Within popular piety in America today, it is widely believed that the Bible instructs Christians, either explicitly or implicitly, to give ten percent of their income to their local churches. Pastors teach this in the name of the biblical notion of “tithing,” a term applied to the giving of ten percent of one’s crops and flocks to the Levite. As we will see, however, the Bible nowhere even remotely suggests that Christians are supposed to give ten percent of their income to the church, or anything. Moreover, the plain facts about biblical tithing contradict the very possibility of any sort of Christian tithing, or at least of the possibility of basing such a practice upon a biblical model. Let us leave aside the question of whether Christians are bound to the Old Testament commandments for now, and look first at some of the specifics concerning tithing during the days of the Temple.
In the Bible there are three different tithes (although the third is really a part of the second). The first (Leviticus 27) is the best known, but even it, when properly understood, does not correspond at all with the notion that a tithe represents the giving of ten percent of everyone’s income to the Temple. There are two central facts about this first tithe that contradict the common conception. First, it did not apply to everyone’s income. Rather, it consists of ten percent of the crops grown and the livestock raised by Israelite (later Jewish) farmers within the land of Canaan. Israelites living in the land of Canaan who made their living by any other means did not have to pay this tithe, and Israelites farming outside of the land of Canaan did not have to pay this tithe. This is because the first tithe was not a required payment for livelihood per se, but rather it represented payment for tenancy on God’s land. In other words, the first tithe was not a sort of thank offering for one’s livelihood, as it is commonly construed today: rather, it applied only to those farming within the land of Canaan.