We view the tithe as an income tax, and we are taught that it is to be used to support the Church. I believe that both of these assumptions are incorrect. I’m not a conspiracy theorist; I just think we’ve all grown up with the wrong idea. Getting the tithe wrong has been, and will continue to be, harmful not only to God’s people and his Church, but also to the greater society. This posting will be about the source of the tithe. My next posting will be about the uses to which the tithe was put.
As I implied above, I don’t believe the tithe was an income tax. Rather, I think it was a land rent. God said in the 26th chapter of Leviticus that the land belonged to him, and that the Israelites were “strangers and guests” on his land. Now God did set it aside for them – promised it to them – but as legal possessors, not owners. God set the terms for possession: Sabbath and Sabbatical year observances, the Jubilee, and following the Law. Furthermore, he set the payment terms for renting his land – the tithe.
God’s Law was set up between 1400 BC and 1200 BC, hundreds of years before the development of money. So payment of rent to a landlord, in those pre-monetary days, was accomplished by turning over a fixed percentage of the land’s annual production. In this case, 10% of this year’s crop or yearling livestock. It was turned over as part of a standard landlord/tenant relationship, although, relative to the level demanded by landlords in nearby countries, it was a generous arrangement. The Israelite “tenants” did not have to pay much to stay on the land.
There was an exception to this general arrangement: the Levites. The tribe of Levi was not given any land. They filled the urban jobs in the major towns. They had income. Except for their one week out of twenty-four at the site of the Ark, they were self-supporting. Yet the Bible says they paid no tithe. Why?
The 18th Chapter of the book of Numbers says the Levites paid no tithe because they had no inheritance in land. Only those who had an inheritance (from God) in land paid the tithe. We tend to think that they did not pay a tithe because they were involved in priestly or other religious duties. This is not so.
The members of the other tribes paid the tithe, based on the productivity of the land they possessed, because they were renting it from the owner, God. The tithe was land rent to God, not an income tax.