GIVING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
We’re examining what the Bible says to today’s Christian about financial giving. I encourage you to read Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t already. They are essential to knowing how the following information fits in the sequence of thought.
Let’s look at giving in the Old Testament context. We can then understand better how the Old Testament principles and practices fit into the New Testament setting and how they relate to Christians today.
THE PRACTICE OF GIVING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
There are three kinds of giving that God instructed the children of Israel to observe. They are sacrifices, tithes, and freewill offerings. Let’s look at each one.
People offered sacrifices to God long before He instituted the sacrificial system into the lives of the Jewish people. A moment of reflection brings to mind Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:3-4), Noah (Genesis 8:20), and Abraham (Genesis 22:1-14). These all gave sacrifices as a form of voluntary worship to God.
The various types of sacrifices in the system instituted by God are outlined in Leviticus 1-6 and 16. They included:
- The burnt offering for sin
- The grain offering for recognizing God’s goodness
- The peace offering for giving thanks
- The sin offering for forgiveness
- The trespass offering for making restitution for personal offences
- The annual offering for the sins of the nation on the Day of Atonement
The purpose of these offerings was to receive forgiveness for sin and to express worship, devotion, and thanks. Some were required and others were voluntary.
God instructed the children of Israel to give 1/10 of their agriculture and produce. The noun, “tithe,” is the English translation of a Hebrew word that means “tenth part.” The verb, “to tithe,” means “to give a tenth part.” God’s instructions given through Moses about tithing are recorded in Leviticus 27, Numbers 18, and Deuteronomy 12 and 14. Tithing was an act of worship. The people took their tithes to the sanctuary and dedicated them to the Lord in a spirit of joyful devotion (Deuteronomy 12:11-12).
It seems from these passages that there were actually three tithes required of the Jewish people. The text doesn’t explicitly say this, but the information in these Bible passages seems to indicate it. Jewish rabbis1 and other scholars2 have concluded that there were three distinct tithes. Though I am not dogmatic about it, I tend to agree and will present them accordingly.
- The first was the Levites Tithe (Leviticus 27:30-33; Numbers 18:21-32). Leviticus 27 contains the command to tithe. Numbers 18 explains that this tithe would be used to support the Levites—the men who ministered in the temple and their families.
- The second was the Festival Tithe (Deuteronomy 12:17-18; 14:22-27). The Jewish people gathered yearly for a festival in Jerusalem. They were instructed to bring a tenth of their grain, wine, oil, and livestock to the festival. This tithe was not just for the Levites, but was to be eaten together with everyone as they rejoiced together in God’s provision.
- The third was the Poor Tithe. According to Deuteronomy 14:28-29, a tenth was collected every three years to take care of needy people, including aliens, orphans, and widows. The needy also included the Levites, because they had no land for producing food and no inheritance from which to draw support.
If you accept the three tithe concept and do the math, you will realize that the children of Israel did not merely give 1/10 of their possessions to the Lord. They gave an annual tithe to the Levites; they brought another tithe to the yearly festival; and they gave an additional tithe every three years for the poor and needy. If there were three tithes, then they actually gave about 23% annually. This is separate from their sacrifices and their freewill offerings. Christians who calculate their giving based on Old Testament tithing should take this into consideration!
The giving of sacrifices and tithes was required. The Jewish people could also give freewill offerings. These were voluntary offerings to express devotion, worship, and thanks. They usually consisted of animal sacrifices. Leviticus 22:17-33 and Deuteronomy 12:5-19 include instructions about these.
There was another kind of freewill offering in addition to the animal sacrifices. This was a donation of gold, silver, and other valuables to provide for the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 35) and for the construction of the temple which David envisioned and that Solomon eventually built in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 29). The captives who returned with Ezra to Jerusalem also took freewill offerings with them consisting of silver and gold for furnishing the reconstructed temple (Ezra 1:5-6; 7:11-18; 8:28-34).
David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 29 highlights the motivation for Old Testament freewill giving: “Now therefore, our God, we thank You and praise Your glorious name. But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly as this? For all things come from You, and of Your own we have given You” (1 Chronicles 29:13-14). As individuals we recognize that our material possessions came to us from God. We are managers of the resources He has given us. We have the privilege and joy of voluntarily setting aside part of what He has entrusted to us and bringing it to the place of worship where we present it to Him so that it can be used for the work of God in order to bring glory to God. In subsequent articles, we will see that this is the same motivation for New Testament grace giving.
PROBLEMS WITH GIVING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
A key message of the Old Testament is that sinful human beings always fall short of God’s holy character and just requirements. This was evident in many aspects of the lives of the Israelites, including their giving. The prophets rebuked the people for their neglect of giving as a sign of disobedience to God. They also admonished them regarding their motives.
Probably the best known prophetic voice on the topic of giving is Malachi’s. Preachers frequently quote his challenge to non-tithers, “Will you rob God?” But Malachi had a lot more to say than that. His message, though directed to the people of Israel, generates some timeless applications.
Malachi identified three problems with the children of Israel’s giving:
- First, their offerings were inferior (Malachi 1:6-9). They offered their worst rather than their best. He rebuked them because the inferior quality of an offering is a sign of low esteem for God.
- The second problem was their hypocrisy (Malachi 2:13-15). They continued to bring offerings while abandoning their marriages. His point here is that offerings do not compensate for disobedience.
- The third problem was their neglect or refusal to give (Malachi 3:7-12). The prophet equated their unwillingness to tithe and to give offerings to theft. A person who refuses to give denies that his possessions are under the authority and ownership of God.
We must be careful not to impose Old Testament requirements on New Testament believers, nor to place Israel’s obligations onto the church. However, today’s Christian can benefit from numerous observations related to Old Testament giving.
- The Jewish people’s worship of God included material and financial giving.
- Their offerings were not to be perfunctory, but given in a spirit of devotion and thanksgiving to God.
- People in need received significant help.
- God’s people acknowledged His greatness and goodness as well as His authority and ownership by their freewill offerings.
- The Israelites gave generously to projects associated with the work of God.
- Right motives are more important than the gift itself.
The New Testament completes the picture by showing us what biblical giving looks like in the lives of Christians and in the church. That is what we will examine in the next article.
1 Singer, Isidore, ed. “Tithe.” JewishEncyclopedia.com. Online edition of The Jewish Encyclopedia. Funk and Wagnalls. 1906. Accessed Feb 6 2015.↩
2 Allen, R. B. (1999). 1711 עשׂר. In R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (702–704). Chicago: Moody Press.↩