The Old Testament Tithe?

Question
I have read a lot on tithing. I think it means a tenth of one's income. Can you give a brief - very brief - biblical history of tithing from the Old Testament? I specifically desire to know if there was one tithe or three.
Answer

There were three tithes under the Old Covenant: (1) the Levite, (2) Festival, and (3) Poor. These were mandated by the Law. A brief history will help us understand their importance.

Abraham's tithe to Melchizedek is often pointed to as the first tithe (cf. Heb. 7:4-10). In that case, the tithe was a tenth of the plunder of war rendered as tribute to God because he had given Abraham victory in battle (Gen. 14:18-24). However, this was a "voluntary" tithe. So, this narrative does not appear to be a clear case of mandatory tithing since Melchizedek initially refused the gift, and since Abraham objected that the tithe was the consequence of a vow he had taken. Vows and freewill offerings are not "tithes" per se and are governed by different scriptural laws, even if they amount to a tenth. Note that Jacob's tithe was voluntary as well (Gen 28:22).

Joseph's tithe in Genesis 47:23-24, 26 is also instructive as a basis for the tithe that was later encoded in the Law. In that case, Joseph declared that two-tenths (a fifth part) was to be given to Pharaoh, while all the remainder went to the people. Joseph followed a similar general principle to that followed by Abraham: tithes were paid on what God increased (livestock, crops), not on the products of tradesmen and merchants. The same applied to the Law of Moses.

As already mentioned, under the Mosiac Law in the Old Testament there were three different distinct tithes. Some see these tithes as overlapping, but others like myself view them separately:

The First Tithe: The Levite Tithe

The first tithe was given to the Levites (Num 18:21). Only members of the tribe of Levi were to receive this tithe (the tenth). The Levites in turn were to give one tenth of that tithe to the Priests (Num 18:25-28). Unlike the tithes below, it replaced land inheritance rights in Israel and provided basic sustenance for the Levite and the Aaronic priests of the tribe of Levi. This tithe was only applicable in the Promised Land (Deut 12:19).

The Second Tithe - The Festival Tithe

The second prescribed tithe was the festival tithe (Deut 16:16). Every year, Israel was to bring their tithes (pl., Deut 12:6) to be set aside "and consumed" at the festival (Deut 12:18). So, the first and second tithe are distinct from one another, as in Deuteronomy 12:18, the individual was given the right to eat the (second) tithe being specified as part the joyous festival observance. See Deuteronomy 14:22-26.

Even Church history records that they are separate tithes. In Antiquities of the Jews, by the Jewish historian Josephus, we find the following statement: "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: for it is fit that you should enjoy those fruits of the earth which God gives you to possess" (Book 4, chapter 4, section 8).

The Third Tithe - The Poor Tithe

The third tithe was for the poor (Deut 14:28-29). The Church has an obligation to assist the poor (Deut 15:11; John 12:8; Acts 20:35; Gal 2:10; 1 Tim 5:3). This obligation stems from the Old Testament. Twice (Deut 14:28; 26:12-13), the Lord gives instruction regarding a tithe that is to be saved and distributed every third year. This third tithe was to be set aside locally and stored within each city or town (Deut 14:28; 26:12) for the use of the Levites and the poor of the community - the stranger, fatherless, and widow.

Besides the above the corners of the fields and the grapes dropped by workers were reserved for the poor (Deut 24:17: Lev 19:9-10). The poor were also allowed to eat of the land that lay fallow during the Sabbath years (Lev 25:1-7; Deut 15:1-11).

Josephus says, "Besides those two tithes, which I have already said you are to pay every year, the one for the Levites, the other for the festivals, you are to bring every third year a third tithe to be distributed to those that want [i.e., lack]; to women also that are widows, and to children that are orphans" (Book 4, chapter 8, section 22).

Other Considerations

Not to tithe in the Old Covenant economy was "robbing God" (Mal 3:6-12). It was a violation of the covenant. Today Christians need to ask if they are still under the Old Testament Ceremonial law of "the tithes" (Rom 6:14; 7:4, 6; Gal 5:8) or are they to cheerfully "give" (2 Cor 9:7)?

The Old Testament Church was instructed to be a giving body. They were to assist, care, and love others. The New Testament Church is under the same mandate. However, is a 10% tithe a biblical requirement under the New Covenant? See "The New Testament Tithe?" and "Giving as a Part of Worship?" below.

Related Links:

The New Testament Tithe?
Giving as a Part of Worship?
Canceled the written code - Colossians 2:14

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).