Priests, Parties, and Poor People: OT Tithes

From a young age, my parents taught me the value of tithing and saving. They did this by giving me a unique piggy bank, which wasn’t a piggy, but was instead three buildings with a coin hole at the top of each. There was a store, a church, and a bank. So when I got my $1 of allowance, one dime went in the bank, one dime into the church, and the other 80 cents to the store. Easy math. But if finances were tight, and I really wanted that Lego battleship, sometimes, to my shame, I would sneak money out of the bank and transfer it into the store. But I never dipped my hand into the church side of things. Bank robbery was occasionally okay, but stealing from God didn’t seem like a great idea as a seven-year old.
As I’ve been reading through your favorite biblical genre, Israelite law code, I’ve learned some surprisingly things about the tithe that no one told me growing up. The tithe is far better than you once thought.
“Every tenth of the land’s produce, grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord.” -Leviticus 27:30
Tithe means one tenth, or 10%. Some will be surprised to know that there is not one tithe, but three mentioned in the Old Testament, each with a specific purpose.
Tithe #1: To the Levites (priests)
Look, I have given the Levites every tenth in Israel as an inheritance in return for the work they do, the work of the tent of meeting. . .The Levites will not receive an inheritance among the Israelites; this is a permanent statute throughout your generations. For I have given them the tenth that the Israelites present to the Lord as a contribution for their inheritance. That is why I told them that they would not receive an inheritance among the Israelites” – (Num 18:21, 23b-24).
The Levites ran religious life in Israel, staffing the tabernacle and later the temple. Because they did not have land (nor would they have time to work it), they needed to receive support from the rest of the people. In some ways, this was like a tax, because there is no separation between church and state in ancient Israel. They are priests, but they’re also “government,” as they provide a valuable civic service.
Tithe #2: To a Family Vacation and Blowout Barbeque
Don’t believe me? Check out Deuteronomy 14:22-27:
22 “Each year you are to set aside a tenth of all the produce grown in your fields. 23 You are to eat a tenth of your grain, new wine, and oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, in the presence of Yahweh your God at the place where He chooses to have His name dwell, so that you will always learn to fear the Lord your God. 24 But if the distance is too great for you to carry it, since the place where Yahweh your God chooses to put His name is too far away from you and since the Lord your God has blessed you, 25 then exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place the Lord your God chooses. 26 You may spend the money on anything you want: cattle, sheep, wine, beer, or anything you desire. You are to feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice with your family. 27 Do not neglect the Levite within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance among you.”
Say what? A family vacation, barbeque, and beer? Why have I never heard about this tithe? God commanded the people to set aside 10% of the food and drink that they produced, so that they could have a blowout party at Shiloh or Jerusalem every year. To many in Israel, this would be like a vacation. But if they lived too far from Jerusalem, they could turn their crops in cash and then come buy all the meat and drinks they could ever want. Think of Outback Steak House, just without the ribs and bacon burgers.
Why did God institute this party? In Deuteronomy 14:23, he says that the feast is so “that you will always learn to fear the Lord your God.” The “fear of the Lord” here doesn’t mean being afraid of God, but rather honoring him above everyone and everything else. The whole point of the feast is to enjoy good food and drink “in God’s presence” with family and friends.
Some scholars think that Tithe #1 and Tithe #2 are really the same thing. They note that spending 10% of the annual income on a trip and dinner party seems unlikely. That’s a lot of steak. They might be right, and if this is the case, then the Israelites would bring their tithe to Shiloh or Jerusalem, throw a massive party, and give the rest to the Levites for their taxes/tithe. It seems like a probable interpretation. However, other scholars see the differences between Tithe #1 and #2 as being indications that these are separate tithes.
Tithe #3: Helping the poor (Every third year)
“At the end of every third year, bring the entire tithe of that year’s harvest and store it in the nearest town. Give it to the Levites, who will receive no allotment of land among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all your work.” -Deuteronomy 14:28-29
This tithe is definitely different from the first two, because it happens every third year, and it happens in the nearest town (instead of Shiloh or Jerusalem). This collection is again for the Levites, but also for the foreigners/immigrants, orphans, and widows. In ancient Semitic culture, these three kinds of people (immigrants, orphans, and widows) are extremely vulnerable, with few rights or social systems to protect them. The fact that God sets up this tithe shows that he cares for these vulnerable populations, commanding Israel to protect and provide for them.
How do the Old Testament tithes inform our giving and generosity today? As with so many of the Israel-specific commands, they are not to be directly applied to today’s context and culture. Rather, these commands are to help us think about God’s character and how we should act in light of it.
Tithing is not mentioned (positively) in the New Testament, but radical generosity is. So we’re not off that hook. All of our money, time, and resources are God’s. To conclude, I’ll briefly comment on how I think each OT tithe might inform our generosity today.
The 1st OT Tithe reminds us that we need to financially prioritize pastors. We can and should continue to support ministry leaders financially. The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17). Obviously I’m in this category, so I’m the fat elephant in the room here. And no, I don’t need a raise. But seriously, I am incredibly thankful that people in my church faithfully give, many of them 10% of their income, so that I am able to work full-time in this capacity.
The 2nd OT Tithe reminds us that we need to financially prioritize parties. Yes, you read that right. Christians need to throw the best parties, and not just with our friends, but also with “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” (Luk 14:13), as well as “tax collectors and sinners” (Mk 2:16). If a part of your tithe goes to throwing block parties to better get to know your neighbors or coworkers, there’s pretty good biblical precedent for that.
The 3rd OT Tithe reminds us that we need to financially prioritize the poor. It is difficult to know the best ways to do this, but I think its wise to 1) support proven organizations in your town (like your local Mission, Pregnancy Care Centers, and benevolence ministries), 2) support good, global organizations (like orphan ministry) and 3) to have relationships with poor people so we don’t distance ourselves from their world. I’ll let you figure out what that might look like!
Finally, all this motivation for generosity comes from the generosity of Jesus: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (1 Cor 8:9). When we’ve been given the Lord Jesus, worth far more than a billion bucks, it’s odd to haggle over pennies.