Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tithing – Part I. Introduction, the Number of Tithes, and the Tithe in Leviticus 27 and Numbers 18

Here are the three points I’m going to discuss.

First, I’m first going to look at the claim that the Old Testament taught two or three tithes rather than just one.

Secondly, while I think there is at least one pretty good Biblical argument that Christians should tithe, I nonetheless think that the weight of the evidence is that the tithe was intrinsically linked to the fact that God did not give the Levitical priesthood an inheritance in the land of Israel, and so passed away with the coming of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.

Finally, I’ll argue that, regardless of the tithe passing away, God calls Christians to continue to fulfill the needs that the tithe fulfilled in the OT, particularly in regard to supporting pastors and in assisting the needy.

I first want to consider the argument that the Old Testament teaches not just one tithe, but two or three tithes. The first time I ran across the argument that the Scriptures taught more than one tithe was years ago in an obscure book by an equally obscure Presbyterian named R.J. Roushdoony. So I was sort of surprised to find the same argument in Lutheran Pastor John Kieschnick’s new book, The Best is Yet to Come. Nonetheless. After doing a little more checking, there seems to be support for the view among a number of commentators, so I’ve looked at the topic again.

As best as I can figure it out, commentators base the argument for three distinct tithes mainly on there being three arguably distinct purposes identified in three different groups of passages:

[1] A tithe for support of the Levites (Lev 27.30-34 w/ Nm 18.21-24).

[2] A festival tithe (Dt 12.6-17, 14.22-27).

[3] A poor tithe (Dt 14.28-29, 26.12).

According to the argument, tithes [1] and [2] are offered annually, while the poor tithe is offered once every three years. Basically, the argument is that OT Israelites tithed 23.3 percent of their annual gain. (The OT also teaches contributions beyond these tithes, mainly to support the temple and to assist poor and vulnerable people.)

Now I’ve really worked to try to understand how these different passages can be construed to talk about different tithes, and I guess I’m still open to argument if I’m missing something. Nonetheless, my best reading of these passages suggests to me that the all of these passages are talking about the same, single tithe.

Now, I recognize that someone (like Dana Carvy’s church lady) could say, “Well, Jim, how convenient that you find a tithe of only 10 percent instead of 23.3 percent in the Scriptures.” All I can say is that I’ve tried to check myself and my attitude at the door, and tried my best to give the Scriptures the best reading that I’m able. (Although, the question is also moot in a sense, because whether the OT teaches one tithe or three, I conclude that the tithes probably all passed away with the coming of the New Covenant in Christ.)

Most critically, contrary to the commentators who see three different purposes in these three sets of Scriptures, it seems to me that a single, unified purpose unites the tithe discussed in all of these passages. And that unified purpose is that God established the tithe to provide support to the Levites because God did not give them an inheritance in the land of Israel like he gave to the other eleven tribes.

Leviticus 27 establishes that the tithe is “holy to the LORD” (vv. 30, 33). But it does not discuss any specific use or purpose for the tithe. The first time a rationale is provided for the tithe is in Numbers 18.

Here God tells Aaron that he’s providing the (or a) tithe to the Levites, because the tribe of Levi is not given an inheritance in the land of Israel (because Levi is given to Aaron’s family to assist with the tabernacle). So God gives the Levites for service in the tabernacle, and their inheritance in the tithe substitutes for not having any inheritance in the land:

“And to the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting. . . .

“For the tithe of the sons of Israel, which they offer as an offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance; therefore I have said concerning them, ‘They shall have no inheritance among the sons of Israel’” (Nm 18.21,24).


Blogger CPA said...

I think in Tobit, the title character actually tithes three times. In other words, whether or not that's the correct interpretation, Jewish exegetes did believe there were three tithes.

November 19, 2007 10:34 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Right. Or at least the author of Tobit did. Although, strangely, Tobit refers to a tithe being given to Aaronic priests, and second to the Levites, and a third-year tithe to the poor and converts.

There's no discussion of a festival tithe, or of the Levites sharing the third-year poor tithe.

I have zero problem bowing to an exegetical consensus, but the tithes really do seem to meld into one another when one notes their inclusion along with other Levitical offerings, and that each emphasizes a concern for the Levites. I'll probably summarize my skepticism in one more post. But I don't want to beat a dead horse.

November 19, 2007 2:32 PM  
Blogger CPA said...

I think this brings up exegetical issues. How much of an exact similarity in description do you need before you say, this is one tithe?

It's like Peter's denial or the annointing of Jesus or the cleansing of the temple. You can approach the versions in the different gospels as varying versions of the same event -- this one (or three with Peter) event, with descriptions that seem to vary somewhat. Or you can see each variation means a different incident, so you get six denials of Peter, two sinful women annointing Jesus, and two cleansings of the temple.

The Jewish exegetes and Tobit definitely use the second method (as many Christian exegetes do of the NT). But I agree with you that the first seems a better interpretation of what Moses means.

November 20, 2007 10:45 AM  

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