I recently wrote a post about Misconceptions about Jacob’s Tithing Vow, and this post is intended to be a sequel. If you have not read that post first, it is imperative to read it here before reading this. Many of you were shocked and actually enlightened to the real truth behind Jacob’s motives for his vow in Genesis 28. The first post is important to read and was written to bring you up to speed on things that are being assumed in this post. I feel that the following information is one of the largest pieces to the puzzle when understanding the course of tithing throughout scripture.
Sometime in 2007, I was studying the passage about Jacob’s tithing vow. All of a sudden I had an “Ah” moments. It was like the movie, “Sixth Sense” when everything that didn’t make sense all rushed to my head at once and came together. I always wondered, when did Jacob tithe, could he have tithed, how, and who could he have tithed to? Jacob made a vow to God in Genesis 28, “of all that you give me, I will surely give a tenth back to you“. Here’s the thing, Jacob never gave the tithe, nor was he capable of giving a tithe. Although Jacob was not capable of tithing in his life eventually he was able to do so through his children.
Jacob’s tithing vow has been overlooked because it is dwarfed between the shadows of Abraham and the Mosaic laws. Much research has been done on Abraham’s tithe to Melchizidek, and more research has been done on Mosaic tithing laws, while very few analyze Jacob’s tithing experience. We try to prove or disprove tithing through Abraham’s example and/or the Mosaic law that we didn’t realize that Jacob’s tithing vow is the most significant moment during the timeline of the biblical tithe.
With this in-depth analysis, you will find answers to some of the questions surrounding the tithing vow of Jacob. You will also find some of the ‘best evidence’ against those who support tithing because of its occurrence 400 years before the Mosaic law. You will also see the biblical reasons why Israel could only tithe from agriculture and livestock, and why they could only tithe from the produce of the promised land. You will also see why the Levites were not given an inheritance as promised by God, but ironically were given the tithe of the land. You will also see why Jacob never tithed, and never could have. These answers, and even more, will be discussed in the following information.
The Meaning of Jacob’s Vow
Most people do not read Jacob’s vow in context. When most people read Jacob’s statement, “of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You“, they believe that Jacob was willing to give a tithe off everything that he garnished through his lifetime; but this interpretation is not correct. In Genesis 28 Jacob had just woke from a dream wherein God said, “the land on which you lie I will ‘give’ to you and your descendants“. Jacob made a vow to give a tenth from the land that God promised to give him and his decedents. Jacob’s vow was not a general statement that included a tithe from his wealth, or from his occupation, or any gold. It was a promise to give God back 10% of the increase from the land. Strangely, Jacob never received the promised land, so there was never an opportunity for him to tithe. . .Or am I wrong?
Victor Stephens in his article “A Closer Look at Tithing” states, “If tithing was not commanded before the Mosaic Law, then how did tithing become law? As we have just discovered, Jacob vowed to give a tenth of all that he would receive. Since a vow becomes an obligation once it is made, Jacob’s vow to give a tithe became a requirement. A requirement of what? The Promised Land (Canaan). After the death of Jacob and the conquest of Canaan, God held Jacob the nation (Israel) accountable to pay the tithe. Thus, we have the enactment of the law of tithing.“
L. Ray Smith in his article “Tithing is Unscriptural Under the New Covenant” also states, “Jacob concludes his proposition to God, should God meet all of his requirements, by saying that of all the things that God will first give to Jacob, Jacob will give God back a tenth. Now don’t laugh. God honored Jacob’s proposition, and furthermore, God continued to honor this same principle of tithing all through Israel’s history.“
As we all know, the decedents of Jacob eventually received the promised land which provided them an opportunity to fulfill the promise of their father by tithing off of the seed of the land and the fruit of the tree (Lev. 27). Deuteronomy 1:8 states, “See, I have set the land before you; go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to your fathers–to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–to give to them and their descendants after them.” Psalms 105:7 also states, “The covenant which He made with Abraham, And His oath to Isaac, And confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, To Israel for an everlasting covenant. Saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan As the allotment of your inheritance,”
I know it might be hard to conceive that a vow given by one man was required from his future generations, but let’s look at how God fulfills his vow to one man. God told Jacob, “the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants”. Although it seems that God had promised the land to Jacob directly, we know Jacob never inherited the promised land. So our conclusion is that God’s vow was collective rather than inclusive of Jacob in a direct way. Put simply, God fulfilled his vow to Jacob by giving the land to his children. If we are willing to accept that God fulfilled his promise directly to Jacob by finally giving the land hundreds of years later to his children, then we should be willing to accept that Jacob’s tithing vow could have been fulfilled in a belated matter as well.
It is not contradictory or unorthodox to pass Jacob’s vow down to his children since it would not be the first time where a token was made and required to be observed by the following generations. Let’s read Genesis 17:10-13, “This [is] My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. ”
It is not unique for the generations that follow to inherit a covenant token that initiated with their father. These ‘signs’ are declared throughout much of scripture where God’s covenant promises were commemorated by a token of some sort. Jacob’s vow to tithe was a continual promise because just as circumcision, it was based upon a continual covenant. In a few chapters prior to Jacob’s vow we have an example of Abraham’s tithe, but this was a one time gift. We also know that Abraham’s tithe was not a lifetime or continual requirement because it would not have been an available option for Jacob to offer it as a token in his promise.
MyJewishLearning states the difference between an oath and a vow, “The difference between an oath and a vow is somewhat technical. Vows refer to an object — a person prohibits something to themselves (wine or sex, for example) or vows to do something. The vow refers to the thing. An oath refers to the person — a person swears an oath to perform an action or swears that something is true. The oath pertains to the person.”
This is significant because if Jacob had made an oath, then his oath would have been fulfilled upon his passing since oaths are tied to the person. A vow is tied to an object, so as long as the object remains true – in this case it’s the inheritance of the promised land, then the vow still remains.
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the passage of Genesis 28 states this, “Jacob seems to make this vow rather for his posterity than for himself, as we may learn from Genesis 28:13-15; for he particularly refers to the promises which God had made to him, which concerned the multiplication of his offspring, and their establishment in that land. If, then, God shall fulfill these promises, he binds his posterity to build God a house, and to devote for the maintenance of his worship the tenth of all their earthly goods. This mode of interpretation removes that appearance of self-interest which almost any other view of the subject presents. Jacob had certainly, long ere this, taken Jehovah for his God; and so thoroughly had he been instructed in the knowledge of Jehovah, that we may rest satisfied no reverses of fortune could have induced him to apostatize: but as his taking refuge with Laban was probably typical of the sojourning of his descendants in Egypt, his persecution, so as to be obliged to depart from Laban, the bad treatment of his posterity by the Egyptians, his rescue from death, preservation on his journey, re-establishment in his own country, &c., were all typical of the exodus of his descendants, their travels in the desert, and establishment in the promised land, where they built a house to God, and where, for the support and maintenance of the pure worship of God, they gave to the priests and Levites the tenth of all their worldly produce. If all this be understood as referring to Jacob only, the Scripture gives us no information how he performed his vow.” (source)
Adam Clarke connects a bunch of dots in his text above. He understands that there is a correlation between Jacob’s vow and the tithing laws that the Israelites were asked to obey. Notice how Clarke even shows how Jacob’s journey mirrors the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt and into the promised land.
Leonard C. Bupanda in his book, “The Tithing Dilemma and the Triumphs of Love” also agrees that Jacob’s vow was trans-generational, “Now, since Jacob failed to deliver on his promise, God made him pay the tithe through his children who had emerged as a nation after his God-given name-Israel. Thus God’s promise to Jacob was fulfilled”
Also, Rabbi Moshe Alshich, renowned as one of the great sermonizers of the Jewish world and a biblical commentator in the 16th century interprets the passage in Jacob’s vow. His works which were translated by, Yitzchak Hirshfeld, Avraham Braud in 2006 in their work titled, “The Book of Mishlei” wrote, “Scripture says, Jacob vowed a vow to say. . .All that you give me I will doubly tithe to You (Genesis 28:20,22). Our sages say (midrash Bereshith Rabbah 70:1) that with these words Jacob was instructing future generations to pledge money to charity in times of distress the word אָמַר, to say, in the clause, Jacob vowed a vow to say, indicates that Jacob had something to say to others, namely, he wanted to teach all his descendants the importance of tithing to charity.” (p.385)
Could this influential 16th century rabbi be wrong?
The Book of Jubilees (an ancient Jewish work written around the 2nd century) states this, “And Levi discharged the priestly office at Bethel before Jacob his father in preference to his ten brothers, and he was a priest there, and Jacob gave his vow: thus he tithed again the tithe to the Lord and sanctified it, and it became holy unto Him. And for this reason it is ordained on the heavenly tables as a law for the tithing again the tithe to eat before the Lord from year to year, in the place where it is chosen that His name should dwell, and to this law there is no limit of days for ever.“
I’m not quoting modern authors, or twisting the interpretation of scripture. The book of Jubilees is a second century manuscript that confirms the generational bind that tithing had on the nation of Israel.
Barry Bandstra, Ph.D., professor of religion at Hop University writes, in his book “Reading the Old Testament” – “Jacob’s obligation in covenant was to return a tithe, or tenth of his wealth, to God. Perhaps this pledge grounded the later Israelite practice of bringing a tithe to the priests at the Bethel sanctuary.“
Bandstra doesn’t dogmatically state a direct correlation between Jacob’s vow at Bethel and the sanctuary at Bethel that was later built and accommodated the tithe.
The next reference to Jacob’s vow is in Genesis 31:11-14 “Then the Angel of God spoke to me in a dream, saying, ‘Jacob.’ And I said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Lift your eyes now and see, all the rams which leap on the flocks are streaked, speckled, and gray-spotted; for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now arise, get out of this land, and return to the land of your family.'”
Dr. Norman J. Cohen renowned for his expertise in Torah study and midrash writes in his book, “Hineini in Our Lives“, “The tradition emphasizes that when the angel/God speaks to Jacob in his dream, commanding him to return to the land and fulfill his vow by offering sacrifies at Beth El, the angel/God speaks not only to Jacob but to all future generations.” (p. 50)
Over and over again throughout scripture, we see God pleading with Israel to return to back to God after they have gone astray. They have left the way of their fathers and have wandered in a place that God did not exist.
Language Used in Jacob’s Vow Is later Correlated With Israel’s Call to Tithe
Malachi 3:7-8 For I [am] the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob. Yet from the days of your fathers You have gone away from My ordinances And have not kept [them]. ‘Return to Me‘ (shuwb), and I will return to you,” Says the LORD of hosts. “But you said, ‘In what way shall we return (shuwb)?’ “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings.
Genesis 31:13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now arise, get out of this land, and ‘return‘ (shuwb) to the land of your family.
The key word in each of these passages is the Hebrew word ‘shuwb‘ . This word is important because of the conditions in Jacob’s vow we find in Genesis 28:20 states,“If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back (shuwb) to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God.”
Keep that in mind that Jacob stated in his vow that God will keep him safe & fed while you read Amos 4:4-10 “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years…I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me (shuwb)…I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away…Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me (shuwb)… I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps, yet you have not returned to me (shuwb)
Israel’s safety and well being were all in jeopardy as long as they did not honor God’s request to return back to him. The “return” (shuwb) of Jacob to the promised land was part of his vow and an integral part of his condition to tithe. This is why we see that Israel never tithed when they were outside of the promised land. The tithing vow was no longer binding as long as they did not have possession of the Holy land. This wasn’t because they didn’t have access to the crops or animals; Israel could have still given a tithe of the cattle they had in foreign lands, but because of the conditions of Jacob’s vow they were not required to.
Take note also in Genesis 31 as an angel of God appears to Jacob and reminds him of his vow, and asks him to ‘return’ (shuwb) back to where he made the vow.
The Significance Between a Vow and an Oath
Many of us have taken the assumption that a vow and an oath are the exact same thing in the bible. But upon further research, I have found that they both have opposing implications that affect individuals, groups, and even objects differently.
The bible makes a distinction between a vow and oath in a few passages. Here’s one for example in Numbers 30:2, “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” The scripture didn’t just hiccup and mention the same thing twice. A vow and an oath are separate ways to make an obligation to God.
The very first time the word ‘vow’ is mentioned in scripture is found in the passage of Jacob’s vow to God in Genesis 28:20, “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear”. The Hebrew word for this is – (נֶדֶר) “neder”.
The very first time the word ‘oath’ is mentioned in scripture is found in the of the oath between Abraham and his servant in search of Isaac’s wife in Genesis 24:8, “If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” The Hebrew word for oath is (שבע) “shĕbuw`ah” or “shevua”.
The simplest explanation I have come across explaining the difference between a neder and a shevua is found in a book titled, “Management Ethics and Talmudic Dialectics” by Nathan Lee Kaplan. It states, “A Neder applies to an object, a Shevu’a [oath] applies to a person”. Although that may seem vague at the moment, I will explain the difference.
We may understand the implications of this a little better if I use the word ‘consecrated’ to describe neder (vow). We understand that consecrate means we have set apart something and/or made it holy. There are many objects in the bible that are consecrated in the Old and New Testament. In the Old Testament, the ark of the covenant was consecrated, and for the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper is consecrated.
The Aleph Society’s website states this, “The Gemara explains that in a neder, the statement made by the person takes effect on the object ? e.g., when a person takes a vow not to eat a certain food, the food is now forbidden. A shevuah, on the other hand, takes effect on the person, so that now there is a prohibition on the person to eat the food.”
A ‘neder’ applies to all those who have some interest in a specific object and a ‘shevua’ applies only to the individual.
“Yom Kippur: Its Significance Laws and Prayers” by Rabbi Scherman in 1989 says it this way, “The difference between a neder and a shevuah is that a neder alters the status of the object (ie., this apple becomes forbidden to me), while a shevuah alters the status of the person (ie., I am forbidden to enjoy the apple).”
This explains why the tithe was set apart and holy to God. It was consecrated to God by Jacob. As long as the blessings that God promised Jacob existed then the vow would still be in effect. Whereas if Jacob made an oath (shevua) it would have been binding for the duration of Jacob’s existence since his promise applied to a person not an object.
On the Torah to the Tribes website it is further clarified, “Neder: voluntary, always involves the name of YHWH, it can be conditional or unconditional, positive or negative. It can change the status of something from permissible to non permissible (grapes). No one disavows a mans vow, it goes down the generations. To break a Neder is to break Torah.”
An oath (shevua) would not have placed Israel under the obligation to tithe. But because of the implications of a neder, Israel was indebted to the conditions of their father’s vow. The tithe belonged to God since it was consecrated by Jacob. Jacob also consecrated the place where he had the dream and called it Bethel, making it the House of God.
The Conditions of a Vow
The whole chapter of Leviticus 27 addresses the proper way to manage your vows.
Bob Deffinbaugh writes a short outline on Leviticus 27 on bible.org,
- “Vows of people—vv. 1-8
- Vows of animals—vv. 9-13
- Vowed houses—vv. 14-15
- Vowed inheritance (family land) vv. 16-21
- Vowed (non-family) land—vv. 22-25
- Illicit vows—vv. 26-33
- Conclusion—v. 34″
Right at the end of Leviticus in verses 29-33, God discusses how the tithe is to be handled. You not only find that tithing is found in the chapter about vows, but also you see instructions from God treating it as a vow. Vows were treated as private contracts between the people and God. The bible states that if a vow was made and you wished to redeem it, you were to add one-fifth to it (Lev 27:13,15,19,27). The same is true with tithing. Leviticus 27:31 states, “If a man wants at all to redeem [any] of his tithes, he shall add one-fifth to it.” Why would tithing be treated as a vow if it was not a vow? Better question yet – when was tithing ever vowed prior to Leviticus 27?
Garry D. Pifer in his article titled, “Did Jacob Tithe” states this, “There are many more very clear scriptures showing that the promise God had made was not fulfilled until the Israelites crossed over the Jordan and took possession of the land of Canaan. The final and third part of Jacob’s vow, “… and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee” would not have become valid and binding until this time. When we review God’s instructions regarding tithing found in Leviticus 27 it is so clear. He is giving instructions regarding payment of vows in this chapter. He tells them the tenth, the tithe of the land, that Jacob had vowed to give to God was “holy to the Lord.” (Lev. 27:30)”
In Leviticus 27, the word “holy” is stated nine times in reference to the many types of vows made to God not just tithing. If an Israelite were to vow an animal to God, they could not substitute the animal regardless if it were a good or bad one. The animal was holy regardless of its quality. Ironically, the same rule applied to the tithe in vs 32-33 “every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. No one may pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution.” Why would the tenth animal that was blemished and sick be holy if it wasn’t vowed?
This also coincides with our evaluation of vows versus oaths. A vow was consecrated and set apart as holy.
How Jacob’s Vow Explains How the Levites Were Opted Out of Receiving An Inheritance
I’ve had a question that bugged my brain for a while, so I will attempt to address it here. If the nation of Israel was promised an inheritance of land, and yet the Levites were excluded from inheriting this, how can we explain that God did not break his promise? Am I missing something here, or is this a question in your own mind as well?
Since the tithe was vowed to be given from the land Jacob inherited, I believe inheriting the tithe was an ‘indirect’ way for the Levites to inherit the land of Israel.
Numbers 18:20-21 states, “Then the LORD said to Aaron: “You shall have no inheritance in their land, nor shall you have any portion among them; I [am] your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel. “Behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance in return for the work which they perform, the work of the tabernacle of meeting.“
If Jacob was to give God back 10% of what God promised him (the land of Israel), then the tithe of the land would be a perfect way for God to fulfill his promise without giving the Levites a direct inheritance of the land. I hope this makes sense, otherwise the question would still linger (at least in my mind) on how God fulfilled his promise to the Levites without actually giving them any land inheritance.
Review of the Major Points
Here is a quick reference as to why Jacob’s tithing vow was binding to the nation of Israel
- The tithing vow did not include any gold, income or goods that Jacob earned, only the gifts that God promised in Jacob’s dream
- The Hebrew word -‘neder’ (vow) makes it an everlasting binding promise.
- Jacob’s vow wasn’t the only example we have that was binding on future generations
- The tithe was consecrated just like other holy objects that were observed by the Israelite nation
- The conditions of performing & honoring a vow are exactly the conditions of performing and honoring the tithe in Leviticus 27
- The Bible never records Jacob fulfilling his vow, so someone was responsible for it
- Israel’s call to tithe and return to God is correlated with Jacob’s vow
I hope many of you have found this article informative whether or not you agree with what was said. Although I had put in a good amount of time into researching and writing for this article, I am not one of those people who will take my beliefs in this article to the grave. I am pretty open minded, so if you have some input, I am willing to hear what you have to say.
A Powerful Argument Against Tithing
Many people are quick to use Abraham’s example of tithing prior to the law as a model for new testament giving under grace. At some degree, I can understand an argument like this, but if we also take Abraham’s example prior to the Mosaic law, then to be unbiased, we must accept Jacob’s principles of giving as well.
If our evaluation of scripture should be consistent, shouldn’t Jacob’s example of tithing be incorporated into the model of new testament giving as well? Instead, we look at how much Jacob was willing to give, and overlook what it was to be given from.
Tearing Down the Tithing Defense
After studying the vow of Jacob and its effect on the law of tithing and Israel, I was able to get an even deeper grasp of why tithing is not commanded for the New Testament Church. I know tithing had begun with Abraham and that’s where the tithing debate begins, but debating whether or not Abraham’s tithe is required for the Church does not answer if Jacob’s tithe is required of us. After defining Jacob’s tithing vow I list five arguments made clear from this article that refute the practice of tithing in the New Covenant.
- Tithing was initiated from a personal vow in response to God’s covenant with Israel not the New Covenant with the Church
- The tithe was to be taken from the increase of the land of Israel, and from nowhere else
- Jacob offered to give God a tenth of the gifts God promised in his dream, not from income or precious metals
- Jacob’s vow was voluntary and accepted by God proving that tithing was not a requirement prior to the law.
- If tithing is required because it was 400 years prior to the Mosaic law, then points 1-4 are just as relevant since they were established at the same time