When you finish this lesson you should be able to:
- Understand voluntary giving in Genesis
- Know what the idea of a tithe is and isn’t
- Understand how tithing was voluntary in Genesis
- Comprehend what required giving is in Genesis
In this session, we will begin the process of looking at giving in the First Testament by looking at voluntary and required giving in Genesis. In addition, we will look at the concept of tithe and how many tithes the texts of the First Testament support.
Where We Are Going
Prooftexting for Tithes
Giving in Genesis
The Tithe in Genesis is Voluntary
Where Have We Been and Where We Are Going
Prooftexting The Tithe
In the ecclesiae, we have been heavily influenced by the notion that we are to pay tithes (ten percent) to the local ecclesia. The passages that are used to assist members in this regiment are from the First Testament. The practice of proof-texting, choosing isolated verses to prove or disprove an argument, is how we usually talk about this topic. Strangely, this is one custom from the First Testament that we feel was not fulfilled in the Second Testament. Sacrifices are out! Temple is out! Legalism is out! But not tithing as the required form of giving for all Second Testament followers of Jesus. Go figure!
There is a theological reflection about tithing that says that because Abraham and Jacob paid a tithe during the Patriarchal period that this means that tithing is God’s plan for giving in all ages. Let’s try this thought-pattern on for size. Abraham and Jacob sacrificed animals to God, so sacrificing animals remains God’s procedure even today. We know that something new happened in Jesus with respect to this idea. We are going to seriously look at what Scripture teaches about giving in two different areas: voluntary and required. We will look at each of these two areas in three different periods: Giving in Genesis; Giving from Exodus to Ezra-Nehemiah; and Giving in the Second Testament forward.
Giving in Genesis
Voluntary is defined as that which arises out of one’s own free will. It is something that is done willingly and without constraint or expectation of reward. In the area of giving to God, it is the choice to give generously because of our love for God and what he has done for us through Jesus. Voluntary giving is not about giving a specified percentage of your income.
In Genesis, there are four stories of voluntary giving. The first offering mentioned in Scripture is the story of Cain and Abel bringing their offerings to God. In Genesis 4 we read:
In the course of time, Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock… (Gen. 4.3-4a).
Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. At a point in time, both brought an offering to the Lord which was appropriate to their chosen vocations. The text does not indicate that one offering was inferior to the other. The tendency to read back into a passage as often happens, something that is forward in time is very apparent here among many who teach tithing as the “only” way to give. Most of the time you will hear that God was displeased with Cain because he brought fruit instead of an animal to sacrifice. The text does not reveal any such displeasure by God. The text does not supply an answer for why God looked with favor on Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. The matter of concern for this story is how should one respond when God says no!
We visit anger for the first time in Scripture in the story of Cain and Able. The text suggests that anger is something that you can overcome before you are overcome by anger (…if you do what is right…, Gen. 4.7). Cain could decide. Sin is personified as a demon crouching at the door but he had the choice to master it.
We must recognize that in the passage there is no command from God for these two individuals to offer anything to him. It was a free choice on their part. Each brought a gift and there is no percentage mentioned in the story. Yep, you read that last sentence correctly. So, if you hear in that sentence a percentage, you are simply adding biblical additive that you have been taught to the passage. There was no requirement, no amount, no stipulation, and no frequency which was commanded for them. Cain and Abel simply gave voluntarily.
The second story of giving is in Genesis 8.20. A flood had conquered Noah’s world. When it subsided, Noah made an offering to God. Again we must recognize that this offering was given voluntarily. There was no command, no stipulated amount, and no percentage. Noah determined in his own heart what he would give.
The third story is in Genesis 12. God told Abraham about the land he would receive for the nation that would come for his children. In response to this forecast of blessing, Abraham built an altar. The building of an altar implies that he gave an offering to God. Abraham responded to God out of his love. Once more let’s note that there was no command, amount, or frequency recorded in this story.
This paragraph of text (Gen. 12.1-7) has an interesting side. God speaks to Abram (Gen. 12.1-3), then Abram takes a journey (Gen. 12/4-6). Next, God appears (Gen 12.7a) and Abram’s response is worship (Gen. 12.7b). Might we say that there is an interesting pattern here? God speaks, a person takes a journey from one point to another, God appears, and there is a response. We could say that God speaks clearly about giving in Scripture and often a person must make a journey from where he is to where Scripture points. Often this can be painful, depending on how well-impregnated the person is with a wrongheaded view of God and money. God appears after the journey and the response is giving.
Finally, at Genesis 13.1-18 we find the story of the separation of Abram and Lot. The Negeb is the desert region in the South of Palestine. It is through this region that Abram, Sarai, and Lot traveled as they returned from Egypt to Canaan. Abram is a wealthy man according to Gen. 13.2. The first thing that he does upon his return is to give an offering (Gen. 13.4). The vastness of wealth of both Lot and Abram caused a problem. They had so much wealth that the land could not support both of them, which led to quarrels between the employees of each (13.7).
Abram acts quickly to settle the conflict. Because of his age, Abram had the right to decide who got what portion of the land, and Lot would simply have to live with the decision. But, instead, Abram volunteered to give priority to Lot. We might note in passing that he saw his brother as his brother, not his enemy. This is a different Abram from the story in Genesis 12.1-20 where he was obsessed with himself, his safety, and his future.
So much so that he chose to become deceitful. But here Abram puts himself in second place and, for all intents and purposes, emptied himself of all patriarchal authority. It is not always beneficial to exercise one’s right or privilege.
Up to this point in the story, the action takes place in the area of Benjamin to the North of Jerusalem. From that place, the lush Jordan Valley can be seen (Gen. 13.10). So Lot chooses the Jordan plain which caused him to come into contact with the Sodomites whose lifestyle was contrary to the lifestyle that God wanted his children to live into (Gen. 13.13). One might observe in passing that we can be known by the choices we make.
When the differences between Lot and Abram are settled, God got involved. Again, we might remember that God often allows his children to hammer out their differences, make their choices, and then live according to their consequences. When God speaks to Abram, he again gives him a set of promises. First, he renews the promise of the land (Gen. 13.15). Second, he talks of an innumerable offspring (Gen. 13.16). At the conclusion of this section Abram once again makes an offering to God. Again, as before, we must note that there was no command or amount recorded. As with the others, this was a voluntary act on the part of Abram.
We may summarize by saying that all the offerings given in Genesis were voluntary. God never commanded a specific amount or a frequency of time in which gifts should be given. They were given in response to God’s great care and graciousness. So should it continue to be!
At this point in our discussion, an overview of the idea of the tithe is in order. In the ancient world tithing was a common practice among ancient peoples. It was a well-established practice where the tenth was generally viewed as the King’s portion and served as royal income. It appears that the practice of tithing was a tax imposed by a ruler on his people, yes, you read that correctly. This concept did not originate with Israel. As we will see later, there were three different tithes in the First Testament. This concept is supported by two ancient documents. The first comes from the book of Tobit which is a part of the Apocrypha, which is the fourteen books in a collection accepted and used by the ecclesiae during the first fifteen hundred years up to the Reformation.
Tobit is a moralistic novel, sometimes called a romantic novel, about the life of an individual who is a captive in Exile. It was one of the most popular stories in the Intertestamental Period. The book teaches devotion and obedience to God. It provides us with a window to view the beliefs about Jewish piety in the second century B.C. It also demonstrates that there was a growing belief about the activity of angels and demons. From this book we find the following:
The first tenth part of all increase I gave to the sons of Aaron, who ministered at Jerusalem: another tenth part I sold away, and went, and spent it every year at Jerusalem: And the third I gave unto them to whom it was meet, as Debora my father’s mother had commanded me, because I was left an orphan by my father… (Tobit 1.7-8).
The second ancient document in which the concept of three tithes is supported is in a section from The Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94). Josephus Flavius (37 B.C.- A.D. 100) was a military officer and historian who was born into an aristocratic priestly family in Jerusalem. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Josephus went to Rome where Vespasian made him a Roman citizen and gave him a pension. He was free to write and produced a number of books of considerable historical value. The following is from Antiquities. Book 4. Chapter 8. Section 22). It suggests that at the close of the first century that there was in the mindset and practice of Jewry three different tithes.
Besides those two tithes, which I have already said you are to pay every year, the one for the Levites, the other for the festivals, you are to bring every third year “a third tithe” to be distributed to those that want; to women also that are widows, and to children that are orphans. But as to the ripe fruits, let them carry that which is ripe first of all into the temple; and when they have blessed God for that land which bare them, and which he had given to them for a possession when they have also offered those sacrifices which the law has commanded them to bring, let them give the first-fruits to the priests. But when anyone hath done this, and hath brought the tithe of all that he hath, together with those first-fruits that are for the Levites, and for the festivals, and when he is about to go home, let him stand before the holy house, and return thanks to God, that he hath delivered them from the injurious treatment they had in Egypt, and hath given them a good land, and a large, and lets them enjoy the fruits thereof; and when he hath openly testified that he hath fully paid the tithes [and other dues] according to the laws of Moses, let him entreat God that he will be ever merciful and gracious to him, and continue so to be to all the Hebrews, both by preserving the good things which he hath already given them, and by adding what it is still in his power to bestow upon them.
It seems apparent that Jewry understood that three tithes were given. Within the ancient mindset, they would have been understood as taxes. In the Second Testament, as we shall see, there are only a few times that tithe is mentioned and each is a reference either to First Testament or contemporary Jewish practice. During the period of the Early Church, there was no support of the clergy by a systematic giving of a tithe. However, in time, the tithe came to be accepted as an adaptation to the Jewish synagogue. Matthew 10.10; Luke 10.7; and 1 Corinthians 9.7ff. were used as the prooftexts to enforce tithing.
However, leaders like Irenaeus (flourished A.D. 175-195) and Epiphanius (A.D. 315-403) demonstrated that the argument drawn from these prooftexts was not valid. Rather, freedom in Christian giving was emphasized.
| The Tithe in Genesis is Voluntary
The term tithe does appear in the book of Genesis. Because it appears, it is thought that this is the standard of giving that God put in place from the beginning. The Hebrew word for tithe is maaser (pronounced mah as AR). It is translated in the KJV as tithe 27 times; tenth part 2 times; tenth 2 times; and tithing one time. The Greek word for tithe is apodekatoo (pronounced a po de ka TO o). It appears in the First Testament in Matthew 23.23; Luke 11.42, 18.12; Hebrews 7.5. The word simply means “a tenth.” It is not a religious word. It is a mathematical word. It has to do with a percentage of a whole.
Humankind has usually used ten as the basic number for its counting systems. In Scripture ten is a number of “completeness.” In the ancient world, the giving of a tenth was symbolic of giving the whole. However, Scripture does not institute tithing in Genesis even though the word does appear. In the two accounts where the concept does appear, there is no command to do so.
First, in the story of Abraham, we find the first occurrence of the concept. In this story found in Genesis 14, Abram had returned from saving Lot and was met by Melchizedek who blessed Abram, and Abram’s response was to give him a tithe. We must note that this was a response from Abram to Melchizedek. It was not commanded or required by God. This giving of a tithe is not recorded again during the life of Abram. The Second Testament helps us understand what Abram actually gave to Melchizedek. In Hebrews, we read, “Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! (Heb. 7.4) The word plunder is akrothinion (a kro THIN ee on) which means the “top of the heap.” In the ancient world when conquerors would return from wars, they would place all their spoils in a pile, the worst of the plunder at the bottom, and the best of the plunder at the top. The text in Hebrews clarifies what Abraham gave. He did not give a tithe of the whole of all the spoils he gained during battle. He only gave a tenth of the best that he received from the war. This was a one time gift. There is no record that Abraham ever gave this way again. The obvious point of this story is that Abraham gave his best!
The second story is found in Genesis 28. In this story, Jacob is making a vow which reads something like, “If God would protect him on his journey and bring him home safely, he would respond by giving God a tithe.” Not exactly a model or norm of spirituality to follow. However, as we have seen before, there is no command by God for Jacob to give a tithe. It was completely voluntary.
It is fair to summarize that these stories in Genesis are all voluntary. However, there is some record of required giving in Genesis to which we now turn.
In Genesis 41.34 we read, “Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance.” We should take note that the currency of the day was animals, seed, or land. The words above were given by Joseph to the Pharaoh after he had interpreted his dream about seven years of abundance and seven years of famine. He recommended that for seven years the Pharaoh should tax his people at the rate of twenty percent. In Scripture, this is the first time that we discover taxation by a nation. This basic taxation rate was God’s plan to help Egypt through the lean times that were ahead of them.
Required giving appears again at Genesis 47.24, “But when the crop comes in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh. The other four-fifths you may keep as seed for the fields and as food for yourselves and your households and your children.” Joseph set up the taxation system so that everything would be taken care of with the income received. Twenty percent to the government; twenty percent to seed the fields the next season; sixty percent for the care of the family.
Required giving in Genesis is taxation to the government while voluntary giving was directed toward God with an attitude of love and sacrifice. Now let’s continue our journey into the period of the Exodus out of Egypt to the exodus back to the promised land in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Where Have We Been And Where We Are Going
We have talked about the idea of voluntary and required giving in the book of Genesis. Along the way we introduced the concept of tithes as taxation and that there were three separate tithes that Israel paid. Now we turn to the rest of the First Testament and talk about voluntary and required giving from Exodus to Ezra-Nehemiah.
Community Discussion Questions
➡ |CDQ Info|
- Why do you believe that the concept of tithing is so well entrenched in local ecclesia?
- In what way have you heard Gen. 4.3-4a taught that caused you to miss the point that the giving of the two brothers was voluntary?
- In what way does knowing that Noah determined in his heart what he should give free you toward making the same decision?
- How does the pattern of giving in response to God’s love for you cause you to desire to be generous like him?
- How have you understood conflict in the past and does the story of Abram and Lot teach you anything different about conflict about which you were unaware? What are you aware of now?
- How does the background from Tobit help you understand the idea of tithe with new eyes?
- What does the idea that tithing in Genesis was voluntary do for any theory you have ever encountered about tithing before the Law setting the precedent for the Law forward?
- Why is the Genesis 28 story not a good model to follow?
- How does the interest rate found in Genesis 41.34 compare to interest today?