The Three Tithes of the Old Testament
A number of years ago the editor of one of our church papers sent me a letter in which a troubled brother raised some questions about the proper use of the tithe. While he, and we with him, believe that the tithe has to be used for the promotion of the gospel, a text like Deuteronomy 14:22-27 seemed to admit of a use other than for the temple service, Levites, and priests. In fact, that text says explicitly that the priest may use the tithe for eating and drinking for himself, his family, and the Levite from his own town.
For the benefit of those who have to answer questions of this nature I would like to present the Old Testament tithing system. It may be a consolation to those who find it hard to pay one tithe under our present system, to know that in Old Testament times there were actually three different kinds of tithe. Each one of these had a definite purpose, and although not all of them are enjoined upon the New Testament Christian, the study of the significance of each is highly recommended.
The three different types are as follows:
1. The Levitical, or sacred tithe (Num. 18: 21, 24).
2. The tithe of the feasts (Deut. 14:22-27).
3. The tithe for the poor (Deut. 14:28, 29).
The first tithe, the one we trace back to Abraham (Gen. 14:18-20), is the sacred tithe, given to the Levites and priests for their service to the temple and the congregation in the Old Testament. This is the tithe we continue to give under the priesthood of Melchizedek in the New Testament. It is the tithe consecrated to God and the furtherance of the gospel and has, therefore, validity for all believers in Christ.
The second tithe had an entirely different aspect, and we would do well to contemplate its meaning and purposes. Our enlightened generation prides itself on its social laws and provisions. Even a superficial study of the tithing system reveals that several thousand years back, Israel had something that resembles the Christmas Club savings system, only with a much broader religious and social meaning. The Levitical law required that a Jew had to go up to Jerusalem on certain occasions. In reality this religious ordinance included a definite social provision—periods of vacation for the family. And how should the head of the household provide for the vacation expense? By setting aside a second tithe, the one described in Deuteronomy 14:22-27, the tithe for the feasts. Thus the second tithe was dedicated to the good of man himself, for a vacation and specifically, a vacation with a religious purpose, such as going to camp meeting.
The third tithe was the tithe for the poor. According to our text in Deuteronomy 14:28, 29, this tithe was given only every third year. As the text states, the produce had to be laid up in "your towns" for the Levite, sojourner, fatherless, and the widow. It suggests that the distribution was not left to the individual but was a community project to which everybody had to contribute. This tithe, therefore, was for the neighbor. Summarizing the three types of tithe in the Old Testament period we find a much broader concept of giving than we generally assume, giving that included first, God; second, man's own physical and spiritual welfare; and third, their neighbor's need. God, you, and your neighbor is a good trinity in planning one's giving.
Some of our readers might think that this is quite a novel idea. In reality, it was quite well known among the Jews and was practiced among the pious. In the book of Tobit, which according to R. H. Charles was written between c. 350 and c. 170 B.C. (The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the 0.T., vol 1, p. 185), the following statement is found: "I used to go to Jerusalem with the firstfruits and the firstlings and the tenths of the cattle and the first shearings of the sheep, and give them to the priests, the sons of Aaron, for the altar, and the tenth of the corn and the wine and oil and pomegranates and the rest of the fruits to the sons of Levi, who ministered at Jerusalem."—/bid., p. 203, Tobit 1:6, 7. This is the first, or holy tithe. Tobit then continues: "And the second tenth I tithed in money for the six years, and went and spent it each year at Jerusalem . . ." (Tobit 1:7, 8).
The translation of the comment on the third tithe, which follows, has been rendered differently by different scholars. Since Charles mentions the tithe given to the orphans, widows, and proselytes, we must assume that he refers to the third tithe, the only one dedicated to the poor, and not given annually but only every third year. The translation by Bunsen (German) is worthy of acceptance as correctly translating the original meaning. He says: "And the third tithe I gave unto those to whom it belonged," that is, to the poor, widows, and orphans.
The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, mentions the custom of paying three tithes: "In addition to the two tithes which I have already directed you to pay each year, the one for the Levites and the other for the banquets, ye should devote a third every third year to the distribution of such things as are lacking to widowed women and orphan children."—Antiquities iv. 240; Loeb ed.
A more penetrating study of some Old Testament laws would be quite profitable for ministry and church members alike, since it demonstrates that if analyzed correctly, they appear to be quite modern and permeated with concern for the spiritual welfare of the individual, the family, and the community. We could give thought to these aspects of Israel's economy and the benefits of looking at our own tithing and systematic benevolence from this angle.