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The Significance of Tithing

The Bible talks about tithing more often than it does about jubilee, but it does so in a way that instructively parallels its references to jubilee and release. From Genesis to Malachi and on into the New Testament tithing is a norm, but the significance of tithing is understood in a number of different ways. The practice hardly changes, but its aim and its meaning are worked out anew in different contexts and connections. The implication would be that tithing remains a norm today, but that we may need to discern afresh what God wants to do through tithing. I want to relate that to jubilee and to the situation Jubilee 2000 addresses.

Tithing starts in Genesis 14 (translations vary over whether they use the word "tithe" or the word "tenth", but in Hebrew it is the same word). Abram has gone off on a risky expedition to fight with forces that have taken Lot as a prisoner-of-war. He has returned not only with Lot but also with much booty. Some of Abram's allies come to see him on his return, and one of them is the king of Salem, Melchizedek, who is also "priest of God Most High". He blesses Abram, and Abram gives him a tenth of his booty. Like sacrifice in Genesis 4, and the leaving of the ground fallow in the sabbath year, evidently tithing is not a special revelation from God but a human instinct or a part of general revelation.

Special revelation comes in due course in the way in which God harnesses these natural human instincts and instructs people to express them. Abram knows that tithing is a human thing to do, as faithfulness or love or justice or worship or prayer is a human thing to do. People are made that way. He can assume that this king of Salem understands this, too. When God gives you something, you recognize where it came from by giving some of it back to God.

Tithing next appears in the story of Jacob. Jacob is on his way out of the land of promise, on the run from the brother whom he has swindled of his rights as firstborn. God appears to him and promises to keep him safe and bring him back to the land. "Well", says Jacob, "if you are going to look after me and give me food and clothing and bring me back here in prosperity and peace, then you can be my God, and I will give you a tithe of all that you give me". We know the calculating nature of Jacob, grabber by name as well as by personality, and there is surely an irony here. "You give me everything, and I will give you a tenth". Tithing can be a means of indulging in our instinct to calculate, a means of being selfish.

Yahweh's own first instruction about tithing comes in the verses that close off Leviticus (Leviticus 27:30-33). They constitute a warning about how we may try to evade the demand of tithing. Tithing applies to produce and to animals, and the way you tithe animals is by giving up every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd's staff. But what happens if your best sheep happens to be the tenth? Can you substitute a less flourishing sheep for that one? You cannot. No substitutions are allowed.

What happens to tithes? The next passage on tithing (Numbers 18:21-32) gives one answer. Tithing is a means of seeing that the ministry is supported. Tithes go to the clan of Levi, whose task is to look after the services at the sanctuary and who have no land to work. So the tithe of the rest of the clans' work and land goes to the Levites.

Deuteronomy also affirms that tithes go to the Levites (Deuteronomy 12) but it adds a special provision for every third year (14:22-29; 26:12-13). The calendar is thus divided into seven-year periods in which there are two "regular" years, a "third" year, two more "regular" years, another "third" year, then a sabbath year, after which the cycle starts again. In the "third" year, the tithes are to benefit not only Levites but also immigrants, orphans, and widows, who are in the same position as Levites in having no land from which to gain their livelihood. Now this might seem an impractical provision. What are these needy groups supposed to do for the two intervening years? We have noted that questions such as this arise with a number of the policies set forth in the Torah, not least the jubilee regulations, and they may show that these are more God-given dreams than God-given policies. People have to work out how to realize the dream.

In Joshua to Kings, there is only one reference to tithes, and it is a solemn one. If you insist on having kings, Samuel warns Israel, you will pay for it literally (1 Samuel 8:15-17). Kings will take a tithe of your grain and vines and sheep for their staff. Perhaps Samuel means they will appropriate the tithes that are due to the ministry and to the needy, or perhaps he means they will add a second tithe to the first, to pay for the cost of having a monarchic state. Either way it is bad news. It is an indication that tithing can be a means of the leadership oppressing ordinary people.

Unsurprisingly, there are indications in the Old Testament that people often failed to tithe (e.g., Nehemiah 13:10-12), but there is also a reminder that the practice of tithing can be a substitute for real commitment. Amos 4:4 implies that people were faithful in tithing as they were faithful in worship, but their giving was not matched by a commitment to faithfulness within the community. Some believers lived in fine homes, had good incomes, and enjoyed a cultured life, but they thus benefited from the fact that the way society worked made other believers much more poorly off (e.g. Amos 5:10-13; 6:4-6). They could afford to tithe and still be very well-off, and thus their tithing had become one of the ways they avoided God's lordship of their lives.

So tithing can have a variety of significances, and God had different things to say about tithing in different contexts. The question is, what might tithing mean now?

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