Tithing in modern days is a confusing topic for many people. Tithing in the age of the patriarchs is an even more obscure theological concept. According to the statutes of the Torah, the notion of tithing (giving a percentage of produce) is most often associated with the priestly work in the Temple (e.g., Num 18:24; Neh 10:39). But if tithing was meant for the priests and the Temple, how and why did Abraham tithe?
We have only one example when Abraham gave “a tenth” (מַעֲשֵׂר; maaser) of his war plunder to Melchizedek (Gen 14:20; cf. Heb 7:4). Some use this example to show that tithing preceded the Sinai covenant, but notice that Abraham’s was not a gift to God, but to an earthly king and “a priest to Most High God” (כֹהֵן לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן; cohein le-El Elyon). Whoever Melchizedek might have been, Abraham understood that he was a priest — someone who served God. The image of Melchizedek is shrouded in mystery, and Messiah Yeshua is called a priest in his order (Heb 5:6-10; cf. Ps 110:4), which is quite an honor. Why did Abraham give him a “tenth”? The founding patriarch gave the priest this gift in order to honor the ruler of the land because Abraham was sojourning in his territory (see Gen 13:18).
But Abraham did not tithe only ten percent, as most people believe. Abraham returned all of the “goods of Sodom and Gomorrah” (Gen 14:11), which he took back from the attackers, to Bera the ruler of Sodom (Gen 14:21-24). He kept only the portions for his allies and what his soldiers consumed (Gen 14:24). Using this story to teach tithing in churches is problematic because Abraham did not just tithe, he actually gave away 100% of the goods and kept nothing. This is an example of giving “a tenth” (מַעֲשֵׂר; maaser) prior to Sinai. But this interaction between Abraham and Melchizedek should not be used to support the idea of tithing 10%, as though this percentage were a biblical mandate. Giving is biblical, but tithing in ancient Israel went far beyond 10% (Read my other article “Should we Tithe Today?”)