THE TITHE in ANCIENT ISRAEL


by Avram Yehoshua

(Endnotes in red. Click on the number to go to endnote. Click the BACK button on your browser to return to the article)

The ancient tithe was a celebration of what God had given to Israel. The tither came to Jerusalem (or wherever Yahveh chose to make His Name dwell before Jerusalem), and rejoiced in the midst of one of the three great Feasts, with his tithe, giving it and any extra offerings, to the Levites.

The tithe in Israel provided food, etc., for the priests and Levites, who served Yahveh in the Tabernacle and later, the Temple. Some think that there were two tithes, while others speak of three tithes (the Levitical tithe, the 'poor and widow' tithe, and the Feast tithe).

The Scriptures don't give us a lay out for tithing, as they do for the Feasts (Lev. 23), and sacrifices (Lev. 1-5, etc.). We know that there was a tithe for the poor, but did it accompany the Levitical tithe, or replace it for the third year? Some think that there may also have been a tithe just for the Feasts, the person attending taking a tithe out and using it to rejoice before the Lord. There is Jewish writing from the days of Yeshua to that effect. Be that as it may, I'll start with what we know and present what I believe was the tithe in ancient Israel. And then I'll share how I think the tithe carries over for us today who believe in Yeshua as the Anointed One of Yahveh.

The agricultural and animal tithe could be brought three times a year to the Temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the place where Yahveh chose to dwell (after the Tent of Meeting).1 The three times corresponded to the holy Feasts of Yahveh, which He commanded all (adult) males to attend:
Deut. 16:16-17: 'Three times in a year all your males must appear before Yahveh your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Tabernacles. And they must not appear before Yahveh empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of Yahveh your God which He has given you.' (See also, Ex. 23:14, 17; 34:23-24)
The phrase, 'not to appear before Yahveh empty-handed', refers to the tithe for that season. The spring, the summer, and the autumn harvests corresponded to the three great Feasts of Israel. Another text speaks of the tithe being brought to the place where Yahveh would dwell, and that it would be at the time of the Feasts:
Deut. 12:10-12: 'When you cross the Jordan and live in the Land which Yahveh your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security, then it shall come about that the place in which Yahveh your God will choose for His Name to dwell, there you must bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes 2 and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to Yahveh. And you must rejoice before Yahveh your God; you and your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance with you.'
The Hebrews being commanded to 'rejoice before Yahveh' tells us that it was for one of the major Feasts, when all Israel had to appear before Yahveh. Israel was to tithe 3 (to give ten percent of all their agricultural and animal increase) to the Levites. They were the ones that served Yahveh full time and in a sense, 'shielded' Israel from the holiness of Yahveh so that He did not destroy them:
Num. 18:22-32: 'The Sons of Israel shall not come near the Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle), again or they will bear sin and die. Only the Levites shall perform the service of the Tent of Meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the Sons of Israel they shall have no inheritance.'

'For the tithe of the Sons of Israel, which they offer as an offering to Yahveh, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said concerning them, 'They shall have no inheritance among the Sons of Israel.' Then Yahveh spoke to Moses, saying, 'Moreover, you shall speak to the Levites and say to them,'

'When you take from the Sons of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present an offering from it to Yahveh, a tithe of the tithe. Your offering shall be reckoned to you as the grain from the threshing floor or the full produce from the wine vat. So you shall also present an offering to Yahveh from your tithes which you receive from the Sons of Israel and from it you shall give Yahveh's offering to Aaron the priest. Out of all your gifts you shall present every offering due to Yahveh, from all the best of them, the sacred part from them.'

'You shall say to them, 'When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be reckoned to the Levites as the product of the threshing floor and as the product of the wine vat. You may eat it anywhere, you and your households for it is your compensation in return for your service in the Tent of Meeting. You will bear no sin by reason of it when you have offered the best of it. But you shall not profane the sacred gifts of the Sons of Israel or you will die.'
The tithe was for the Levites who didn't share in the inheritance of the Land of Israel, as did all the other Tribes. It was the way that Yahveh provided for His full time servants who devoted their lives to serving Him. The Levites would give a tithe to Aaron and his sons. The Aaronites were the only ones of the Levites who could sacrifice. They were the actual priests.

The tither, taking not only his tithe but free will offerings as well, went up to Jerusalem and rejoiced with his brothers in gratitude for all that Yahveh had done for him. He had set him free from Egyptian slavery, given him his own land, and blessed him with food in abundance. Everything was Yahveh's and the tither was acknowledging his gratefulness to Yahveh by returning a portion to those who ministered in the Tabernacle (or Temple).

The Honor of the Tithe

The tithe was established by Yahveh for those who gave their lives in His service. Their inheritance, unlike the rest of the Sons of Israel, was Yahveh Himself. The tithe was a reflection of that:
Num. 18:20-21: Then Yahveh said to Aaron, 'You shall have no inheritance in their Land, nor own any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the Sons of Israel. To the Sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the Tent of Meeting.'
To give us an idea of how much honor Yahveh bestowed upon the Levites and the Aaronites through the tithe, I've calculated in monetary terms (vs. agricultural and animal), how it would have looked in the Wilderness under Moses. At that time, there were 603,550 men over the age of 20, fit for war (Num. 1:2-3; 46), who would be able to give a tithe to the Levites.

The Levites, the men between the ages of 30 and 50, who would be ministering in the Tent, were 8,580 (Num. 4:47-48). They were the 'helpers' or servants to the Aaronic priests (Num. 8:19). When the Tabernacle was moved from one place to another, the Levites would disassemble it and carry it to the next place. Only the Aaronic priests could sacrifice (Lev. 8-10; Num. 16, etc.). The Levites would give a tithe, the best tenth of what they had received from Israel, to Aaron and his two sons, Eliezar and Itamar.

If we give a salary of just $10,000 to every Israeli man able to tithe, then every Israeli would give $1,000 a year as his tithe. This meant that every Levite would receive slightly more than 70 tithes. Each Levite would get $70,343.82 (603,550 8,580 = 70.34382). The Levite would receive seven times the amount that the average Israeli made for the year.

The Levites in turn, tithed to the Aaronites. Each Aaronite would receive more than twenty million dollars each ($20,118,326.80). Each Levite would give a tenth of their $70,343.82. That meant that each Levite gave $7,034.38. As there were 8,580 Levites, and only three Aaronites, it meant that each Aaronite got 286 times the amount that the average Israeli made (8,580 Levites 3 Aaronites = 2,860 tithes of $7,034.38 each).

As much as the money is, and it is an incredible sum, the issue isn't money, or cattle or grain, etc. The tithe reflected the honor that Yahveh had given to the Levite and the sons of Aaron who gave up their life, and their interest in this world, to serve Yahveh full time. This reminded me of what Yeshua said about what His followers would receive if they left all to follow Him:
'Peter said, 'Behold, we have left our own homes and followed You.' And He said to them, 'Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.' (Luke 18:28-30)
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, in their discussion of the tithe (under the 'Theological Implications' section), gives us some important understanding concerning the tithe in ancient Israel:
'By giving the tithe the Israelites were declaring solemnly that they were giving a portion back to the Lord who had prospered them (cf. Dt. 26:10-15). By giving the tithe they also recognized the validity of the priests' and Levites' role as God's representatives and acknowledged their right to receive support for the spiritual service they performed on the people's behalf. The tithe ritual afforded the Israelites an opportunity to remember Yahweh's blessings as He had remembered them, and to imitate their God's care for slaves, the poor, orphans, and widows. The tithe demanded that the Israelites serve their God at a significant cost to themselves. In this amazing system of tithing, Israel's economics became a channel for expressing love to God and love to neighbors, the heart of the Torah (De. 6:4-9; Lev. 19;18). Deuteronomy explicitly makes paramount the joy and fellowship of presenting the tithe in a family context (Dt. 14:26).' And, 'tithing helped to set Israel apart as Yahweh's people and His alone, a people holy to Him (Dt. 14:22-29').4
The tithe was not all that the priests, the Sons of Aaron would receive. As much as their tithe would be, it would only form a part of their 'salary'. They were also given of the sacrifices (Lev. 6:26, 29; 7:6-14, 32-34; 27:26; Num. 18:8-14, 17, 19), and the first-fruits of fruit, grain and wine, etc., (of which there was no set percentage as to how much a person could designate as 'first fruits' to Yahveh; Num. 18:12-13). They were also given the half-shekel of silver for the redemption of every firstborn son among Israel (Num. 18:16; 3:44-48; Ex. 13:11-13, 15), and the firstborn of every animal (Lev. 27:26; Num. 18:15; Deut. 12:6; Ex. 13:11, 16). All this on top of their tithe.

A Feast Tithe?

The possibility of a Feast tithe existing is founded upon some verses in one section of Torah that speaks of the tither eating of his own tithe (Deut. 14:23-26). Because of this, many think that it couldn't have been the Levitical tithe, as it was holy to Yahveh and it was only supposed to be for the Levites (Num. 18:22-32):
Deut. 14:22: 'You must surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year.'

Deut. 14:23: 'You must eat in the presence of Yahveh your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His Name (the Tabernacle or Temple); the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear Yahveh your God always.'

Deut. 14:24-25: 'If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where Yahveh your God chooses to set His Name is too far away from you when Yahveh your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which Yahveh your God chooses.'

Deut. 14:26: 'You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires. And there you shall eat in the presence of Yahveh your God and rejoice, you and your household.'

Deut. 14:27: 'Also you must not neglect the Levite who is in your town, for he has no portion or inheritance among you.'
Many think that this section points to another tithe, after the first one (the Levitical tithe). It's usually called the Feast tithe. This would mean that there were two full tithes every year. One for the Levites and one would be for the tither, for the Feasts. One problem with this is that a tithe designated for a seven day feast (Passover-Unleavened Bread), a one day celebration (Pentecost), or an eight day festival (Tabernacles), would be too much to consume in the time allotted. Much too much. And God begins this section with 'You must surely tithe', so we're not speaking of the tither just saving up enough to cover the Feasts. It must be a tenth of his increase.

The word 'tithe' means, to give 10%, not to save 10% for oneself. Davidson tells us it means, 'to give the tenth part, pay tithe.'5 And Ronald Allen says that,
'the verb 'to tithe' is used in only five passages in the OT (Gen 28:22, in Jacob's vow to God at Bethel; Deut 14:22, in god's command to tithe agricultural produce annually; Deut 26:12, in the tithe of the third year, designated for the Levite and the poor; 1 Sam 8:15, 17, in Samuel's warning of the taxation policies likely to be established with the coming of kinship; and Neh 10:37-38'. 'In four of these passages, tithing is describes as an act of worship to God.'6
It would seem strange that God would require the tither to tithe to himself, even for the Feasts. This is especially true with the tithe being seen as an act of worship. Worship is what one gives to God, not to self.

Another problem with the 'Feast tithe' is that there doesn't seem to be any foundation to lead us to believe that it was a Feast tithe for the common Israeli. It just speaks of the tithe and then describes what the tither could do if the distance were too long, and of his partaking of the tithe. There is no mention anywhere in Scripture that there is a Feast tithe, distinct and separate from the Levitical tithe.

That there was a Feast tithe in the time of Yeshua is well attested to by Jewish writings. In ISBE's 'Critical Issues' section on the tithe, they speak of both a Feast tithe, and of course, the tithe for the poor and the widow, etc.

'Jewish tradition and some more recent studies (e.g. Landrell, p. 36) have identified two or three different tithes in these passages. (1) A first tithe consisted of the tithe to the Levites (Nu. 18; Dt. 14:27); of this, one-tenth was passed on to the priests or to the house of God. (2) A second tithe' 'was set apart and eaten by the household, presumably in Jerusalem (Dt. 14:22-26; cf. Mish. Maaser sheni ii. 1). Those living far from Jerusalem could change the tithe of the land into money, but they then had to add one-fifth to its price (Lev. 27:30f.); food, drink, or oil could be purchased with the money. According to Mish. Zebahim v. 8, the cattle tithe belonged to this tithe and had to be used in Jerusalem. Landrell refers to this second tithe as the tithe for the sacred celebration. (3) The third tithe, according to Jewish tradition (Josephus Ant. iv. 8. 22 (240-43); cf. also Landrell), was the tithe for the poor (Dt. 14:28f.), which occurred only in the third year.' 'Many believe that the third-year tithe replaced the second tithe every third year.'7

What they are saying is that some believe that when the third year came around, the tithe to the poor, etc., that this tithe replaced the Feast tithe. Until recently (January 2004), I used to think that Moses was referring to three tithes, and that in the third year there would be those three tithes. In the other years there would be 'only' two (the Levitical and the 'poor' tithe). But having re-examined the Feast tithe and the third year tithe, I've come to seriously question the Feast tithe, and how the 'poor tithe' was put into practice. That Josephus and the Talmud speak of the three tithes, and that was practiced in the days of Yeshua, doesn't mean that Yeshua agreed with it, or that Moses knew about it. More on that in a moment. We do know that Scripture speaks of a third year tithe.

The Third Year Tithe

The Lord established a tithe for the poor, the widow and the orphans, etc., but it was only every third year in the Sabbatical cycle:
Deut. 14:28: 'At the end of every third year you must bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town.'

Deut. 14:29: 'The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the stranger, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that Yahveh your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.'
The third year tithe came twice in the seven year (Sabbatical) counting of time. It would be the 3rd year and the 6th year of seven years. The next year would not be the eighth, but the first year It was a 7 year cycle (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-1-2-3-4-5-6-7, etc.) This tithe would be for the poor, the widow, etc. Yahveh commanded that it would be placed in the town or city, for them and the Levites, to come and take as they needed. It was God's way of helping the poor in Israel, everyone contributing so that their brothers and sisters, and even the strangers (non-Israelis), were taken care of. God was showing His love to all, through His people Israel.

And here-in lies what I believe to be the answer to the enigma of how the Levitical and 'poor' tithe functioned. I think that there was only one tithe in any given year. (And I don't think the so called Feast tithe ever existed in the days of Moses or King David. More on that in a moment.) There was only the Levitical tithe, which would give way in the third and sixth years, to the third year tithe. When the third year tithe came around, note well that the Levite was included in it. Why would that be necessary for him to take from the 'poor' tithe, if he was already receiving his own abundant tithe? His own tithe was more than sufficient for him. That is of course, unless he didn't get his regular Levitical tithe that year. Then it would make sense that the Levite 'was included' in the ability to receive provision, along with the poor and the stranger, etc.

Remember too that the Levites were spread out in all of Israel, receiving 48 cities among all the Tribes of Israel (Num. 35:1-7; Josh. 21:1-45). They weren't all concentrated in Jerusalem but dispersed among the Tribes of Israel. They could easily get what they needed from their brothers who left the third year tithe in the cities around them. In effect, for the third year tithe, the Levites would share their tithe with the poor, the widow, the orphans, the strangers, and anyone else in need.

As for the so called Feast tithe, a strong possibility exists that this was the Levitical tithe, and that God had allowed the tither to also eat of it. After the tither and his family ate of some, there would be more than enough left over for the Levites for them to use till the next Feast. This would solve the problem of there being a 'separate' Feast tithe.

There seems to be only one tithe in Israel in any given year. Every third and sixth year of the seven year Sabbatical cycle, would mean that the Levites shared their tithes with those in need. The tithe for the sixth year must have been super-abundant as it would also have to take care of provision for the seventh year too, as the Land was not to be cultivated. It was not to be sown or harvested, but whatever came up on its own, would be able to be eaten:
Lev. 25:3-6: 'Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop but during the seventh year the Land shall have a Sabbath rest, a Sabbath to Yahveh. You must not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. Your harvest's after-growth you must not reap and your grapes of untrimmed vines you must not gather. The Land shall have a Sabbatical year. All of you shall have the Sabbath products of the Land for food; yourself, and your male and female slaves, and your hired man and your foreign resident, those who live as aliens with you.'

Lev. 25:18: 'You must observe My statutes and keep My judgments, so as to carry them out, that you may live securely on the Land. Then the Land will yield its produce, so that you can eat your fill and live securely on it. But if you say, 'What are we going to eat on the seventh year if we do not sow or gather in our crops?', then I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eighth year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating the old until the ninth year when its crop comes in.'
Yahveh would take care of Israel, providing all their needs for them, as they obeyed His Word. This was Yahveh's provision for His priests and all the people that dwelt in the Land.

Everything that Israel received, they got from Yahveh. The tithe was an acknowledgment of this. Not only was the tithe Yahveh's, but all that they had, even their very existence as a free people in their own Land. It was out of this gratefulness that the Israeli tithed, and gave offerings. God had blessed him abundantly, and he in turn, he was blessing others. He was imitating his God.

Tithing For Today

The tithe has never ceased. Even though today there is no Temple or priesthood performing sacrifice, etc., the tithe is still with us. The tithe was seen before Moses in both Abraham (Gen. 14:20), and Jacob (Gen. 28:22), and so has a solid theological basis for us today, being seen both before the Law and as part of the Law. Certainly, in His Kingdom, the tithe cannot be any less than it was for Israel under King David. The tithe under the Mosaic Covenant was not the ceiling of what one could give, it was the mandatory floor. When we look at Acts, we see how the Spirit of Yahveh led all the believers in terms of helping those in the Kingdom of Yeshua:
Acts 4:32-35: 'And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul. And not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the Apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Yeshua, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them. For all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the Apostles' feet. And they would be distributed to each as any had need.'
It seems that when the Congregation of all those believed began, the tithe was left behind in the dust! They sold ALL that they had and gave it to the 'Levites' (the Apostles), that they would distribute it for all. This is the Spirit of Yeshua. This is the spirit of thanksgiving.  Of course, they did not stop tithing to the temple priests.

How can we today, say we love God, when we see our brother in need? This is what Yakov, the half-brother of Yeshua, said:
James 2:14: 'What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?! Even so, faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.'

The tithe is only the beginning. Look around you. There are many people in need. The heart and the Spirit of Yeshua must lead as to how we are to distribute the goods that our God has given into our hand. Too many, including myself, have used it for self-indulgence. May Yeshua forgive us. May we become godly stewards of all His things that He entrusts to us.

I believe that the tithe should go to those who are 'Levites' in His Kingdom. In other words, those who believe in Yeshua and have been called by Him into full time ministry. These would be those who are fully committed to the Lord and have given up their secular life to minister full time, as the Levites did. Of course, the poor, the widow, the orphans, and even the stranger who doesn't know Yeshua yet, are eligible candidates for your tithe. It needn't be given to the church but used in your own neighborhood and half way around the world, as God directs you.

Also, the tithe was the salary of the Levites (and the sons of Aaron who were given a tithe of the Levite's tithe; Num. 18:22-32). It was not for the 'building fund', or the church's electric bill, or church maintenance and utilities, etc. Following what God did for the Levites, the tithe should go directly to the pastors and other full time ministers, for their personal use.

The tithe should go to the people or place where Yeshua directs it, as He is the Head and our High Priest today. When the Temple is rebuilt and Yeshua reigns as King of Israel for a thousand years (Ezk. 40-48), then the tithe of Moses will come into effect for those that minister at the Temple. Until then, one should tithe where Yeshua directs. This could be one's church, or someone's full time ministry; or it could be split and divided among a number of people of God and the poor, etc., as the Lord leads. It would also go of course, to ministries that reach out to the poor and needy.

As for the third year tithe being shared with the poor, the percentage to the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger, would be probably around 15% of one’s annual tithe. I arrived at this by dividing 2 into 7, the number of times (two), in a seven year period where the tithe was shared by the Levites with the poor, etc. (28.57% is two divided by seven). And then dividing it in half, as perhaps half in those two years would go to the Levites and the other half to those in need. The tithe to the poor should be given to those who are in need, either by the one who is giving the tithe, or through a believing organization that is doing such work. Of course, this is a mechanical percentage of giving to the poor but it’s an indication of what God expects. Be led by His Spirit.

I've come to see that the tithe is one of the few practical things that a believer can do to show themself that they really trust in Yeshua, and are thankful to Him for all that He has done for them. It's one thing to say 'I believe' and 'Thank You, God!'. It's quite another to give money away in the form of a tithe, to God's full time ministers and those in need. By doing so, the believer is confirming to themself, that they truly trust in Yeshua, and are thankful to Him, for all that God has done for them.

As you begin to set aside your tithe, ask Yeshua where He wants you to place it. And as you get more involved with the giving of your tithe, your heart will yearn to give more. Not because you want to see your tithe and offerings grow, just for the sake of it growing, but because your heart will be touched by those you give to, and your eyes will be opened to more and more of the needs of people.

P.S. Another picture of our tithing to full time ministers is sseen in the story of Melchizedek. He pictures Yeshua as our High Priest and King of Jerusalem (Gen. 14:17-20; Heb. 7:1-10). Melchizedek received the tithe from Father Abraham. This pictures Yeshua receiving the tithe frmo Israel (The Seed of Abraham; Jewish and Gentile believers). Therefore, Yeshua's Body should tithe to their Head, via His ministers.


ENDNOTES:

  1. The Tent of Meeting lasted from the days of Moses in the Wilderness, to the time of King Solomon, about 450 years.
  2. The word, 'tithes' doesn't necessarily mean two or more full 10% tithes, but the tithe of the grain, the tithe of the wine, etc.
  3. The word 'tithe' in Hebrew literally means 10%.
  4. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, General Editor, Everett F. Harrison, Roland K. Harrison and William Sanford LaSor, Associate Editors, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. four (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 863.
  5. Benjamin Davidson, The Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 618.
  6. R. L. Harris, Editor; Gleason Archer, Jr. and Bruce Waltke, Associate Editors, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), p. 704. The only passage where it's not an act of worship is in Samuele, where the prophet is speaking of the oppression that a king might do to Israel.
  7. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. four, p. 863.

Email Avram — avramyeh@gmail.com

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