God instituted a financial system in Israel that enabled the Levitical priesthood to perform its religious functions. This system also made it possible for the Israelites to attend God’s festivals, and provided for the needs of the widows, orphans and poor.
Tithing is an Old Testament practice. God accepted the tithes of Abraham and Jacob (Genesis 14:18-24; 28:20-22). Later, he used the tithing system to finance the religious and secular needs of his people, the nation of Israel (Numbers 18:21; Leviticus 27:30). Tithing continued periodically throughout the eras of the judges and of the kings of Israel and Judah. Even after the Jews were freed from captivity, God rebuked them for stealing his tithes (Malachi 3:8).
The most ancient record of anyone giving a tithe is found in Genesis 14. In a battle between various kings and armies of that day, Abram’s nephew Lot was taken captive. Abram rescued him and brought back a large amount of booty from the campaign (verse 16). It was an occasion of great rejoicing.
“Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (Genesis 14:18-20).
Tithing, in this context, acknowledged God’s sovereignty and lordship over the earth. God later revealed that “the silver is mine and the gold is mine” (Haggai 2:8). Giving God back a tenth of what is his was a way of recognizing God’s ultimate ownership of everything.
Abraham has been called the “father of the faithful.” Many Christians practice tithing as a voluntary practice, as Abraham did, as a way to enable the church to fulfill its God-given commission to preach the gospel to the world.
Tithing, in patriarchal times, was an act or expression of worship. Tithing is not again discussed in the Pentateuch until the time of Moses — with the establishment of a priesthood in Israel. Mosaic law required the Israelites to pay tithes to the Levites, who did not own land, the usual means of support (Numbers 18:21-24). The Levites, in turn, gave one tenth of what they received to the Aaronic priesthood (verses 25-32).
Although the Levites received tithes, it did not belong to them. The tithe belonged to God. It was “holy” (verse 32), sanctified for God’s use and purpose. God was simply defining how his tithe was to be used.
In the book of Deuteronomy, we find a tithe mentioned in connection with religious celebrations (Deuteronomy 12:11-14). The tithe was to be used by the people during the festival seasons of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. The custom was to travel to a central location (eventually Jerusalem) at these times. If it was impractical to bring the tithe in the form of animals or produce, the people could exchange these for money to buy food and drink at the site of the festival (Deuteronomy 14:22-26). The tithe was designed to help the people rejoice at the festivals: “Use the silver to buy whatever you like…. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice” (verse 26).
God also instituted a program to help the needy, such as orphans and widows. Those who had the means were to set aside a tithe every third year (verses 28-29).
Three tithes are mentioned in the book of Tobit, part of the Apocrypha, probably written between 300-175 B.C. Regarding the tithes, Tobit says, “The first tenth part of all increase I gave to the sons of Aaron, who ministered at Jerusalem; another tenth part I sold away, and went, and spent it every year at Jerusalem; and the third I gave unto them to whom it was meet” (Tobit 1:6-8; Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint version).
Josephus, who had been a priest, writes about how tithing was practiced in his day, near the time of the fall of Jerusalem: “Let there be taken out of your fruits a tenth, besides that which you have allotted to give to the priests and Levites. This you may indeed sell in the country, but it is to be used in those feasts and sacrifices that are to be celebrated in the holy city” (Antiquities of the Jews, book 4, chapter 8, section 8).
Josephus later writes: “Besides those two tithes, which I already said you are to pay every year, the one for the Levites, the other for festivals, you are to bring every third year a third tithe to be distributed to those that want; to women also that are widows, and to children that are orphans” (section 22).