Editor’s Note: This is the second article in the series on giving. This article endeavors to describe what the ancient Hebrews understood and practiced. There are a variety of theories on how that was worked out practically, and we have done our best to give brief explanations of many of these thoughts. We are confident that more could be learned and expressed on this subject. Please click here to be sent to the first article.
In previous articles, we have seen how time periods affect how we understand and apply certain passages in the Bible. In particular, life before Pentecost is much different from life after Pentecost. This is certainly true with respect to the topic of finances in the church, or giving. In this article, we are going to look at the basics of giving in the Bible before Pentecost.
Imagine that you live in Jericho in 900 BC. You just inherited the family farm, which includes 20 acres of farmland and some cattle and sheep as well. What an exciting prospect to have your own farm! Being a conscientious Israelite, you want to give appropriately to support God and the nation of Israel in accordance with the Law. So, you head down to talk to your local legal expert who happens to be a Levite. You ask him, “What do I need to do to make sure that I’m giving the appropriate amount to God?” He responds by asking if you have time to listen to the scrolls of Leviticus. He says, “The scrolls of Leviticus contain the information that you seek, though there are other places that giving is mentioned as well.” He begins reading the scrolls and explaining the contents. The rest of the article gives some background on what this conversation may have looked like. As we look at these passages, imagine that you are an ancient Israelite trying to live the accuracy of the Law.
How many sacrifices and offerings were there in Old Testament times? Depending on what resources you consult (study Bibles like the ESV Study Bible or Bible dictionaries) and how you categorize offerings, there were as many as fourteen different offerings! Here is a chart to help you identify them:
|Burnt sacrifice||Leviticus 1:3,10||Male without blemish (bullock, sheep, goats)
Sprinkle the blood
The flesh was flayed and cut
The priests ate the skins
|Meat offering||Leviticus 2:1-11||Burnt on the altar
Covered with fine flour, oil, and frankincense
The remnant kept for the priesthood to eat (Lev. 6:6)
No leaven or honey allowed in the offering
|Firstfruits||Leviticus 2:12-16||Not burnt
Meat seasoned with salt
First of the firstfruits offered to God
Typically the best of the first items harvested was selected
Firstborn clean animals were sacrificed
Firstborn human children were redeemed along with unclean beasts (Numbers 18:15)
|Peace offering||Leviticus 3||Without blemish
Blood and flesh
Fat and blood reserved for God
|Offering for sins of ignorance||Leviticus 4||For when you did not know the right doctrine and broke the Law
Animal without blemish (type of animal varied by who broke the Law)
|Trespass offerings||Leviticus 5||2 animals were sacrificed: 1 animal for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering
The remnant was for the priests to eat
|Wave offerings||Leviticus 7:30||Burn the fat and the breast was for the priests to eat|
|Heave offerings||Leviticus 7:32||Burn the fat and the right shoulder was for the priests to eat|
|Purification of women||Leviticus 12:6ff||Burnt offering or sin offering|
|Purification of lepers||Leviticus 14||Two birds-one killed in water and the other dipped in the blood
Sprinkle blood seven times, pronounce the leper clean, and loose the living bird
Wash clothes, shave, wait seven days, shave head, and wash clothes again
Offer a variety of offerings
|Yearly atonement||Two goats: one for the LORD (sin offering) and one for the people (scapegoat)
A bullock was offered as the high priest’s sin offering to atone for his sin
|Freewill offerings||Leviticus 22:18ff||Male without blemish (sheep, goats, bulls)|
|Passover||Exodus 12||“Male lamb of the first year”
Put the blood on the posts and eat the meat
|Tithe||Leviticus 27||Tenth of crops and herds
Possibly three different tithes
As you can see, there were many different types of offerings and sacrifices, each applying to different people in various contexts. In many cases, there were several main components that repeated: the death of the sacrificial animal, the use of blood to cover for sin, the burning of the sacrifice on the altar, and the eating of part of the sacrifice.
Since many churches talk about the tithe today, let’s focus on the last item from the table above. Biblically speaking, what is the tithe? The tithe, like the other sacrifices of the Old Testament, is defined in Leviticus. What does the Bible say about the tithe in Leviticus 27?
Leviticus 27:30-33 (ESV)
“Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s; it is holy to the LORD.
If a man wishes to redeem some of his tithe, he shall add a fifth to it.
And every tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the LORD.
One shall not differentiate between good or bad, neither shall he make a substitute for it; and if he does substitute for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed.”
There are several important things to note here. First, the tithe, generally speaking, was not something given monetarily. The tithe was produced as a result of raising crops or raising animals. There is no mention of carpenters tithing from sales of wood products, masons from building products, merchants from trade, and so on. The only two trades that the Bible specifically mentions here are farming and herding. Second, this record shows that the tithing percentage was not always exactly 10%. If a farmer or a rancher were to redeem the produce for money, he was supposed to add a fifth, making the effective tithe rate around 12%. Additionally, the tithed animal was the tenth animal to pass under the rod. So, if a herder had 25 cows, he would have tithed the tenth animal and the twentieth animal for an effective tithing rate of 8%. Third, one important aspect of tithing is that the people were not required to give the “best 10%” to God. In this section, the Bible specifically says that the tenth animal that passed under the rod was to be tithed, no matter what. The rancher was not to substitute the good for the bad. What if the tenth calf to pass under the rod was the runt? According to Scripture, the farmer is not allowed to switch that calf with another. He couldn’t say: “Oh, that animal isn’t good enough for a tithe offering to God. I’ll just swap him out with a better animal that’s stronger and healthier.”
Interestingly, scholars believe multiple tithes were offered by Israelites in the Old Testament period. Why? Leviticus 27 indicates that the tithe was offered to the Levites in Jerusalem and makes no mention of eating the tithe together in a festival setting. This tithe, often called the “first tithe” was primarily for the Levites and priests to have food to survive. Another tithe was collected during the festivals (mentioned in Deuteronomy 12 and 14) and is called the “second tithe” or the “festival tithe.” This tithe was part of the celebration of God and the community of righteousness being established in Israel. Another tithe was utilized for the poor, as indicated in Deuteronomy 14 and 26. This is called the “third tithe” or “poor’s tithe.” Let’s take a look at the other sections in Deuteronomy to see what we can learn. Here’s what the Bible says about the “festival tithe.”
Deuteronomy 12:17-18 (ESV)
You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present,
but you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place that the LORD your God will choose, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your towns. And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all that you undertake.
Deuteronomy 14:22-27 (ESV)
You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year.
And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.
And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there,
then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses
and spend the money for whatever you desire–oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.
And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.
And here’s what the Bible says about the “poor’s tithe.”
Deuteronomy 14:28-29 (ESV)
At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns.
And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
Deuteronomy 26:12-14 (ESV)
“When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled,
then you shall say before the LORD your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover, I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all your commandment that you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them.
I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the LORD my God. I have done according to all that you have commanded me.
All of the tithable items mentioned here are foodstuffs (crops and animals). If whatever was being tithed was too cumbersome to bring to Jerusalem, then the tither could sell the items locally, bring money, and buy whatever he or she wanted to eat with the priests and Levites. There is also the indication that every three years, the tithe was meant for the poor and the Levite within the local community. Deuteronomy 14 and 26 indicate that the third year was the year of tithing, and during this year, the tithes were kept in the local community for the Levites and the poor. We can see that there is Biblical evidence pointing to three separate tithes for three separate reasons (see the Q&A document for more information on the three tithes).
There is a lot of debate about how these three tithes were calculated and administered, but the simple fact is that the Bible does not tell us exactly how the tithe was implemented. If these three tithes were combined in one year, the effective tithing percentage could have been calculated at anything between 21.7% and 30%. One Jewish source indicates that the third tithe replaced the second tithe every third and sixth year in the seven-year rotation. The average yearly tithe would be 19% using this calculation. Lansdell noted that a “liberal Israelite” would have given between a fourth and a third of his income away, depending on how Israelites calculated the various offerings. Edersheim noted that the combined offerings would have amounted to at least a fourth of the agricultural return. For our modern purposes, it is safe to assume that the tithe was basically a 20% tax on those who were major landowners: farmers and herdsmen. The Bible simply does not record anyone else ever tithing, although they would have been able to perform any of the other 13 types of sacrifices, as applicable.
We’ve spent some time considering the tithe offering (since it’s frequently mentioned in churches today), but let’s now consider briefly some of the other offerings listed in our table. As you might expect in an agricultural society, harvest time was a significant time of giving. When the people of God were harvesting large quantities of food, they were also giving large quantities of food away in collective thanksgiving to God. Thus it makes sense that harvest times also coincided with national holidays in which all of Israel enjoyed feasts and celebrated together. There were three great annual festivals, or feasts, during the Old Testament times: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Passover was a celebration of the release of Israel from bondage in Egypt. During this feast, the worshippers only ate unleavened bread. This feast was to be a reminder of how God spared their firstborn children from the final plague. Thus, all of the men of Israel were to appear before the Lord with “the choice firstfruits” according to Exodus 23:14-19. In this way, the offerings of firstfruits went hand in hand with the Passover celebration. In addition to this, the waving of the barley sheaf was performed on the second feast day after the Passover sacrifice. Other various offerings were also performed at this time (see Exodus 23:15-19).
Pentecost was celebrated seven weeks after Passover. Pentecost was also called the Feast of the Harvest (Exodus 23:16) due to the fact that some of the grains were harvested around that time. In Numbers 28:26, Pentecost was called “the day of the firstfruits” because the first loaves made from the recently harvested grains were offered to God on the altar. (It is interesting that the celebration of the grain harvest would later be attached to the first moments of the Church—a completely different kind of harvest!)
Finally, there is The Feast of Tabernacles, which was also called the Feast of the Ingathering in Exodus 23:16 and Feast of the Harvest is Exodus 34:22. This festival was primarily a celebration of the care and concern that God showed for Israel while they were in the wilderness, dwelling in tents (or “booths” or “tabernacles”). This festival also came at a convenient harvest time, celebrating the ingathering of the threshing floor and wine press (see Deuteronomy 16:13). What a practical thing for God to do! When you have a big party, you need food. What better time to give offerings to God then right after the harvest? Therefore, the sacrificial system served a variety of purposes: atoning for the sins of the people, providing food for worshippers and servants of the Lord, providing necessary food for the poor, reminding the people of God’s goodness, foreshadowing the sacrifice of Christ, and providing an opportunity for fellowship and camaraderie, just to name a few.
To this point, we have looked at what the Bible says about tithing and offerings during the Law. What about where the Bible mentions tithing and offerings before the Law? In the Old Testament, there are many examples of pre-Mosaic offerings that later made their way into the Mosaic sacrificial system. Cain and Abel offered unnamed offerings to God (Genesis 4:3-5). Abraham offered burnt offerings (Genesis 22:13). Job offered sin/burnt offerings (Job 1). Jacob offered unnamed sacrifices (Genesis 31:54 and Genesis 46:1). The children of Israel wanted to leave Egypt to offer sacrifices (Exodus 3:18). Noah offered a burnt offering to God after the animals left the ark, and this offering was a “sweet savour” to God (Genesis 8:20-22); later, Moses instituted the burnt offering for the same purpose, to provide a “sweet savour” to God (Leviticus 1:9). The Mosaic Law thus did not invent the sacrifices themselves but rather the proper way of offering them to God in ways that were meaningful and applicable for the duration of the Law.
In addition, Genesis 14:20 indicates that Abraham offered tithes to Melchizedek. Melchizedek received the tithes and gave Abraham a blessing in return. Hebrews 7:4 indicates that Abraham tithed off of the spoils he gained retrieving Lot from the foreign kings. This example would seem to show that the pre-Mosaic standard for tithing amounts to tithing ten percent off of the increase. However, the Bible does not indicate whether Abraham ever tithed again. It is quite possible that this was the only time that he ever tithed. Also, it’s unclear if this was mandated by God or was a custom of the time. Later, the Mosaic Law stipulated a 1% spoils of war tithe (Numbers 31:30-41), while Arab custom dictated a 10% spoils of war tithe. This seems to be a “spoils of war” tithe situation, and Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek. It is also noteworthy that Jacob offered a tithe (Genesis 28:22), but it was different from the Mosaic tithe, because it was conditional, and Jacob set the conditions, not God.
Finally, what about sacrifices and offerings during the Gospels and before the beginning of the Church? Jesus mentioned on several occasions that the tithe was still applicable. Here is one example:
Matthew 23:23 (ESV)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
Jesus taught that those who were in a position to tithe (i.e.—had crops) should tithe, but they should not neglect the weightier matters of the Law. There is no indication that Jesus or his disciples ever tithed, although we can discern that they gave to the poor (see John 12:5 among others). During the time of Christ, the Temple tax supported the Levites and priests (this is mentioned in Matthew 17:24-27). The Temple tax was a yearly tax levied upon all men of Israel to support the sacrificial system and the Temple’s operating costs. The Temple was a central part of the worship system of Israel through the time of Christ and beyond, until its destruction in 70 AD. As such, the offerings of the Law were still available through the time of Christ. Jesus took notice of a woman’s freewill offering in a famous account recorded in two gospels (see Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4). Jesus also spoke frequently about giving to the poor.
Mark 10:21 (ESV)
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Luke 14:13-14 (ESV)
But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,
and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Matthew 25:31-40 (ESV)
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.
Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?
And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Jesus taught his disciples to take care of the poor, and that idea translated into the early Church (which we will see in a future article).
To summarize, tithing was part of a bigger sacrificial system. Strictly speaking, only farmers and herdsmen performed the tithe. Specifically, the poor and the priests never tithed—they actually received the tithe. The sacrifices and the festivals were linked together according to the times of harvest for practical reasons as well as spiritual. Jesus encouraged tithing according to the Mosaic Law, but he placed a larger emphasis on taking care of the poor and “weightier matters of the Law.” Jesus was not impressed with people giving a portion of their abundance, but he was impressed by the poor woman who gave all she had. We will see these themes continue to develop as we continue our series in Acts and the Epistles.
 How did I get 21.7%? One Jewish source indicates that the calculation of the second tithe was made after the first tithe was deducted from the total crop. This means that, each year, farmers and ranchers would have given at least 19% (10% for the first tithe and 9% for the second tithe, since 9% is a tenth of the remaining 90% of the increase). Every third and sixth year in the seven-year rotation [for more on the crop rotation, see Singer, ed., The Jewish Encyclopedia, Volume XII, (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1905), 151.], there would have been a third tithe, which would have added 8.1% to the total (since 8.1% is a tenth of the remaining 81%). Every seventh year, the land was left fallow. Thus, the average yearly tithe, according to this calculation, is 21.7% for the six years out of seven that would have included tithing. If there were three tithes with all performed yearly, 21.7% is the smallest amount that could have been calculated.
 Hertz, ed., The Pentateuch and the Haftorahs, (London: Soncino Press, 1963), 811.
 Henry Lansdell, The Sacred Tenth Or Studies in Tithegiving: Ancient and Modern (Volume 1), (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1906), 80-81.
 Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, (n.d., repr., Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 379.
 See any good Bible dictionary for more information on the Passover and the firstfruits offering, as well as the other festivals and offerings.
 H. C. Leupold notes that “it was not identical with the tenth part or tithe which the Mosaic law required.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis One, Volume One, (1942, repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 466. See also: James Murphy, Barnes’ Notes: The Bible Commentary, Volume 1 Genesis. (1873, repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), 292.