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
How Many Tithes Were in Israel?
Before engaging in a more in-depth examination of the distinctions between true biblical tithing and church tithing, I wish to address the number of tithes that were paid in ancient Israel. There are differing perspectives on this issue. It is the opinion of some biblical scholars that there were three tithes while others claim there were two tithes. Regardless of which view one holds, this issue can be classified in the matter of non-essentials to the Christian faith.
In any case, I disagree with the two-tithes and three-tithes point of view. After a comprehensive study and investigation, I am of the perspective that there was only one tithe; and it was used for two distinct purposes. The "New Unger's Bible Dictionary" and the "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology" concur with my perspective.
"Of these opinions, that which maintains three separate and complete tithings seems improbable."
(The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, 1988, "Tithe," p. 1291)
"The difference between instructions in Deuteronomy and Numbers led some rabbis to believe that there were two tithes each year, one for the Levite and one to be eaten before the Lord. Yet it is unlikely that the text would institute a second tithe the way it does, without introduction or clarification. Some also believed that the triennial tithe was additional, making a total of three tithes. But it is unlikely that the offerer would have to affirm that such tithe was given properly while saying nothing of the first or primary tithe." (Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, "Tithe", "Tithing", 1996)
The multi-tithing system is a post biblical understanding that developed approximately A.D. 200 via Mishnah-Talmudic interpretation. According to Rabbinical understanding of tithing laws, there were three distinct tithes. The Jewish Encyclopedia reports that rabbinic writings references "three kinds of tithes." (The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, Ktav Publishing (1901), "Tithe", Page 151)
The three tithes are typically referred to as follows:
1. The Levitical Tithe (Num. 18:20-32).
2. The Festival Tithe (Deut. 12:5-7, 12, 17-18; 14:22-27).
3. The Poor Tithe (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12-13).
The Levitical Tithe: A First Tithe?
Contrary to teachings of the Talmud, as aforementioned, there was only one tithe, but was used in two ways. Let's examine the evidence.
As I have proven, the law of tithing was connected with Jacob's vow (Gen. 28:20-22). That said, take note that Jacob vowed to give only one tithe, not multiple tithes. Consider Leviticus 27:30-32 and Numbers 18:21:
"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." (Leviticus 27:30-32)
"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." (Numbers 18:21)
Observe in Leviticus 27:30-32 that the Lord is saying one tithe, not two or three tithes belong to Him. God states that every tenth animal will be holy. He doesn't say that every two or three animals out of ten are holy to the Lord.
Ancient and modern biblical scholars wrongly interpret Numbers 18:21 as the first of two or three tithes. This tithe is referred to as the "Levitical Tithe". However, the word "tithes" in this verse should not be confused with the notion that there were two or three separate tithes. The word "tithes" is plural in the context of each single tithe that was to be paid by the other eleven tribes (thus 11 tenths). The King James Version renders the expression "all the tithes" as "all the tenth".
With the exception of the "tithe of the tithe" (Num. 18:26), Numbers 18:21-32 does not specify the details on the practical administration of the tithe. The most intricate points of Israel's tithing requirements under the Mosaic Law were actually spelled out in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapters 12, 14, and 26. Thus, any reference to Numbers 18:21-32 as a separate "Levitical Tithe" is the result of a presumptuous interpretation of the text.
The Festival Tithe: A Second Tithe?
The next tithe, commonly referred to as the "Festival Tithe", is incorrectly interpreted as a "second tithe" from the following passages:
"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." (Deut. 12:5-7)
"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." (Deut. 14:22-27)
Rather than describing a "second tithe", Deuteronomy 12 and 14 are unfolding the details of the management of the tithe. During the annual "Feast of Ingathering" [Exodus 23:17], aka "Feast of Tabernacles", each tribe in Israel traveled to Jerusalem … bringing their tithes (and other offerings) with them. In an atmosphere of celebration, they ate from their tithes while there for about a week. The local Levites who accompanied each tribe to the festivities also partook of tithes since they had no inheritance (Deut. 14:27). Bearing in mind the Israelites contributed additional food sources such as firstborns, burnt offerings, sacrifices, heave offerings, vowed offerings, and freewill offerings; we can conclude that one tithe was sufficient. According to the "Encyclopaedia Judaica", the Mishnah-Talmudic derivation of the perception of a second tithe:
"The rabbis, taking it for granted that both laws (Numbers 18:21 and Deuteronomy 14:2) are of Mosaic origin ... interpreted them as two different tributes: one to be given to the Levites, 'the first tithe', and the other to be brought to Jerusalem and consumed there, 'the second tithe' ... However ... the implementation of these laws was almost impossible. The excise of 20 percent of the yield was too high ..." (Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, Vol. 15, "Tithe", pages 1161-1162)
Many people … including a number of biblical scholars and theologians, have failed to examine the numerical facts. They make the assumption that the tribe of Levi was somewhere between 1/10 and 1/12 of the population of Israel. Factually however, the tribe of Levi was significantly smaller in comparison to the other eleven (11) tribes. If we study and analyze the censuses (Num. 1:46-47; 2:32-33; 3:39; 26:51, 62; Neh. 7:7-60), it will be shown that the proportion of Levites to the total population of the eleven (11) tribes of Israel was in the region of 1:26 and 1:34, not 1:12 or 1:10. This means that the Levites consisted of approximately three percent to four percent of the total populace.
We should also take into account that the Levitical priests did not collect tithes from the tribes of Israel, but from the Levites (the tithe of the tithe, Num. 18:26). Moreover, let's bear in mind that the Levites received firstfruits (for the priests), spoils of war (Num. 31:25-31), a growth in the number of animals born under Levitical ownership (Num. 35:1-3), and other offerings. Thus, it is irrational and mathematically impractical to justify the execution of a second tithe. If the Levites received multiple tithes each year, they would have received several times more food than each tribe in Israel.
The Third Year Tithe: A Third Tithe?
Let's now take a closer look at the "third tithe" which has been inaccurately viewed as an additional tithe. This tithe is termed as the "Poor Tithe" aka the "Third Year Tithe".
"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." (Deut. 14:28-29)
"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.'" (Deut. 26:12-13)
Again, rather than describing an additional tithe … a "third tithe" in this case, Deuteronomy 14 and 26 are unfolding the details of the management of the tithe during every third year. The tithe of each third and sixth year was not brought to Jerusalem, but used in the local cities to supply food for the Levites. Moreover, although the Bible does not specify a precise set of figures on who obtained how much of the tithes, there was an adequate amount of food to also provide for the welfare of strangers, fatherless, and widows. The "Encyclopaedia Judaica" states:
"Every third year ... the tithe has to be left in the local settlement, for the benefit of the Levite ... and the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. After giving away the tithe ... the owner has to proclaim a confession in which he declares he has given it to the indigent. [Deuteronomy 26:12-14]." (Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, Vol. 15, "Tithe", page 1160)
Since we know from Deuteronomy 14:29 and Deuteronomy 26:12-13 that every three years the tithe was given to the Levites, the stranger, the fatherless, and widows, then why would it be necessary to give an extra yearly Levitical "first tithe" and yearly Levitical "second tithe"?
Secondly, if the Levites received additional "first" and "second tithes", why would they be named along with the poor in Deuteronomy 14:29 and Deuteronomy 26:12?
Thirdly, after the entire tithe was paid, the Israelites were required to declare before the Lord, "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." This confession clearly indicates that God required only one tithe. There was no mentioning of a first "Levitical Tithe", second "Festival Tithe", and third "Poor Tithe".
Lastly, as noted earlier, if we take into consideration Israel’s census records, we can inescapably conclude that it is numerically unfeasible to justify multiple tithes.
For the multi-tithing system proponents, are you still unconvinced? If so, then I encourage you to read the scriptures carefully; then run your own calculations. Although your computations may vary slightly, I anticipate you will conclude that the multiple tithing perspective results in a vilely unbalanced share of food distributions.
In summary, only one tithe was sufficient to fulfill the following needs:
1. Celebration at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem during the first two years; and years four and five of a seven year cycle. During the feast the tithe was eaten by the Israelites and the local Levites.
2. Every third year the tithe was not taken to Jerusalem to be eaten by the 11 tribes of Israel, but was stored locally and paid to the Levites, the stranger, the fatherless, and widows who lived within each tribal community.