According to some, tithing is an Old Testament law, so Christians should not tithe. Others, however, assert that tithing is an enduring command applicable for modern believers. But what is biblical tithing?
Various kinds of contributions appear in the Torah (cf. Num 18:21-32; Deut 14:22-7). Even before tithing, every Israelite was to give a gift to the priests known as terumah (תְּרוּמָה), meaning “a gift which one lifts up” (Exod 25:2-3; 30:13-14; Lev 7:32; Deut 12:11). According to the Mishnah, the amount for this offering was flexible, around 1/30 to 1/50 of the harvest (m. Terumot 4:3). Then the first tithe (מַעֲשֵׂר; maaser) could be set aside — a tenth of the harvest given to local Levites (Num 18:24), who then gave a tenth to priests (cf. Num 18:26; Neh 10:39). But then a second tithe was taken. It was used for the expenses and food while the farmer’s family worshipped in Jerusalem (Deut 14:24-26). Every third and sixth year of a seven-year cycle this second tithe was given to the poor (Deut 26:12).
Technically, the laws of the tithe apply only to grain, wine, and oil (Deut 14:22; Neh 13:12). Early on, biblical tradition expanded tithing to fruit and other agricultural produce (cf. Lev 27:30; 2 Chron 31:5; Matt 23:23). More, tithe laws apply only to produce grown in Israel — “God’s own land” (Lev 20:24; 25:23). Tithes were always crops, as opposed to money.
In light of all these verses, the common modern practice of giving 10% of one’s income is not exactly what the Bible means by a “tithe.” In our day, fewer people make their living in farming than in biblical times. There is no functioning Temple in Jerusalem, and there is no priesthood to accept one’s tithed goods. But while our livelihood may have changed, God’s commands in the Torah have not. Jewish tradition maintains that giving to the needy, benevolence, and charitable contributions are prominent in Torah and should be practiced today. While we cannot practice precise biblical tithing today, by supporting institutions and people who serve God, we imitate our Maker who, in his goodness, feeds the whole earth (Ps 126:35).
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