5. (O.T.) The tithe with the tabernacle and the Levitical priesthood in Canaan

The Tithe?

5.  Old Testament
The Tithe With the Tabernacle and the Levitical Priesthood in Canaan
(Please read all previous  articles on tithing first)

While wandering in the wilderness, none of the Israelites owned nor farmed any land. The wilderness deserts were not conducive to any agricultural growth so God provided for them manna and quail from heaven. Once they invaded and occupied Canaan, however, the initiation of the tithe began because the tithe was connected to the land, not to the people. As the Israelites conquered Canaan, God gave each tribe a portion of the promised land which Joshua (Moses’ successor) divided between all of them.  Each family then took a portion within the portion, settling in to be agrarian farmers and herdsmen. The tithe from the land of Canaan was to be considered holy. Any land outside of Canaan was not considered holy, and not worthy of a tithe.

The high priest and the priests (Aaron’s offspring) lived within the area or confines of the tabernacle in Canaan. The Levitical priesthood, like the high priest and priests, could own no land because they were commissioned by God to receive the tithe. The Levitical priesthood’s labor consisted of taking care of the needs of the tabernacle when called upon, just as they had done in the wilderness, but now had the added responsibility of receiving the tithes from the produce of the land. They were given a city to live in, called Levitical cities (total of 13 cities), which in turn was connected to a particular tribe and portion of land. Each Levitical priest was assigned pastureland to house the tithe of the livestock and storage of the tithes of grain and wine, which were considered holy unto the LORD. Each Levitical priest was then required to distribute part of the proceeds to the poor, of which they were considered poor as well. According to Josh 21, they each had to take their turn to serve in the tabernacle (and later the temple). When called upon, they took with them the proceeds of the tithes from the people, which consisted of grain, wine, and every tenth beast that passed under the staff as counted by each Jewish head of household. They then traveled to the tabernacle to assist the priests in various functions. They helped the priests slaughter and skin the animals for sacrifices, examined the lepers according to the law, and led music during worship. [i] While serving in the tabernacle, they also received various first fruits. Following their tour of duty, they returned to their Levitical city to receive, care for, and distribute a portion of the tithe.

In all ways, the tithe was connected to the land of Canaan. If the Jews were ever to leave their land of promise, which was their God-given inheritance, and considered holy, the tithe would be revoked because the tithe was tied to the land.

Three Kinds of Tithes the Israelites Were Required to Give

The first yearly tithe (Num 18:20-21)
The first yearly tithe was given by agrarian Jewish families and herdsmen to the Levitical priests in their Levitical city. This tithe replaced any land inheritance rights the Levites had in Israel and provided for them and the Aaronic priesthood basic sustenance. [ii] When the Levites received the tithe, they selected the best tenth of what came in and saved it for the high priest and the priests who resided in the tabernacle (or temple). The Levites were allowed to keep the next 10% for themselves and their family. The balance was to be distributed among the poor.

The Levites were separated into 24 groups. Each Levite was to serve two weeks out of the 24 groups in one year’s time in the tabernacle or later the temple, which amounted to be about twice a year. When he went traveled to the tabernacle for his assignment, he brought the collected tithe of the best portion for the high priest and priests along with him. The rest stayed back in his Levitical city to be used for the poor.

The second yearly tithe (Deut 12:1-19 & 14:22-26)
The second yearly tithe (10%) was given by agrarians and herdsmen for the festival and could only be brought to the tabernacle once a year when each household made their annual festival trip. It was called the “festival tithe.” It could not be brought to the Levites in the Levitical cities; therefore, it required all Jews to travel to the annual festival with their tithe. The second tithe of 10% was meant to be eaten by all Israelites as a celebration. Those who brought the tithe would be the ones to eat of its produce. It was like one big potluck celebration. Everyone ate of this second tithe. It was meant to give honor to the LORD and prevent false worship to other gods. It was a time of rejoicing and celebration in the presence of the LORD.

The produce could also be exchanged for money for those traveling great distances. The money then was used to buy wine for the celebration and praise to the LORD. As far back as history can be traced for Israel, gold and silver were used as standards of value and mediums of exchange. The scales and weights were carried about with the precious metal in a bag attached to the girdle.

The second yearly tithe was distinctly different from the first yearly tithe.

The third tithe (Deut 14:28-29 & 26:12-13)
The third tithe was to be given to the poor and those in need. It was, however, given once every three years to the local storehouse. The recipients of this “poor tithe” included the “Levites, widows, orphans, fatherless, and Gentile strangers.” – those in need. [iii] Unlike the second tithe, which went to the tabernacle, this tithe had to stay in the towns where the Levites resided to be used by those within that vicinity. Those in need came to the Levites in the Levitical city nearest them to be fed. This tithe ended up to be about 3% per year.

The Levites probably fed the poor from the first and third tithe since a secular government welfare type of system did not exist. It was God’s way to see that all Jews were taken care of. It must also be remembered that no tithes were collected the seventh, fifteenth, and every seventh year after that, along with the Year of Jubilee or when drought or famine brought no increase.

Averaging the annual tithes - 23 1/3%
Most casual readers of the Old Testament think the total tithe was 10% off of the land. Researching further will show that the agrarian Jews or herdsmen gave more than 10% of their produce as a tithe - it averaged out to be around 23 1/3% annually. These figures are supported by such writers as Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, Matthew Henry, Jamieson Fausset and Brown, Bruce Metzger, Charles Ryrie, the Jewish Talmud and most Jewish writers, such as Josesphus.” [iv]

Special Considerations to the Tithe

First fruits
There are 23 Old Testament scriptures referring to the “first fruits” and seven in the New Testament. Throughout the Old Testament first fruits refer to a special offering as holy to the Lord, which are given to the priests or the Levites for their support and consumption. An example was the first sheaf of the new crop of barley presented as a wave offering before the Lord on the day after the Passover Sabbath. It was a public acknowledgement that everything came from God and belonged to Him. The first fruit was the choice examples of a crop harvested first and dedicated to God.

In accordance with the Mosaic Law, individual Israelites brought to the House of the Lord “the first (that is, “the best”) of the first fruits of thy land (Ex 23:19:34:26) for the support of the priests (Num 18:12; Deut 18:4). According to Deut 26:1-11, the offerings were brought in a basket to the sanctuary for presentation. This was not considered a tithe - it was in addition to the tithe. 

In the New Testament all of the scriptures referring to the first fruits are representative of people – Christ being the first.  The tithe represents the fruit of the land.

Sabbath Rest (Ex 23:9-11, Lev 25:3-7; 11; 20-22)
The process of three years of tithing was to be repeated and then there was to be a Sabbath Rest, meaning every seventh year the land rested. On these special “sevens” the land rested and no growing or reaping could be done. During this special year the land was open for the Levites, the poor, and the hired workers to glean freely along with the landowners.

The Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:10-12)
Every 50th year became a Year of Jubilee. It was the Sabbatical year, meaning the seventh year of a seven-year cycle. In that year, no crops were to be planted nor reaped. Only what grew out of its own was allowed. The Year of Jubilee was considered holy and everyone was to eat off of whatever produce could be yielded. All debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and if anyone during the course of the 50 years were forced, through poverty, to sell their land, it was then given back to them. The purpose was to have debt forgiveness, restoration, and inheritances given back to families so they could start over.

Those exempt from tithing (Deut 26:12-13)
The Levites, priests, the high priest, as well as the poor did not tithe – they were the recipients of the tithe. The Mosaic Law commanded the people of Israel, especially the Levitical priests, to feed and care for the poor, widows, fatherless, strangers, and themselves. [v] The Code of Jewish Law states that “he who has barely sufficient for his own needs is not obligated to give charity or his own sustenance takes precedence over another’s.” [vi] According to Alfred Edersheim, noted Jewish historian, “one who was poor was considered one who had less than five sheep.” The poor Israelites were also exempt or required to give smaller sacrifices or offerings. Never were they commanded to tithe.

The ordinance of gleaning
The Israelites were commanded to save a small portion of their fields for the poor so they could glean off of the produce. The corners were forbidden to be harvested, along with nothing was to be picked up what had fallen after being harvested. A typical Old Testament example of a “poor” gleaner was Ruth who gleaned the fields of Boaz.

Since the time when Israelites entered into the land of Canaan, obeying the Law of Moses regarding the tithe, there was no civil authority nor did Israel have any elected officials to support with taxation. Everything was done by the tithe. Once the rule of the judges came, however, many things changed.

Who Were the Non-Tithing Israelites?

As a whole, most Jews were agrarian farmers or herdsmen. There were, however, various occupations once the Jews entered into the promised land which differed from the typical farmer or herdsmen. As time increased, and the population grew, occupations and trades increased. For instance, there were hired workers, candle makers, carpenters, mason, metal craftsmen, musicians, physicians, tanners, teachers, and tent makers to name a few. Because tithing came from the produce of the land of Canaan, only those who owned land were required to tithe. [vii] Poor people, even if they owned producing land and herds, did not tithe from the increase of their land since everything they had was necessary for their survival.

Mediums of Exchange

As far back in the history of Israel, gold and silver can be traced as a standard of value and medium of exchange. Up to the time of exile, and even later, the metals were not coined, but were weighted (Ex 22:16; 2 Sam 18:12; I Kings 20:39). The scales and weights were carried about with the precious metal in a bag attached to the girdle.

To continue on to Chapter 6 on tithing, click here


[i] Nelson’s Bible Dictionary.
[ii] ibid
[iii] ibid
[iv] ibid
[v] ibid
[vi] Garzfield, Solomon. Code of Jewish Law. Translated by Hyman E. Goldin. Spencetown, New York: Hebrew Publishing. 1961, pgs. 1-111.
[vii] Kelly, Russell Earl. Should the Church Teach Tithing? Acworth, GA.



Written by Pastor Joyce A. Erickson

Believers Bible School, Founder https://believersbibleschool.com/