In the Bible, the Israelites gave one-tenth of their earnings or what they produced to God. This was called tithing. The tithe was the part of the Old Testament law requiring Israelites to dedicate the first portion of their goods (typically livestock and produce). First and foremost, this “tax” recognized God as the creator and provider. As stewards of God’s generosity, the Israelites offered back to God the first fruits of what they had received.
The tithe was also used to maintain the Levites (the priests who cared for and guarded the tabernacle), provide for the temple and feasts, and care for the poor.
Confusion about tithing today
When Christians talk about tithing today, the discussion can often become a little perplexing. One reason for this is that Christians occasionally use the word “tithing” when discussing any church giving, which muddies the water.
So when some talk about whether Christians are responsible to the Old Testament law of the tithe (giving 10 percent), some hear this as a discussion about whether Christians are expected to give regularly at all. Someone may choose to give eight percent of their income to the church consistently, and that’s great, but that’s not exactly a tithe. Throughout this article, the word “tithe” will denote “a tenth part,” not giving in general.
Where tithing discussions breakdown
There is a lot of debate about tithing. Some believe that the requirements of the law have been met, and we are no longer under its rigid demands. Others point to Jesus’ upholding the tithe’s practice (Matthew 23:23), assuring that he intended for the tithe to continue.
Neither of these positions really answers the pressing question of why Christians tend to give so little. There are different kinds of givers in every church, but the fact is that only about 25 percent give anything in the most generous congregations—and only 3–5 percent actually tithe. This seriously begs the question, why would we expect grace to be so much more ineffective than the law? Why would those who have received God’s mercy be inclined to give less than the Israelites?
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus raise the bar on what the law expects:
- The law says do not murder, but I tell you anyone angry with their brother is liable to judgment (Matthew 5:21–22)
- The law says do not commit adultery, but I tell you that looking at a woman with lust in your heart is adultery (Matthew 5:27–28)
- The law calls for an eye for an eye, but I tell you not to resist an evil man but turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38–39)
It would seem that whether God still demands 10 percent might be the wrong question. Because that easily descends into a discussion about how little we can get away with giving. What if the tithe is simply the bottom stair, and our gratitude and resolve to make our lives a sacrificial offering should cause us to give more and not less?
What the Bible says about tithing
Let’s examine 20 verses about giving and see if we can’t get a bird’s eye view of the topic of tithing and generosity. We’ll look at some places that tithing shows up before the law, and then we’ll look at how the topic changes after Moses comes onto the scene. Lastly, we’ll look at the topic through the lens of the New Testament.
Tithing before Moses and the law
One argument that people offer about the tithe’s significance is that we see Abram and Jacob offering tithes before the law is ever in effect. Many would argue that since there was tithing before the law, there should be tithing after the law.
Why did these patriarchs pull 10 percent out of the air? Even though it’s not explicitly stated in Scripture, it would seem that there was some precedent around the amount—but it could very well be a regional one. An offering of 10 percent might have been how others in the region communicated fidelity, and Abram may have brought the practice with him from Ur.
1. Abram tithes to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:19-20)
And he blessed Abram, saying,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
Abram had just won a decisive battle, rescuing his kidnapped nephew, Lot (among others), and all his possessions. He’s then met with a puzzling character named Melchizedek, who attributes Abrams victory to God’s deliverance and blesses Abram.
In response to God’s goodness, Abram offers 10 percent of his belongings to this figure.
2. Jacob promises God a tithe (Genesis 28:20–22)
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”
Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek caused him to respond with a generous offer of 10 percent. But we see something different happening here with Jacob. This offer of 10 percent is part of a bargain he’s attempting to strike up with God. If the Lord comes through for him, Jacob promises to give a tithe.
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Tithing according to Moses and the law
Tithing was a part of the law that God used to care for the spiritual and physical needs of his people. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking an Israelite was only responsible for giving 10 percent. They gave multiple tithes that supported various needs (not to mention freewill offerings). At a bare minimum, the Israelites probably gave about 23 percent of their produce a year.
3. A call for freewill offerings (Exodus 35:20–29)
Then the whole Israelite community withdrew from Moses’ presence, and everyone who was willing and whose heart moved them came and brought an offering to the Lord for the work on the tent of meeting, for all its service, and for the sacred garments. All who were willing, men and women alike, came and brought gold jewelry of all kinds: brooches, earrings, rings and ornaments.
They all presented their gold as a wave offering to the Lord. Everyone who had blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen, or goat hair, ram skins dyed red or the other durable leather brought them. Those presenting an offering of silver or bronze brought it as an offering to the Lord, and everyone who had acacia wood for any part of the work brought it. Every skilled woman spun with her hands and brought what she had spun—blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen.
And all the women who were willing and had the skill spun the goat hair. The leaders brought onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece. They also brought spices and olive oil for the light and for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense. All the Israelite men and women who were willing brought to the Lord freewill offerings for all the work the Lord through Moses had commanded them to do.
Here we see Israel responding to Moses’ call to build the tabernacle. The people banded together and freely gave what they could to help build this special structure. The giving of the Israelite was a balance of required and responsive giving.
4. Moses introduces the tithe as law (Leviticus 27:30–34)
A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. No one may pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed. These are the commands the Lord gave Moses at Mount Sinai for the Israelites.
Moses formally introduces the tithe as law. We see here that the tithe was to be considered “holy,” meaning it was set apart as belonging to God. To keep a portion of that 10 percent was to steal from God.
5. The Levite’s tithe (Numbers 18:25–28)
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Levites and say to them: ‘When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the Lord’s offering. Your offering will be reckoned to you as grain from the threshing floor or juice from the winepress. In this way you also will present an offering to the Lord from all the tithes you receive from the Israelites. From these tithes you must give the Lord’s portion to Aaron the priest.’”
The levitical income came from Israel’s tithes, but that didn’t get the Levites off the hook. The Levites also had to tithe from what they received. A portion of these tithes went toward supporting the high priest, Moses’ brother Aaron.
6. Bringing in your offerings (Deuteronomy 12:5–6)
But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks.
Here we see a picture of the kinds of generosity that Israel was responsible for. They had offerings, sacrifices, tithes, special gifts, and freewill offerings. These all came out of what they produced for themselves and their families.
7. God used the tithe to care for Israel (Deuteronomy 14:22–29)
Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always. But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the Lord your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the Lord will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the Lord your God will choose.
Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice. And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.
At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
When we talk about the tithe today, we tend to see it as a dour expectation placed upon the children of Israel. God had to be honored. Therefore, the Israelites were required to give up their possessions. But this wasn’t how Israel saw it at all.
Giving wasn’t a form of asceticism. It was a central part of worship. One function of the tithe was to fund regular feasts and celebrations. On top of that, the tithe was used to care for widows and orphans, who had no family to look after their needs.
Tithing and giving throughout the Old Testament
As we get outside of the Pentateuch, we start to see how giving worked itself into everyday life and teaching within Israel.
8. The generous giving of the Israelites (2 Chronicles 31:5–6)
As soon as the order went out, the Israelites generously gave the firstfruits of their grain, new wine, olive oil and honey and all that the fields produced. They brought a great amount, a tithe of everything. The people of Israel and Judah who lived in the towns of Judah also brought a tithe of their herds and flocks and a tithe of the holy things dedicated to the Lord their God, and they piled them in heaps.
In a day when a lot of our charitable giving is digital, it’s hard to imagine what tithing produce, goods, and livestock was like. Imagine all of these items piled high for everyone to see. While Jesus will eventually speak against the performative nature of giving (Matthew 6:1–4), these celebrations of giving must have been joyful affairs.
9. The Levites make their offering (Nehemiah 10:38)
A priest descended from Aaron is to accompany the Levites when they receive the tithes, and the Levites are to bring a tenth of the tithes up to the house of our God, to the storerooms of the treasury.
Israel is in captivity, but she is experiencing a revival and reform. During this time, we see the Israelites renewing their covenant with God, which includes the tithe. When the Levites receive their portion of the tithe, they fulfill the law by making a tithe to the priests.
10. The principle of giving (Proverbs 3:9–10)
Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine.
The writer of Proverbs wants readers to understand the impact of their decisions. Interestingly, he doesn’t lay this principle out as a threat but as a promise. When you make decisions that honor God, you experience blessing.
It’s probably wise to notice that the person who honors the Lord with their firstfruits is someone who’s on top of things. They’re not sitting there six months after the harvest wondering, “Did I remember to bring my tithe into the storehouse?” That self-discipline of organization is going to pay off in other areas, too.
The same is true for people who are willing to give more but not disciplined enough to do so. That lack of discipline is probably visible in other areas of their life.
11. Generosity is returned (Proverbs 11:24)
One person gives freely, yet gains even more;
another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.
The Bible frequently promises that generosity is returned. When we live with open hands, God blesses us. The problem is that true generosity doesn’t approach this principle as transactional. Generous people aren’t giving to expect to receive anything in return.
12. The righteous contrasted with the lazy (Proverbs 21:26)
The craving of a sluggard will be the death of him,
because his hands refuse to work.
All day long he craves for more,
but the righteous give without sparing.
It’s interesting that the lazy are compared to the righteous. Proverbs’ author speaks of the loafer as sitting around craving more but being unwilling to work for it. But when he compares the slacker to the righteous, he doesn’t suggest that the righteous have more—but the righteous give more. Why? Because the lazy can’t afford to give up anything.
13. Disdain shown to disobedient sacrifice (Amos 4:4–5)
“Go to Bethel and sin;
go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three years.
Burn leavened bread as a thank offering
and brag about your freewill offerings—
boast about them, you Israelites,
for this is what you love to do,”
declares the Sovereign Lord.
The prophets recognized the weaknesses of the law. Here Amos mocks Israel for her disobedience even if she is technically following the law. Not only are people tithing, but they’re bragging about the extra freewill offerings they’re bringing, too.
This is a theme that rings throughout Scripture. It doesn’t matter if you’re following the letter of the law if your spirit is rebellious and disobedient.
But this isn’t a rant against giving to the Lord. Amos is calling Israel to follow God with the right heart.
14. The Lord challenges Israel to put Him to the test (Malachi 3:8–12)
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.
Israel has become negligent in its tithe. Like all disobedient children, they probably have an excuse. Crops haven’t been good. There hasn’t been enough rainfall. There were too many locusts. God isn’t fooled, and he assures the nation that these blights are the result of the delinquency, not the reason for it.
But then the Lord lays out a challenge. Israel should test him and see if their obedience doesn’t result in blessing. He encourages them to see the tithe as an invitation to blessing and not a duty.
Jesus and giving in the gospels
The Lord talks about giving so much. He regularly uses money as an object lesson and challenges greed and hoarding. Here are a few examples.
15. Where your treasure is, your heart will be (Matthew 6:19–21)
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
At the time that Jesus spoke these words, most of the stuff people considered treasure was subject to entropy. It spoiled, rusted, got consumed, or could be stolen. Today Jesus might say, “Why store up treasure in banks that can fail or investments that can lose their value?”
But for his wise children, it’s possible to invest their riches in a way that they’ll be waiting for them in eternity. How? By investing in God’s kingdom. But this kind of investment takes faith. You have to sincerely believe that Jesus’ words are true.
There is an extra promise here that ties it all together, found in the last sentence. Your heart follows your treasure. People with no money invested in the market aren’t typically interested in it. But as soon as they invest money there, they start paying attention to what’s happening with the Dow. The same is true for the kingdom of God.
If you’re waiting to get passionate before you commit to giving, you’re approaching it wrong. Jesus promises that your passion follows your fortune.
16. Keeping tithing in perspective (Matthew 23:23–24)
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
The Pharisees were so proud of themselves for how strictly they followed the law, going so far as to separate a tenth of their spices. But they were guilty of the same issues that Israel suffered in the Old Testament. Their hearts were hardened, and they didn’t care about actual people. They prided themselves on the wrong thing.
But Jesus doesn’t say that they neglected the wrong thing. He tells them that they should have been faithful in both areas.
17. But she gave out of her poverty (Mark 12:41–44)
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
It’s true that when wealthier people give, they tend to give more. But what’s a couple of thousand dollars to someone who makes millions? Statistics tell us that people making $20,000 a year are eight times more likely to give than someone making $75,000.
Jesus shows us that he’s paying attention, and it matters. God isn’t impressed by those who give in a way that’s never a sacrifice and requires no faith. On the contrary, he’s looking for people who demonstrate their dedication in the way that they give.
What Paul has to say about generosity
The apostle Paul had a vested interest in faithful giving. The vision of the early church was reliant upon the faithful giving of Christians.
18. Testing the sincerity of your love (2 Corinthians 8:8–12)
I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.
It’s tempting to see Paul’s words as manipulative. He’s not commanding them to give, but his view of their sincerity is riding on it. In fact, he measures it against the giving of others. But this is a simple case of Paul telling the Corinthian church to put their money where their mouth is. It’s easy to make flowery statements of faith and devotion, but Paul’s work required that those words be backed up with legitimate investment by the faithful.
19. Sow sparingly, reap sparingly (2 Corinthians 9:6–8)
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
As we saw in Proverbs 3:9–10, the Bible speaks as if God wove a law of reciprocity into the universe. The more you give, the more you receive. Jesus says it like this, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).
But Paul explains why this law is at work. It’s so that we can have what we need to “abound in every good work.” It’s as if God is on the hunt for faithful people that he can bless, knowing that they’ll just keep giving.
20. Do not put your hope in wealth (1 Timothy 6:17–19)
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
Take a moment and ask yourself what it looks like to put your hope in wealth. Does someone have to have a lot of money to put their hope in wealth? Of course not. A lot of people with meager means chase the promise of a windfall income—the entire lottery system is built on this promise. We put our hope in wealth when we’re afraid to be generous.
God’s desire isn’t for us to wear a hairshirt and deny ourselves any comfort. No. Paul tells us that God richly provides us everything for our enjoyment. But the hope is that we respond to his goodness by trusting him and living with open hearts and open hands.
And echoing Jesus’s words, Paul assures us that as we live that way, we store up treasures in the coming age.
Asking ourselves hard questions about tithing
As you can tell from these Bible passages, Christian generosity is about a lot more than whether God still demands the church to tithe. We live in a time of unprecedented wealth. And if God required so much from people who had so little, why would we who have so much assume that we can get away with giving so little?
Here are some questions to use with your small groups, youth groups, Sunday school classes, or just in your personal or family devotions.
- Compared to how much I make, how much am I actually giving to the church?
- Did I make an intentional decision to give this amount, or do I just give when the feeling hits me?
- What indicators do I use to judge how wealthy I am?
- Do I judge by whether my needs are met?
- Do I compare myself to others?
- Have I embraced the consumerism of my culture, and does that keep me on a financial treadmill?
- Does my debt impact my ability to give faithfully?
- As my income rises, does my willingness to give more rise, too?
- If I receive a windfall or some other financial blessing, do I naturally assume it’s to improve my standard of living or grow the kingdom?
- Do I see myself as a steward of God’s finances, or do I see these finances as mine to control?
- How much of my time, attention, and resources are going toward maintaining the treasures I’ve accumulated?
- Do I frequently assume that I’ll give more when I pass some future landmark in my life (like when I get that raise or when the kids finish college)?
- Is God more interested in the millions of dollars you might make one day or the five dollars you have in your wallet?
- If everyone gave as faithfully as you do, would the church be better off, worse off, or about the same?
- Would I be able to demonstrate the sincerity of my faith with my budget?
- How would the people closest to me say they’ve been influenced by how I use my finances?
- Could God be calling me to live on less of my income and use the rest more strategically?
- What am I doing to teach my children generosity?,
God calls us to live generously
It’s virtually impossible to take Scripture seriously and believe that God doesn’t care what we do with our money and belongings. God longs to bless the people and ministries around us and see the church grow, and he does so through his people’s faithful giving. And generous and giving hearts should be the natural response to God’s amazing grace.
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