Sometimes the topic of tithing appears in unexpected places in the Bible. One such place is the story of Jacob’s dream in Genesis. After seeing a breathtaking vision of stairs that reach to the heavens, Jacob responded to God with a promise: he pledged to give a “tenth” (עַשֵּׂר; aser) of everything that Hashem would give to him (Gen 28:22). Since Scripture typically frames tithing as an ordinance connected to priests and Temple (cf. Lev 27:30-32; Num 18:21; Deut 12:17; Neh 10:38; Mal 3:8-10), a question arises for the reader of Genesis: How would Jacob fulfill his pledge before the Temple existed?
Note that Jacob promised to give God a “tenth” with specific conditions: God was to protect him, keep him safe, provide food and clothing, and allow him to return to Canaan. Only then, says Jacob, will “the LORD will be my God (וְהָיָה יהוה לִי לֵאלֹהִים; vehaya YHWH li le-Elohim)” (Gen 28:20-21). Jacob would give God a tenth of everything because the Almighty would prove himself to be generous, caring, faithful, and trustworthy. Tithing (giving a tenth) is an act of worship – a token of allegiance and recognition of who truly provides all the goods that the worshipper enjoys.
Since, in the days of the patriarchs, Jacob’s God did not yet have a Temple or appoint a priesthood, Jacob planned to give this tenth in the form of a burnt offering. After returning to Canaan, Jacob bought land near the city of Shechem (Gen 33:18) and he immediately erected an altar there and called it “God, the God of Israel” (אֵל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; El-Elohei-Israel). Then Jacob moved to Bethel, the very spot where he saw his vision of the heavenly staircase. Jacob built an altar there as well and called it “The God of Bethel” (אֵל בֵּית־אֵל; El-Beit-El). Jacob gave God the tenth that he pledged and it all went up in smoke as an act of devotion to the LORD.