Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
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tithe, a tenth part of ones yearly income set aside for sacral purposes. Tithing was very common throughout the ancient Near East, especially in Mesopotamia where Neo-Babylonian texts from the sixth century b.c. discuss the collection of tithes as a means of supporting a sanctuary. Other documents indicate that tithing could serve nonsacral purposes as well. Fourteenth-century b.c. tablets from Ugarit portray the tithe as a royal tax the king collected and distributed to his officials. The Seleucid kings of Syria likewise viewed the tithe as a source for royal income (1 Macc. 10:31; 11:35), whereas Jews at that time viewed it as a sacral tax (1 Macc. 3:49).
Nature and Function: Reconstructing a clear picture of the nature and function of tithing in biblical times is extremely difficult due to the conflicting accounts concerning tithes in the biblical traditions and the problems in identifying the dates and provenance of the texts. Apparently, tithing was understood and practiced differently at different times and localities throughout the Biblical period. Most biblical texts concerning the tithe agree that it serves some sacral purpose and presuppose that it was mandatory, but they differ as to how it was expended and by whom.
In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the tithe was a tax collected at the Temple to support the priests and Levites (Neh. 10:37-38; 12:44; 13:5, 12), although the requirement was not always observed or enforced (Mal. 3:8, 10). Pentateuchal regulations likewise emphasize the sacral and mandatory character of the tithe. Lev. 27:30-33 states that all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, belongs to God and that one-tenth of all that passes under the herdsmans staff is also included. Num. 18:21-32 assigns the tithe offerings of the people as the inheritance of the Levites and they in turn must give one-tenth of what they receive to the priests. Deut. 14:22-29 states that the people shall tithe their grain, wine, and oil together with the firstlings of their herds and flocks and that they shall eat their tithe in the Temple. But every third year, the tithe shall go to the Levite, the sojourner, the orphan, and the widow, as these people have little means of support. In the case of the Levites, their poverty was due to Deuteronomys requirement that all sanctuaries but one be closed, leaving the Levites who served in these sanctuaries unemployed (cf. Deut. 12). If one lived far from the Temple so that transporting the actual tithe was impractical, then it could be converted to cash and replacement food could be bought for consumption at the Temple, but the requirement to eat the tithe in the Temple still stood. Lev. 27:31 states, however, that if a man redeemed his tithe with cash, he should add one-fifth of the actual cash value of the tithe.
Tax or offering: Other texts raise questions about the sacral or obligatory nature of the tithe. When the prophet Samuel warns the people about the dangers of appointing a king, he mentions that the king will exact a tithe from their grain, vineyards, and flocks to give to his officers and servants (1 Sam. 8:15, 17). Here, the tithe is a mandatory royal tax, but no mention of sacral use appears. In the patriarchal traditions, the tithe is freely given at the site of a sanctuary. Abraham gives a tenth of his war booty to Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (i.e., Jerusalem) after receiving his blessing (Gen. 14:20; cf. Heb. 7:1-10). Jacob vows to offer a tithe of all his income to God at Bethel after his dream of the ladder to heaven (Gen. 28:22). An interesting attempt to reconcile the conception of the tithe as a royal tax with that of a sacral offering notes that both Jerusalem and Bethel were the sites of royal sanctuaries founded by kings (2 Sam. 6; 1 Kings 6-8; Amos 7:13; 1 Kings 12:25-33). In this view, the patriarchal stories are etiological legends for the later practice of channeling sacral tithes for the Temple through the kings who maintained the Temple (Ezek. 45:17) and controlled its treasury. According to 2 Chron. 31:5, 6, 12, King Hezekiah collected and stored offerings for the Temple, including the tithe.
Later Judaism maintained the tithe, stipulating that all things used for food, which were watched and grew from the earth, were subject to tithing (m. Ma'as. 1:1; cf. Luke 18:12). But discrepancies between the regulations on tithing in Lev. 27:30-33; Num. 18:21-32; and Deut. 14:22-29 resulted in the Mishnahs adopting two tithes. The first was for the Levites and the second was to be eaten by the people. The zeal of some who tithed even their spices was noted by Jesus, who criticized such people for also neglecting more important religious and ethical demands (Matt. 23:23). He did not condemn such tithing practices, however.
See also a topical index on "Tithes and Tithing" at http://www.bibletexts.com/topical.htm#tithes.
See also Should the Church Teach Tithing: A Theologian's Conclusions About a Taboo Doctrine, by Russell Earl Kelly (NY: Writers Club Press, 2000)
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer