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Tithe

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Tithe

    Attested in ancient Near Eastern sources apart from the Bible, in Israel the development of the practice of tithing (Hebr. maʿăśēr, meaning a tenth) is unknown and not all the particulars are mutually reconcilable. According to Genesis, tithes were voluntarily offered by Abraham to Melchizedek and accepted by him on God's behalf, long before the Temple (Gen. 14.20; Heb. 7.4–10). This was confirmed as an obligation by Jacob in his vow (Gen. 28.22): “Of all that you give me, I will surely give one tenth to you,” God being the universal donor. In other traditions, the chief purpose of tithe was to maintain priests and Levites, who had not been allotted a share in realty in Canaan (Num. 18.21–24; Josh. 14.3–4). Tithe was assessed on the fruits of the land of Israel and (see Jubilees 32.15) herds and flocks there, such tithes not being redeemable for money (Lev. 27.30–33). The Levites at one time received tithe and passed on a tenth to the priests or for the use of the Temple (Num. 18.25–32; Neh. 10.37–39); but by the first century CE priests collected for themselves. It is not unknown for some priests to forestall others forcibly. The king no longer collected tithes, if he ever did (cf. 1 Sam. 8.15).

    Particularity about tithing, as required in the Mishnah, was not inconsistent with neglect of other commandments not so easily quantified (Matt. 23.23; Luke 11.42). Priests obtained income from other sources, but failure to pay tithes (cf. Neh. 13.10) was a spiritual offense (Deut. 12.6), so as to excite God's anger (Mal. 3.8, 10). A perfect Israel would proudly contribute to the cult with its tithes (2 Chron. 31.5–6; Neh. 12.44–47), and Pharisees could boast of their reliability (Luke 18.12). But there was a discrepancy between such observances and spirituality (Amos 4.4–5). What accretions and what gains, natural and otherwise, must be submitted to Pentateuchal tithe could be argued, but the Mishnah declares all cultivated and edible growths liable. Pharisees regarded food that might not have been tithed as unfit for consumption by the righteous.

    Another tithe of produce is required at Deuteronomy 14.22–23 to be realized by its owners and spent in Jerusalem to subsidize the city, its Temple, and the Levites. This may refer to the first fruits or the money received from their sale, which the producers had to take to Jerusalem (cf. Deut. 26.1–15), but this is doubtful. It is important that that “second tithe” was to be spent on servants, orphans, widows, and aliens as well as Levites (cf. Deut. 12.17–19; 14.22–29). A regular collection for the poor was known by the second century BCE (Tob. 1.8), and the Mishnah speaks of a tithe for the poor even though payment of it was voluntary (cf. Sir. 7.32). On the other hand it rules that the animals of Leviticus 27.30–33 are subject to the “second tithe.”

    Luke 11.41–42 suggests the probability that, in at least some churches, the Pentateuchal precepts were applied by analogy for the benefit of the Christian poor. Matthew 23.23 suggests that the custom of tithing was preserved somehow. The New Testament nowhere explicitly requires tithing to maintain a ministry or a place of assembly.

    J. Duncan M. Derrett

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