Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field…. – Deuteronomy 14:22 (NRSV)
This is the third in a series of reflections on the tithe. I have been studying what the books of the Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy) say about the tithe. While the origins are found in Genesis, they seem to have little to do with the establishment of the tithe at Sinai. When I examined the initial giving of the Law in Leviticus and Numbers, I found that the tithe was located in the midst of communal worship and celebration.
God really does love a joyful giver!
But tithing isn’t really a part of most Christians’ spiritual disciplines. And even though the plate is passed at virtually every worship service I’ve participated in, I haven’t experienced joyful, party atmosphere during the offering.
When I was on Session (board of trustees) of my church, we once considered whether we should require elders to tithe. As the spiritual leaders of the congregation, shouldn’t we lead the congregation in this spiritual discipline? I’ve never sat on the stewardship committee, but I can’t believe we had more than a handful or two of tithers in the church – and they certainly weren’t all sitting in the room having this discussion.
As expected – really any time we people of faith talk about money – we got into the legalese. Would we be required to tithe to the church or would we include other “Kingdom” giving in the calculation? For non-tithers (probably most people in the room, we didn’t ask a show of hands), what was the time period to accomplish the tithe? Would all new elders be required to be tithers when they were nominated, or would they also have a phase-in period? And how were we going to know (and please don’t put me on this committee)?
We never passed the requirement. I don’t remember the entire discussion, but a major point of disagreement was whether the full tithe must be made to the church. I’m guessing that every day there is at least one pastor in America who has this conversation with a congregation member (or potential member). And for that pastor, this is a sensitive conversation to have. On one hand you may believe that there are other organizations doing “Kingdom” work and can therefore share in the tithe. But on the other hand, the tithe is what pays your rent and buys your groceries. Hmmm, what to do?
Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake. – Deuteronomy 14:28-29 (NRSV)
As Israel moved into the Promised Land, they weren’t going to be living in one community anymore. Deuteronomy 14 instructs how you bring your tithe when you live far away from the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). It also informs on how to continue to support the Levites when they are spread all over the land. God can be so practical!
The Law also allowed for a Sabbath year for the land – every seventh year it would rest. As such, the tithe would be limited to flocks. So what Israel ended up with was a seven-year tithe cycle: years 1, 2, 4 and 5 – bring the tithe to the Tabernacle/Temple; years 3 and 6 – bring it to the Levites in the community you live in; year 7 – no land tithe. In addition, the tithe in years 3 and 6 was to be shared with those in need within the community. Does this mean that those in need were destitute the rest of the time?
Not really. If a household (which probably contained three generations) brought in the tithe, this would feed another household for just over a month. But the Levites were only one of twelve tribes, aliens didn’t outnumber Israelites, and widows and orphans weren’t part of a household (if they were, they weren’t really considered widows or orphans). So if my family and just ten other families brought in the tithe, it would feed an entire household for a year – even after we eat part of it in a community celebration. So in other words, two years of tithe was enough to support the Levites and those in need on an ongoing basis (plus Levites still would receive a portion when they served in Jerusalem).
So what does this mean for us?
It suggests to me that the tithe was meant for more than the church. But more on that next time.