Understanding why Israel only tithed food is one of the most important aspects of understanding giving and also one of the more profound truths about tithing. The very definition of tithing serves as a roadblock to dissecting this practice, applying it, and understanding its deeper implications. 10% is its most obvious attribute, so all its other qualities are overlooked. The more meaningful principles of tithing aren’t practiced or preached because our attention is drawn to how much it was instead of asking the questions, who, what, and why? These are the more important questions to ask anyway.
Lev 27:30-32 And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s. It is holy to the Lord. If a man wants at all to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add one-fifth to it. And concerning the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the Lord.
In the Old Testament, Israel was required to give a tenth of either the animals or the fruit of the land. They were not to give anything from their other possessions or from any other form of wealth. God would neither accept money nor goods. Learning the truth about why this is important will help you understand what giving means to God. My hope is that you will be rewarded with understanding once you complete the reading.
In today’s modern world, we live in a primarily industrial society, but up until relatively recently, this was not the case. The entire world lived in an agrarian lifestyle. Farming and herding were more common than they were uncommon. Even though money may have been custom to use in transactions, it certainly wasn’t even a necessity in many transactions since the needs of our society were simple.
Although we’ve evolved from an agrarian to an industrial world, it doesn’t mean that the amount of farming and herding has decreased over time. Overall, there are fewer farmers per-capita, but the same amount of food and farm-land needed to feed one person today is also the same amount of food one needed 1,000 years ago. So, it’s irrational to claim we can tithe money instead of food because we’re not an agrarian society.
Many believe that Israel was asked to give a tenth of the crops and animals because farming and herding were so common. In other words, God didn’t accept money back then because it was the least available commodity; even though today he is quite accepting of cash, credit cards & even bitcoins. To human rationale, it makes sense for God to ask us to give a portion of our most common tender.
As you are putting this all together in your mind, I want you to think of one instance in the Old Testament where God makes a request just for the sake of convenience. I’m sure you can’t think of a single instance because you know God had a reason and a purpose for everything he asked. His requests had some sort of spiritual relation to it.
As you continue reading, I want you to ask yourself some questions:
- Why did Israel give only food?
- Why is it acceptable for us to give money?
- Did we change tithing to fit into what God wanted or what we wanted?
- Does this make tithing more relevant or less relevant today?
Reason: God is the Creator
God only wanted Israel to give from resources that they could not produce themselves.
Let’s say I was a carpenter and I needed to sell 100 wooden chairs to feed my family. Since creating chairs is my job, then the responsibility and all the credit for taking care of my family goes to me. Now, what if my responsibility was cultivating something that I couldn’t produce on my own at all? What if I had to provide for my family in a way wherein i had to rely on God to produce for me? God wanted farmers to work in the field, although he was responsible for the rain, sun, & nutrients for the plant to develop and grow into food. As human beings, we can’t create something from nothing nor can we grow anything without an act of God.
Ultimately, God’s intention was to draw attention to him as the creator of life and growth. Money had no value to God, so he didn’t want that. He wanted a form of worship not a form of giving. Anyone can give to God, but when you turn your giving into worship, then that’s what God values. God wanted praise, honor, and expectations placed upon him as the creator because that’s his desire. He deeply wants us to rely on him. When mankind realizes what God is to us and what God does for us, that is when God is pleased.
If an Israelite did not grow any crops or raise any animals, then he did not give a tenth of his income. This means that Bankers, Lawyers, Blacksmiths & Carpenters did not give a single penny of their income towards tithing. This sounds a bit unfair, but as I have stated, it’s not about fairness, it’s about worship.
God is a creator and demands our respect in that category. God is the giver and the taker of life and he wanted Israel to understand this. Giving a tenth of goods from which an Israelite could produce on his own could not be a part of the tithing system in the Old Testament, so why is it part of our New Testament system? In truth, the Church wouldn’t know what to do with food, because we haven’t done much to feed the poor anyway; but give us money, and we know of a billion ways we can utilize it.
I don’t want to go on a greedy, church-bashing rant because I really am trying to relay a different point here.
Reason: God is the Provider
Another reason why Israel only tithed food is that God wanted us to relate him with our very basic, humanistic needs. This is why Jesus referred to himself as the living water & bread of life. He didn’t refer to himself as the gold or silver of life since we don’t need gold or silver to live. God didn’t call himself the ‘paycheck’ of life either. He wanted to express: God = life. He didn’t want to express (God = wealth) or (God = happiness)
Mankind can live in a world without money and credit cards; we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. But we can’t live in a world without food and clothing. God wanted Israel to give away part of the very basic necessities we need to sustain life. Isn’t that what God desires anyway- our life? Would God be asking for our life if he asked for our car, or for our job, or money? Does he want you to give him your worldly goods? I’m sure in a way the answer is yes, but if we trusted God in such a way that gave away something from our lives that symbolically represented our right to life, then what would that mean to God?
This is why fasting is so effective and worthy as a believer. Placing our life and health at a lower priority really does a lot to get God to react, so wouldn’t it makes sense to place an emphasis on the tithes of food?
Reason: It’s What Jacob Promised
A third and final reason why Israel tithed on food is more of a technicality. It’s simply because it’s what Jacob vowed. Some may disagree with me on this one, but I’m of the school of thought that Israel was required to give a tenth of the increase from the promised land because of the covenant that Jacob made with God. You can read more details about the Vow of Jacob in these two posts Misconceptions About Jacob’s Tithing Vow & Jacob’s Tithing Vow Part 2
In a synopsis, God tells Jacob – ‘The land you are laying on, I will give to you and your descendants. Then Jacob wakes up and says ‘of all that you give me, I will give a tenth back to you. Simply put, it was a covenant that was binding to all the recipients included in God’s promise just as circumcision was binding to all generations in the Abrahamic covenant. God said I will give you this land and Jacob says I will tithe from the land you give me. Jacob’s vow was not a deceptive bargain with God. Those who think that are misdirected by either the translation or other’s interpretation of that passage. You can read the links to Jacob’s Vow above for some clarity.
Why Does the Church Receive/Give Money?
Since we can understand the significance of tithing food, we should scrutinize why the Church is comfortable with receiving/giving money. As you’ve read the material above, you should now realize that the question of “How much Israel gave” had very little significance compared to the question of “What Israel gave”. When you look at the number ’10’, to us it’s just a number. It’s possible there’s no spiritual significance to this fraction except for the fact that we have 10 fingers and the world’s counting system is based on tens.
Because 10% is tithing’s most obvious attribute, the amount has been the focal point behind sermons in order to support church budgets. Maybe this is just the effect of an underlying problem. Maybe, deep down the Church actually desires financial stability more than we desire worship; and that’s why we cling to tangible attributes while overlooking the spiritual attributes of tithing. We’ve chosen our doctrinal Church practices based on relevance; after all what good is food compared to money nowadays? When I say ‘church’ i don’t mean pastors and leaders, I mean you and me – everyone. We’ve evolved into a selfish, greedy civilization.
We’ve focused our attention on benchmarks, goals, and numbers in the Church. This mentality has thrust tithing in the spotlight for stabilizing Church budgets. Many believers look at tithing in the OT and think God is a genius! WOW! He’s invented a flat tax that is a universal, non-discriminatory, fool-proof, consistent, predictable way to fund the Church (sigh of relief). Sadly, many miss the true nature of God because, In his eyes, the genius of tithing in the Old Testament had nothing to do with the percentage, it had to do with worship. Unfortunately, we’ve taken the worship part out and kept the mechanical part instead.
We’ve turned God into an accountant who sits at his clerk desk with a calculator and punches numbers all day to make sure that we’ve gotten that 10%. Sitting right next to him is a little lever that he’s ready to pull in order to release the windows of heaven as the barometer crosses from 9.9% to 10.0%! Yay! You’re the lucky winner! Whooosh! I can hear the blessings falling. Side note: ‘The windows of heaven opening’ is also an indication of the importance of agricultural tithe since that passage is referring to rain falling from the sky to water the crops; not money falling from the sky.
Do I think that we should go back to tithing God our food? No way. I’ve already stated above that tithing was a command for the Israelite nation, from the Israelite land, and under a separate covenant.
God Always Provides the Increase
1 Corinthians 3:6-7 states, ” I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.”
The truths mentioned above spill into other aspects of Christianity. Imagine if we could take credit for creating a new life in Christ? We could approach God and say, “look at what I made”. Instead, because God is responsible for the increase, we can approach him with a gift and say, “look at what you made”. Just as the Israelite farmers had done when he presented his food tithe.
So many get hung up on the ‘Test me in this‘ passage in Malachi 3 thinking that it’s the only place in the bible where we can supposedly abuse or disrespect God. God wanted the farmers and herdsmen to test him because forming life and growth was out of their control anyway. When you understand what tithing was and why their success was up to God you begin to understand why it’s a disservice to use Malachi 3 “test me in this” passage to encourage tithing in the Church. There’s a reason why God said ‘test me’, and it had nothing to do with tempting God, nor does it bring any more validity to the practice of tithing today.
As a farmer in Israel, we could hold God’s feet to the fire on his promise to provide for us. If we toiled all year and gave our tithe, and yet, God allowed very little to grow; we could confront God and truly blame him for the small harvest. No matter how much we plowed or plucked, God is ultimately responsible for creation. Although, if we were a carpenter, then forming, molding, and producing each and every chair is our responsibility. How can you “test God” when you are a carpenter and you are responsible for creating chairs?
Is Tithing Relevant for the Church?
Tithing has no place in the Church today, and even more so the way we tithe (with money). There are principles we can apply today, but giving 10% to a local church is not a requirement. There is nowhere in scripture that informs us how tithing should be changed into what it is today. This doesn’t mean that tithing is required even though we are doing it wrong. It means that we’ve changed the practice of tithing to make it sound like it fits into the New Testament Church. The New Covenant paints a new picture of how we are to worship God with our giving. Please give sacrificially, cheerfully, and consistently while allowing the Holy Spirit to guide your decisions.