I'm going through the Book of Deuteronomy for my daily quiet time, and what I would like to talk about in this post is the different laws on tithing in Numbers 18 and Deuteronomy. Biblical scholars have discussed this issue in the past, and so I'm not coming up with anything new in this post (as far as I know). At the same time, I remember something that Madeleine L'Engle said in one of her Crosswicks Journals: When her husband told her that her thoughts in her writings were not original, she replied that, even if her thoughts had been said before by others, she had to say them herself. Learning does not always entail coming up with something new, but it also includes learning old stuff for yourself, and articulating it (to yourself, and maybe even to others) as part of your learning.
In Numbers 18,
the tithing law goes like this: The Israelites give a tithe to the
Levites, and the Levites give a tenth of that tithe to the LORD, which
seems to mean giving it to the Aaronic priests. Moreover, the
firstfruits and firstborn of cows, sheep, and goats belong to the
Aaronic priests (though parts of these animals are sacrificed to the
LORD). In Deuteronomy 12 and Deuteronomy 14,
by contrast, the Israelites eat the tithe themselves at the central
sanctuary, but they are instructed to share the tithe with the Levites.
Every third year, the Israelites are to store their tithes within their
towns, and the tithes are to be used for the Levites, resident aliens,
widows, and orphans. So, in Deuteronomy, are the Levites expected to
survive on whatever scraps from the tithes the Israelites are willing to
spare? According to Deuteronomy 18, the Levites are to eat from the animal sacrifices, and the Israelites are to give the Levites their firstfruits.
The impression that I get from these passages is this:
In Numbers 18, the tithe goes to the Levites, and the firstfruits go to
the Aaronic priests. In Deuteronomy, however, which does not elevate
the Aaronic priests above the other Levites, the tithe belongs to the
Israelites at the festival, and they can share it with the Levites.
Meanwhile, the firstfruits belong to the Levites in general, not just
the Aaronic priests.
people in the church were expected to pay three tithes. The first
tithe went to the ministry. The second tithe was to be used by the
church members during the Feast of Tabernacles. And the third tithe
occurred every three years and was supposed to be for the poor. My
understanding is that Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism, too,
maintained that the Torah commanded at least two tithes: one (the one of
Numbers 18) went to the Levites, and the other was used by Jews at the
festival, but every third year it went to the vulnerable of society.
Dad once gave a sermon in which he argued that there was only one
tithe. I don't remember every argument that he made, but I do recall
him pointing out that, according to the Armstrongite interpretation, a
lot went to the Levites, with whom the Armstrongites equated the
ministry. After all, the Israelites gave an entire tenth to the
Levites, and the Israelites were exhorted to share some of their
festival tithe (which they used for their own enjoyment) with the
I myself wouldn't say that there was only one tithe, for
Numbers 18 commands the Israelites to give a tenth to the Levites, and
Deuteronomy tells them to put aside a tenth for their own (the
Israelites') enjoyment at the festivals. When these laws are put
together, I do not think that we can get out of the Torah that the
Israelites only had one tithe, part of which went to the Levites, and
part of which was used by the Israelites at the festivals, for Numbers
18 seems to present the entire tenth going to the Levites (though the
Levites are then to give a tenth of that to the Aaronic priests).
what I think is going on is that we have two different tithing laws,
from two separate sources in the Torah. When the two laws are put
together, of course the Levites are getting rich! Not only do they get a
tenth from the Israelites, but the Israelites also have to treat the
Levites like vulnerable poor people during the festivals and every third
year. But why would the Levites be so vulnerable, if they are
receiving tithes every year? My guess is that tithes amounted to a lot
of domesticated animals, fruits, and vegetables, and so I doubt that the
Levites would be poor and vulnerable if they were getting tithes every
year! But in a scenario in which the Levites are not receiving tithes
but rather firstfruits and sacrificial meat, which is what we see in
Deuteronomy, the Levites are not getting as much, and so they are
poorer. And since they are poorer, it makes sense that Deuteronomy
would exhort the Israelites to share what they have with the Levites
during the festivals. In the Deuteronomic system, the Levites
are more vulnerable. And, on a side note, because the Levites are so
vulnerable in Deuteronomy, some scholars question the proposition that
Levites wrote the Book of Deuteronomy, for why would the Levites support
a system in which they would be so lowly?