The Different Tithing Laws in the Torah

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.

In Armstrongism, 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.

My 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 Levites.

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).

Rather, 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?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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