Home Columnist Abraham did not pay 10 percent tithe as many believe-Ven. Agbelusi

Abraham did not pay 10 percent tithe as many believe-Ven. Agbelusi

by Church Times

Tithing: Ven. Yemi Agbelusi is the Director of Post Graduate School of the St. Francis Theological Seminary, Wusasa Zaria. He studied Hebrew. In this piece he gives an insight into the concept of tithing from his knowledge of Hebrew and the Bible


Ven Yemi Agbelusi



Tithing in modern days is a confusing topic for many people. Tithing in the age of the patriarchs is an even more obscure theological concept. According to the statutes of the Torah, the notion of tithing (giving a percentage of produce) is most often associated with the priestly work in the Temple (e.g., Num 18:24; Neh 10:39). But if tithing was meant for the priests and the Temple, how and why did Abraham tithe?

We have only one example when Abraham gave “a tenth” (מַעֲשֵׂר; maaser) of his war plunder to Melchizedek (Gen 14:20; cf. Heb 7:4). Some use this example to show that tithing preceded the Sinai covenant, but notice that Abraham’s was not a gift to God, but to an earthly king and “a priest to Most High God” (כֹהֵן לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן; cohein le-El Elyon).

Whoever Melchizedek might have been, Abraham understood that he was a priest — someone who served God. The image of Melchizedek is shrouded in mystery, and Messiah Yeshua is called a priest in his order (Heb 5:6-10; cf. Ps 110:4), which is quite an honor. Why did Abraham give him a “tenth”? The founding patriarch gave the priest this gift in order to honor the ruler of the land because Abraham was sojourning in his territory (see Gen 13:18).

But Abraham did not tithe only ten percent, as most people believe. Abraham returned all of the “goods of Sodom and Gomorrah” (Gen 14:11), which he took back from the attackers, to Bera the ruler of Sodom (Gen 14:21-24). He kept only the portions for his allies and what his soldiers consumed (Gen 14:24).

Using this story to teach tithing in churches is problematic because Abraham did not just tithe, he actually gave away 100% of the goods and kept nothing. This is an example of giving “a tenth” (מַעֲשֵׂר; maaser) prior to Sinai. But this interaction between Abraham and Melchizedek should not be used to support the idea of tithing 10%, as though this percentage were a biblical mandate. Giving is biblical, but tithing in ancient Israel went far beyond 10% (Read my other article “Should we Tithe Today?”)

According to some, tithing is an Old Testament law, so Christians should not tithe. Others, however, assert that tithing is an enduring command applicable for modern believers. But what is biblical tithing?

Various kinds of contributions appear in the Torah (cf. Num 18:21-32; Deut 14:22-7). Even before tithing, every Israelite was to give a gift to the priests known as terumah (‫תְּרוּמָה), meaning “a gift which one lifts up” (Exod 25:2-3; 30:13-14; Lev 7:32; Deut 12:11).

According to the Mishnah, the amount for this offering was flexible, around 1/30 to 1/50 of the harvest (m. Terumot 4:3). Then the first tithe (‫מַעֲשֵׂר; maaser) could be set aside — a tenth of the harvest given to local Levites (Num 18:24), who then gave a tenth to priests (cf. Num 18:26; Neh 10:39). But then a second tithe was taken. It was used for the expenses and food while the farmer’s family worshipped in Jerusalem (Deut 14:24-26). Every third and sixth year of a seven-year cycle this second tithe was given to the poor (Deut 26:12).

Technically, the laws of the tithe apply only to grain, wine, and oil (Deut 14:22; Neh 13:12). Early on, biblical tradition expanded tithing to fruit and other agricultural produce (cf. Lev 27:30; 2 Chron 31:5; Matt 23:23). More, tithe laws apply only to produce grown in Israel — “God’s own land” (Lev 20:24; 25:23). Tithes were always crops, as opposed to money.

In light of all these verses, the common modern practice of giving 10% of one’s income is not exactly what the Bible means by a “tithe.” In our day, fewer people make their living in farming than in biblical times. There is no functioning Temple in Jerusalem, and there is no priesthood to accept one’s tithed goods. But while our livelihood may have changed, God’s commands in the Torah have not.

Jewish tradition maintains that giving to the needy, benevolence, and charitable contributions are prominent in Torah and should be practiced today. While we cannot practice precise biblical tithing today, by supporting institutions and people who serve God, we imitate our Maker who, in his goodness, feeds the whole earth (Ps 126:35)


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