The Bible’s answer
As part of their contribution to support true worship, the ancient Israelites were commanded to donate a tithe, * or a tenth, of their annual income. God told them: “You must without fail give a tenth [“tithe,” King James Version] of everything your seed produces in the field year by year.”—Deuteronomy 14:22.
The command to tithe was part of the Mosaic Law, a law code that God gave to ancient Israel. Christians are not legally subject to the Mosaic Law and so are not required to tithe. (Colossians 2:13, 14) Instead, each Christian is to contribute financially “as he has resolved in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”—2 Corinthians 9:7.
Tithing in the Bible—The “Old Testament”
Tithing is mentioned several times in the section of the Bible commonly known as the Old Testament. Most instances relate to a period after the Law code (the Mosaic Law) was given to Israel through Moses. However, a couple of instances relate to a period before that.
Before the Mosaic Law
The first person recorded as offering a tithe was Abram (Abraham). (Genesis 14:18-20; Hebrews 7:4) Abram’s tithe appears to have been a one-time gift to the king-priest of Salem. There is no evidence in the Bible account that Abraham or his children tithed again.
The second person mentioned in the Bible as offering a tithe was Abraham’s grandson Jacob. He promised that if God would bless him, he would give to God “a tenth of everything” he received. (Genesis 28:20-22) According to some Bible scholars, Jacob likely paid this tithe in the form of animal sacrifices. While Jacob bound himself by this vow, he did not impose such a tithe on his family.
Under the Mosaic Law
The ancient Israelites were commanded to tithe as a means of supporting their religious activity.
The tithe provided for full-time religious workers—the Levites, including the priests—who did not have their own land to cultivate. (Numbers 18:20, 21) The nonpriestly Levites received tithes from the people and contributed the very best “tenth part of the tenth part” to the priests.—Numbers 18:26-29.
It appears that a second yearly tithe was required, which benefited both Levite and non-Levite people. (Deuteronomy 14:22, 23) Israelite families used this provision in connection with special festivals, and on certain years it was shared with the very poor to help with their sustenance.—Deuteronomy 14:28, 29; 26:12.
How was the tithe calculated? Israelites set aside a tenth of the yearly produce of their land. (Leviticus 27:30) If they chose to pay this tithe in money rather than produce, they had to increase its value by 20 percent. (Leviticus 27:31) They were also commanded to give a “tenth part of the herd and flock.”—Leviticus 27:32.
To determine their livestock tithe, Israelites selected every tenth animal that came out of their pen. The Law stated that they could not examine or exchange these selected animals, nor could they convert their livestock tithe into money. (Leviticus 27:32, 33) However, the second tithe for use at the annual festivals could be converted into money. This provision made it more convenient for the Israelites who had to travel a long distance to attend the festivals.—Deuteronomy 14:25, 26.
When did the Israelites tithe? The Israelites tithed each year. (Deuteronomy 14:22) However, every seventh year an exception was made. That year was a sabbath, or year of rest, when the Israelites did not cultivate any crops. (Leviticus 25:4, 5) In recognition of this special circumstance, no tithe was collected at harvesttime. Every third and sixth year of the seven-year Sabbath cycle, the Israelites shared the second tithe with the poor and the Levites.—Deuteronomy 14:28, 29.
What was the penalty for not paying tithes? The Mosaic Law did not state a penalty for failing to tithe. Tithing was a moral obligation. The Israelites were to declare before God that they had rendered the tithe and to request God’s blessing for having done so. (Deuteronomy 26:12-15) God viewed withholding the tithe as stealing from him.—Malachi 3:8, 9.
Was the tithe an excessive burden? No. God promised the nation that if they brought in the tithe, he would pour out his blessing on them and they would lack nothing. (Malachi 3:10) On the other hand, the nation suffered when they withheld the tithe. They lost God’s blessing and did not benefit from the work of the priests and Levites whom they had thereby neglected.—Nehemiah 13:10; Malachi 3:7.
Tithing in the Bible—The “New Testament”
During Jesus’ lifetime as a human, tithing was still a requirement for God’s worshippers. However, this requirement was abolished after Jesus’ death.
In Jesus’ time
In what is commonly called the New Testament, the Bible shows that the Israelites continued tithing while Jesus was on earth. He acknowledged that tithing was an obligation for them, but he condemned the religious leaders who scrupulously paid tithes but “disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness.”—Matthew 23:23.
After Jesus’ death
Tithing was no longer required after Jesus died. Jesus’ sacrificial death erased, or abolished, the Mosaic Law, including the “commandment to collect tithes.”—Hebrews 7:5, 18; Ephesians 2:13-15; Colossians 2:13, 14.
^ par. 1 A tithe is “the tenth part of one’s income set aside for a specific use. . . . Usually the tithe in the Bible implies a religious objective.”—Harper’s Bible Dictionary, page 765.