The Bible consistently makes a distinction between tithes and offerings. In the Abrahamic lessons, we discussed different types of offerings and tithes, showing thankfulness or marking a covenant, though these were exclusively voluntary and never mandated by God. These were given of a willing nature in response to God’s fulfillment of the Covenant between Him and Abraham’s family. As the covenant was being fulfilled with Israel as a full fledged nation and moving towards the promised land, law was instituted. This law formed a new relationship between God and his Chosen people. As God separated the tribes of Israel, He gave the Levites to Aaron with special purpose to fulfill the duties of the tabernacle and priesthood in service of the tent of meeting.
The law stated first and foremost in Leviticus 27:30 that a tithe of everything from the land and the herds and flocks belonged to the Lord. In Numbers 18, the Israelites are ordered to also redeem the first offspring of every human and unclean animal and sacrifice the clean animals at the tent of meeting, because all of these belonged to Him. These are “redeemed” to Him, meaning that they are traded out for their monetary equivalents to the priests in place of offering up the child, paying to keep them from God’s service.
It is important to note that eleven of the twelve tribes paid the tithes; the Levites were exempt from having inherited no part of the land or the animals in order to make a living for themselves and their families. The tithes which the Israelites give to Him are to be given entirely over to Aaron and the Levites as their wages to support them and their families for their work in the tent of meeting. In exchange, the priests were not allowed to work the land, raise animals, or serve the community or themselves for any other compensation. To serve the Lord in their priestly duties was their portion. From the tithes given to them, the priests were also required to pay a tithe themselves to the Lord. This meant that for their service they were allowed to keep 9/10 of the tithes paid by the other tribes to support themselves and their families.
There are two other primary tithes described in Deuteronomy 14:22-29: the Festival Tithe and the Poor Tithe. The Festival Tithe was the annual collection of a tenth of the produce of the fields and the firstborns of their flocks and herds and to eat them in celebration and rejoicing in the Lord. They were to eat and celebrate like this in the presence of God in order to learn to revere Him. This tithe could also be redeemed, given in coin instead of goods, but this had to be spent on something the individual would still be able to enjoy at the festival with the others. The Poor Tithe was the tenth collected every three years and stored in the towns, for the Levites, the fatherless, the foreigners, and the widows. This was to ensure that they too had food in order to share God’s blessings even with the less fortunate.
There are two very different interpretations to these three tithes in how they were enacted by the Hebrews. One school of thought is that these tithes were a singular tithe that was given to a different use each year, cycling every three years.. In this theory, the annual tithe could have supported the celebrations and still had more than enough to support the Levites year-round alongside the firstborns and the offerings and their portions. The Festival Tithe and the Poor Tithe would have interchanged in order to follow the cycle as needed, giving up celebrations in favor of caring for those who were likely struggling every third year. This would infer a constant 10th given by eleven tribes with different purposes annually.
The other main interpretation of these scriptures argues that they didn’t replace one another but stacked. This means that the Levitical and Festival tax were both levied yearly, totalling 20%. The poor tithe would be added to that for a total 30% tithe paid out on every third year. This is the position held by Jewish scholars and historians like Josephus and many others. However, it is not pronounced as such in the scripture directly. The tithes during the era of Levitical law serve to support either the priesthood or the community’s less fortunate. These funds and gifts to God as required by the law maintained the dwelling of the Lord among them and maintained the people of Israel in a manner that God asked of them, in fulfillment of His covenant with them.