The key to understanding the biblical tithe is understanding Leviticus 27. This final chapter of Leviticus contains what has traditionally been interpreted as God’s commanding of the Israelites to tithe:
“‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—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. If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.’” (Leviticus 27:30-33 NIV)
In order to correctly understand these verses, they must be read in the context of the entire chapter, and the entire chapter must be read in the context of the entire book. The first 25 chapters of Leviticus are devoted mainly to regulations and commands regarding offerings and the priesthood. Chapter 26 switches gears with God listing rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience. Leviticus closes with chapter 27, redeeming property that belonged to God. There are no direct commands in this final chapter, only instructions on how someone could buy back from God something that had been dedicated to him; that is, given to him through a vow.
The first 25 verses cover various items that might be vowed to God, along with instructions on how to redeem them. Verses 26-27 cover the redemption of firstborn animals, and verses 28-29 cover the redemption of devoted items. Finally, verses 30-33 cover the redemption of the tithe of land and livestock.
The entire chapter is concerned with one thing and one thing only: Instructions on how to redeem property that had been vowed to God. In fact, there are no commands whatsoever in this chapter. Read verses 30-33 again. God isn’t commanding the Israelites to give Him a tithe, He’s simply stating that the tithe belongs to Him. And the instructions for redeeming the tithe are exactly the same as the instructions given earlier in the chapter for redeeming fields and animals that had been vowed to God. The focus here isn’t on giving the tithe, the focus is on how to redeem the tithe. And the fact that the tithe is presented in this context raises two very interesting questions.
Question #1: If God owns ten percent of the agricultural production, then who owns the other ninety percent? Answer: In Genesis 15, God made a covenant with Abraham to give him and his descendants the Promised Land, so the Israelites own the other ninety percent via the covenant.
Question #2: If God made a covenant to give the Israelites the Promised Land, which would include all of its agricultural production, then how could He possibly own ten percent of it? Answer: It can’t be that He commanded the Israelites to give it back to Him, because doing so would be tantamount to breaking the covenant. The answer is actually found right here in Leviticus 27. Since the entire chapter is about redeeming property that had been vowed to God, it follows that the tithe must have been given to God through a vow.
If the tithe was vowed to God, then it could only have been done by a recipient of the covenant, and the Bible should have a record of it. The covenant was made with Abraham and was subsequently passed down to Isaac and Jacob. So somewhere between the making of the covenant in Genesis 15 and God’s claim of tithe ownership in Leviticus 27, the Bible should contain this specific event: A recipient of the covenant (Abraham, Isaac or Jacob) giving God a tithe of the Promised Land through a vow. And that’s exactly what we find in Genesis 28. In a dream, God spoke to Jacob:
There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15 NIV)
After waking, Jacob responded:
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 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” (Genesis 28:20-22 NIV)
God promised to give Jacob and his descendants the land on which he was lying, and Jacob vowed to give God back a tenth of that land. Jacob’s tithe and the tithe of Leviticus 27 are one and the same. In Leviticus 27, God wasn’t introducing the tithe, He was introducing instructions for redeeming the tithe. The tithe that had been vowed to Him many years earlier by Jacob.
God never commanded the Israelites to give Him a tithe of the land. Not only because doing so would have been a violation of the covenant, but because He already owned it. It was Jacob who tithed, not the Israelites. When the crops were growing in the fields, the Israelites owned ninety percent. When the crops were harvested, they owned ninety percent. They never owned the ten percent that Jacob gave to God. They were simply in temporary possession of it until the Levites collected it.
That is, of course, unless they chose to redeem it. After all, that’s the only reason the tithe was even included in Leviticus 27.
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