Critiquing the Argument for Tithing (Series Part 2)

Parsing the Argument

For years, I truly believed the defence of tithing in all its potent forms that I was aware of. I was prepared to follow God’s directives. Helping the matter was the fact that all the preachers that I served under all faithfully gave their tithes as well. Recently, I had reasons to doubt this defence; I believe that it falls quite short in explaining why Christians ought to tithe. One of the strengths of the argument is its grounding of tithing’s provenance in Abraham as opposed to Moses or Aaron. However, it should be noted that Israel did not tithe because Abraham did; instead, the descendants of Israel gave tithes specifically because God commanded them to do so. They were so commanded because one of their brothers, Levi, had been set apart by God to only focus on ministering. Whereas other tribes of Israel had material possessions upon entering the promised land, Levites did not. God himself was their possession, and God provided for their daily needs by giving to Levites the tithes—of grains, animals, spices, flour, olive oil, among other things—that the other tribes bring to God:

                Yahweh said to Aaron, ‘You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel. 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.’ – (Numbers 18:20,21 (WEB)).

The Tent of Meeting was the place where the people of Israel met with God at the time—quite analogous to a church building today. Another parallel analogy worth mentioning is that Levites received the people’s tithe as a form of payment for their service much like preachers do today. Here is the first point worth making concerning tithing in the church today: though preachers usually want to ground the doctrine of tithing in Abraham, the practice is thoroughly Levitical. Yet, as we have seen, Israelites’ practice of tithing was apart from Abraham’s. Israelites, though they were genetic and genealogical descendants of Abraham, tithed because they were specifically and clearly instructed so to do to ensure that Levites will not lack.

Besides, the grounding of tithing in Abraham is not firm. For whatever reasons, Abraham gave a tenth of everything he just plundered from Lot’s captors to Melchizedek. First, we should observe that he did not give to Melchizedek from his earnings, say, from harvests. And even if we consider the recent plunder a part of his earnings, Abraham only gave the tithe once. Melchizedek did not keep coming back to receive the patriarch’s tithes. Most importantly, there is nothing in the narrative that remotely suggests that the descendants of Abraham ought to tithe because the father did. That Abraham once gave a tithe should not commit his descendants to continually give tithes! In fact, the language of Hebrews 7 which is often used to defend tithing suggests the opposite: “One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” (9, NIV). That is, it could be construed that when Abraham gave a tenth of everything, all his descendants, including Levi, gave a tithe to Melchizedek so that the descendants do not need to offer tithes of their own. Perhaps, this explains why Israelites had to be specifically commanded afterwards to tithe.

Moreover, the conclusion that Abraham gave tithe in faith (or by revelation) to Melchizedek is problematic, if by giving “in faith” we mean that he gave so that he might receive returns from God on his giving. First, Genesis 13:2 says that Abram was already very wealthy in livestock, silver, and gold. Tithing has not come up yet; that is, Abraham did not tithe his way to wealth. Then, Genesis 13:14-17 says God already promised the land to Abram and his posterity before he met Melchizedek. All that the patriarch needed to do was practice obedient trust, not tithing. Most importantly, and this is very critical, Abraham was just as ready to return all the goods and captives to the king of Sodom after giving a tenth of everything to Melchizedek.

The king of Sodom and his allies had gone to war with Kedorlaomer, the king of Elam, and lost. Kedorlaomer and his allies then took the denizens of Sodom as captives; Lot and his family were also taken captive. Abraham got involved to rescue Lot. After the campaign, Abraham recovered Lot and took the spoils of war that Kedorlaomer had taken. It was out of this plunder that Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek, not from his livestock, silver, and gold. Afterwards, the defeated king of Sodom came out of his hiding to Abraham (Genesis 14:21-24):

Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and take the possessions for yourself.” But Abram replied to the king of Sodom, “I raise my hand to the Lord, the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth, and vow that I will take nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal. That way you can never say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing except compensation for what the young men have eaten. As for the share of the men who went with me – Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre – let them take their share.”

In other words, whereas Abraham only gave one-tenth to Melchizedek, he gave everything back to the king of Sodom! He only excepted compensation for the fighting men that joined him on the expedition. This strongly suggests that the act of giving to Melchizedek was nothing unusual for Abraham. It appears like Abraham is secured in God’s (financial) promises to him, and he would not make any suspicious move to make things happen. Abraham would not give any human a chance to boast that he made Abraham rich. He seems to have discovered Yahweh as reliably Jireh

What about Hebrews 7?

What, very plausibly, is the author of Hebrews trying to tell us? In the light of all that has been argued thus far, I believe that the writer of Hebrews most likely writes in chapter 7 not so much to show that Abraham tapped into some prosperity mysteries by tithing but to show the far-reaching implications of the patriarch’s act to the very foundations of the Levitical priesthood—and by extension, Judaism. The author seems to be arguing that the Levitical priesthood had always been inferior and temporary (Hebrews 7:9-11; 8:6), and this truth is recorded in the Tanakh—albeit veiled. The writer appears to unveil the message by arguing along the following lines:

  • Levi represents the Levitical priesthood or the covenant of old Judaism.
  • When Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, Levi also gave tithes to Melchidezek (9,10).
  • The lesser person gives tithe to the greater and is blessed by the greater person (6,7); that is, Melchizedek is greater than Levi (and Abraham).
  • Jesus is an eternal priest in the order (or manner) of Melchizedek (17, 24; Psalms 110:4)
  • Therefore, Jesus’ priesthood is greater than Levi’s.
  • Furthermore, the ministry of Jesus (and his new form of Judaism or Christianity) is superior to the Levitical priesthood and its old Judaism (8:6; 7:22).

The genius of the argument is that the writer of Hebrews is telling people sympathetic towards Judaism that their own scripture contains all that is needed to vindicate Jesus’ ministry! The author thus demonstrates that the Old Testament foretold an end to the Levitical priesthood. Hence, to read Hebrews 7 like it is primarily about tithing is to have misunderstood the book altogether.

The New Testament Witness?

Besides, the logic that preachers employ in grounding tithing in Abraham is pallid. Saying Christians should tithe because Abraham tithed is like saying Christians should fast 40 days and 40 nights (without breaks) because Jesus did. As far as I know, Protestants generally do not fast this way and rightly so. Jesus was driven to the desert by the Spirit to fast in preparation for his ministry that was about to take off (Matthew 4:1,2). This is not a blanket formula to be applied blindly. Here is the hermeneutic point I am making: we should be careful of turning a descriptive narrative into a prescriptive dogma. Ministers of God did many things in the Bible: Noah built a ship, Abraham had a baby through a slave girl whom he arguably raped, Elijah battled with prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, John the baptizer ate locusts and honey, and Jesus walked on water and decided against marrying. None of these acts or any other is meant to be prescriptive. God is not mute to tell his servants today what he requires of them.

Having severed the doctrine of tithing from its loose connection with Abraham, we should enquire if the New Testament straightforwardly teaches tithing. What I have found is that neither the Apostles nor Jesus teaches tithing. A quick topical search in the New Testament produces two different mentions of tithe besides the Hebrew 7 passage already considered. These mentions are as follows:

                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. Matthew 23:23 (NIV)

                “I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get” Luke 18:12 (NIV)

Luke 11:42 records a similar account as Matthew 23:23 above. In the Matthean account above, Jesus is checking the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. He mentions tithing apparently because it is about the only requirement left in the Law of Moses that the Pharisees still carry out. Does this mean Jesus endorses tithing? Hardly. Jesus merely charges the Pharisees to be true to the standard that they claim to represent (Matthew 23:3).

Though it seems clear to me that this passage is straightforwardly addressing Jews under the Law, I have reasons to think that some people may want to wrench it out as a last resort to defend tithing as one article I came across did. The author of the article in question claimed that Jesus here endorses tithing and since Matthew is in the New Testament, tithing carries over into the New Testament. It is true that traditionally the New Testament is said to begin with the book of Matthew. However, traditional labels and demarcations are not meant to be strictly applied without regard to the content. For instance, tradition has it that Moses is the author of Deuteronomy even though that book also records the death of Moses and the events afterwards. Now, of all the things that dead people do, writing is not one of them. Hence, we know that Moses could not have written every portion of the book.

Strictly and technically speaking, not every portion of Matthew (and the other Gospels) qualifies as New Testament. The reason is simple: “New Testament” means new covenant in Christ’s atoning blood, and that did not happen until after Jesus’ death and resurrection recorded in the latter portions of Matthew. Thus, though Matthew 23:23 appears in a New Testament book, the event is not. This explains why Zechariah and his son John the baptizer, whose stories appear in the New Testament (Luke 1), are really operating under the Old Testament. That is why Jesus says “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is” (Matthew 11:11). John was the last of the kind of messengers of God to be merely born of women or have only a natural birth. Subjects of the kingdom of heaven have a different birth experience: They are born of the Spirit and of born of God (John 3:6, 1 John 5:1). John the baptizer is an Old Testament prophet.

One more example of the point under consideration is recorded in Matthew 15:24 where Jesus says to a woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” If we were to take this as a New Testament truth merely because it is recorded in Matthew, we run into a big and deep soteriological mess. The moment we realize that Jesus was born under the law and operated in a transitioning manner, the problem begins to dissolve. By his death, every believing individual qualifies through grace (Ephesians 2:14-18). In summary, we see that Matthew 23:23 is clearly not endorsing a doctrine but charging the disciples of Moses to be fully consistent in their practices (Matthew 23:1-8).

The second verse from Luke above comes from a prayer of a Pharisee who, once more, believe somewhat in tithing in accordance with the Law. So, we see then that the two appearances of “tithing” and “tithes” in the New Testament have no prescriptive or normative power. As already argued, even the seventh chapter of Hebrews does not teach tithing. The subject matter of that chapter is not tithing; tithing only came up en passant. The writer is commending the gospel to people with a background in Judaism. Not surprisingly, then, many key features of Judaism—the promise, the patriarchs, the law, the messiah, sabbath, Moses, the tabernacle, sacrifice and covenant of blood, and worship—were all discussed in the book. Chapter 7 continues a subject that began in chapter 4: the priesthood. Melchizedek is discussed because of his likeness to our high priest, Jesus. The writer of the book compares the gospel that he is presenting to the religion of his audience, a smart apologetics move. Tithing came up because priests, who were Levites, received the tithes of the people in Judaism as part of their ministry functions. Interestingly, though the writer mentions that Melchizedek received Abraham’s tithes, he fails to provide an analogy with Jesus on this point. Jesus neither gave nor received a tithe.

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