One of the main reasons “tithing” has become a divisive issue in the church could be boiled down to a grammatical misunderstanding. To clarify, we will discuss “tithe” in the two forms in which it is used in scriptures, as a noun and as a verb.
“Tithe” as a Noun
“Tithe” simply means “tenth.” So, if I give you a dime, I am giving you a tithe of a dollar. Please note that “giving” is the verb, or action, and “tithe” is simply a quantity or amount. A tithe of 467 cows is 46.7 cows; a tithe of 12 months is 1 month +1 week (approximately). In many places in scripture the word is simply a number.
It is also used as a verb, or an activity God requires as partial fulfillment of His covenant with Israel.
Elements of a Covenant
The main elements of a covenant are based on “If you do such and such, I’ll do so and so.” Both parties agree to it, so there is an underlying assumption that each participant gets something out of it. When Christians speak of The Covenant, it is the covenant made in the Old Testament that is usually being referred to; specifically, the commandments and precepts given to Moses to bring the nation of Israel into a covenant-based relationship with God. The parties involved are Israel and God; the conditions of compliance are that if Israel will keep all the commandments and the precepts, God will be their God, and Israel will be His people. The consequences are long, happy, healthy lives; basically material blessings. (Remember, salvation was not available until the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.) The consequences for disobeying were also spelled out: failure to keep ALL of the law would result in God bringing judgment upon His people. Like the benefits, the consequences were likewise material in nature: disease, drought, war and famine.
There were many requirements of the law, only one of which was the tithe.
“Tithe” as a Verb
In the following section we will look at the specifics given in the scripture that make up the covenantal elements usually referred to as “the tithe.” In general, we can say that “to tithe” is to fulfill the law by paying a set amount in specific ways to specific people for specific uses at specific times in order to maintain a specific relationship with God. If the Israelites did their part, to fulfill the commandments (there were hundreds, by the way) and the precepts, then God was obligated by His Word to fulfill His part, and take care of them and bless them.
It may help to remember that the Levites were not the first to tithe; many idolaters dedicated a tenth of their increase to their gods, and held festivals and meccas to celebrate the blessing of their gods. Giving a portion of the spoils of war and of the increase of the field was common throughout the ancient world, from Greece to China to Mayan civilizations. And giving in proportions of ten was common, as it was the basis of most of the known counting systems (by virtue of the common counting appendages).