Tithe in Israel – a Summary

A discussion of tithing would be incomplete without looking at the verses in books of Moses that discuss tithing and attempting to understand their detail. The main references are:

  • Numbers 18: 21-32
  • Leviticus 27:31-33
  • Deuteronomy 14: 22-29

There are other verses that also relate to tithe, but these are the references with the greatest detail. Further, I have elected not to discuss some of the other offerings, such as the heave offering, just to keep the information simple. The subject can be quite confusing, so I will give you a couple of pegs to hang the information on.

When the Israelites occupied Canaan, each tribe was given an allotment of land as their inheritance, except for the tribe of Levi. They were given the task of looking after the temple. The sons of Aaron (also Levites) were designated as priests (known as Kohen or Cohen).

The tithing cycle was based on a seven-year cycle with the seventh year being a rest year. This is described in Ex 23: 10-11, Lev 25: 1-7, 20-22, Deut 15: 1-6. Essentially this year was set aside as a rest year and no crops were to be sown. Whatever grew naturally belonged to everyone.

It may be assumed that if this plan had been followed, there would have been no tithe returned in the seventh year, since there was no increase to the farmer.

There is little evidence either in the Bible or other Jewish writings to suggest that the Sabbath Year was ever kept in its agricultural intent. Certainly, famers understood the necessity for leaving land fallow, but it was done on a crop rotational basis and not as a seventh-year event.

Numbers 18:21-32

This passage sets out the tithe to support the Levites. The Levites were to be given the tithe from the Children of Israel. In turn the Levites were to take one tenth of that tithe and give that to the priests. This tithe to the priests had to be the best of what they, the Levites, had been given. Once they had given their tithe to the priests, the Levites could do what they liked with the rest. They could eat it anywhere, as it was considered their wages. The tithe that was passed on to the priests was regarded as sacred and could be eaten only be the priests when they were ritually clean.

It specifies that when the Levite passed on their 10%, it counted as though the Levites had offered the grain of the threshing floor and the fullness of the wine press.

In Jewish literature this is known as the first tithe or Maaser Rishon.

Leviticus 27:31-33

Two tithes are described here:
1) The tithe of the land, seeds and fruit. This tithe belongs to the Lord but may be redeemed for 20% more than its value.
2) The other is a tithe on the herds and flocks. A key feature of this tithe is that there should be no discrimination of quality. Every tenth animal belonged to the Lord. Substitution and redemption was not allowed on animal tithe.

I think this is also primarily describing the first tithe or Maaser Rishon.

Deuteronomy 14:22-29

This describes what are known as the second and third tithes (Maasar Sheni and Maasar Ani).

This tithe specified setting aside one-tenth of the crops and herds to be taken to “the place in which He shall choose to place his name” (i.e. Jerusalem). If the distance was too great, then they could set aside the value of the tithe in money and take that to Jerusalem. This money could be spent on anything they liked, providing they shared some of it with the Levites.

In years 3 and 6 of the seven-year cycle, a tithe was to be set aside for the Levite, the foreigner, the widow and the fatherless who is “within your gates. It became known as the “Poor Tithe” or Maasar Ani.

Some Observations

The tithing system in Israel was more complex than is sometimes presented in tithing studies. The original descriptions were given during the time of the exodus and preparatory to the settlement of Canaan. In those circumstances most people were involved in some form of subsistence farming, and trading was based essentially on an exchange of goods and services rather than the use of money. This explains why the examples of tithing given in these passages is primarily in terms of crops and herds.

The first tithe was to support the Levites which, in turn, included support for the priests. The second tithe is more difficult to understand. My first guess is that the second tithe was used primarily to provide for the feast days in Jerusalem, seeing it was essentially marked for purchasing or providing food items in Jerusalem. The third tithe was a welfare tithe to support the poor and needy.

Application

While it is possible to argue over the specifics, I believe it is more helpful to take a broader view and attempt to understand the principle behind tithing. In Deuteronomy 8 Moses gives the Israelites a bit of a pep talk about how to behave when they get to the promised land. He reminds them that they have been led by God for the past 40 years in the wilderness and that God has looked after them. Their food was supplied, and their feet did not swell. He goes on to say that when they are settled in the promised land, they shouldn’t get big-headed and boast how they had overcome all the obstacles by themselves. Be humble and acknowledge God as the source of your wealth.

Tithing for the Israelites and the current Seventh-day Adventist Church may not have the same detail, but in principle it is one of the mechanisms whereby we can acknowledge God as the source of our wealth, health and well-being and contribute to the community of believers. Understanding the principle may go far towards dissipating the feeling of coercion that some people have about the tithe and replacing it with a spirit of thankfulness. 

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Source: Daily Sabbath School Lessons