(מַעֲשֵׂר, H5130, pl. מַֽעַשְׂרוֹת ; δεκάτη, Latin decima). The tenth of produce or property for the support of the priesthood or for other religious objectives.
Just when and where the idea arose of making the tenth the rate for paying tribute to rulers and of offering gifts as a religious duty cannot be determined. History reveals that it existed in Babylon in ancient times, also in Persia and Egypt, even in China. It is quite certain that Abraham knew of it when he migrated from Ur (Gen.14.17-Gen.14.20). Since Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High, it is certain that by Abraham’s day the giving of tithes had been recognized as a holy deed (see Hebrew7.4). Dividing the spoils of war with rulers and religious leaders was widespread (1Macc.10.31). Samuel warned Israel that the king whom they were demanding would exact tithes of their grain and flocks (1Sam.8.10-1Sam.8.18). When Jacob made his covenant with God at Bethel it included payment of tithes (Gen.28.16-Gen.28.22).
It was a long time before definite legal requirements were set on tithing, hence customs in paying it varied. At first the tither was entitled to share his tithe with the Levites (Deut.14.22-Deut.14.23). After the Levitical code had been completed, tithes belonged exclusively to the Levites (Num.18.21). If a Hebrew lived too far from the temple to make taking his tithes practicable, he could sell his animals and use the money gained to buy substitutes at the temple (Deut.14.24-Deut.14.26). This permit eventually led to gross abuses by priests (Matt.21.12-Matt.21.13; Mark.11.15-Mark.11.17). Tithed animals were shared with the Levites (Deut.15.19-Deut.15.20).
The methods developed for paying the tithes and for their use became somewhat complicated, when to the tithes of the firstfruits (Prov.3.9) were added the firstlings of the flocks (Exod.13.12-Exod.13.13). Then when the Levitical system was established, provision for the upkeep of the sons of Levi was made by tithes (Num.18.21-Num.18.24). A penalty of twenty percent of the tithe was exacted from one who sold his tithes and refused to use the money to pay for a substitute (Lev.27.31). The Levites in turn gave a tenth to provide for the priests (Num.18.25-Num.18.32). The temple was the place to which tithes were taken (Deut.12.5-Deut.12.12). One could not partake of his tithes at home, but only when delivered at the temple (Deut.12.17-Deut.12.18).
To make sure that no deceit would be practiced regarding tithing, each Hebrew was compelled to make a declaration of honesty before the Lord (Deut.26.13-Deut.26.15). In the tithing of the flocks, every tenth animal that passed under the rod, regardless of its kind, was taken; no substitution was allowed (Lev.27.32-Lev.27.33). Was there only one tithe each year or was the third-year tithe an extra one? Confusion exists about this, even among Hebrew scholars themselves. As the needs for funds increased with the expansion of the temple service, a third-year tithe (all for the use of the Levites and those in need) was exacted. It seems probable that the increase of temple expenses, due to the number of priests and Levites, made it necessary to impose extra tithes. According to Josephus, even a third tithe was collected (Antiq. 4.4.3; 8.8.22). Malachi (Lev.3.8-Lev.3.10) railed at the Jews for refusing to bring their tithes to the temple storehouse. This did not apply to money but to grains, animals, and fowls, money being deposited in the treasury box (Luke.21.1-Luke.21.4).
By the time of Christ, Roman rule had greatly affected the economic life of Judea, hence it was difficult for people to tithe. But that the laws regarding the tenth were still observed is shown by the fact that the Pharisees tithed even the herbs that were used in seasoning food (Matt.23.23; Luke.11.42).
References to the tithe are found in both the Old Testament and New Testament, but the main portions are incorporated in the Mosaic legislation. They are:
Deuteronomy 12:5-18 and 14:22-29
Tithing was an ancient and general practice among other religions and cultures besides the Semitic. Giving a portion of one’s labor or of the spoils of war was known among a number of nations in antiquity. In Egypt the people gave two tenths of their harvest to the Pharaoh (Gen 47:24; cf. among other nations: Syrians [1 Macc 10:31; 11:35]; Lydians [Herod. 1:89]; and Babylonians, M. Jastrow, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria , 668). Tithes were both political (tribute and taxation) and religious (connected with offerings). Ancient extra-Biblical use appears to be as a tax in kind imposed by a ruler on a subject people or his own countrymen. Whereas among foreign nations the political purpose for tithes predominated, in Israel it was the religious, that is, income dedicated to God.
Historically, tithing is found in Scripture in several time periods, namely, from pre-Mosaic times to the days of the early church.
The first mention of the tithe was when Abraham, returning from his victory over the invading Mesopotamian kings, gave Melchizedek, king-priest of Salem, a tenth of all (Gen 14:18-20). The tithe then given is explained in Hebrews 7:1ff. as indicating that the Melchizedek priesthood was superior to the Aaronic. Jacob, fleeing from Esau, promised this amount to God in the event God prospered him (Gen 28:22).
The legislation in Numbers stipulated that grain must be threshed before it was tithed. The fruit of the vine and the olive were processed into wine and oil before a tithe was presented (Num 18:27). As stated above, the tithe was considered a heave offering and given to the Levites (vv. 21, 24). This was the return for their service at the sanctuary (v. 21) and because of their exclusion from a landed inheritance. The priest was given a tithe (Num 18:26), and the remainder was eaten elsewhere (v. 31).
The laws of Deuteronomy 14 appear to conflict with the regulations of Numbers 18:21ff. There it is enjoined that all the tithes be given the Levites, who pay a tithe of a tithe to the priests. Furthermore, Levites were allowed to eat the tithe where they wished, not just at the central sanctuary. The rabbis attempted to reconcile the apparent contradiction by assuming different kinds of tithes: a first tithe was given to the Levites and priests (Num 18:21ff.) a second tithe was eaten by the offerer with his family and guests in a feast at the sanctuary (Deut 14:22-27); and a third tithe, called the “poor’s tithe,” took the place of the second tithe in the third and sixth years of each sabbatical period (14:28, 29). The question has also arisen as to whether Deuteronomy has in view two separate tithes. It is not necessary to assume this. It was the same tithe but used differently in the third year. The aim of all tithing was to acknowledge that all man had belonged to God.
Scholars have debated whether there were two tithes or even three
[see Jos. Antiq. IV. viii. 22]. Modern studies hold that all the references are to the same tithe, explaining the differences as arising from the variations in time. The reasoning is that in the time of Deuteronomy (which the critical school dates to the 7th century b.c.), the tithe was used for a festal meal for the family, the poor, and the Levites. In the days of Numbers (which is said to be part of the Priestly Code dated to postexilic times), the tithe was employed solely for the support of the ministry of priests and Levites. The argumentation is not at all compelling, because it is more valid to hold that in the early Hebrew theocracy reflected in Leviticus (Mosaic times), when the nation lived as nomads, festal meals were not feasible; thus the tithes were offered to the priests and Levites as the needy among the people. In the age of Deuteronomy, however, when Israel was about to enter the land and inaugurate a permanent national existence, they were commanded both to bring tithes in kind or money to the main sanctuary and partake of a sacred meal with the Levites, and to stimulate charity for the needy, to give the tithes every third year for the poor, not just the priests and Levites, who in the settled life in the land were better provided for than in the wilderness wanderings. To conclude, the different references in the Old Testament to tithing probably indicate differing practices in various times and places.
What is the relationship between the tithes and first fruits? A. S. Peake (HDB, IV, 780, 781) thinks it better to distinguish between tithes and first fruits (Deut 14:22-27; 18:4; 26:1-15). On the other hand, H. H. Guthrie (IDB, IV, 654, 655) takes the view that they had a common origin, which would account for the absence of mention of the tithe in the Book of the Covenant. It is difficult to give final answer here. Because Deuteronomy 26:1-15 mentions them together has led some to conclude they are the same. It is not likely that a double offering would be asked. Thus the tithe is considered as a further precise statement of the first fruits. A problem exists in that Deuteronomy 18:4 enjoins that the first fruits be given the priests. No such provision was made relative to the tithe. The problem remains open for further study.
Period of the monarchy
It became a royal prerogative to exact a tithe of the crops, vineyards, and flocks. Samuel warned Israel that they would have to give a tenth to the king (1 Sam 8:15, 17). It has been suggested that the tithe paid to the king was for the support of the royal sanctuaries. Even in idolatry Israel paid tithes, in such cases at the temple of the idols (Amos 4:4). King Hezekiah’s order of the tithe, apparently for the Levites, was so well carried out that the king had special chambers in the Temple made for their deposit (2 Chron 31:4-12). A similar arrangement was ordered by Nehemiah (Neh 10:39; 13:12).
Exilic and post-exilic
Ezekiel speaks (many believe prophetically) of the support of public worship by the prince for the collection of a general tax (Ezek 45:13ff., called terumah). The priests were to have for their support the first fruits and heave offerings (44:30). In Nehemiah’s day (Neh 10:37ff.) the Levites collected the tithe in all the cities and towns under the oversight of a priest, then delivered the tithe of the tithes to the storehouse in the Temple for the priests. When this plan did not function, the Levites had to support themselves (13:10ff.). In times of apostasy tithes were neglected (Mal 3:7-12).
In the time of the New Testament, changes had taken place (Luke 11:42; 18:12). When the greed of the high priests impoverished the ordinary priests, the latter took the tithes by force (Jos. Antiq. XX. viii. 8; ix.2) The tithe of mint, anise, and cumin was a prescription of the Talmudic rabbis, which went beyond the intent of Scripture (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42).
For several centuries in the Early Church there was no support of the clergy by a systematic giving of a tithe. In time the tithe came to be regarded generally after the pattern in the Jewish synagogue. The practice was supported by an appeal to passages like Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Corinthians 9:7ff., but leaders in the church (like Irenaeus and Epiphanius) showed the arguments drawn from these texts were not valid. Rather, freedom in Christian giving was emphasized.
The payment of tithes went on in Maccabean (2nd century b.c.) times (1 Macc 10:31). The rabbis in Mishna and Talmud
[Tracate on Tithes, 1:1] laid down the principle: “Everything that is eaten and is watched over and grows out of the ground is liable to tithe.” The rabbis gave elaborate rules as to the precise time in the year when cattle were tithed, also produce of the land and the fruit of the trees. The stage of growth at which produce was to be tithed was also prescribed. The rabbis placed great merit in the giving of tithes, stating that tithing was one of the three elements through whose merit the world was created. All the tithe was to be given the poor.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
The custom of giving a 10th part of the products of the land and of the spoils of war to priests and kings (1 Macc 10:31; 11:35; 1Sa 8:15,17) was a very ancient one among most nations. That the Jews had this custom long before the institution of the Mosaic Law is shown by Ge 14:17-20 (compare Heb 7:4) and Ge 28:22. Many critics hold that these two passages are late and only reflect the later practice of the nation; but the payment of tithes is so ancient and deeply rooted in the history of the human race that it seems much simpler and more natural to believe that among the Jews the practice was in existence long before the time of Moses.
In the Pentateuch we find legislation as to tithes in three places.
(1) According to Le 27:30-33, a tithe had to be given of the seed of the land, i.e. of the crops, of the fruit of the tree, e.g. oil and wine, and of the herd or the flock (compare De 14:22,23; 2Ch 31:5,6). As the herds and flocks passed out to pasture they were counted (compare Jer 33:13; Eze 20:37), and every 10th animal that came out was reckoned holy to the Lord. The owner was not allowed to search among them to find whether they were bad or good, nor could he change any of them; if he did, both the one chosen and the one for which it was changed were holy. Tithes of the herds and flocks could not be redeemed for money, but tithes of the seed of the land and of fruit could be, but a 5th part of the value of the tithe had to be added.
(2) In Nu 18:21-32 it is laid down that the tithe must be paid to the Levites. (It should be noted that according to Heb 7:5, `they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood .... take tithes of the people.’ Westcott’s explanation is that the priests, who received from the Levites a tithe of the tithe, thus symbolically received the whole tithe. In the time of the second temple the priests did actually receive the tithes. In the Talmud (Yebhamoth 86a et passim) it is said that this alteration from the Mosaic Law was caused by the sin of the Levites, who were not eager to return to Jerusalem, but had to be persuaded to do so by Ezra (Ezr 8:15).) The Levites were to receive the tithes offered by Israel to Yahweh, because they had no other inheritance, and in return for their service of the tabernacle (Nu 18:21,24). The tithe was to consist of corn of the threshing-floor and the fullness of the wine press (Nu 18:27), which coincides with seed of the land and fruit of the trees in Le 27. The Levites, who stood in the same relation to the priests as the people did to themselves, were to offer from this their inheritance a heave offering, a tithe of a tithe, to the priests (compare Ne 10:39), and for this tithey were to choose of the best part of what they received.
There is thus an obvious apparent discrepancy between the legislation in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It is harmonized in Jewish tradition, not only theoretically but in practice, by considering the tithes as three different tithes, which are named the First Tithe, the Second Tithe, and the Poor Tithe, which is called also the Third Tithe (Pe’ah, Ma`aseroth, Ma`ser Sheni, Dema’i, Ro’sh ha-shanah; compare Tobit 1:7,8; Ant, IV, iv, 3; viii, 8; viii, 22). According to this explanation, after the tithe (the First Tithe) was given to the Levites (of which they had to give the tithe to the priests), a Second Tithe of the remaining nine-tenths had to be set apart and consumed in Jerusalem. Those who lived far from Jerusalem could change this Second Tithe into money with the addition of a 5th part of its value. Only food, drink or ointment could be bought for the money (Ma`aser Sheni 2 1; compare De 14:26). The tithe of cattle belonged to the Second Tithe, and was to be used for the feast in Jerusalem (Zebhachim 5 8). In the 3rd year the Second Tithe was to be given entirely to the Levites and the poor. But according to Josephus (Ant., IV, viii, 22) the "Poor Tithe" was actually a third one. The priests and the Levites, if landowners, were also obliged to give the Poor Tithe (Pe’ah 1 6).
The explanation given by many critics, that the discrepancy between Deuteronomy and Leviticus is due to the fact that these are different layers of legislation, and that the Levitical tithe is a post-exilian creation of the Priestly Code, is not wholly satisfactory, for the following reasons:
(1) The allusion in De 18:1,2 seems to refer to the Levitical tithe.
(2) There is no relation between the law of Nu 18 and post-exilian conditions, when the priests were numerous and the Levites a handful.
(3) A community so poor and disaffected as that of Ezra’s time would have refused to submit to a new and oppressive tithe burden.
(4) The division into priests and Levites cannot have been of the recent origin that is alleged.
W. R. Smith and others suggest that the tithe is simply a later form of the first-fruits, but this is difficult to accept, since the first-fruits were given to the priest, while the tithes were not. The whole subject is involved in considerable obscurity, which with our present information cannot easily be cleared away.
The Talmudic law of tithing extends the Mosaic Law, with most burdensome minuteness, even to the smallest products of the soil. Of these, according to some, not only the seeds, but, in certain cases, even the leaves and stalks had to be tithed (Ma`aseroth 4 5), "mint, anise, and cummin" (Dema’i 11 1; compare Mt 23:23; Lu 11:42). The general principle was that "everything that is eaten, that is watched over, and that grows out of the earth" must be tithed (Ma`aseroth 1 1).
Considering the many taxes, religious and secular, that the Jews had to pay, especially in post-exilian times, we cannot but admire the liberality and resourcefulness of the Jewish people. Only in the years just after the return from exile do we hear that the taxes were only partially paid (Ne 13:10; compare Mal 1:7 ff; and for pre-exilian times compare 2Ch 31:4 ff). In later times such cases seldom occur (Sotah 48a), which is the more surprising since the priests, who benefited so much by these laws of the scribes, were the adversaries of the latter.
J. A. MacCulloch and W. H. D. Rouse, “Tithes,” HERE, XII, 347-351; H. H. Guthrie, Jr., “Tithe,” IDB, IV, 654, 655; Jew Enc, XII, 150-152; EBi, IV, 5102-5105; H. Lansdell, The Sacred Tenth or Studies in Tithe-Giving Ancient and Modern (1906), 45-109, 119-180; J. Reider, Deuteronomy with Commentary (1937), 144, 145; C. Carmichael, “New View of the Origin of the Deuteronomic Credo [Deut 26]” Vet Test 19:273-289, July 1969.