The Hebrew word for "tenth" is translated as "tithe" when it refers to the 10% of production (crops or livestock) that was to be given to God. The tithe first appears as a general statement in Leviticus:
All the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s. It is holy to the LORD. 31 If a man redeems anything of his tithe, he shall add a fifth part to it. 32 All the tithe of the herds or the flocks, whatever passes under the rod, the tenth shall be holy to the LORD. (Leviticus 27:30–32)
Bible Verses About Tithing in the Mosaic Law
In Numbers and Deuteronomy the 10% tithe was split into several types depending on
- Who it was given to and
- Where it was to be eaten.
Nonetheless, all of it was considered "holy to the LORD." Whether the tithe was given to the Temple workers, eaten as part of a festival, or given to the poor and needy, it was all God's. Within the Mosaic Law, Bible verses about tithing include these four types:
Type of Tithe
Eaten by Who?
3rd Year Tithe
Deut. 14:27-29, 26:12-15
The Levites' Tithe
The Levites (descended from Jacob's son Levi) were one of the 12 tribes of Israel. God designated them to be the only people allowed to transport and care for the Tabernacle and Temple. Unlike the other tribes, they were not given an inheritance of land, so tithing helped provide for their needs. The tithe was seen as part of their payment for specializing in taking care of God's holy things.
- To the children of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they serve, even the service of the Tent of Meeting. 22 Henceforth the children of Israel shall not come near the Tent of Meeting, lest they bear sin, and die. 23 But the Levites shall do the service of the Tent of Meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. Among the children of Israel, they shall have no inheritance. 24 For the tithe of the children of Israel, which they offer as a wave offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said to them, "Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.” (Numbers 18:21-24)
- [We will] bring the first fruits of our ground and the first fruits of all fruit of all kinds of trees, year by year, to the LORD’s house; 36 also the firstborn of our sons and of our livestock, as it is written in the law, and the firstborn of our herds and of our flocks, to bring to the house of our God, to the priests who minister in the house of our God; 37 and that we should bring the first fruits of our dough, our wave offerings, the fruit of all kinds of trees, and the new wine and the oil, to the priests, to the rooms of the house of our God; and the tithes of our ground to the Levites; for they, the Levites, take the tithes in all our farming villages. (Nehemiah 10:35-37)
The Priests' Tithe
One family of Levites, those descended from Moses' brother Aaron, were given an extra special role in the Tabernacle and Temple. They were the only ones allowed to offer sacrifices and enter the holiest parts of the Temple. Just as the Israelites were to give their first or best 10% to the Levites, the Levites were to give their first or best 10% to the Priests.
- The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 26 “Moreover you shall speak to the Levites, and tell them, ‘When you take of the children of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall offer up a wave offering of it for the LORD, a tithe of the tithe. 27 Your wave offering shall be credited to you, as though it were the grain of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the wine press. 28 Thus you also shall offer a wave offering to the LORD of all your tithes, which you receive of the children of Israel; and of it you shall give the LORD’s wave offering to Aaron the priest. 29 Out of all your gifts, you shall offer every wave offering to the LORD, of all its best parts, even the holy part of it.’ 30 “Therefore you shall tell them, ‘When you heave its best from it, then it shall be credited to the Levites as the increase of the threshing floor, and as the increase of the wine press. 31 You may eat it anywhere, you and your households, for it is your reward in return for your service in the Tent of Meeting. 32 You shall bear no sin by reason of it, when you have heaved from it its best. You shall not profane the holy things of the children of Israel, that you not die.’ ” (Numbers 18:25–32)
- The priest, the descendent of Aaron, shall be with the Levites when the Levites take tithes. The Levites shall bring up the tithe of the tithes to the house of our God, to the rooms, into the treasure house. 39 For the children of Israel and the children of Levi shall bring the wave offering of the grain, of the new wine, and of the oil, to the rooms where the vessels of the sanctuary are, and the priests who minister, with the gatekeepers and the singers. We will not forsake the house of our God. (Nehemiah 10:38–39)
The Festival Tithe
Not all the tithe was given to the Priests and Levites. Some of it was to be stored up and brought to Jerusalem during major feasts. This portion of the tithe would be eaten by the family bringing it, as well as shared with the Levites.
Then it shall happen that to the place which the LORD your God shall choose, to cause his name to dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the wave offering of your hand, and all your choice vows which you vow to the LORD. 12 You shall rejoice before the LORD your God—you, and your sons, your daughters, your male servants, your female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you...17 You may not eat within your gates the tithe of your grain, or of your new wine, or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, nor any of your vows which you vow, nor your free will offerings, nor the wave offering of your hand; 18 but you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God shall choose: you, your son, your daughter, your male servant, your female servant, and the Levite who is within your gates. You shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all that you put your hand to. 19 Be careful that you don’t forsake the Levite as long as you live in your land. (Deuteronomy 12:11–12, 17-19)
However, many Israelites lived far away from Jerusalem. To make it easier for them to transport their tithes, the Law allowed exchanging their tithes for money in their hometown. They could then take the money with them to Jerusalem and buy meat, grain, or wine to observe the festival and obey the command to tithe.
22 You shall surely tithe all the increase of your seed, that which comes out of the field year by year. 23 You shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place which he chooses to cause his name to dwell, the tithe of your grain, of your new wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock; that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24 If the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry it because the place which the LORD your God shall choose to set his name there is too far from you, when the LORD your God blesses you, 25 then you shall turn it into money, bind up the money in your hand, and shall go to the place which the LORD your God shall choose. 26 You shall trade the money for whatever your soul desires: for cattle, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatever your soul asks of you. You shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. (Deuteronomy 14:22-26)
Just like it sounds, this Festival Tithe involved a huge celebration. Feasting and eating can be part of worshipping God when they are done with thankfulness, acknowledging that God is the provider:
"Now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, the LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God, and worship before the LORD your God. 11 You shall rejoice in all the good which the LORD your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the foreigner who is among you. (Deuteronomy 26:10-11)
The 3rd Year Tithe
Every 3rd year the tithe was to be given entirely to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows. Elsewhere, the Law laid out a 7-year cyclical calendar with 6 years of planting and harvest followed by 1 year of allowing the land to rest. So it seems likely that the 3rd Year Tithe was supposed to take place after Year 3 and Year 6 of each 7-year cycle.
- You shall not forsake the Levite who is within your gates, for he has no portion nor inheritance with you. 28 At the end of every three years you shall bring all the tithe of your increase in the same year, and shall store it within your gates. 29 The Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, as well as the foreigner living among you, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your gates shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do. (Deuteronomy 14:27–29)
- When you have finished tithing all the tithe of your increase in the third year, which is the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the foreigner, to the fatherless, and to the widow, that they may eat within your gates and be filled. 13 You shall say before the LORD your God, “I have put away the holy things out of my house, and also have given them to the Levite, to the foreigner, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all your commandment which you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, neither have I forgotten them. 14 I have not eaten of it in my mourning, neither have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor given of it for the dead. I have listened to the LORD my God’s voice. I have done according to all that you have commanded me. 15 Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel, and the ground which you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 26:12–15)
Was the total tithe 23% or even 30%?
Some people speculate that each type of tithe amounted to 10%, meaning that the Law required Israelites to tithe 23% or even 30% per year. I think it's more likely that a net 10% tithe was split across all three types of tithing. At the bottom of this article I work through the numbers to explain why.
Bible Verses on Tithing that Predates the Law
Genesis records a couple instances of tithing: Abraham paying a tithe to Melchizedek, and Jacob committing to give God a tithe. The Abraham example is also commented on extensively in the book of Hebrews.
- Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High. 19 He blessed him, and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth. 20 Blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” Abram gave him a tenth of all. (Genesis 14:18–20)
- Jacob vowed a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to put on, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, and the LORD will be my God, 22 then this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, will be God’s house. Of all that you will give me I will surely give a tenth to you.” (Genesis 28:20–22)
- For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of God Most High, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, 2 to whom also Abraham divided a tenth part of all (being first, by interpretation, “king of righteousness”, and then also “king of Salem”, which means “king of peace”, 3 without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God), remains a priest continually. 4 Now consider how great this man was, to whom even Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth out of the best plunder. 5 They indeed of the sons of Levi who receive the priest’s office have a commandment to take tithes from the people according to the law, that is, of their brothers, though these have come out of the body of Abraham, 6 but he whose genealogy is not counted from them has accepted tithes from Abraham, and has blessed him who has the promises. 7 But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater. 8 Here people who die receive tithes, but there one receives tithes of whom it is testified that he lives. 9 We can say that through Abraham even Levi, who receives tithes, has paid tithes, 10 for he was yet in the body of his father when Melchizedek met him. (Hebrews 7:1–10)
Bible Verses on the Benefits of Tithing
The first benefit is obvious: tithes are used to support Levites and Priests who minister in the Temple. No tithes, no people serving in the Temple, and no forgiveness of sins.
- I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them, so that the Levites and the singers, who did the work, had each fled to his field. 11 Then I contended with the rulers, and said, “Why is God’s house forsaken?” I gathered them together, and set them in their place. 12 Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain, the new wine, and the oil to the treasuries. (Nehemiah 13:10–12)
- Moreover [Hezekiah] commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion of the priests and the Levites, that they might give themselves to the LORD’s law. 5 As soon as the commandment went out, the children of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, new wine, oil, honey, and of all the increase of the field; and they brought in the tithe of all things abundantly. 6 The children of Israel and Judah, who lived in the cities of Judah, also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of dedicated things which were consecrated to the LORD their God, and laid them in heaps. 7 In the third month, they began to lay the foundation of the heaps, and finished them in the seventh month. 8 When Hezekiah and the princes came and saw the heaps, they blessed the LORD and his people Israel. 9 Then Hezekiah questioned the priests and the Levites about the heaps. 10 Azariah the chief priest, of the house of Zadok, answered him and said, “Since people began to bring the offerings into the LORD’s house, we have eaten and had enough, and have plenty left over, for the LORD has blessed his people; and that which is left is this great store.” (2 Chronicles 31:4–10)
God said he would bless the Israelites materially when they gave tithes and offerings.
- Honor the LORD with your substance, with the first fruits of all your increase; 10 so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine. (Proverbs 3:9–10)
- From the days of your fathers you have turned away from my ordinances and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD of Armies. “But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ 8 Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In tithes and offerings. 9 You are cursed with the curse; for you rob me, even this whole nation. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house, and test me now in this,” says the LORD of Armies, “if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there will not be enough room for. 11 I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast its fruit before its time in the field,” says the LORD of Armies. 12 “All nations shall call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land,” says the LORD of Armies. (Malachi 3:7–12)
New Testament Bible Verses About Tithing
Tithing is not mentioned much in the New Testament. Aside from the Hebrews passage quoted earlier, only Jesus talked about it. In this first passage Jesus describes something that sounds very much like the 3rd Year Tithe or the Festival Tithe:
But when you make a feast, ask the poor, the maimed, the lame, or the blind; 14 and you will be blessed, because they don’t have the resources to repay you. For you will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:13–14)
Elsewhere Jesus seems to affirm tithing, even while rebuking the scribes and Pharisees for obeying the letter of the Law but not its Spirit:
- “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. But you ought to have done these, and not to have left the other undone. (Matthew 23:23)
- He also spoke this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed by himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men: extortionists, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)
- He said to them, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:25)
The Tithing Debate: 23% or 10%?
Since each Israelite was subject to three different types of tithing, some people believe that the total amount tithed was 23%. (Let's call this the Extra Tithe theory.) That number comes from interpreting each instance of "tithing" as an additional 10%:
- The Levites' Tithe = 10%
- The Festival Tithe = 10%
- The 3rd Year Tithe = 3.3%
- Total Tithe = 10 + 10 + 3.3 ~ 23%
where the 3.3% comes from averaging over 3 year cycles: 2 years at 0% plus 1 year at 10%.
The much simpler theory (let's call it the Split Tithe theory) is that there was just ONE tithe of 10%, and it was split between the above three types. I lean this way because there is at least some evidence for this in the text. Reviewing the passages at the top of this article, it looks like both Deuteronomy 14 and 26 blur together the distinction between the Festival Tithe and the 3rd Year Tithe.
Against this some would argue that Numbers 18:21 (quoted above) says God has given "all" the tithe to the Levites. But remember that all three types of tithe involve giving to the Levites, so I don't buy that argument.
I don't believe any of the Bible verses about tithing give us enough information to distinguish which theory is true. However, other passages give us additional information that helps clarify whether the Extra Tithe or Split Tithe theory is more reasonable.
Israelite vs. Levite Population
Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, 4 “Take a census, from twenty years old and upward, as Yahweh commanded Moses and the children of Israel.” These are those who came out of the land of Egypt...These are those who were counted of the children of Israel, six hundred one thousand seven hundred thirty...These are those who were counted of the Levites after their families: of Gershon, the family of the Gershonites; of Kohath, the family of the Kohathites; of Merari, the family of the Merarites... 62 Those who were counted of them were twenty-three thousand, every male from a month old and upward; for they were not counted among the children of Israel, because there was no inheritance given them among the children of Israel. 63 These are those who were counted by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who counted the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. 64 But among these there was not a man of them who were counted by Moses and Aaron the priest, who counted the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. 65 For Yahweh had said of them, “They shall surely die in the wilderness.” There was not a man left of them, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun. (Numbers 26:3-4, 51, 57, 62-65)
According to Numbers 26, shortly before Israel entered the Promised Land, a census was taken that counted
- 601,730 Israelite males 20 years and older (not including Levites)
- 23,000 Levite males 1 month and older
- Which means 624,730 total
This means the percentage of Israelites who were Levites was at most 3.7%. Why would 3.7% of the people need 10% of the food? This provides more evidence for the Split Tithe theory.
Assume in the Split Tithe theory that all the different uses of the tithe are equal in amount. In years 1 and 2 it is split evenly between Levites and Festivals, and in year 3 it is split evenly between all three types of tithe. In that case the average yearly tithe for the Levites works out to 4.4%. (Take 5% + 5% + 3.3% = 13.3% and divide by 3 years.) This is more than enough to provide for 3.7% of the population.
Furthermore, if we look more closely at the census figures, we see that a Levite population of 3.7% is probably a significant overestimate. The Levite numbers include males with ages between 1 month and 20 years, while the rest of the census counted only males 20 years and older.
Accounting for Levites Below 20 Years Old
Can we estimate how many Levites were between 1 month and 20 years old? Look at the very end of the Numbers 26 passage. It explains that this 2nd census was taken after the previous generation had died in the wilderness. The 1st census (Numbers 1) also counted only males above 20 years old, and only Caleb and Joshua were counted in both censuses.
This means the oldest Israelites at the time of the 2nd census were around 60 years old. They were just below 20 for the 1st census, then spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, making them almost 60 at this point. This makes the numbers easy. There are three generations of Israelites involved in the 2nd census:
- Generation 1 = 40-60 years old
- Generation 2 = 20-40 years old
- Generation 3 = 0-20 years old
A conservative assumption would be that all three generations have equal numbers. (In fact Gen 3 was more numerous than Gen 2, which was more numerous than Gen 1, although we don't know the exact numbers.) We know Gen 1 + Gen 2 had about 600,000 males. This means 300,000 in each generation and a total population of about 900,000 males when we include Gen 3.
Finally, divide the population of Levites by the total population: 23,000 / 923,000. This apples-to-apples comparison between Levites and Israelites implies that Levites made up at most 2.5% of the population.
In this case it's even more clear: there is no reason why 2.5% of the people need 10% of the food. The Split Tithe theory makes more sense, in which the tithe earmarked for Levites is closer to 4.4% of the total food production. This would also be more than enough to sustain them through the 7th year, the Sabbatical, in which no harvesting (and therefore no tithing) would have been done.
Bible version: the public domain World English Bible (WEB) has been used throughout this post. The WEB translation of "Yahweh" has been changed to "the LORD" which is more familiar to most readers.