There’s a fascinating principle of interpreting and understanding Scripture that is one of the proofs of the Bible’s inspiration. It’s called the Law of First Mention and it can be defined as follows: “The very first time any important word is mentioned in the Bible … Scripture gives that word its most complete and accurate meaning to not only serve as a “key” in understanding the word’s Biblical concept, but to also provide a foundation for its fuller development in later parts of the Bible” (www.netbiblestudy.com).
The first mention of the tithe in the Bible is in Genesis 14 after Abram had rescued his nephew Lot, “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 gave him a tithe of all” (verses 18-20).
The word “tithe” just pops up with absolutely no explanation at all. But did Abram just pluck this figure out of thin air? And, if so, why not 2% or 5% or 25%, why 10%?
According to Jewish sources (www.theonlinebibleschool.net) Shem (one of Noah’s sons) taught Abram to tithe. Abram was in Shem’s family line and Jewish tradition identifies Shem and Melchizedek as the same person. The Book of Jasher (which is quoted by Joshua and Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures) records the fact that Shem had been Abraham’s teacher, “And when Avram came out from the cave, he went to Noach and his son Shem, and he remained with them to learn the instruction of YHWH and his ways, and no man knew where Avram was, and Avram served Noach and Shem his son for a long time. And Avram was in Noach’s house thirty-nine years, and Abram knew YHWH from three years old, and he went in the ways of YHWH until the day of his death, as Noach and his son Shem had taught him” (Jasher 9:5-6). Thus Abraham paid the tithe to Shem because Shem had been his personal teacher. The apostle Paul brings this truth into the New Covenant Scriptures, “The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him” (Galatians 6:6). The context of this verse is the disciple giving material support to his or her teacher.
The influence of Shem’s teaching about God’s tithe is found among the earliest nations (family clans) after the flood. Tithing was commonly practised among Gentiles. It was a custom required by the earliest priest-kings and tithing was practised in ancient nations even before the time of Abraham. Tithing was a universal act among the earliest nations. The money was used to maintain holy shrines and support the priests.
In Genesis 14 Abram was still a Gentile. Although he became Abraham and the first patriarch of the nation of Israel, his tithing was not a Jewish act at all; in fact this event was 430 years before the Law of Moses.
The Law of Moses adopted the principle of tithing and developed it. Under Moses there were three tithes:
- The Lord’s tithe: 10% of gross income that went to support the priesthood and temple (Numbers 18:21).
- The Family tithe: 10% of the 90% that was saved for the future support of the family (Deuteronomy 14:22-27).
- The Poor tithe: every third family tithe was given to the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
It’s fascinating to note that four per cent of the American population today is Jewish and yet they own 40% of the wealth. The reason being that many of them still practise tithing.
The principle of the tithe was then adopted by almost every ancient culture from Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian empire to the temples of Apollo in Delphi and Athena in Athens, pre-Christian centers of worship collected tithes for their gods. Ancient cultures as different as the Greeks and Chinese—including the Arabians, Sicilians, Cretans, Phoenicians, Romans, Egyptians and Carthaginians—gave in ways mirroring the tithe.
Old Testament truth is still applicable to us today unless the New Testament presents truth that supersedes it. For example, Jesus cancelled the Old Testament food rules in Mark 7:17-19, but did not present truth that superseded tithing. In fact He endorsed it in Luke 11:42 & Matthew 23:23.
The New Testament actually increases the conditions of the Law (read Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in which He increased the definition of murder and adultery amongst other things). If a tenth was required under the Law, no less than a tenth is required under grace. The final mention of tithing in the Bible (Hebrews 7) refers back to the first mention – to the story of Abram and Melchizedek. Here the writer relates this mysterious King-Priest to Jesus the eternal King-Priest. As Abram willingly paid tithes to Melchizedek we willingly pay tithes to Jesus.
In New Testament times the Eastern Church began tithing out of obligation because they believed Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man demanded sacrificial generosity. Church fathers like Clement and Irenaeus encouraged the church to exceed the Old Testament tithe because Jesus had freed them from the Law. I agree! In my experience those who proclaim that tithing is not for today are usually using it as an excuse to give less or nothing at all.
It’s likely that teaching on tithing originated with God and was then adopted by various nations and individuals from that point on. It seems clear that teaching on giving and generosity occurred very early on in human history. Consider the story of Cain and Abel who brought an offering (first mention) to God. Who taught them to do that? And why did God look with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor? It had nothing to do with animal sacrifice. It appears that Cain’s offering was an after-thought and was probably insufficient. God says to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Gen 4:6-7). In some way Cain was disobedient to what God – and probably his parents – had taught him. God’s displeasure with Cain’s offering implies that Cain failed to meet some divinely revealed requirement.
Tithing is an ancient practice of giving 10% of a person’s increase in order to support to a certain person (a king or priest like Melchizedek) or an institution (like the priesthood or a sanctuary). The New Testament Scriptures make it abundantly clear that a church community has an obligation to meet the financial needs of its pastors – especially those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 9:7-12).
Members of a local church have all the privileges of belonging to such a community but with all blessings come responsibilities and that includes financial support of that community. We have a responsibility to fund the spread of the Gospel, to plant churches, to help the poor and to encourage justice. All of this takes a lot of hard work, and being generous with our time, energy and resources. It starts with the ancient practice of tithing! Have you started?