I am still leading a tour in Israel as I post this. This is an old article that was requested by a friend who often shares it with others. I deleted my old blog in late January 2015 and started over again. While some of my old material can still be found out there on the internet, a lot of it is gone. To see why I deleted my blog read “The Rebuilding of Messianic Jewish Musings.” My journey toward becoming a new, better husband, father, rabbi, and person continues. Meanwhile, here is a slightly touched up version of the original article “The Tithe: Myths and Realities.”
There could hardly be a topic more misunderstood than the tithe commandments. In this post my plan is to briefly lay out some realism about what the Bible actually says about the tithe and to compare this to certain the myths and misunderstandings.
MYTH #1: That giving to a congregation or church has anything to do with the tithe. Hear the preacher saying, “Do not withhold your tithes. Bring them into the storehouse. Only tithers are blessed.” Hear what they are really saying, “Give us your money since we can use your ignorance of the Bible to manipulate you.” REALITY CHECK #1a: Surveys indicate that church-going Christians do not even come close to giving 10%. Real numbers I have seen are closer to 2% (google Barna or Gallup and charitable giving). REALITY CHECK #1b: Giving to support the local congregation (synagogue, church, etc.) is not about the tithe. Unrelated. Completely.
While I am enjoying Israel — the beauty of the land, the people with whom I am sharing this trip, the meaning of being near the places from which God made himself known and will someday soon make himself known again — I am planning the next one. It will be January 2017. Six nights in Jerusalem and four nights in Galilee. The theme will be the faith of the earliest Jewish believers. Cost will be $3,000 plus airfare (about $4,500). Want to get on the information list? Email me at ancientbible @ gmail dot com.
MYTH #2: Christians don’t believe in keeping the Law of Moses. REALITY CHECK #2a: Some Christian teachers say that the Law is obsolete but then hammer on Malachi 2:8-12 including “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse,” which they assume means the congregation’s bank account. REALITY CHECK #2b: Responsible and godly Christian leaders do not use Malachi to manipulate people. REALITY CHECK #2c: In Judaism, support of the congregation is a combination of paying dues and donating through fundraisers to build a future. In the more mature varieties of Christianity, the emphasis on giving is also about supporting the mission of the congregation and not prosperity theology and manipulation.
MYTH #3: Giving 10% to a religious community will prevent financial catastrophe for your family. REALITY CHECK #3: Religious people lose jobs and suffer financial loss just like other people. The promise of blessing in Malachi should be read in context. It is about the nation of Israel being blessed by keeping the Torah, including obeying what the tithe laws really mean (see below).
MYTH #4: The Torah has a clear and simple teaching about the tithe which can be laid out into a neat system. REALITY CHECK #4: The tithe laws represent one of the greatest puzzles in all of the Torah. How many tithes are there and can we really harmonize them into one system?
Now, a brief discussion of what Torah really says about tithing . . .
THE FOUR TITHE COMMANDMENTS
- Numbers 18:21-32. The first explanation of the tithe-obligation, to the Levites, only a tithe of crops is mentioned. The Levites give 10% of Israel’s tithes to the priests.
- Leviticus 27:30-33. An as-yet-unexplained regulation of tithes and redeeming them for money, to the Lord, consisting of crops and animals. Says one-fifth must be added if you redeem your tithe for money.
- Deuteronomy 14:22-27. The second explanation of the tithe, eaten by the owner in a communal meal, of crops and animals, able to be redeemed for money.
- Deuteronomy 14:28-29. A third-year tithe stored in towns for the poor and the Levites.
LISTING SOME PROBLEMS
- How many tithes are there? Two? Three? One? The standard Jewish harmonization has two (the ma’aser rishon [first tithe] and ma’aser sheni [second tithe]). It is based on a seven-year system with seventh years having no tithe (since no crops are raised) and every third and sixth year in the cycle following Deut 14:28-29 instead of Deut 14:22-27.
- What exactly is subject to the tithe? Crops and animals or only crops? What about income from sources other than agriculture? The tithe laws do not mention a tithe on income, only on the increase of the fields and flocks.
- Is the tithe to the priests or to the Levites? Originally there were many more Levites than priests. But after the exile in Babylon there were many more priests than Levites. You can see how giving the fewer Levites all of the tithe who would then give the more numerous priests only 10% would be a problem. Doesn’t Torah have to change when the situation changes?
- Is the Deuteronomy tithe a replacement of the earlier law or is it a second tithe? Most readers assume all the laws were given at one time in Israel (the time of Moses). The Torah gives much evidence that Torah was updated over time. One theory is that the Numbers tithe goes back to early days when there were multiple places of worship and the Deuteronomy tithe is from the time of kings like Hezekiah and Josiah who consolidated worship to one place.
- It should be clear the tithe laws are completely unrelated to supporting a congregation. Those who would misuse these commandments and misuse the verses in Malachi must explain how they have authority to: #1 make the tithe about monetary income, #2 replace the priesthood and Levites with the congregation bank account, #3 ignore the multiple tithes, #4 replace the national blessing of Israel with a message of personal prosperity, #5 ignore the aspect of tithing which is about sharing the abundance with the poor, and #6 do all this with their personal enrichment in mind (yet we should believe they are just reading what the Bible says). Hey, I’d like to read the Bible as commanding all people to send Derek Leman a donation too.
SOME COMMENTARY ON DEUT 14:22-29
The tithe laws represent one of the greatest puzzles in all of the Torah. How many tithes are there and can we really harmonize them into one system? The tithe of Numbers 18:21-32 is to be given to the Levites. This tithe in Deuteronomy is to be consumed at the Temple at festivals. A third year tithe is to be kept in towns and donated to the Levites (is this third year tithe instead of the festival tithe or in addition to it?). Leviticus 27:30-33 says that a fifth must be added to the tithe if it is exchanged for money whereas Deuteronomy 14:25 does not mention any penalty. Deuteronomy 14:27 says “you shall not neglect the Levite,” but this seems to ignore Numbers 18:21 in which Levites already receive the whole tithe. The rabbis call the Numbers 18 tithe (and Leviticus 27:30-33) the “first tithe” and Deuteronomy 14:22-29 the “second tithe.” They interpret the tithes as following a seven-year pattern, since there were no crops in seventh years. The laying aside of a tithe in “third years” (meaning the third and sixth year of every seven-year cycle) is not a third tithe, in rabbinic interpretation, but a replacement for the festival tithe. The rabbinic system does not resolve the discrepancies (is a one-fifth penalty to be added or not?). Many interpreters see the tithe instructions of Deuteronomy 14 as a new law from later in Israel’s history, replacing the earlier tithe laws of Numbers and Leviticus. In this way of reading the development of tithe laws, the Deuteronomy tithe is part of a reform from many sanctuaries spread through the land to one central sanctuary. If this is true, Deuteronomy is removing the tithe to the Levites from Numbers and replacing it with a tithe for festivals and the poor. Whether we follow the harmonious reading of the rabbis or the legal-reform reading of many other scholars, the Deuteronomy tithe is a beautiful thing. It redistributes crops and livestock in three annual festivals so that all the people share alike in the blessing of the land and it provides for the poor a system of public assistance.
My suggestion: give to a local synagogue or church or home fellowship. Give also to charity and have some savings for friends in need. If we are alive when the Temple is rebuilt, let’s move to Israel and become concerned with the tithe laws then