An Exhaustive Examination of "Tithe," "Tithes" and "Tithing"

Should the Church Teach Tithing?
A Theologian's Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine
Russell Earl Kelly, PHD


Section 7 -  How Many Tithes? 10%, 20%, or 23 1/3rd%?


Was the biblical tithe only 10%, or could it have been as much as 23 1/3%? Was there one tithe, two tithes, or three? A discussion of these questions was not originally part of this book until it became evident why only one answer is acceptable to most who teach New Covenant tithing.

Most casual readers of the Old Testament will conclude that there were at least two, and perhaps three, separate tithes, averaging either twenty or twenty three and one third percent (23 1/3%) per year, instead of only one ten (10%) percent tithe. For two thousand years theologians have been split over whether these were all separate tithes or somehow merged into either one or two tithes. The "multiple tithe" position is held by Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, Matthew Henry, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Bruce Metzger, Charles Ryrie, the Jewish Talmud and most Jewish writers, like Josephus.

Charles Ryrie combines the second and third tithe into one. "Two tithes were required: an annual tithe for the maintenance of the Levites (Lev. 27:30; Num. 18:21) and a second tithe brought to Jerusalem for the Lord’s feasts (Deut. 14:22). Every third year, however, the second tithe was kept at home for the poor (Deut. 14:28)." The McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia, tithe, Section I, last paragraph, also concludes that only two tithes existed. My only objection is that, if this were true, then we would have to conclude that there were no feasts every third year if there were no food brought.

For those, like the author, who believe that New Covenant giving under principles of grace replaces the entire tithing system, there is no reason to be dogmatic about which position is correct. However, for those who believe that tithing is also expected from the New Covenant Christian, the ONE tithe of ten percent can be the ONLY true and acceptable explanation. This position is for very obvious reasons! While it is difficult enough to ask average church members for ten percent, it would be much more difficult to ask them for twenty or even twenty three and one third percent!

Therefore, those who defend exact tithing have often placed themselves into a no-compromise position which concludes that the Old Covenant only taught one tithe of ten percent. Notice the tone of Eklund’s remarks, "The notion of three separate tithes has been circulated among commentators for a long time. Nevertheless, we must remain true to Scripture and not the traditions of biblical interpreters. Some have used the idea of three distinct tithes as a means of rendering tithing an obsolete doctrine, not valid for the New Covenant believers. This is done by rendering the Levite tithe as government taxation, the festival tithe as antiquated ritual, and the welfare tithe as giving to the poor. Since taxes and welfare funding are levied by the government, it is assumed that the tithe is no longer necessary."

In reply to Eklund, first, it is unprofessional to attack those who disagree by accusing them of following the "traditions of biblical interpreters" and accusing them of not remaining "true to Scripture." Such superior attitude simply will not convince scholars to concede their own researched positions. Second, many of Eklund’s own denomination’s seminary scholars and textbooks hold the opposite position which he criticizes. When he says "we," he errs in thinking that his own denomination totally agrees with him. Third, his discussion hints at an ulterior motive for insisting on only one tithe.

The First Yearly (Levitical) Tithe, Numbers 18: For Levitical Inheritance

Num. 18:20 You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any part among them; I am your part and your inheritance among the children of Israel.

Num. 18:21 And, behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service. . . .

This tithe has already been discussed in detail in previous chapters. Unlike the second and third tithes, it replaced land inheritance rights in Israel and provided basic sustenance for the Levite and the Aaronic priests of the tribe of Levi, as described in Numbers 18.

The Second Yearly (Festival) Tithe: Deuteronomy 12:1-19 and 14:22-26

Deut. 12:6 And there [later Jerusalem] you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and heave offerings of your hand, and your vows, and your freewill offerings, and the first offspring of your herds and of your flocks:

Deut. 12:7 And there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice in all that you put your hand unto, you and your households, wherein the LORD your God has blessed you. ["Rejoice" is in verses 7, 12, and 18.]

Deut. 14:23 And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there [later Jerusalem], the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the first offspring of your herds and of your flocks; that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. ["Rejoice" is in verse 26.]

Whereas the first tithe was brought to the Levitical cities ["... the tithe of our ground to the Levites, for the Levites are they who receive the tithes in all the rural towns. Neh. 10:37b, NASU], the second yearly tithe was brought to Jerusalem for the festivals which accompanied the numerous gatherings. Also, unlike the first tithe, along with the Levite, the other Israelites, their family members, and servants, ALL ATE portions of this tithe. Also, unlike the first tithe, this tithe was an integral part of REJOICING and celebration in the presence of the LORD. It is distinctly different from the first tithe.

The Third Year (Poor) Tithe: Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and 26:12-13

Deut. 14:28 At the end of three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your increase the same year, and shall lay it up within your gates.

Deut. 14:29 And the Levite, (because he has no part nor inheritance with you), and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which are within your gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.

Deut 26:12 When you have made an end of tithing all the tithes of your increase the third year, which is the year of tithing, and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within your gates, and be filled,

Deut. 26:13 Then you shall say before the LORD your God, I have brought away the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them to the Levite, and to the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all your commandments which you have commanded me; I have not transgressed your commandments, neither have I forgotten them.

Unlike the first tithe, the third-year tithe (in the year of tithing) was specifically for all of the needy--including the non-Israelite stranger! Its recipients included the Levites, widows, orphans, fatherless, and Gentile strangers. Also, unlike the second tithe which went to Jerusalem, the third tithe was to stay in the towns, "within your gates," at home. This could not possibly be the same as the first, or second, tithe.

Consequences of Two or Three Tithes

These texts, Deuteronomy 12:6-7; 14:22-29; and 26:12-13 present a real dilemma for those who teach New Covenant tithing. First, if these verses are only a later amended part of the original tithe ordinance found in Numbers 18, then Deuteronomy should have priority over Leviticus and Numbers. This would mean that tithers should be allowed to feast off the tithes they bring to church! [How does one eat money?] Failure to do so would be failure to follow the final biblical tithing revelation. Second, if the church admits that the feast tithe was indeed a second tithe, then it must also teach a minimum of twenty percent as an expectation of the church. This is a lose-lose situation!

Matthew Henry is among those who think that twenty percent tithes should be taught for the New Covenant Christian. Actually, he adds the king’s tithe and totals three tithes of at least thirty (30) percent! "You think the tenths, the double tenths, which the law of God has appointed for the support of the church, grievous enough, and grudge the payment of them; but, if you have a king, there must issue another tenth out of your estates, which will be levied with more rigor, for the support of the royal dignity". Yet modern taxation is much more than thirty percent.

In Jesus’s day, taxation would look like this:

10% EMPIRE: food spoils-of-war tax to Rome; 20% of fruits; Gen. 14:20

10%+ PROVINCE: King Herod’s tax: 1 Sam. 8:14-17

10%: RELIGIOUS: food tithes; Numbers. 18:20-26

10%: FESTIVALS: food tithe, Deut. 12:6-7; 14:22-23

[? 3 1/3%: POOR TITHE (10% every third year): Welfare, Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12-13

PLUS: road taxes; bridge taxes; temple shekel; free-will offerings;

and many other religious and royal taxes


There are good reasons to disagree with Eklund and accept either two or three separate tithes. First, it is extremely difficult to interpret the Scriptures otherwise. The Levites deserved support and probably fed the poor from all three tithes since a secular government welfare system did not exist. Does not our government tax us at least ten percent in order to set up judicial posts and protect its people? Remember, these texts describe a theocratic (God-ruled) government! Second, the feasts were also important as national family-reunions; they were many and long-lasting and no government funds were allocated for them. If the citizens of Israel had combined all of the expenses at every religious and national holiday throughout the year, they would have discovered at least another ten percent spent.

The third year tithe was supplemental for the poor. Today our government, not our churches, taxes more than the extra three and one third percent from us for Medicare, public housing, food stamps, and other social programs. We must also remember that no tithes were to be collected from the land every seventh year, every fiftieth year, and when drought and famine caused no increase. Because of Roman occupation, this may have been dropped entirely.

In conclusion, twenty three and one third percent is not extravagant when compared to the amount of taxation required today which provides the same kinds of services as those of the theocratic Levitical government, as originally proposed in the Old Covenant.

John MacArthur, an extremely popular U.S. educator, author, evangelist, and radio personality agrees. "So when someone says the Jew gave ten percent, that isn’t true. The Jew gave twenty-three percent to begin with. It was for the poor people, the widows, and people who didn’t have anything to eat. So they were funding the people who ran the government, which were the Levites; they were providing for national feasts through the festival tithe; and they gave for the welfare program. All this was funding for the national entity. All three of these were taxation, not freewill giving to God. Tithing was always taxation so that the programs of the government could run: the priestly program, the national religious program, and the welfare program."

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says, "There is thus an obvious apparent discrepancy between the legislation in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It is harmonized in Jewish tradition, not only theoretically but in practice, by considering the tithes as three different tithes, which are named the First Tithe, the Second Tithe, and the Poor Tithe, which is also called the Third Tithe; compare Tob. 1:7-8; Ant, IV, iv, 3; viii, 8; viii, 22). According to this explanation, after the tithe (the First Tithe) was given to the Levites (of which they had to give the tithe to the priests), a Second Tithe of the remaining nine-tenths had to be set apart and consumed in Jerusalem. Those who lived far from Jerusalem could change this Second Tithe into money with the addition of a 5th part of its value. Only food, drink or ointment could be bought for the money (Ma`aser Sheni 2:1; compare Deut. 14:26). The tithe of cattle belonged to the Second Tithe, and was to be used for the feast in Jerusalem (Zebhachim 5:8). In the third year the Second Tithe was to be given entirely to the Levites and the poor. But according to Josephus (Ant, IV, viii, 22) the ‘Poor Tithe’ was actually a third one. The priests and the Levites, if landowners, were also obliged to give the Poor Tithe (Pe’ah 1:6)." [Admittedly, parts of this quotation are confusing.]

The third tithe reveals that the Levite was expected to be among the poor. Israel’s treatment of strangers, the fatherless, and the widows was extremely important. After being first mentioned in Exodus 22:21, and ten times in Deuteronomy, they are linked in Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and the very important tithing text of Malachi 3:5 -- a total of 21 times. God commanded Old Covenant Israel to care for the needy; it was not an option!

Again, the third year tithe remained in the towns instead of going to the temple storehouse in Jerusalem. In addition to the Levite, it included all others who had no inheritance. God made it the responsibility of the religious leaders to take care of the needy. Once again, one requirement for receiving from the tithe was lack of land inheritance in Israel.

In giving a portion of the tithe to the poor and needy, the Israelite was demonstrating his commitment to keep ALL of the law. Today, there is no valid biblical principle which allows the church to teach only one of the three types of tithes to support its ministers and then ignore the national festival tithes and the third year tithes for the poor and needy. Like the rest of the law, tithing was a complete package with three inseparable parts which cannot be divorced from the context of the entire Mosaic Law.