Of all the topics on money, the tithe is probably still the most controversial in the Church today. Many people argue that it no longer applies, that it is just an Old Testament concept, while others believe it is still relevant and continue to practice it today.
But before we delve into the theology of tithing, let us first understand what the word means. Simply put, the word tithe means “tenth,” but let us go deeper and look at other definitions.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia describes the tithe or the Hebrew word ma`aser as “the custom of giving a tenth part of the products of the land and of the spoils of war to priests and kings.” It was an ancient tradition among most nations; the Jews had this custom long before the institution of the Mosaic Law as shown by Genesis 14:17-20, Genesis 28:22, and 1 Samuel 8:15,17.
The Encyclopedia Americana defines general tithe as “the tenth part of produce or other income, paid voluntarily or under the compulsion of law for the benefit of religious institutions, the support of priests and pastors, and the relief of those in need.”
The Encyclopedia of Religion cites, “In the ancient Near East lie the origins of a sacred offering or payment of a tenth part of stated goods or property to the deity. Often given to the king or to the royal temple, the ‘tenth’ was usually approximate, not exact. The practice is known from Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, Greece and as far to the west as the Phoenician city of Carthage.”
The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible defines tithe as “A tenth part of one’s income consecrated to God. The separation of a certain proportion of the products of one’s industry or of the spoils of war as tribute to their gods was practiced by various nations of antiquity. The Lydians offered a tithe of their booty. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians sent a tithe annually to the Tyrian Hercules. These tithes might be regular or occasional, voluntary or prescribed by law.”
We learn from these references that tithing is a practice that existed long before the Mosaic Law was enforced. In his book, Should the Church Teach Tithing?: A Theologian’s Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine, Dr. Russell Earl Kelly explains that the concept of the general tithe is of pagan origin and precedes the Mosaic Law’s tithe by many centuries.
In Genesis 41:34 Joseph encouraged the Egyptians to double their tithe in order to cover the lean years. In Genesis 14 Abraham was obligated to pay a tithe from the spoils of war in obedience to the Arab war custom. In New Testament times the Roman Empire received the first tithe of ten percent of grains and twenty percent of fruit trees from its conquered subjects, including Judah.
We also learn that the tithe is applied to everything. In an agricultural society like the old testament, that included grains, fruit and so forth. It also applies to other property such as land, cattle and even spoils of war.
Now that we know its meaning, the next thing that we need to understand is why God required tithing of His people in the Old Testament.
Just like any part of the Jewish laws, the Israelites were warned of the seriousness of giving to God. This was an act of obedience required of them and not just some “nice thing” to do once in awhile. It was something ingrained into them from childhood.