In the 25th chapter of Leviticus, God, speaking of the land He promised to the Israelites, announced a principle, which became the central economic statement of the Old Testament. The “milk and honey” that characterized descriptions of the land's potential flowed from it. It reads:
Land will not be sold absolutely,
For the land belongs to Me,
And you are only strangers and guests of Mine (Leviticus 25:23).
This quote is the basis for a comprehensive set of macroeconomic laws that set up the new nation of Israel. While these laws were being observed – which was for a much longer time than is generally acknowledged – ancient Israel was very successful and enjoyed great prosperity, freedom, and justice. Now God was not directly rewarding the Israelites for observing his economic Law. On the contrary, his economic Law was really that good; it really worked. It harmonized with both human nature and the nature of creation. It was good enough that it did not need God's special intervention. It naturally brought about economic success.
Before delving into this topic, some general caveats are required. The arguments herein are drawn from inferences made from Scripture and other sources that address the conditions that were present in ancient Israel. With that said, there is still very little source material regarding Israel's tithe, so the hypotheses presented in this paper probably require further testing. The ultimate truth has not been found, only a reasonable theory.
The Law that the Lord gave to the Israelites involved much more than economics. The entire Law was designed to allow the Israelites to become the beneficiaries of a most excellent life. Clearly, the most extensive portion of the Law set out the rules governing the Israelites in their worship of Yahweh. Yet economic rules and economic wisdom are also present. This “economic Law” and the references to it within the historical and prophetic books are the primary sources for the opinions presented here.
The tithe was one of the most critical facets of the economic Law. Even though it had this importance, it is much misunderstood today. To put it into proper context, a brief examination of the major features of Old Testament economic Law is necessary.
Land was of exceeding importance in the promises that God made to the Israelites through Moses. People have always had a natural-law intuition that securely holding land can guarantee them personal freedom. The landless Israelites, standing at the edge of the Jordan, were no exception. Numbers 33-35 detail how this land possession was to be organized. To each of the tribes, except Levi, a certain portion of the land was given, based on the land's productivity and the tribe's population. Then, in a similar manner, each of the tribes allotted its territory to its constituent clans, and then each clan did likewise to each of its families.
The family was free to use the land they now legally possessed, but they could not sell it or borrow money against it. They did not own the land; it belonged to God. Further, they were constrained by the other rules contained in the Land Law, the rules concerning the Sabbath day, the Sabbatical year, and the Jubilee. The Sabbath day was dedicated to God (Lev. 23:3). The Israelites were not to pursue occupational work on that day.
Every seventh year was called the Sabbatical year (Lev. 25:2-7). During this year, the land was to enjoy a Sabbath. It was not to be worked. The farmer and his family probably worked very hard during the Sabbatical year, fixing fences, improving irrigation ditches, patching roofs, and making tools. The Sabbatical was not a year off for the farmer; it was a year off for the land. Also in that year, the Law said that all debts were cancelled and all slaves were freed (Deut. 15:1). As a result of this seven-year maximum term, debt and slavery could not become important facets of the economy.
After seven Sabbaticals had passed, that is, after 49 years, the Jubilee was declared (Lev. 25:8-17). This observance was probably the most important economic moment for the Israelites. For good reason, it was called the “year of favor from the Lord.” During the year of Jubilee, each parcel of land was returned to its original possessor family, free and clear of any debt or other obligation. If the land had been leased out, the lease could not have a term beyond the Jubilee year. Once again, God owned the land. He chose to make each of the families of his chosen people equal inheritors of his bounty. The Jubilee kept his system intact by not allowing land to become concentrated in the hands of a few; His people could not be alienated from His land.
Based on this system, ancient Israel, one of the advanced countries of the day, probably had the characteristics of what we today would call a middle class nation. While it followed the Law, the nation's wealth was not concentrated; it was spread out among all the people. It was found in people's homes and barns, livestock and crops, carpets and clothing, and not in fabulous palaces and temples (as it was in many neighboring nations), at least not until the reign of Solomon. The Law created a country free of coercion from a landlord class. Realistically, there could be no landlord class, nor could there be a large class of landless peasants. With this kind of economic freedom, Israel may have been the most prosperous nation on earth.
God allowed his people to use and enjoy this wonderful land, yet the gift was not unconditional, as we have seen with the Sabbath, Sabbatical, and the Jubilee. There was one more condition. God demanded rent for the land. He set the rent level at a tenth of annual production, calling it the tithe.
All tithes on land, levied on the produce of the soil or on the fruit of trees, belong to Yahweh (Leviticus 27:30).
The Scripture here is not literally speaking of tithes on the crop or on livestock. It is speaking of “tithes on land.” The “produce of the soil or ... the fruit of trees” are the means of payment in a pre-monetary economy. The Scripture seems to assume that the tithe is the rent payment for the use of God's land.
It is somewhat arresting to view the tithe as land rent, given our common view. Typically, we view the tithe as an income tax: Ten percent of what you earn belongs to God. This view is quite prevalent today and has been so for centuries, even millennia. Nevertheless, that is not how the Scripture describes it. In the Old Testament sense, in the sense of the Land Law, in the sense of the Pentateuch, that 10 percent refers only to the land's agricultural productivity. God's land was not given to the Israelites outright; He allowed them to use it. Their “user fee” was this 10 percent, the tithe.
However, not everyone paid the tithe. In order to support the dominant agricultural and pastoral economy, an urban sub-economy was necessary. It included wheelwrights and harness makers, metalworkers, and toolmakers. Beyond those skilled craftsmen, other town occupations existed, such as traders, merchants, and people skilled in healing. In these supportive urban centers were many people who provided a product or performed a service for some sort of pay. Yet Scripture does not mention, nor even infer, that a tenth of the goods produced by these people or a tenth of their incomes were to be given over to God.
As an entire tribe, the Levites were exempt from the tithe because they received no inheritance in land, not because they had no income (Num. 18:20). The Levites lived in the towns (Num. 35:2-8) and probably filled many of these urban occupations, along with leftover Canaanites. However, if a non-Levite family had income beyond what their land produced – say a retired farmer bought and sold cloth from Damascus, or the children of the family picked the weeds out of neighbors' fields for a small wage – nowhere did Scripture demand a tithe from these additional family earnings. In the absence of references to income generally, it seems that the tithe was strictly a contract between the landowner, God, and the lessee – the possessor family – for the use of the land.
This must have created great prosperity. If a person could keep 100 percent of the fruits of his or her labor on the land, paying only a 10 percent land rent, how could it not be so? These families would have done very well. Moreover, since all family allotments had about the same productivity, all the tithes were about the same. There did not need to be an elaborate assessment or enforcement or accounting mechanism. Everyone was treated the same, and everyone could afford it. It was a marvel.
If we are unclear on the collection of the tithe, we often have an even greater misunderstanding of its uses. Typically, we view these uses as supporting the religious endeavors of the community. But is this correct?
Scripture tells us that the Levites, who lived in towns, were the first receivers of the tithe (Num. 18:26). A tenth of that tithe was dedicated to the Aaronite priests, a single clan of the Levites (Num. 18:26). It covered their needs, both ritual (for sacrifice) and sustaining. That obligation was met; one tenth of the tenth was sent off. The remaining Levites were divided into 24 mishmar, or divisions, each of which took one-week turns serving at the site of the Ark, aiding the Aaronite priests (I Chron. 23-26). Each week's mishmar needed support. That small need was met. Now what about the rest of the tithe? It must have amounted to something well in excess of 80 percent of what people had paid in. What did the Levites do with it?
Some people say that this substantial residual stayed with and supported the rest of the Levites. They postulate that these Levites had no gainful employment, that the tithe compensated them for praying and studying for the 23 weeks out of 24 that they were not assisting their Aaronite cousins. This would mean that for more than 95 percent of the time, the community supported them completely in less than even a monastic existence. (At least monks worked and were self-supporting.) If this was so, who then filled the urban occupations necessary to support the agricultural economy? It seems reasonable that the people who worked long and hard at their farms or with their herds, from whom the tithe was levied, would have registered some complaint in Scripture over supporting otherwise able-bodied Levites in this manner. Widows were sometimes reduced to gleaning fields for their existence. It is doubtful that the populace would have countenanced that policy while fully supporting non-priest Levites in their praying and studying. In Deuteronomy 12:18-19, the people are asked to support the few Levites who were in financial distress. If the tithe were being used for their maintenance, they would not be in financial distress.
It does not seem likely that this monolithic praying/studying Levitical system existed. There was nothing in the Law that prevented the Levites from taking up those town occupations mentioned above. So, most, if not all of them would have done so; there was certainly the need. They were placed in 48 towns all around the nation. The reason these towns existed was to support the agricultural economy. If the Levites were given the towns and they did no work, there would be no one to fill these important jobs. Everyone else possessed and worked land.
Practically speaking, it is probable that the non-priest Levites filled the town occupations. If true, then the residual tithe was not needed for their support. So, where did the residual go? It probably funded the community's residual needs. Since the religious needs were covered with the first tenth of the tithe, the residual covered those needs we would call civil or governmental today. In his kingdom, God did not differentiate between religious and secular. In the kingdom of God, all community needs were sacred.
In discussing the civil uses of the tithe, Scripture is not very helpful in unwinding our modern church-state separation mentality. Yet inferences can be made. Let us begin simply.
Scripture does not delineate how a farmer was to hitch up his ox to his plow, yet we know it was done. It does not prescribe which tools were to be used at harvest time and what techniques were to be employed in their use, yet we know that the crops were brought in. Still, as I alluded to earlier, we do see page after page of detailed instructions in the Pentateuch and elsewhere about just how God was to be worshiped. We should consider further the reason for scriptural silence on many important subjects, given Scripture's exhaustive and repeated explanations on many others. Those things for which we have received seemingly endless and repeated rules govern behaviors that are not natural, so they have to be spelled out. They are rules that pull the people from anarchy to civilization. So there are not only rules describing the burnt offering, but also rules discussing skin diseases. The widow's rights over her heritage are defined, as well as the behavior of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. Much is defined. However, much is also left out.
Was there ever a bridge that needed repair in ancient Israel? How was the repair organized, funded, and accomplished? That the Scripture is silent on this does not mean it did not happen. Indeed, there were continuous community projects and needs that were taken care of by some structure in this new nation, a structure that we would today call civil. For the first 200 years or so, before the time of the kings, such a structure must have existed, and it was in all likelihood funded by the residual of the tithe.
The Levites were probably the “bankers” of the residual tithe. They put it to use, like the first tenth, for the community's general needs. It was the only available and sufficient funding source provided under the Law. Instead of pursuing typical urban occupations, a few of the Levites may also have used some of this residual to compensate themselves for becoming experts in organizing and managing these projects. The work they oversaw built the roads, repaired the bridges, expanded the irrigation systems, and even stocked the armories.
This may seem strange to us, especially since we experience the tithe only as a support for religious work. However, in a theocracy such as ancient Israel, all endeavors are considered religious. Theocracies are not attractive to twenty-first century Westerners, so we do not think too much about their attributes. We think of Iran and its mullahs or Torquemada's inquisition in Spain, and we quickly reject the idea of a church-state combination. Nevertheless, it is important to note that within theocracies, there is usually no distinction between the religious and the civil. Both of these are the community's needs. God did not distinguish between them in His Law. Because the first collectors of the tithe were the Levites, and all of God's work was considered sacred, it is easy to see how we would misunderstand. However, when we misunderstand the tithe, we miss one of the great differences between Israel under the Law and her neighboring kingdoms: Israel did not use the neighbors' coercive tax structure to fund community or national needs. God said that simply collecting the land rent would suffice. This is the only community or common fund of substance mentioned in the Law. Later innovations by the kings were outside the Law of Moses; most were noted as harmful.
Having the tithe, the community had no need for further common funds. There would have been no taxes, as such. Under the Law, an Israelite's labor was not forfeit or partially forfeit to the community, much less to a king or landlord. Nor was there a tax on people's capital. Houses, barns, beasts of burden, or the jewelry of the women were not assessed by the community for a tax. The commandment to tithe would provide enough community funds.
The Law commanded, "Thou shalt not steal" (Ex. 20:15). The commandment not only applied between equals, as we tend to view it, it applied also between the (relatively strong) community and its (relatively weak) members. The community had no arbitrary claim on the labor or capital of its members. Later, under the kings, it was the violation of these principles that began the economic distress of the people that the prophets, including Jesus, railed against.
The tithe is the last of the four great economic building blocks God set up in his Law, completing the system of the Sabbath, the Sabbatical year, and the Jubilee. The results for his people were freedom, justice, prosperity, and equal rights in the kingdom of God.