But let’s talk for a minute about another lesser-known aspect of the tithe.

“10% is the Biblical Standard of Giving.”

Have you ever heard someone say that? I have.

But did you catch above when I wrote that there were multiple yearly tithes the Israelites had to observe? Some were every year, and at least one came about every third year. Drawing from tithing references in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy which mention these tithes, it’s realistic to say that the Israelite tithing percentage was probably somewhere between 20%-25%.

Doesn’t this undermine our tendency to tout “10%” as a divine standard of giving, or even a biblical “starting point?”

Exemptions from the Mosaic Tithe

Before we move on to Jesus, I think it’s worth mentioning again that, according to the Mosaic Law, a fair amount of people were exempt from paying the tithe. This is yet another key difference in biblical tithing practices and modern day tithing rhetoric. Here is a reminder of the exempt groups:

1. Craftsman, artisans, merchants, and others who didn’t make a living off the soil and the animals
2. Widows, orphans, and foreigners
3. Levites (priests)

Indeed, those in the 2nd and 3rd categories were specifically meant to receive the tithe. These groups of people were dependent upon their community for resources, and the tithing laws ensured that they were not overlooked by their wealthier, more privileged brothers and sisters.

In the book of Micah, God takes tithing very seriously. In post-exilic Jerusalem, the Israelites had fallen away from God’s laws and were living for themselves. People like Ezra, Nehemiah and Micah were doing what they could to get Israel back on its feet, but the people were (as always) stubborn – and quick to forget about the LORD.

In an oracle from Micah chapter 3  the LORD declares that by withholding or neglecting the tithe, the Israelites are “robbing” God - and that God wants to bless them if they would just follow his commandments.

This is interesting when paired with the Deuteronomy passages, which detail the tithe being used to feed the poor. Both passages taken together infer that God stands very strongly on the side of the disenfranchised, and to withhold resources from the poor, when he tells us not to, is to “rob” God personally as well.

Part Two: Generosity

Enter Jesus.

And no one is exempt from Jesus’ call to generosity.

This is where the New Testament enters our discussion. I hope at this point we have come to understand the tithe as a distinctly Old Testament, distinctly Hebrew law. But in the Kingdom he ushers in, Jesus ups the ante in a powerful way when he speaks about generosity.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24)

Jesus affirms that yes, landowning Israelites with produce are expected to tithe. But he also unequivocally states that the tithe is far inferior to laws on justice, mercy, and faithfulness – which the Pharisees have neglected.

Additionally, Jesus (and other New Testament authors) put the measuring line of financial giving on a person’s heart and not on Mosaic Law. A fascinating mini-sermon on this theme is given in Mark 12:41-44: