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Did People Tithe Before The Law?

There are two examples of people tithing before the law–Abraham and Jacob. But there’s a great difference in their tithes and that which came later for Israel under Moses. That difference is tithing was not mandatory for Abraham and Jacob. They did so as a voluntary act of devotion. Israel, however, was obeying a tithe law.

Tithes are only understood and appreciated when discussed in their proper context. There are three periods of time that comprise the various contexts: pre-law, law, and post-law. Each of the three has its own definition and criteria. In this article, we’re looking at pre-law tithes.

Voluntary And Involuntary Tithes In The Old Testament

The Old Testament provides a view of voluntary and mandatory tithes. Moses introduced a comprehensive system of giving to God that included mandatory and voluntary giving. That system is exclusively in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

These four books (technically Genesis is included) are known as the law of Moses. 

Israel’s economic foundation was built on the law. So tithes and offerings were as ingrained in their society as taxes are ingrained in ours. Actually, their system of tithes and offerings was similar to the American tax system. But let’s stay focused on tithes and offerings before the law.

Abraham Tithed Before The Law

Preachers often tell us that we are obligated to pay tithes to them because Abraham paid tithes. It is true that Abraham gave tithes, but it is false that his example establishes tithing as either an Old or New Testament rule. Actually, the example teaches more against mandatory tithing than for it. 

Let’s look to the Scriptures instead of the opinions of those who benefit most from mandatory tithing—preachers. They are definitely not unbiased!

When Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was taken as a prisoner of war by an invading army, Abraham raised an army and rescued him. When Abraham returned from the battle, he was met by the kings of Sodom and Salem:

So he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the people. And the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him. 

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” 

And he [Abram] gave him a tithe of all. 

Genesis 14:16-20

There is no way to get around the fact that Abraham paid a tithe. But let’s see if his example is binding upon us.

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No Tithes From Adam To Abraham

If you read the first 13 chapters of the Bible, you will notice that tithing isn’t mentioned. Approximately two thousand years and no mention of tithing. That’s not insignificant.

In fact, the first time we see it is Genesis 14 when Abraham gave a voluntary thanksgiving tithe. Furthermore, the law of Moses was not given for more than 400 years later. So mandatory tithes and offerings were several hundred years away.

Nonetheless, advocates of mandatory tithes and offerings still illogically see this example of one man’s gratitude as another man’s obligation. Hopefully, the following review will successfully undermine their unfounded assumptions.

Abraham Was Not Obligated To Tithe

For the record, Abraham was not obligated to pay tithes. Yet some tithe preachers use Abraham’s example to justify the modern tithe. The rationale is that since Abraham tithed before the law, tithing is a timeless practice that is binding on us. We will go into great detail later to debunk that meritless theory. 

Abraham Is Not Our Example For Everything

It is nonsense to state that we must do whatever Abraham did. For instance, should we practice polygamy?  Should we circumcise our sons on the eighth day so they can become heirs of God? Should we lie to get out of trouble? Should we offer God animal sacrifices? Should we wander in the desert? Should we go to bed with our wife’s maid?

Some of you may be thinking about that last one. The answer is NO! 

Abraham Did Not Tithe From His Personal Property

Another point is that Abraham voluntarily gave a tithe only from the spoils of the war, not from his personal property. Therefore, this example doesn’t support the teaching that Abraham practiced tithing from his personal income. It merely records a single incident where Abraham expressed his gratitude to God by voluntarily giving a tithe.

It is certainly always appropriate to honor God with our increase. But it is always inappropriate to dictate how another person honors God with his increase. In support of this, notice that King Melchizedek did not demand a tithe from Abraham. He simply received it.

Our preachers don’t behave this way. They demand our money like it’s their inheritance.

Additionally, Abraham did not tithe to “open the windows of heaven.”[2] God made him rich long before he gave a tithe to Melchizedek.[3] So much for the bribe that if we tithe, God will bless us.

Last, Abraham had other opportunities to “tithe,” but no record is given of him doing so. 

  • In Genesis 12:16, Pharaoh gave him “sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys and camels.” No record of a tithe. 
  • In Genesis 18, the Lord and two angels appeared in physical form to Abraham and had dinner with him in his home.  No record of a tithe. 
  • In Genesis 20:14-16, King Abimelech gave Abraham much livestock, as well as a thousand pieces of silver. No record of a tithe. 

Ordinarily, it is not a good practice to try to prove a point by the absence of reported facts. The fact that a thing isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.[4] 

I have, however, highlighted the absence of recorded tithing incidents in Abraham’s life to show there is a good possibility that the incident in Genesis 14 that records Abraham’s tithe may be the only time he ever gave a tithe. 

Sure, someone could debate this conclusion, but upon what grounds?

Jacob Tithed Before The Law

The last time we hear of a tithe prior to the law comes through Jacob:

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.  And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You. 

Genesis 28:20-22

Here is the other pre-law example that is commonly used to justify mandatory New Testament tithing. I believe the Jacob argument is even weaker than the Abraham argument. 

Jacob offered God a deal. The deal was that if God satisfied Jacob’s rules, Jacob would serve Him and give God ten percent of whatever the Lord would give him. 

There is nothing in this example that remotely hints at mandatory tithes in either the Old or New Testaments. Instead what we see is another example of the concept of a voluntary tithe. What tells us that Jacob was referring to a voluntary tithe? Two things. 

First, up to that point, the Old Testament did not mandate or even teach tithes. It simply reported the one time Abraham voluntarily did it. 

Second, Jacob presented it as a voluntary act. Of the three things he offered God for jumping through his hoops, the final two were clearly voluntary:

  1.  “Then the Lord shall be my God.”
  2.  “And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house.”
  3.  “And of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.”

How can anyone in good conscience use Jacob’s pre-law promise of a voluntary tithe as justification to require post-law mandatory tithes of Christians? Why not also require us each to find a rock and declare it God’s house? After all, that also was part of Jacob’s vow.

The misuse of this passage of Scripture is unmistakable. Yet it is allowed to go on because it is wildly profitable for preachers to continue the myth of mandatory pre-law tithes.

Where Abraham and Jacob Got the Idea to Tithe

With the confidence of an attorney who knows our answer will bury us, tithe preachers often ask us where Abraham and Jacob got the idea to tithe. The expected answer is that it came from God; the actual answer is that more than likely it came from Gentile society. 

Tithing was a well-established Gentile custom centuries before it was mentioned in the Bible or integrated into Jewish religious law. I can’t improve upon what Dr. Russell Earl Kelly has written in Should the Church Teach Tithing about Gentile tithing. 

The next two sections contain quotes of his research:


The Encyclopedia of Religion reads, “In the ancient Near East lie the origins of a sacred offering or payment of a tenth part of stated goods or property to the deity. Often given to the king or to the royal temple, the ‘tenth’ was usually approximate, not exact. The practice is known from Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, Greece, and as far to the west as the Phoenician city of Carthage.”[5]


The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible says, “A 10th part of one’s income consecrated to God. The separation of a certain proportion of the products of one’s industry or of the spoils of war as tribute to their gods was practiced by various nations of  antiquity. The Lydians offered a tithe of their booty (Herod. I,   89). The Phoenicians and Carthaginians sent a tithe annually to the Tyrian Hercules. These tithes might be regular or occasional, voluntary or prescribed by law.”[6]


Tithing Was An Ancient Gentile Custom That Existed Before Moses

This general tithe is of pagan origin and precedes the Mosaic Law’s tithe by many centuries.[7]

It’s not difficult to see that in Genesis 14 Abraham was obligated by Arab war custom to pay a tithe from the spoils of war. He could have not done it, but what message would that have sent to others?

When Abraham offered a tithe to Melchizedek, who was both a king and priest, he was following the custom of the land. His action fulfilled the timeless instructions of Romans 13:7: “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”[8]

When Jacob offered to pay God a tithe if He fulfilled his expectations, he was merely following the example of his Gentile neighbors who honored their deities and kings with ten percent of their income.

Well, there goes the assumption that Abraham and Jacob got the idea of tithing from God! 


Similar Articles

  1. Should I Tithe Or Pay My Bills?
  2. Who Created The Financial Tithe?
  3. What Are Tithes In The Bible?
  4. Did Jesus Teach Tithing?
  5. Does The New Testament Teach Tithing?

Notes

[1] Malachi 1:6-14. It is ironic how Malachi is routinely used to intimidate God’s people into giving to preachers. Yet the book was written to sternly rebuke preachers for giving bad offerings. Ironically, preachers who use fear to raise money cause bad offerings.

Therefore, the professional clergy is as guilty today of accepting bad offerings as they were in the book of Malachi! Bad offerings satisfy preachers as much as good offerings, but bad offerings do not please God: Matthew 5:23-24, 6:1; 1 Corinthians 13:3; 2 Corinthians 9:7

[2]This is a reference to Malachi 3:10, the Scripture that is routinely used to convince us that if we give ten percent of our money to the preacher, God will bless us.

[3] Genesis 13:1-2.

[4] Although, it is clear in Genesis 18 that Abraham did not give tithes to the Lord when He appeared to him.

[5] Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Elliad, editor; 1987, s.v. “tithe.” Reprinted by permission of the Gale Group.

[6] John D. Davis, ed., Westminster Dictionary of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), s.v. “tithe.”

[7] I found an interesting 1895 position paper: Tithe-Giving Amongst Ancient Pagan Nations. It was presented by the Reverend Henry Lansdell, who was trying to show the evolution of the 10% figure as the common tithe. The paper is rich in references to ancient tithing customs by Gentile nations.

[8] We are not, however, to honor sinful customs (Leviticus 18:30; Jeremiah 10:3). Nor are we to honor customs that make the word of God of no effect (Matthew 15:1-9). I believe the modern obligatory tithe, depending on how it’s presented, falls in one or both of these categories.

Eric M Hill

Eric M Hill is an author, blogger, YouTuber, and Bible teacher. He has written sixteen books. He is a member of the Authors Guild and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

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