Lately I’ve seen several articles and videos circulating in Messianic and Hebrew Roots groups on the subject of tithing. Each teacher seems to have his or her own idea about how “tithing” applies or does not apply today. In this post, we are going to list every Biblical reference on the subject, making a few observations but without drawing any conclusions. If you find one I haven’t listed, please comment below.
First, let’s look at the Biblical words translated as or used to describe “tithe,” first in Greek for the New Testament, and then in Hebrew for the Tanakh or Christian Old Testament.
G586 Thayer Definition:
1) to give, pay a tithe of anything
2) to exact receive a tenth from anyone
Part of Speech: verb
G1183 Thayer Definition:
1) to exact or receive the tenth part
2) to pay tithes
Part of Speech: verb
G1181 Thayer Definition:
1) a tenth part of anything, a tithe
1a) the tenth party of booty taken from an enemy
1b) the tithes of fruits of the earth and of flocks, which by the law of Moses were presented to the Levites in the congregation of Israel
Part of Speech: adjective
A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: feminine of G1182
מעשׂרה / מעשׂר / מעשׂר ma‛ăśêr / ma‛ăśar / ma‛aśrâh
H4643 BDB Definition:
1) tithe, tenth part
1a) tenth part
1b) tithe, payment of a tenth part
Part of Speech: noun masculine
H6237 BDB Definition:
1) to tithe, take the tenth part of, give a tithe, take a tithe
1a) (Qal) to tithe
1b) (Piel) to give a tithe
1c) (Hiphil) to take a tithe
Part of Speech: verb
There is an interesting entry in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) under the Hebrew root word (TWOT #1711):
The concept of tithing… was not unique with Israel in the ancient near east. Other nations of antiquity practiced tithing. This is true of the Egyptians as well as the Mesopotamians (see, e.g., citations from Akkadian literature respecting tithes paid to gods or temples in CAD, IV-E, 369). Nor was tithing first introduced to Israel in the Mosaic law. Abram paid a tithe of his war booty to Melchizedek after receiving a priestly benediction from him (Genesis 14:20; cf. Hebrews 7, esp. v. 4), and Jacob vowed a tithe to God at Bethel following his dream of a ladder leading to the presence of Yahweh (Genesis 28:22).
The first use of this word and first mention of the concept of the tithe in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 14. As noted above, the practice already existed in the ancient near east. Abraham had just returned from rescuing his relative, Lot, who had been taken captive during a battle. Abraham met the mysterious Melchizedek, identified only as the king of Salem and priest of El Elyon (God Most High).
Genesis 14:20 says that “He (presumably Abraham) gave him (presumably Melchizedek) a tenth of all.” Some scholars have debated on who it was that paid the tenth and who it was that received it. This story is recounted in the New Testament in the book of Hebrews, where it identifies Abraham as the one paying the tithe.
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
He gave him a tenth of all.
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham as he was returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils… In this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on. And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.
The only other place prior to the giving or Torah where a tithe is mentioned is a vow by Jacob on his way to visit Laban. This is on the morning after his infamous dream of a stairway to heaven.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the LORD will be my God. This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.”
Affirming the idea suggested in TWOT that exacting a tithe was a known practice, Samuel warned Israel that if they set a king over them he would take a tithe from them.
So Samuel spoke all the words of the LORD to the people who had asked of him a king. He said, “This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you… He will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards and give to his officers and to his servants… He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
(1 Samuel 8:10-11,15,17-18)
The Commanded Tithe(s)
The Torah instructions describe three different kinds of tithes. It is significant that in each of these, they only involve agriculture – crops and flocks. No tithe is ever required based on merchant trading or other business activities such as hunting, fishing or mining, and never on wages or investments. Tithing was limited to the produce of the land and the livestock.
Thus all the tithe of the land, of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD’S; it is holy to the LORD. If, therefore, a man wishes to redeem part of his tithe, he shall add to it one-fifth of it. For every tenth part of herd or flock, whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the LORD.
Here we make an observation: the tithe is taken last, not first. It is the tenth animal to be counted, so if you only counted eight, there was no tithe required. Also notice that the tithe of the produce could be redeemed, or bought back. The price was a fifth part higher, which more literally means to add a fifth part to the four parts that were already there, increasing the value by 25%. The plain reading of the text applies this provision to the produce, but not the livestock.
The first of the three kinds of tithes went to the Levites, who were given no inheritance of land from which to raise produce or livestock themselves. A tithe of this tithe that was given to the Levites was then given to the priests.
“To the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting. The sons of Israel shall not come near the tent of meeting again, or they will bear sin and die. Only the Levites shall perform the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity; it shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the sons of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the sons of Israel, which they offer as an offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance; therefore I have said concerning them, ‘They shall have no inheritance among the sons of Israel.'” Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Moreover, you shall speak to the Levites and say to them, ‘When you take from the sons of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present an offering from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe. Your offering shall be reckoned to you as the grain from the threshing floor or the full produce from the wine vat. So you shall also present an offering to the LORD from your tithes, which you receive from the sons of Israel; and from it you shall give the LORD’S offering to Aaron the priest.'”
The second of the three kinds of tithes was to be used by the person giving it to celebrate the three annual feasts.
But you shall seek the LORD at the place which the LORD your God will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come. There you shall bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the contribution of your hand, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. There also you and your households shall eat before the LORD your God, and rejoice in all your undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you. You shall not do at all what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes; for you have not as yet come to the resting place and the inheritance which the LORD your God is giving you. When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security, then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your God will choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the LORD. And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. Be careful that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every cultic place you see, but in the place which the LORD chooses in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you. However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your gates, whatever you desire, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and the deer. Only you shall not eat the blood; you are to pour it out on the ground like water. You are not allowed to eat within your gates the tithe of your grain or new wine or oil, or the firstborn of your herd or flock, or any of your votive offerings which you vow, or your freewill offerings, or the contribution of your hand. But you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God will choose, you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all your undertakings.
You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. You shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the LORD your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the LORD your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your town, for he has no portion or inheritance among you. At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town.
The third of the three kinds of tithes was reserved for the poor and less fortunate: the Levite, stranger, orphan and widow are, at least, examples of these.
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.
Here is another observation: the text says “in the third year, the year of tithing.” Rabbinic Judaism has determined that this is to be in the third and sixth years of the seven-year sh’mittah cycle. They also say that the second tithe, the one for feasts, is paid in the first, second, fourth and fifth years (from commentary in The Stone Edition Chumash on Leviticus 27:30-31 and Deuteronomy 26:12-15).
There are examples of tithing are recorded in these passages in the Tanakh:
2 Chronicles 31:4-12
Tithing is also described in the vision of Ezekiel’s Temple in Ezekiel 45:11-14. A sarcastic reference to tithing with false motives is found in the prophecy of Amos 4:4-5.
Of course, there is the passage in Malachi that is proclaimed from pulpits everywhere:
“Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.”
And here we can make this observation: in this passage, as in all others since the command was given, the “tithe” that is brought into the storehouse is agricultural – “food” (KJV “meat”), from the Hebrew word tereph (H2964). Interestingly, this word is most commonly translated as “prey.”
From The Apocryphal Books
The Greek writings of the Apocrypha have a few things to say about tithing. The Wisdom of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, says “With every gift show a cheerful face, and dedicate your tithe with gladness” (Sirach 35:11 ESV).
Tobit, a righteous Israelite living in Nineveh, describes acts of tithing:
But I alone went often to Jerusalem at the time for the feasts, just as it is written for all Israel by an everlasting decree. I would hurry off to Jerusalem, taking the first fruits – the first fruits of my fields and the tithes of my livestock and the first shearings of the sheep – and I would give these to the priests, the sons of Aaron, at the altar. I would give a tenth of the grain, wine, olive oil, pomegranates, figs, and the produce from the other fruit trees to the sons of Levi who ministered in Jerusalem; I tithed a second tenth in silver for the six years, and would go and spend this in Jerusalem each year. I would give these things to the orphans and widows and sojourners who had attached themselves to the sons of Israel: I would carry and give it to them in the third year and we would eat them according to the stipulations that had been stipulated concerning them in the Law of Moses and according to the commands which Deborah, the mother of Ananiel our father, had commanded me (for my father had died and left me an orphan).
(Tobit 1:6-8 ESV)
In a shorter version of Tobit (see my post here), verse 7 reads, “a second tenth I would sell, and I would go and spend the proceeds each year at Jerusalem” (Tobit 1:7, ESV 2009).
The books of Judith and First Maccabees both describe instances of tithing:
They have decided to consume the first fruits of the grain and the tithes of the wine and oil, which they had consecrated and set aside for the priests who minister in the presence of our God at Jerusalem – although it is not lawful for any of the people so much as to touch these things with their hands.
(Judith 11:13 ESV)
They also brought the garments of the priesthood and the first fruits and the tithes, and they stirred up the Nazirites who had completed their days; and they cried aloud to Heaven, saying, “What shall we do with these? Where shall we take them?
(1 Maccabees 3:49-50 ESV)
“And now I [Seleucid King Demetrius of Syria] free you and exempt all the Jews from payment of tribute and salt tax and crown levies, and instead of collecting the third of the grain and the half of the fruit of the trees that I should receive, I release them from this day and henceforth. I will not collect them from the land of Judah or from the three districts added to it from Samaria and Galilee, from this day and for all time. And let Jerusalem and her environs, her tithes and her revenues, be holy and free from tax.
(1 Maccabees 10:29-31 ESV)
And the other payments henceforth due to us of the tithes, and the taxes due to us, and the salt pits and the crown taxes due to us — from all these we shall grant them release.
(1 Maccabees 11:35 ESV)
In each of these instances, the tithe is agricultural. Tobit describes selling the agricultural second tithe and taking the silver to Jerusalem for the feast.
Tithing in the New Testament
Yeshua makes two references to tithing. One is recorded twice, in Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42 (they could have been on two separate occasions) in which he criticizes religious leaders for the way they are tithing. Notice again, their tithe was agricultural (herbs).
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”
Yeshua’s only other recorded reference to tithing is in a parable where he also was critical of a religious leader:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.'”
The only other mention of tithing in the New Testament is in Hebrews, referencing the story of Abraham and Melchizedek as stated above. Tithing is not found in the book of Acts, any of Paul’s writings, other letters, or Revelation.
All tithing commanded in the Bible is agricultural – flocks and crops. It went to Levites and Priests who did not have any inheritance of land. It was the last, not the first, of ten parts. A second tithe was used to celebrate the pilgrimage feasts. A third tithe was given to the poor. There is disagreement as to exactly when the second and/or third tithe applied.
As stated at the beginning of this post, we are not going to draw a conclusion. Whether or not you can or should tithe now is a decision you must reach yourself. As a general observation, I can say that almost everything I ever heard in church (and in some Messianic congregations) is nothing at all like what is described in the Bible.
But while you are deciding about tithing – give, and give generously.
Unless marked otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation
Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The ESV Apocrypha © 2017 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Scripture quotations marked ESV 2009 are from The ESV Apocrypha © 2009 Oxford University Press