A tenth part, or 10 percent, given or paid as a tribute, especially for religious purposes.
The Bible tells of two instances prior to the setting up of the Law covenant in which a tenth part of possessions was paid to God or to his representative. The first of these was on the occasion when Abraham gave Melchizedek one tenth of the spoils of his victory over Chedorlaomer and his allies. (Ge 14:18-20) The apostle Paul cites this incident as proof that Christ’s priesthood according to the manner of Melchizedek is superior to that of Levi, since Levi, being in the loins of Abraham, paid tithes, in effect, to Melchizedek. (Heb 7:4-10) The second case concerned Jacob, who vowed at Bethel to give one tenth of his substance to God.—Ge 28:20-22.
These two accounts, however, are merely instances of voluntarily giving one tenth. There is no record to the effect that Abraham or Jacob commanded their descendants to follow such examples, thereby establishing a religious practice, custom, or law. It would have been superfluous for Jacob, if already under a compulsory obligation to pay tithes, to vow to do so, as he did. It is therefore evident that the tithing arrangement was not a custom or a law among the early Hebrews. It was instituted with the inauguration of the Law covenant, not before.
Mosaic Tithing Laws. Jehovah gave Israel tithing laws for definite purposes, apparently involving the use of two tenths of their annual income, except during the Sabbath years, when no tithe was paid, since no income was anticipated. (Le 25:1-12) However, some scholars believe there was only one tithe. Such tithes were in addition to the firstfruits they were under obligation to offer to Jehovah.—Ex 23:19; 34:26.
The first tithe, consisting of one tenth of the produce of the land and fruit trees and (evidently of the increase) of the herds and flocks, was brought to the sanctuary and given to the Levites, since they had no inheritance in the land but were devoted to the service of the sanctuary. (Le 27:30-32; Nu 18:21, 24) The Levites, in turn, gave a tenth of what they received to the Aaronic priesthood for their support.—Nu 18:25-29.
Evidently the grain was threshed and the fruit of the vine and of the olive tree was converted into wine and oil before tithing. (Nu 18:27, 30; Ne 10:37) If an Israelite wished to give money instead of this produce, he could do so, provided he added an additional fifth to the valuation. (Le 27:31) But it was different with the flock and the herd. As the animals came out of the pen one by one through a gate, the owner stood by the gate with a rod and marked every tenth one as the tithe, without examination or selection.—Le 27:32, 33.
It seems there was an additional tithe, a second tenth, set aside each year for purposes other than the direct support of the Levitical priesthood, though the Levites shared in it. Normally it was used and enjoyed in large measure by the Israelite family when assembling together at the national festivals. In cases where the distance to Jerusalem was too great for the convenient transport of this tithe, then the produce was converted into money and this, in turn, was used in Jerusalem for the household’s sustenance and enjoyment during the holy convention there. (De 12:4-7, 11, 17, 18; 14:22-27) Then, at the end of every third and sixth years of the seven-year sabbatical cycle, this tithe, instead of being used to defray expenses at the national assemblies, was set aside for the Levites, alien residents, widows, and fatherless boys in the local community.—De 14:28, 29; 26:12.
These tithing laws binding on Israel were not excessive. Nor should it be overlooked that God promised to prosper Israel by opening “the floodgates of the heavens” if his tithing laws were obeyed. (Mal 3:10; De 28:1, 2, 11-14) When the people became negligent as to tithing, the priesthood suffered, for the priests and Levites were forced to spend their time in secular work and consequently neglected their ministerial services. (Ne 13:10) Such unfaithfulness tended to bring about a decline in true worship. Sadly, when the ten tribes fell away to calf worship, they used the tithe to support that false religion. (Am 4:4, 5) On the other hand, when Israel was faithful to Jehovah and was under the rule of righteous administrators, tithing for the Levites was restored, and true to Jehovah’s promise, there were no shortages.—2Ch 31:4-12; Ne 10:37, 38; 12:44; 13:11-13.
Under the Law there was no stated penalty to be applied to a person failing to tithe. Jehovah placed all under a strong moral obligation to provide the tithe; at the end of the three-year tithing cycle, they were required to confess before him that the tithe had been paid in full. (De 26:12-15) Anything wrongfully withheld was viewed as something stolen from God.—Mal 3:7-9.
By the first century C.E., the Jewish religious leaders, particularly among the scribes and Pharisees, were making a sanctimonious show of tithing and other outward works, in a form of worship, but their hearts were far removed from God. (Mt 15:1-9) Jesus reproved them for their selfish, hypocritical attitude, calling attention to their being meticulous to give a tenth even of “the mint and the dill and the cumin”—something they should have done—yet at the same time disregarding “the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Mt 23:23; Lu 11:42) By way of illustration, Jesus contrasted the Pharisee who boastfully felt self-righteous because of his own works of fasting and tithing, with the tax collector who, though considered as nothing by the Pharisee, humbled himself, confessed his sins to God, and begged for divine mercy.—Lu 18:9-14.
No Tithing for Christians. At no time were first-century Christians commanded to pay tithes. The primary purpose of the tithing arrangement under the Law had been to support Israel’s temple and priesthood; consequently the obligation to pay tithes would cease when that Mosaic Law covenant came to an end as fulfilled, through Christ’s death on the torture stake. (Eph 2:15; Col 2:13, 14) It is true that Levitical priests continued serving at the temple in Jerusalem until it was destroyed in 70 C.E., but Christians from and after 33 C.E. became part of a new spiritual priesthood that was not supported by tithes.—Ro 6:14; Heb 7:12; 1Pe 2:9.
As Christians, they were encouraged to give support to the Christian ministry both by their own ministerial activity and by material contributions. Instead of giving fixed, specified amounts to defray congregational expenses, they were to contribute “according to what a person has,” giving “as he has resolved in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2Co 8:12; 9:7) They were encouraged to follow the principle: “Let the older men who preside in a fine way be reckoned worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching. For the scripture says: ‘You must not muzzle a bull when it threshes out the grain’; also: ‘The workman is worthy of his wages.’” (1Ti 5:17, 18) However, the apostle Paul set an example in seeking to avoid bringing an undue financial burden on the congregation.—Ac 18:3; 1Th 2:9.