Today’s guest post is from M. David Huston.
In his May 26 remarks at the National Press Club, David A. Bednar stated that faithful members of the LDS church live the “commandment of tithing, as described in the Old Testament.” Similarly, the LDS church’s essay on tithing, notes that “the Bible indicates that God’s people followed the law of tithing anciently.” These statements, and others like them, seems to suggest that there is a single description of how tithing worked in the Old Testament. But the Old Testament’s language about tithing just isn’t that clear-cut. In the first five books of the Old Testament we find the foundational texts that are the backbone of how tithing was and is implemented. So, what do these texts say about tithing?
Genesis: Genisis includes only two brief references to tithing. Following Abraham’s victory over an alliance of regional kings, we learn that Abraham gave Melchizedek “tithes of all” (Genesis 14:20). The text does not state what was included in the “all” that Abraham gave Melchizedek, nor does the Genesis have any additional insight into Abraham’s subsequent tithing practices. Additionally, after Jacob’s theophany at Bethel, Jacob vows that “of all that thou [the LORD] shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee” (Genesis 28:22). We are never informed how exactly Jacob keeps this commitment.
Exodus: There is no reference to tithing (see the reference to the Sabbatical Year, discussed below).
Leviticus: Leviticus says that Israelites should tithe the “seed” and “fruit” of the land (but does not specify what that means exactly; likely it referred to grain, grapes, and olives) and their flocks. Interestingly, when it comes to animals that are part of the tithe, Israelites are expressly told not to try to determine the quality of animal given but to simply give “whatsoever passeth under the rod” (Leviticus 27:30-33). Though it is not expressly stated, in Leviticus tithes appear to have been given to the Levites. This is likely part of the way the Levites (who had no land inheritance) subsisted.
Numbers: Numbers expressly states that tithing goes to the Levites for their consumption. Further, in Numbers, the Levites themselves were to offer a “tenth part of the tithe” of the grain and wine they received as a heave offeringto Aaron. Though the Levites’ heave offering was not a tithe per se, the fact of it being a “tenth part” and its textual proximity to tithe requirements suggests it could be viewed that way. This text also implies that, contrary to Leviticus, the Levites only received, and the Israelites only offered, tithes of grain and wine since there are no other items mentioned as being included in the heave offering (Numbers 18:21, 24, 26-31).
Deuteronomy: Deuteronomy’s yearly tithe appears to be limited to grain, wine, and oil (Deuteronomy 12:17; Deuteronomy 14:23). Yet, contrary to Leviticus and Numbers, the tithe is to be consumed by the person giving the tithe (alongside the firstlings of their flocks). The tithe/firstling feast is to be eaten “before the Lord thy God, in the place which he shall chose to place his name there” (i.e. at or near the Sanctuary) as a reminder of God’s blessings (Deuteronomy 14:23). Or, if it carrying the tithe to the designated feasting location is too difficult, then the person is authorized to sell the tithe, and take the money to the feast location to purchase oxen, sheep, wine, or strong drink, or “whatsoever thy soul desireth” and “eat there before the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household” (Deuteronomy 14:24-26, see also Deuteronomy 26:12-13). Further, in Deuteronomy, every third year Israelites pay a “tithe of thine increase.” This tithe is also used for feasting, but that feast does not occur at the Sanctuary. Instead, it occurs “within they gates” (i.e. within one’s town/community) and includes Levites, strangers, orphans, and widows (Deuteronomy 14:27-29).
Sabbatical Year: Since planting was prohibited during the Sabbatical Year, every seven years there would be no tithe on agricultural goods (Exodus 23:10–11; Leviticus 25:1–7; Leviticus 26:33-35).
That is basically all that we find in the Torah. So, if we’re looking just at the foundational texts, this is what we have to work with:
- For Genesis we have a fairly expansive vision that suggests a tithe on “all” but no subsequent description of how that actually looked in the lives of Abraham or Jacob. Further, in Genesis we have no clear indication of how the tithe might have been used by the one who received it (and in Jacob’s case no indication of who received it at all).
- Deuteronomy and Numbers describe tithes include grain, wine, and oil; Leviticus adds cattle and sheep. However, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy make no mention of a tithe requirement for other aspects of a common Israelites’ production. For instance, there is no mention of work animals (e.g. donkeys) or birds (some of these were used for various rituals), nor is there any mention of the requirement to tithe things like wild fruit and nuts which were gathered in their season.
- In Numbers and Leviticus, the tithe is used as a means sustenance for the landless Levites. In Deuteronomy, the tithe is used for family and communal care.
- On the seventh year, no agricultural tithes were offered.
Thus, it is accurate to say (1) that tithing is presented as existing in multiple forms and fashions going back to Abraham (there is no scriptural basis for determining whether or not tithing existed previous to Abraham), and (2) that our scriptural texts present what tithing is and how it should be used in a multivalent way.
In later biblical accounts we see a variety of ways in which these basic principles are implemented and there has been more than two millennia of Rabbinical and Christian reflection on the practice of tithing (an exhaustive analysis of each is beyond the scope of this essay). The LDS church also seeks to incorporate these principles in its approach to tithing. So why does this matter? Because it means that the way in which tithing is instituted by the faithful is a matter of interpretation, not strict adherence to a clearly articulated Old Testament guideline—indeed, the LDS church’s approach to tithing has changed over time. There is nothing wrong with this; in fact, it is generally the case that basic principles are prophetically interpreted for a given time and location.
But this also means that the LDS church’s current interpretation of these basic texts could change again as time and situations change. These foundational biblical texts allow for the potential consideration of many different approaches to tithing, consistent with prophetic guidance. To be clear, my goal in all of this is not to suggest a free-for-all when it comes to tithes. However, there are different ways LDS church could approach tithing all of which have as much grounding in the Old Testament texts as our current approach does. For instance:
- Families could dedicate their tithe (all or some portion of it) for family celebration/gathering at the temple. This would be consistent with the tithe described in Deuteronomy.
- Only certain portions of production could require a tithe (e.g. only a part of one’s income, such as income earned beyond immediate family needs, or only interest gained). This would be consistent with the ideas underlying Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy which all had some bounding on what needed to be tithed.
- Some donations to community causes could ‘count’ toward tithing. This would be consistent with the third-year tithe described in Deuteronomy which saw this tithe as a part of communal care.
- Since the LDS church recognizes that service has a cash value (as is evidenced by its contract with the State of Utah), members’ church or community service could constitute a portion of tithes as an in-kind donation. This would be consistent with Leviticus’s principled disinterest in whether it was “this” or “that” animal.
- Every seventh year, the LDS church could institute a Sabbatical Year, where the focus was on allowing “the land” to “rest.” In practice, this could mean a dedicated effort to contribute to environmental or social concerns in lieu of cash payments to the church.
Maybe, when it comes to tithing policy, we as a church have more flexibility than we might realize as we think about how we render unto God what is God’s (Mark 12:17; Matthew 22:21). What do you think?
 “An Apostle Describes a Latter-day Work,” Newsroom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, May 26, 2022. Available at: https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/elder-bednar-national-press-club-speech
 “Tithing,” Gospel Topics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed 11/27/2022. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/tithing?lang=eng
 I realize that while all Priests were Levites, not all Levites were Priests. For this discussion it is not important to distinguish between the two, and thus I will use the more general “Levites” to for ease of reference.
 See “A Brief History of Tithing” for a good summary of how LDS tithing policy has changed: https://www.ldsscriptureteachings.org/2016/12/22/a-brief-history-of-tithing/
 Eli Hager. “How has Utah saved $75 million on welfare? By providing next to none and taking credit for LDS welfare instead.” December 2, 2021. Salt Lake Tribune. Available at: https://www.sltrib.com/news/2021/12/02/utah-makes-welfare-so/