Questions and Answers on Giving in the OT and Gospels

Questions and Answers on Giving in the OT and Gospels

Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to the second article in the series on giving.  The question and answer format allows the reader to focus on the key points from the previous article. Some may prefer this format. If you have any questions that have not been addressed, please leave us a comment and we will get back to you (and potentially update this page). 

Did all Israelites tithe?

No. In every place where the Old Testament directs Israel to tithe, only farming and ranching are considered tithable activities. So, the weight of the evidence suggests that only farmers and ranchers tithed. Furthermore, the Bible explicitly says that poor people and priests did not tithe. In fact, the poor and the Levites in the local community received the tithes every third year (Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and 26:12-14).

Did the Israelites that tithed give exactly 10% of their increase?

Not exactly. First, it is likely that there were multiple tithes, making the total tithe percentage between 20% and 30% according to most Bible scholars (see question below). Second, if the tithe was redeemed (exchanged for money), the total tithe percentage for that tithe was 12% (Leviticus 27:31). Third, ranchers tithed the tenth animal that passed under the rod (Leviticus 27:32). So, if a rancher had 19 new calves, the effective tithing percentage would be 5.2% (only the tenth animal was tithed). If a rancher had 20 new calves, the effective tithing percentage would be 10% (because the tenth and the twentieth animal would be tithed). The effective tithing percentage would change based on the number of new calves and could vary between 5.2% and 10% (it could never be greater than 10%). In addition, Israelites offered a variety of sacrifices and offerings in addition to any tithe that was required of them.

How many tithes were there?

It is impossible to be sure. Most scholars agree that there were at least two separate tithes, and many believe that there were three. Why do scholars believe this? First, in some of the places where the tithe is mentioned, it is said to be for the priests and Levites (Leviticus 27:30-33)—this is called the “first tithe.” In other places, the tithe was eaten with the Levites at a festival (Deuteronomy 12:6-7)—called the “second tithe” or “festival tithe.” In still other places, the tithe was kept in the home community for the poor and the Levites (Deuteronomy 14:28-29)—called the “third tithe” or the “poor’s tithe.” There are many theories on how these can fit together, but most of them end with three separate tithes.

There are two ways that we can conclude that there was one tithe, the wilderness hypothesis and the documentary hypothesis. Both of these are inadequate. The documentary hypothesis states that the first five books of the Bible are a compilation of multiple writers writing at different time periods in Israel’s history. Thus, the different tithes described in the passages above are simply the result of varying practices over the course of Israel’s history. This hypothesis is incorrect—Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. This hypothesis still would not fully account for the “third tithe” or “poor’s tithe” (the tithe mentioned in Deuteronomy 14:28-29). The wilderness hypothesis states that the practices changed after Israel made it to the Promised Land. This is inadequate, because it is difficult to see how the language in any of these passages works for the times of the wilderness. For the first and second tithes, there was no Temple. For the third tithe, there was no local city to “keep the tithes in” for the poor and Levites. Therefore, there were probably three tithes. See the chart below.

Author/Editor Book How many tithes?
Lansdell The Sacred Tenth Three
Edersheim The Temple Three
Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament Three
No author Scripture Manners and Customs Three
Fleury The Manners of the Ancient Israelites Three
Jeremias Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus Two
Jahn Biblical Archaeology Two
Rice People’s Dictionary of the Bible Two
No author A Dictionary of the Holy Bible Two or three
Jamieson A Commentary: Critical, Experimental, and Practical Three
Driver The International Critical Commentary: Deuteronomy One (documentary hypothesis)
Exell The Biblical Illustrator Two or three
Drummelow A Commentary on the Holy Bible One but later tradition turned it into two (documentary hypothesis)
Ford and Deasley Beacon Bible Commentary One
Cook Barnes’ Notes Three
Hanke The Wesleyan Bible Commentary Three
Singer The Jewish Encyclopedia Three
Hertz The Pentateuch and the Haftorahs Three
Average percentage of income tithed: 19.74%

Average percentage discarding “one tithe” options: 21.68%

Were Hebrews supposed to tithe the best 10% or the first 10%?

In the previous article, there’s a table that lists all the offerings of the Old Testament. You’ll notice the firstfruits and the tithe are two completely separate sacrifices; however, these offerings have sometimes been conflated and merged together in the mind of modern day Christians who never practiced these rituals the way ancient Israelites did. Leviticus 27:32-33 specifically stated that the regular Hebrew population was not to differentiate between animals being offered as tithes. So, although Numbers 18:26 indicates that the Levites were to give the priests the best 10%, this was a rule just for the Levites, not for the general tithing population.

The firstfruits and the tithe were separate offerings. The firstfruits offering was an offering of the first part of the harvest, and it would have typically included the best of the harvest to that point (see Numbers 18:12). The tithe was offered after the harvest had been gathered. In many instances, these two offerings would have been months apart. Estimates vary, but many believe that the firstfruits would have only amounted to a fraction of a percent of the increase (i.e.—the first calf born, the first small amount of grain).

Why is the tithe always mentioned in the context of other offerings and sacrifices?

Simply put, the tithe was part of the Israelite sacrificial system. The tithe is frequently mentioned with other offerings and sacrifices, because it was an offering made as part of the legal system set up by God through Moses. Thus, it is always mentioned in the context of other offerings and sacrifices, from its first legal mention in Leviticus 27 to the rest of the Old Testament.

Did Jesus tithe?

There is no way to answer definitively using Biblical evidence. The Bible simply does not say whether or not Jesus ever tithed. However, the evidence suggests that the only people who tithed were ranchers and farmers. Since Jesus was a carpenter before his ministry, there is no reason to believe that Jesus ever tithed. Of course, since Jesus kept the Law perfectly, if he was supposed to tithe, he would have. In the absence of evidence, however, it is difficult to be dogmatic on this point.



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