The Tithe in the Bible

Section 3

The Three Tithes of Israel

When we come to other books of the Pentateuch, we are brought face to face with written laws which distinctly deal with tithe payments, not indeed as a new institution, but as regulated and adapted to a new form of government for Israel. Thus we read in Leviticus 27:30-33,

"And all the tithe of the land (God is taking to the children of Israel), whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lords: it is holy unto the Lord. And if a man will redeem aught of his tithe, he shall add unto it a fifth part thereof. And concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord. He shall not search whether it be good or bad, neither shall he change it: and if he change it at all, then both it and that for which it is changed shall be holy; it shall not be redeemed."

From this passage we learn:

  1. That a tenth of the produce of the land, whether of seed or fruit, was claimed by God, and was to be regarded as holy (or set apart) for Him by Israel

  2. That if the offerer wished to retain this tenth of seed or fruit, he might do so by paying its value, and adding thereto one-fifth

  3. That every tenth calf and lamb also (that is, increase of the herd or flock) was to be set apart for Jehovah

From Numbers 18:21-24 we learn that the tithe just mentioned, though claimed by Jehovah Himself, was given by Him to the Levites. Thus:

"And unto the children of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they serve, even the service of the tent of meeting. And henceforth the children of Israel shall not come nigh the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin, and die. But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity: it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, and among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the children of Israel, which they offer as a heave offering unto the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance."

Hence this first, or Lord's tithe, is known also as the Levites tithe, concerning which it may be convenient here to notice:

  • That from this tithing no produce of land, or increase of herd or flock, is expected

  • That the offerer has no voice in its disposal

  • That though it was called a heave offering, the offerer did not receive any of it back again

That this tithe was not an amount that might be diminished, or an alms that the owner might render or not as he pleased, but a divine claim, the withholding of which was regarded by God as dishonesty, Malachi 3:8. It may further be noted concerning this first tithe that the Levites to whom it was given by God, were required by Him to render a tenth of what they received as a heave offering to Jehovah, and to pay it to Aaron the priest, Numbers 18:26-28.

We now proceed to a second tithe, which reads thus, Deuteronomy 14:22-27:

"Thou shalt surely tithe all the increase of thy seed, that which cometh forth of the field year by year. And thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God, in the place which He shall choose to cause His name to dwell there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herd and of thy flock; that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always. And if the way be too long for thee, so that thou art not able to carry it, because the place is too far from thee, which the Lord thy God shall choose to set His name there, when the Lord thy God shall bless thee: then shalt thou turn it into money, and bind up the money in thine hand, and shalt go unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose: and thou shalt bestow the money for whatsoever thy soul desireth, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul asketh of thee: and thou shalt eat there before the lord thy God,and thou shalt rejoice, thou and thy household: and the Levite that is within thy gates."

Concerning the second tithe we learn:

  • That it consisted of the yearly increase of the land

  • That it was to be eaten by the offerer, his household, and the Levite, with firstlings of herd and flock, but only at the appointed place of worship

  • The object of this was that Israel might always fear Jehovah

  • That it might be converted at home into money, to be expended at the capital for sacrifices and feasting

  • The tithe-payer was to eat and rejoice before God

  • The due payment involved a stay of at least a week each at the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, as well as a shorter period at the Feast of Weeks, Deuteronomy 16:3, 13, 16

It will help us better to understand this second, or festival tithe, as it is sometimes called, if we consider the end it was to serve. All the males in Israel (with their families, if they chose) were to assemble at the sanctuary three times a year for the worship of God, Deuteronomy 12:6-7.

"And thither ye shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the heave offerings of your hand, and your vows, and your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herd and of your flock: and there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and ye shall rejoice in all that ye put your hand unto, ye and your households."

The primary end, therefore, of the festivals was to foster religious principles and to furnish a time and place for social observances and the offering of sacrifices, all being done in recognition of God's bounty, and as acts of fealty and worship to Him. Now, in all nations, the main idea of a sacrifice has been that of a meal offered to a deity (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th ed., "Sacrifice," by W. Robertson Smith, volume 21, 132). In some cases the meal was made over entirely to the god; but more commonly the sacrifice was a feast, of which the god and the worshippers were supposed to partake together. In other words, the offering rendered, whether animal or vegetable, was sometimes wholly burnt; at others, was consumed partly by fire and partly by the priest; or, once more, part was burnt, part was taken by the priest, and a part returned to the offerer.

So, if an Israelite sinned, his appointed way to forgiveness was by sacrifice; and if he had vows to redeem, or thanksgivings to make, all involved the presentation of sacrifice. But this and other sacrifices were not to be offered in just any place the worshipper chose, Deuteronomy 12:17-18, but must be taken to the ecclesiastical capital, such as was afterwards established at the resting-places of the Ark, as in Shiloh, and in Jerusalem.

Speaking generally, the Jewish sacrifices partook more or less of the nature of expiation (for sin committed), of dedication (when seeking a favor), or of thanksgiving (for favor received); and according to the intention of the offerer was the kind of sacrifice presented.

If the first and second tithes be compared, it will be seen, by way of distinction, that whereas the offerer had no voice whatever in the disposal of the first tithe, the disposal of the second tithe was largely in his own hands; and that whereas the offerer did not receive again any portion for himself of the first tithe, he might receive in some cases the greater part of the second tithe for his own use, or purposes, as well as for the enjoyment of others.

We now come to a third tithe, Deuteronomy 14:28-29,

"At the end of every three years thou shalt bring forth all the tithe of thine increase in the same year, and shalt lay it up within thy gates; and the Levite, because he hath no portion nor inheritance with thee, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which are within thy gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hand which thou doest."

This teaches us that:

  • A tenth of every third year's increase was to be laid up at home.

  • This tenth was to be shared by the local Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.

  • The object of this tithe was, that Jehovah might bless the work of the tithe-payer's hands.

Some think this was not a third tithe, but a triennial substitute for the second tithe, so that in the third, and again the sixth, years (as well as the seventh year, when the land was not to be cultivated), the Israelite would not take the second, or festival, tithe to the sanctuary, but would dispose of it among the poor at home.

Perhaps this view may have been in part suggested by the Septuagint, which varies the punctuation, and reads: "After three years thou shalt bring forth all the tithe of thine increase. In that year thou shalt lay it up in thy cities," Deuteronomy 14:27. [In support of this opinion may be quoted the words of Maimonides: "On the third and sixth years from the sabbatical year, after they have separated the first tithe, they separate from what remains another tithe, and give it to the poor, and it is called the poor's tithe; and not on those two years is the second tithe, but the poor's tithe." -- Gill on Deuteronomy 14:28; Maimonides, Hilchot Mattanot Anayim, c. 6, sect. 4. See also Speaker's Commentary on Deuteronomy 14:28-29, and McClintock and Strong's Cyclopaedia, volume 10. p. 433.]

Selden and Michaelis also argue in the same direction, saying that a third tithe should be an excessive demand upon the income of a man who had already expended two-tenths of his increase (McClintock and Strongs Cyclopaedia, volume 10, p. 434). Peake likewise says: "It may be urged that it is not probable that a double tribute should be exacted from the crops." And again: "Nor is it probable that a tax of nearly one-fifth of the whole produce should be imposed on the farmers." (Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, I, p. 780.)

On the other hand, as opposed to these conjectures, it may be observed: That the Hebrew text nowhere says explicitly that the third tithe should be substituted for the second.

The injunction is several times repeated that every male should go up to the festivals yearly but neither the third, sixth, seventh, or any other year is excepted. [Some (and Professor Driver, International Critical Commentary, Deuteronomy, p. 168, among them) have supposed that, as the land was not to be sown in the seventh year, no tithe would be paid (McClintock and Strong, volume 10, p. 435). But if so, how were the Levites during that year to live, unless a double or triple tithe was to be paid in the sixth year? And this the law had already provided for. "If ye shall say, What shall we eat the seventh year? Behold we shall not sow, nor gather in our increase. Then will I command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years," etc., Leviticus 25:20-22.]

Besides, not going up to the festivals on the third, sixth, and seventh years would be attended with a further and practical difficulty: for if a man had sinned after returning, say, from the last feast of the fifth year, he would, under normal circumstances, be deprived of the opportunity of offering a sacrifice of expiation at the sanctuary until after an interval of two years.

Moreover, we have at least three witnesses of prominent rank for the third tithe being an addition to, and not a substitute for, the second tithe. The author of Tobit, for instance, when stating how he walked in the ways of truth and righteousness, notwithstanding the falling away of his father's family from God's command to sacrifice at Jerusalem, makes his subject say:

"I alone went often to Jerusalem at the feasts, as it hath been ordained unto all Israel by an everlasting decree, having the firstfruits and the tenths of mine increase, and that which was first shorn; and I gave them at the altar to the priests, the sons of Aaron. The tenth part of all mine increase I gave to the sons of Levi, who ministered at Jerusalem: and the second tenth apart I sold away, and went; and spent it each year at Jerusalem: and the third I gave unto them for whom it was meet, as Deborah my father's mother had commanded me," Tobit 1:6-8.

The foregoing quotation is the revised English version from the Vatican codex; but the reading of the Sinaitic codex is still more noteworthy. [I translate this passage as follows: "Having the firstfruits, and the firstborn and the tithes of cattle, and the first shearing of the sheep, I proceeded to Jerusalem, and I gave them to the priests, the sons of Aaron, at the altar; and the tenth of the wine, and of the corn, and of olive, and pomegranate, and the other fruit trees to the sons of Levi ministering in Jerusalem. "And the second tithe I sold away for money during six years, and I used to go every year and spend it in Jerusalem. And I gave them (i.e. the tithes) to the orphans, and to the widows, and to the strangers living among the children of Israel. I brought in and I gave (the tithes) to them in the third year, and we ate them according to the ordinance ordained concerning them in the law of Moses and according to the commandments which Deborah, the mother of Ananeel our father, commanded."]

Again, Josephus is quite clear as to a third tithe. He writes:

"Beside those two tithes which I have already said you are to pay every year, the one for the Levites, the other for the festivals, you are to bring every third year a tithe to be distributed to those that want; to women also that are widows, and to children that are orphans," (Josephus, Antiquities, bk. 4).

After Josephus we have the testimony of Jerome, who, like the preceding two witnesses, lived in Palestine. He says one tithe was given to the Levites, out of which they gave a tenth to the priests; a second tithe was applied to festival purposes, and a third was given to the poor (Commentary on Ezekiel 45:1, 565. quoted in McClintock and Strong, 10, 434). And so, evidently, Chrysostom understood, for he preaches: "What, then, did they (the Jews) give? A tenth of all their possessions, and another tenth, and after this a third (tenth)," etc. (Homily 64 on Matthew 20:27).

Once more, for a modern opinion to the same purpose, may be instanced that of Doctor Pusey, late Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, who, preaching on Ash Wednesday, at St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, is quoted thus:

The Pharisee "paid tithes of all which he possessed: a double tithe, you will recollect, one for God's priests, the other for the sacrifices, and yet another every third year for the poor: 4s. 8d. in the pound he anyhow gave to God, not, as our custom is, underrating property for the poor-rate, but a good 4s. 8d. in the pound on the average of the three years," Pearson, Systematic Beneficence, p. 11.

In fact, I can find no authority in favor of this supposed triennial substitution of the third tithe for the second, until the twelfth century, when Maimonides says that the third and sixth years second tithe was shared between the poor and the Levites, i.e. that there was no third tithe, De Jur. Paup. 6, 4. quoted in McClintock and Strong, 10, p. 434. But even then we have a contemporary rabbi of the same century (Aben Ezra) who says: "This was a third tithe, and did not excuse the second tithe." (See Gill on Deuteronomy 4:28.)

The reader, therefore, will judge concerning the plain statement of the law, supported by what we have seen was thought right by the author of the book of Tobit in perhaps the third century before Christ; and also at the time of Josephus (two or three centuries later, and when tithe-paying was still practiced), (see Sacred Tenth, pp. 79, 106) together with the testimony of Jerome (who lived in Palestine four centuries later, and may be presumed to have known how his contemporaries, at least among the Samaritans, were paying their tithes) whether all this is not more likely to be true than a statement such as that of Maimonides, who, thought buried in Palestine, yet flourished in Spain, but not until a thousand years after the Jewish nation had been dispersed.

As for the objection that a third tithe would be an excessive demand upon income the late Sir Monier Williams, Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, having referred me to passages of Sanskrit law, especially the code of Manu, the oldest compendium of the laws of the Brahmans, pointed out that the usual proportion of produce taken by the king was a sixth part (as we have seen was the case in Egypt), (see Sacred Tenth, p. 8) but that in times of necessity he might take one-fourth of the crop (Monier Williams, Indian Wisdom, p. 264).

We may remember also that, in the time of the Maccabees, the inhabitants of Judea seem to have been taxed to the extent of one-third of their seed and half of their fruit, 1Maccabees 10:30.

It would seem, then, that the Mosaic tithe law enjoined upon Israel to pay yearly, in connection with his religion, two-tenths, and, at the end of three years, a third tenth, of his income.

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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