The Tithing Dilemma
Chapter 7 

Tithing in the Wilderness and Canaan

Read and ListenLet us now look at how the tithing laws in the Bible evolved. It will help us to understand better what the doctrine of tithing is all about. Actually, the doctrine was developed over the forty years of the Exodus period. Its final development came at the close of the Exodus (the last month of the fortieth year). In that final month, Moses brought the Israelites together in order to give them his final instructions. He found it necessary to make some adjustments on many points of the law. This was needed because the Israelites were leaving their nomadic existence in the desert and they were entering a civilized type of environment in the Land of Canaan. The laws that had been given to guide them in the wilderness had to be adjusted to account for this new civilized type of life which they were about to encounter in the Land of Canaan.

This prompted Moses to give a new introduction to his laws in the Book of the Covenant that had been enacted at Mount Sinai. The first 11 chapters of Deuteronomy constitute that new introduction. This instruction was reckoned as a prologue to the whole law which was made to allow the Israelites to understand the changes that were being legislated by Moses.

These modifications involved a number of laws, and tithing was no exception. The new environment in the Land of Canaan required some alterations in the way the tithe was to be gathered and utilized. Since in the wilderness most Israelites encamped close to the Tabernacle, it was then common for the people simply to deposit the tithe in the Temple treasury as the need arose. After the rebellion of Korah (some twenty years after Israel left Egypt), Moses determined that the tithe was then to be given exclusively to the Levites (Numbers 18:20–24).

It became clear to Moses, however, that the giving of the tithe had to be different in the Land of Canaan than in the wilderness. That land was well over one hundred miles long and some fifty miles wide. The various Israelite tribes were going to be scattered over an expansive area and even the Levites and Priests were to live in forty-eight cities located throughout the land (Joshua 21).

This dispersal of the people made it difficult to pay the tithe at one central location. This prompted Moses to authorize the forty-eight priestly cities scattered over the land as official sites where tithes could be stored or to be paid in certain tithing years.

This ratio of Israelites to Levites convinced Moses that a new and equitable tithe system for paying and distribution was needed once Israel inherited the Land of Canaan. He decided to make a change in how the tithe was to be distributed and spent. Moses commanded that Israelites were no longer to perform their tithing obligations in the manner they had observed them in the wilderness. "Ye shall not do after all the things that we do here [within the wilderness] this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes" (Deuteronomy 12:8). Moses began to regulate the religious activities of the Israelites with more precision. He made the laws more strict and with greater detail for Israel’s observance in the Land of Canaan.

Notice the context of the last quote. It is important. He said the Israelite did "whatsoever is right in his own eyes" (Deuteronomy 12:8). Moses was talking about the payment of tithe, burnt offerings, sacrifices, heave offerings, vows, free will offerings, firstlings of the herds and flocks (Deuteronomy 12:6). There were no laws regulating these matters.

Note that the law of the firstlings (that is, the firstborn of herds and flocks or the first fruit of harvest from farms) is a very different set of laws than those of tithing. They must not be confused as is sometimes done by preachers and priests who want to be the first paid from one’s income, so they erroneously apply the word "first" regarding animals and produce in this regard. But the law of firstlings is not for Christians. For firstlings see Numbers 3:12–13, 40–45; 8:16–18 and for first fruits see Leviticus 23:10–14; Numbers 18:12–28; Deuteronomy 18:4. One must distinguish these laws of the firstborn and first fruits from the law of tithing.

While in the wilderness the Israelites gave to the Levites what little tithe and firstlings and first fruits they had in any manner they pleased. At that time Moses said each Israelite had been able "to do whatsoever is right in his own eyes." But when they crossed into the Land of Canaan, this unregulated manner for doing such things was to stop. Once the central sanctuary was established in the midst of Canaan, new regulations were ordained by Moses to come into play. "Ye shall not do after all things that we do here [in the wilderness]" (Deuteronomy 12:8). These new directions were also changes in the laws of tithing. Once this fact is understood, we can realize the simple teachings about the full doctrine of tithing as recorded in the biblical revelation. They are very different from "Christian tithing" today.

The Tithing Laws For Canaan

Since the wilderness existence of the Israelites allowed little increase from agricultural products or animals, Moses did not consider the question of tithing as being of pressing importance during the Exodus period. But now that Israel was going into the land of Canaan, it became necessary to regulate the matter. Moses recognized that a great deal of money and produce would be arriving at the central sanctuary each year. There had to be directions on how those monies should be used and distributed. Moses decided to adopt a system that would fairly benefit all the people in the nation. He did not want any part of Israelite society having an aristocratic lordship over other members. This inspired Moses to come up with the most equitable tithing system that could be imagined.

Look at what Moses did. Since the tribe of Levi was a small tribe in Israel, Moses saw that tithing ten percent of all agricultural and animal increase to them every single year (without any let-up) would give the Levites tremendous financial advantage over the other Israelites. He would have none of this.

When Moses saw that the Levites would be receiving more money than ordinary Israelites, he decided on a plan that would equalize the situation and let all Israelites have a share in the economic blessings that God was giving. First, he ordered that all Israelites set aside ten percent of their agricultural and animal production each year. Then he commanded that this tithe should be brought to a central place where the Tabernacle (later called the Temple) would be located (Deuteronomy 14:22–24). To accomplish this in a convenient way, Moses changed the law by allowing the tithe to be turned into money without the premium penalty of a fifth extra. This permitted the Israelites who lived far from the sanctuary to carry monetary tithe to the central Temple area unburdened (Deuteronomy 14:25). Those who lived closer could still transport their tithe of grain, oil or firstlings to the sanctuary.

When the Israelites arrived at the Temple, Moses commanded them to do something with their tithe that they were not allowed to do while in the wilderness. They could now use part of their tithe to rejoice before God at the central sanctuary. They were also to share it with the Levites (Deuteronomy 14:27). While formerly, only the Levites were to be given all tithes, now it was different.

In a seven year sabbatical period, the first, second, fourth and fifth years were times when the tithe payer himself could eat of the tithe at the Temple with the Levites having only a share. But in every third and sixth year, the tithe was to be kept in the Israelite’s own home area. In those years the tithe was not to be brought to the central sanctuary but given to the Levites and needy peoples located in communities throughout the country (Deuteronomy 14:28–29).

Look at what this meant. Every third and sixth years of a seven year sabbatical period were the only times that Levites got the full tithe (with the exception of that part of the tithe which went to the fatherless, strangers and widows, that is, to those who were destitute). This system was most equitable.

What must be clearly understood about this tithing plan devised by Moses is that there was only one tithe being discussed. It was one tithe being used differently in the various years of a sabbatical cycle. There was no so-called "second" or "third" tithe in the plan of Moses. To find reference to those extra "second" or "third" tithes, one has to leave the Bible and consult the opinions of various Jewish interpreters who (after the Babylonian Captivity, when so much previous knowledge from the Bible had been lost) became so strict that they invented a second and third tithe to show an excessive "righteousness" (Tobit 1:7ff; Josephus, Antiquities, IV, 240). The so-called second and third tithes were devised through traditional concepts, and not from heeding the biblical commands of Moses. Churches who apply such teaching today are in no way following the biblical teachings of Moses.

The misapplication of these laws of tithing represent blatant examples of just how far preachers, evangelists and church denominations have departed from following the teachings of the Scriptures. The final tithing law was this: Moses (in four years of a sabbatical period) allowed all Israelites to share in the tithe at God’s three festival seasons each year, and every third and sixth year the Levites along with the destitute could use the tithe. Most preachers today, however, want a full ten percent of the money that each Christian earns every year. Indeed, they would prefer the tithe to be paid every month, and they don’t want the tithe payer to share in the tithe (as the Levites did with the Israelites).

Many preachers go even further and also misapply the law of the firstlings and first fruits of Moses (which has nothing to do with tithing). They abuse this teaching to claim the first tenth of all income earned by Christians. Remarkably, not a single one of these so-called requirements for Christians that we have been discussing in the last two paragraphs is found in the Holy Scripture. Indeed, it was the tenth animal that passed under the rod that was tithed, not the first. It is time these flagrant misapplications of biblical teachings come to a stop by all Christian ministers. They need to stop their sinning in this regard and get back to teaching all the truths of the Holy Scriptures.


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