the fact that Jacob had been deceptive in previous accounts and his use of the words "if" and "then" in Genesis 28:20-21.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God."
(Gen. 28:20-21, emphasis mine)
While it is true that Jacob acted dishonestly in previous times, there are no indications that he was dishonest or lacking faith during this account. Let's examine this issue by first taking a closer look at the word "if".
The common interpretation is that Jacob will give God a tenth only:
1. If God will be with him.
2. If God will watch over him.
3. If God will give him food to eat.
4. If God will give him clothes to wear.
5. If God will bring him to his father's household.
Although the word "if" is used in Genesis 28:20, it is not my viewpoint that Jacob is attempting to negotiate with God. In proper context, the word "if" can be better understood as "since". Looking at the text just prior to Genesis 28:20, God says to Jacob:
"Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you." (Gen. 28:15)
Before Jacob made a vow, God's promises and protection were already guaranteed to him in a dream. Thus, there was no conditionality in Jacob's statement. Moreover, Jacob didn't include any additional criteria to God's promises. Just as Abram gave a tithe to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20) to demonstrate appreciation to God for leading him to victory over his enemies, in like manner, Jacob vowed to give God a tenth in appreciation for His promises.
Herbert Lockyer, Sr. states:
"All vows were made to God as a promise in expectation of His favor or in thanksgiving for His blessings [Gen. 28:20; Ps. 116:12-14]." (Illustrated Dictionary of The Bible, [Herbert Lockyer, Sr. [Editor], page 1088). [emphasis mine]
Thus, on account of his faith, Jacob expected God to fulfill His promises. Therefore, the suggestion that Jacob was attempting to bargain with God is illogical and preposterous. A healthy relationship with God must be established by faith, not by personal conditions.
Let's look at two other passages of scripture where the word "if" is used in the same context as the word "since":
1. "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31, emphasis mine)
2. "For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; ...." (2 Peter 2:4, emphasis mine)
Let us now take a closer look at Jacob's use of the word "then" in Genesis 28:21 ("then the Lord shall be my God"). I submit that Jacob's use of the word "then" does not imply that he is bargaining with God due to a lack of faith. Factually, Jacob is simply reaffirming his faith in God. Just prior to his vow, take note of what Jacob says and does:
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!" Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of that city had been Luz previously. (Gen. 28:16-19)
In this passage Jacob clearly demonstrates his faith in God by his confession and act of consecration as his grandfather, Abram had done (Gen. 12:6-8). At that point, the Lord was already Jacob's God.
To further demonstrate that Jacob was reaffirming his faith, let's compare Genesis 28:17, 19 with Genesis 28:22. In the latter verse, Jacob says, "And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God's house." After Jacob's use of the word "if", he points out that the stone he has set up as a pillar will be God's house. Now ... take note that before Jacob began making his vow, he already acknowledged the place he was standing was God's house. And he changed the name of the place from "Luz" to "Bethel", which literally means "House of God" (Genesis 28:17, 19).
With that said, exegeting the word "if" as "since" makes the intent of Genesis 28:20-21 clear. In affirming God's promise, Jacob's countered by saying to Him: "If (since) God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father's house …."
"His words are not to be considered as implying a doubt, far less as stating the condition or terms on which he would dedicate himself to God. Let "if" be changed into "since", and the language will appear a proper expression of Jacob's faith --- an evidence of his having truly embraced the promise."
(Jamieson, Fausset & Brown Critical Commentary and Explanatory on the Whole Bible)
To reemphasize, the criteria surrounding Jacob's tithe did not commence with him. Instead, he was simply confirming what God earlier promised to him. After Jacob left Bethel and returned there more than 20 years later, he repeated his acts of dedication to the Lord ... and again naming the place "Bethel". (Genesis 35:6-15).
Let's now study tithing during the Mosaic Law and examine how it contrasts to church tithing.