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The Tithe in the Bible

Section 2

Abraham and Jacob

We will now take a look at the tithing example of Abraham, of whom we read that the proportion of his spoils that he devoted, was a tenth. Returning from the slaughter of the kings with spoils of war, he was met near Jerusalem by a kingly priest, Melchizedek, who brought to him bread and wine, who blessed him, who praised God for victory vouchsafed, and to whom Abraham offered a tenth of all.

Here, then, we have an instance of paying a tithe which occurred about 1900 B.C., and this has ordinarily been regarded as the earliest recorded instance of the payment of tithe. But discoveries, transmitted to us by students of cuneiform literature, have thrown a flood of new light upon the land of Canaan before it was peopled by the Israelites. Professor Sayce tracing the migration of Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees, says in his Patriarchal Palestine (p. 66):

"Ur lay on the western side of the Euphrates in Southern Babylonia, where the mounds of Mugheir mark the site of the great temple that had been reared to the worship of the Moon-god long before the days of the Hebrew patriarchapter

"Here Abraham had married, and from hence he had gone forth with his father to seek a new home. Their first resting-place had been Haran in Mesopotamia . . . . Haran signified 'road' in the old language of Chaldaea, and for many ages the armies and merchants of Babylonia had halted there when making their way towards the Mediterranean. Like Ur, it was dedicated to the worship of Sin, the Moon-god; and its temple rivalled in fame and antiquity that of the Babylonian city, and had probably been founded by a Babylonian king.

"At Haran, therefore, Abram would still have been within the limits of Babylonian influence and culture, if not of Babylonian government as well. He would have found there the same religion as that which he had left behind him in his native city . . . .

"Even in Canaan Abram was not beyond the reach of Babylonian influence . . . . Babylonian armies had already penetrated to the shores of the Mediterranean, Palestine had been included within the bounds of a Babylonian empire, and Babylonian culture and religion had spread widely among the Canaanitish tribes. The cuneiform system of writing had made its way to Syria, and Babylonian literature had followed in its wake. Centuries had already passed since Sargon of Akkad had made himself master of the Mediterranean coast, and his son Naram Sin had led his forces to the peninsula of Sinai."

Now if Babylonian culture and religion had thus spread to the Canaanites, it suggests a reason why the colony of Phoenicians from Tyre, who founded Carthage (say about 900 B.C.) were tithe-payers (see Sacred Tenth, p. 15); and if Melchizedek may be regarded as a Canaanitish priest, then it would be as natural for him in his royal and priestly character to expect tithes from Abraham as it was for him to pay them. Hence the professor, alluding to this incident, says (Patriarchal Religion, p. 175):

"This offering of tithes was no new thing. In his Babylonian home Abram must have been familiar with the practice. The cuneiform inscriptions of Babylonia contain frequent references to it. It went back to the pre-Semitic age of Chaldaea, and the great temples of Babylonia were largely supported by the esra or tithe which was levied upon prince and peasant alike. That the god should receive a tenth of the good things which, it was believed, he had bestowed upon mankind was not considered to be asking too muchapter There are many tablets in the British Museum which are receipts for the payment of the tithe to the great temple of the sun-god at Sippara, in the time of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors. From one of them we learn that Belshazzar, even at the very moment when the Babylonian empire was falling from his father's hands, nevertheless found an opportunity for paying the tithe due from his sister."

A question may here be asked as to the extent of Abraham's tithes: were they a tenth of all his spoils only, and so given voluntarily and specially on this particular occasion, or were they a tenth of all his income and something paid as a due?

Neither the Hebrew of Genesis nor the Greek of the Epistle to the Hebrews limits the word "all" to the spoils. In Hebrews 7:4 the writer argues that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham because he received tithes from him. Now, when a man pays a tribute or due, we look upon the receiver as being, for the moment, superior to the giver; and the writer of the epistle adds that without contradiction the person less in dignity is blessed by the person who is greater in dignity. Hence we conclude that the tenth paid by "the father of the faithful" was not merely an offering, which the patriarch was at liberty to render or to withhold as he pleased, but a payment of obligation.

This, too, appears the more likely because Abraham by right of conquest might have claimed all that he captured from Chedorlaomer. The king of Sodom, recognizing this, invites him to take the goods to himself, Genesis 14:21. But Abraham declines to take anything for himself, though, as a conqueror, he seems to have recognized that he had no jurisdiction over God's tenth; and whilst surrendering his own claim to nine-tenths of the spoil, he acted as though he could not surrender God's. (Compare Gold and the Gospel, p. 24.)

It seems, moreover, exceedingly probable that the priestly acts which Melchizedek performed for Abraham were simply such as this priest king would from time to time perform for any Canaanitish chief returning from a victorious expedition, as also perhaps when his people paid their tithes on ordinary occasions. And since he often was dwelling within a day's journey of Salem (that is, Jerusalem), we need not at all conclude that this was either the first or the last occasion on which a tithe was paid to Melchizedek. If the patriarch did so annually, it would be only in keeping with the practice of his Babylonian ancestors, and what we know was afterwards conceded by the Carthaginians to be due to their Phoenician priesthood.

This inference or supposition is strengthened to something like probability by consideration of the subsequent conduct of Abraham's grandson Jacob, who, being about to undertake a journey, did what we know quite well was common among the Semites, the Greeks and Romans, and, indeed, is still practiced: [I remember my Muhammadan interpreter in Bokhara telling me that before crossing the trans-Caspian desert he vowed that if God would bring him safely to Khiva, he would distribute bread to the prisoners in Bokhara. This vow he redeemed, and so was able to give me certain information I required about the structure of the prison.] he vowed a vow, and he said:

"If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: and this stone which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee," Genesis 28:20 - 22.

Now it will be remembered that Abraham lived till the boyhood of Jacob; that Jacob was brought up in the faith of his grandfather; and that at Bethel God confirmed to Jacob and his posterity all the promises He made to Abraham. What, then, could be more natural than that Jacob should avow himself ready to practice his grandfather's religious observances? He promises to take his grandfather's God for his own, to dedicate a certain place to His worship as did Abraham, and also to follow his grandfather's practice in dedicating to God a tenth of all he should receive. But there are manifested certain points in Jacob's tithe-paying which we could not have certainly inferred in the offering of a tenth by Abram (Gold and the Gospel, p. 28).

For, first, Jacob's vow was, manifestly, to be continued throughout his lifetime, and was not framed for the occasion or the journey, only.

The second feature in Jacob's tenth differing from that of his grandfather, is, that no part of Jacob's tithe is mentioned as paid for the use of a priesthood. We read no more of Melchizedek or of his successor; but, all the same, God's claim is not remitted or abated, and Jacob's tithe-paying is presented to us as an act of homage to God.

How, then, do these facts bear upon what may be called the scientific aspect of the question? (Sacred Tenth, p. 37).

The prevalence of tithe-paying amongst ancient nations, quite apart, so far as we see, from the Bible, has, if possible, to be accounted for. If it was originally left to every man to give for religious purposes merely according to his own inclination -- that is, as much or as little as he pleased -- then how should so many peoples have hit upon a tenth for God's portion, rather than a fifth, or a fifteenth, or any other? Does not the universality of this proportion point to a time when the ancestors of those nations lived together, and so derived the custom from a common source?

No profane author, and no account or tradition known to us in any country, professes to give that origin, nor does the Bible do so in express terms. Can we, then, frame any hypothesis that would account for the facts before us?

Most men, presumably, will allow that sacrifice was not a human invention, but a divine institution appointed by God. And if God appointed also that some things were acceptable to Him as "clean" and other not so, is it reasonable to suppose that He would have omitted directions about the quantity, or proportion in which such things should be offered?

If, then, we may venture the hypothesis that God from the beginning taught Adam that it was the duty of man to render a portion of his increase to his Maker, and that that portion was to be not less than a tenth, then we shall see that the facts recorded in Genesis not only do not contradict such a supposition, but corroborate and strengthen it.

The Septuagint version, then, would show an instance of covetousness in the person of Cain, as does the Acts of the Apostles in the persons of Ananias and Sapphira, each pretending to offer more than was really given, each attempting to deceive the Almighty, and thus, in New Testament language, lying to the Holy Ghost, Acts 5:3.

In accord with this theory, also, Abel's fuller sacrifice was accepted; and so sacrifice and tithe-paying may be presumed to have continued all along the centuries to the days of Noah. Then, when his descendants built cities in Babylonia and afterwards became scattered, they would naturally take with them, among other primeval customs and traditions, the offering of sacrifice and tithe-paying. And thus would be accounted for, only a few centuries later, the existence of these customs as recorded in cuneiform literature on the tablets we possess, as well as the information given us about tithe-paying in the literatures of Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

It is not pretended that this hypothesis must be true, or that no other can be advanced; but meanwhile I am among those who think that it meets the facts of the case, but who hold themselves ready to examine another theory if forthcoming. [After this chapter was written, my attention was called to Professor Cheynes articles on "Cain" and "Abraham" in the Encyclopaedia Biblica (volume I. 23, 260), which would make the accounts of these two persons of later origin by several centuries than is generally received. But this does not greatly affect the main purpose of my argument. Moreover, if Professor Petrie is right in telling us that from three to four thousand years or more before Christianity appeared, the ancient Egyptians repudiated, before the judgement of Osiris, sins such as "cutting short the rations of the temples," "diminishing the offerings of the gods" and stealing their property, then the story of Cain, as interpreted from the reading of the Septuagint, has a striking resemblance thereto, and is thereby rendered more credible.]

It may be objected, of course, that we do not read in Genesis of a law for the payment of a tenth; which is no proof, however, that no such law had been given, seeing there existed various laws in primeval times of which we have no written evidence now. Do any, for instance, doubt that there was, from the beginning, a law against murder, for breaking of which Cain was punished; or against adultery, in keeping with which Judah said of Tamar, "Bring her forth and let her be burnt"? Genesis 38:24. Similarly, it is possible that tithe-paying may have been among the "commandments and the statutes and the laws" of God which Abraham is praised for keeping, but which have not come down to us in writing, Genesis 26:5.

Or, again, if it be urged that tithes are not even mentioned until the days of Abraham and so were till then unknown, it is easy to point to persons and things which we feel sure must have existed long before they are mentioned in the order of events recorded in Genesis.

Melchizedek, for instance, is the first man in the Bible called a priest; Amraphel of Shinar is the first man called a king, Genesis 14:1, and Abraham the first called a prophet. But when these three lived, men had been on the earth for a great many years; and are we to suppose that mankind had lived century after century without priests, kings, and prophets?

The mere omission, therefore, of the definite mention of a law concerning tithe-giving, in the less than a dozen chapters given to us in Genesis concerning the early history of the world, is no proof or presumption whatever that such a law did not exist.

As another objection to our hypothesis, it has been suggested that the pagan nations of antiquity may have learned the practice of tithe-paying from the Jews. But can this suggestion be supported by one tittle of evidence? Can a single passage be adduced from any Greek or Roman classic to confirm such an idea? Is there the remotest reason to suppose that the Greeks before the Trojan war, or the Romans in the days of Romulus, knew anything about the Jews, or, even if they did, that they thought of them otherwise than with contempt?

Nor does the suggestion much help us that the Phoenicians of Tyre might have learned tithe-giving from Abraham before they colonized Carthage, because it has been all but demonstrated that tithes were paid in Babylonia before he was born, so that for the origin of the practice we are sent further back, seemingly, than 2000 B.C.

In face, there, of the overwhelming probability that a tenth was the proportion of increase originally required by God from man, I, for one, prefer to believe that sacrifice and tithe-paying existed and continued from the beginning, and, as men dispersed, were taken throughout the ancient world.

How far the practice afterwards became modified among pagan nations it is not my purpose to inquire here, but rather to follow up tithe-paying as brought out of Babylonia by Abraham, as observed by his grandson Jacob, and afterwards adopted amongst Jacob's descendants, the children of Israel.


The Tithe in Scripture
by Henry Lansdell
Section 1
Cain and Abel
Section 4
Mosaic Offerings
Section 7
Tithing in
the Apocrypha
Section 10
Christ's Attitude
on Tithing
 
Section 2
Abraham and Jacob
Section 5
The tithe from
Joshua to Solomon
Section 8
Talmudic Teaching
on First and Second Tithe
Section 11
Christ's Teaching
on the Tithe
 
Section 3
The Three Tithes of Israel
Section 6
Tithing before
and after Captivity
Section 9
The Demai or
Doubtful Tithe
Section 12
Early Giving
by Christians
 
Section 13
Apostle Paul's Teaching


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