Two Things You Might Not Know About Tithing

If you’re familiar with the concept of tithing but haven’t read this passage lately, you might find it a bit shocking (as I did when I first came upon it):

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.

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 14:22-29

Isn’t a “tithe” what you put in the plate? Why does God command them to eat it? Why does God seem to command them to enjoy it?

Here’s another interesting thing about “tithing” in the Old Testament. The word “tithe” comes from “tenth,” which is what the Hebrew word literally means. They would take a tenth of their crops or herds and share it in this way. Oftentimes, we take this to mean that today, as Christians, we should give 10% of our income to the church. Yet, if you read through the Old Testament and look at the all the types of tithes and offerings and gleanings that the Israelites were supposed to give or offer or donate, they were actually supposed to give around 25% of what their work yielded. Here’s a final twist to further complicate that number: In many eras, they probably didn’t pay other taxes for the upkeep of society, so it’s hard to make a 1-to-1 comparison between then and now.

That last part is important: It’s hard to make a 1-to-1 comparison between then and now. We must not be too hasty to assume we know what this passage “means for today.” It probably doesn’t mean that we should stop giving to the church budget and just throw parties. It probably doesn’t mean that we should start putting exactly 25% in the plate or stop paying taxes or stop putting anything in the plate if our taxes amount to 25%. It probably doesn’t mean that we need to become farmers or meet some Levites or take our tithes to Jerusalem.

However, this God is our God, and the passage does tell us this: God’s commandments are not arbitrary. It’s easy to construe tithing (“giving” might be a more fitting term the money we give not being Israelites) as the driest part of following God, not to mention the most transactional. Yet, this passage reminds us that God commanded tithing because He knows and wants what’s best for us. Through tithing, he provided a priesthood. Through tithing, he cared for the poor. Through tithing, he taught his people to make decisions with their possessions that were not ruled by their own desires. He had His reasons, and His reasons are good.

So it is today. God commands Christian giving because He uses Christian giving to provide spiritual leaders, care for the poor, and train the givers to live selfless, satisfying lives. Giving is more than a regulation; it’s an invitation to participate in a different way of life. Likewise our God is more than a rule-giver; He is the great Shepherd of the sheep, who “equips us with everything good that we may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21).

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