All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the LORD’S; they are holy to the LORD. If persons wish to redeem any of their tithes, they must add one-fifth to them. All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the LORD. – Leviticus 27:30-32 (NRSV)
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: You shall speak to the Levites, saying: When you receive from the Israelites the tithe that I have given you from them for your portion, you shall set apart an offering from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe. – Numbers 18:25-26 (NRSV)
While the actions of Abram and Jacob were made as individuals, the requirements in Leviticus and Numbers are commands from God. These verses define that the tithe is everything produced in the land: animals and crops. We also learn that the tithe was supposed to be turned over to the Levites (caretakers of the Tabernacle and Temple) for their upkeep because they did not receive a land inheritance (the LORD was the Levite’s inheritance). Numbers also directs the Levites to tithe the tithe – which was given over to a special group of Levites who descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother (the priests). This is more helpful than the excerpts in Genesis. Now we know who, what, where, when and why.
Well, maybe we don’t why.
Certainly “why” is because God tells us to. But for a rebellious people (myself included), this isn’t really enough.
In parenting my boys, I have found myself saying, “Because I said so.” Surprisingly, this didn’t inspire them to heartfelt obedience. I try to use this reasoning as a last resort, when I’m too tired to argue discuss it anymore. My first tactic is to try to explain why I am asking them to do or not do something: their safety, the two next steps after this one, the big picture, why it’s for their benefit. When I’m able to convey the “why”, they are more likely to comply even if they don’t fully agree.
I didn’t come up with this on my own; God did it first:
But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you….these you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God at the place that the LORD your God will choose, you together with your son and your daughter, your male and female slaves, and the Levites resident in your towns, rejoicing in the presence of the LORD your God in all your undertakings. Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land. – Deuteronomy 12:5-7, 18-19 (NRSV), emphasis mine
From these verses, the tithe is certainly used to support those in service to God. But why not? God gave everyone else land as an inheritance. God provided for the community to have spiritual leaders. It makes sense that the community would support them. I love the Levites were also called to tithe – because they were also blessed by God’s provision.
Hopefully you’re still with me after all of this Old Testament Law. 40 years elapse between the writings of Leviticus/Numbers and Deuteronomy. What began as “because I said so” becomes much more relational as Israel prepares to enter the Promised Land. In a way, they are no longer the undisciplined two-year old that can’t be reasoned with but the young adult ready to be launched.
Here’s what God says:
- Come and be in my presence (I want to be with you)!
- Bring the people you do life with!
- Enjoy and eat the abundant meal I have provided!
This isn’t like paying your taxes or an entry fee. It’s more like a potluck in the midst of worship. Bringing the tithe is a community celebration – not an individual act of penitence. It also sounds like something else to me: joyfully gathering with your community in the presence of God, humbly recognizing God’s provision in your life, and being nourished by the meal God provides. This sounds like Communion.
The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too. Because God is the one who established it on the seas; God set it firmly on the waters. – Psalm 24:1-2 (CEB)
Do you feel that the offering you bring is an invitation to come into the presence of God? Does the tithe nourish your faith? Is your experience of tithes and gifts individual or communal in nature?