Should the Church Teach Tithing?
12. Nehemiah 10-13: Historical Context of Malachi
While many readers want to open this book directly to Malachi and begin assessing my comments on Malachi 3:8-10, I have tried to find a way to encourage the average reader to first become familiar with its context from the book of Nehemiah. While Malachi only contains the word, tithe, once, Nehemiah either uses the word, or refers to it seven (7) times in three chapters (10:37, 38; 12:44, 47; 13:5, 10, 12). Therefore, tithing in Nehemiah should be the required study for the context of tithing in Malachi. I urge the reader to very carefully read all of my discussion from Nehemiah to Malachi 3:7 before making any conclusions about the meaning of Malachi 3:8-10.
Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi cover 536 B.C. to about 400 B.C. and should be read together. The seventy years of captivity had lasted from 606 to 536 B.C. Under Zerubbabel and the prophet, Haggai, the temple had been rebuilt by 519 B.C., and under Nehemiah the wall of Jerusalem was finished in 445 B.C. which brings us chapter ten where tithing is first mentioned.
With the exception of those who volunteered to live in rubble-filled Jerusalem and those one of ten who were forced by lot to live there from chapter eleven of Nehemiah, we must realize that Jerusalem was NEVER supposed to be the permanent dwelling place of any of the priests or Levites!
How the Levitical Cities and 24 Courses Affect the Tithing Law
These have already been introduced in the last chapter on Second Chronicles 31. As you study Nehemiah, it is very important to follow the background context of the Levitical cities and the 24 courses of priests and Levites. You ask, "Why are these two topics important in a study of tithing?" The answer will shock a lot of sincere believers. Because of the purpose and location of the Levitical cities, Malachi 3:10's "bring all the tithes into the storehouse" cannot possibly mean what most tithe-teachers say that it means.
Neh. 10:29 "They joined with their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a CURSE and into an oath, to walk in God's LAW, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes."
Nehemiah and Malachi are written to the same people. The four curses of Malachi are these self-imposed curses of the Old Covenant, or Mosaic Law, when they together reaffirmed the covenant with an oath.
Neh. 10:32-33 "Also we made ordinances for us, to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God, for the showbread, and for the continual grain offering, and for the continual burnt offering, of the sabbaths, of the new moons, for the set feasts, and for the holy things, and for the sin offerings to make an atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God."
According to Edersheim, this Temple shekel, and not the tithe, was by far the greatest source of income to the Temple. Every Hebrew and every circumcised servant and proselyte was required to pay the temple shekel. After purchasing the sacrificial animals for all of the feasts, new moons, and sabbaths, there was still money left over for civil necessities such as wall and road repair. In plain words, the people were agreeing to be taxed to provide for the Temple needs.
Neh. 10:34 "And we cast the lots among the priests, the Levites, and the people, for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, after the houses of our fathers, at times appointed year by year, to burn upon the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the law."
This simple text illustrates that the priests and Levites were also included in the manual labor of bringing wood to the temple. They took turns according to their lots for assigned "courses." For the priests and Levites, this meant one week out of 24 when it was their turn to minister in the Temple (2 Chron. 23:8).
Neh. 10:35-37a "And to bring the FIRSTFRUITS of our ground, and the firstfruits of all fruit of all trees, year by year, unto the HOUSE OF THE LORD: Also the FIRSTBORN of our sons, and of our cattle, as it is written in the law, and the firstlings of our herds and of our flocks, to bring TO THE HOUSE OF OUR GOD, TO THE PRIESTS that minister in the house of our God: And that we should bring the FIRSTFRUITS of our dough, and our offerings, and the fruit of all manner of trees, of wine and of oil, TO THE PRIESTS, TO THE CHAMBERS OF THE HOUSE OF OUR GOD......"
This list agrees with the list found in the ordinance of Numbers 18. Apart from their portion of the tithe, the priests who were taking their one-week rotation ministering in the Temple had plenty to eat from the firstfruits and firstborn offerings which were commanded to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. To this list was added much more food from the sacrifices and free-will offerings. However, none of these items were to be given to their Levite servants who ministered beside them as helpers, temple guards, singer, etc.
Neh. 10:37b ".... and the TITHES of our ground [bring] to the Levites, that the same Levites might have the TITHES in all the cities of our tillage." [Compare Num. 18:21 And, behold, I have given the children of Levi ALL the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, even the service of the tabernacle of the congregation.]
This may well be the single most damaging text in all of the Bible for those who believe that all tithes should be brought only to the Temple storehouse (of the church?). This single statement sheds great light on the true meaning of Malachi 3:10's "bring all the tithe into the storehouse." Since God’s Word is accurate, then either Nehemiah 10:37b or Malachi 3:10 has been drastically taken ‘out of context.’ The NKJV reads "farming communities" and the NAS and RSV have "rural towns."
THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT! While verses 35-37a say that the firstfruits and firstborn were taken "to the priests" at the "house of the LORD" in Jerusalem, verse 37b clearly says that the TITHE belonged to the Levites in their fields! Thus, in strict obedience to the Law, the Jews under Nehemiah brought firstfruits and firstborn to the Temple only for those priests taking their rotation ministering (Neh. 10:35-37a), BUT brought the tithes to the Levites to apportion to the remainder of the priests in the Levitical cities (Neh. 10:29, 37b).
The Very Important Levitical Cities of Nehemiah 10:37
"Command the sons of Israel that they give to the Levites from the inheritance of their possession cities to live in; and you shall give to the Levites pasture lands around the cities. The cities shall be theirs to live in; and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle and for their herds and for all their beasts." Numbers 35:2-3 NASU
For obvious reasons, this is the third time this text has been quoted in this book. Numbers 35, Joshua 20, 21, First Chronicles 6:48-81; Second Chronicles 31:15-19, and Nehemiah 10:37; 11:29; and 13:10 all give evidence that the priests and Levites did not live permanently in Jerusalem. Although they could not inherit land, they originally lived, farmed, and herded livestock in 48 cities scattered around the nation. These 48 cities are named in Joshua 20, 21 and First Chronicles 6. After the civil war split the nation following Solomon’s death, most of the Levitical cities ceased to exist and the Levites moved into Judah which had 13 priestly cities (Josh. 21:9-19) (2 Chron. 11:13-14; 13:10-12). Although the exact details are not known, the Levites (including priests) occupied non-inheritable (provided) land surrounding the city itself (which still belonged to the tribe in which it was located). One can only speculate that: (1) either the 13 priest-cities were greatly enlarged to accommodate the non-priestly Levites from the other 35 cities, or, (2) the non-priestly Levites were then given other cities in Judah and Benjamin to replace the ones lost to them.
Noteworthy of these texts is the fact that priests and Levites did not spend all of their time ministering. They also farmed and herded animals on their "loaner" lands around the Levitical cities. Thus the common comparison that tithe-receivers must be full-time ministers after the Old Covenant pattern is simply not true! The biblical facts about the Levitical cities prove beyond controversy that the priests and Levites were never intended to be permanent residents of Jerusalem and the vicinity of its Temple. Although notable towns like Hebron and Jericho were Levitical cities, Jerusalem was not! The overwhelming majority lived in Levitical cites outside Jerusalem.
Neh. 10:38 "And the priest the son of Aaron shall be with the Levites, when the Levites take TITHES: and the Levites shall bring up THE TITHE OF THE TITHES TO THE HOUSE OF OUR GOD, to the chambers, into the storehouse." [Compare Num.18:26 Thus speak unto the Levites, and say unto them, When you take of the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall offer up an heave offering of it for the LORD, even a tenth part of the tithe."]
First, the priests were supposed to receive the tithes from the people, not in the Temple, but in the Levitical cities! To understand Malachi 3:10, this is worth repeating. The priests were supposed to receive the tithes from the people, not in the Temple, but in the Levitical cities! Actually, they were supposed to receive them from the LEVITES and not directly from the people. When the tithes were received in the Levitical cities, the priests separated their share, their tenth of the tithe from the balance, or the Levites’ share of the 90%. The Levites were then responsible for bringing the tenth of the tithe, the priests’ share, to the Temple in Jerusalem (and surely the priests accompanied them). This is not what Malachi 3:10 expositors teach!
Second, this verse very clearly states that only the "tenth of the tithe," the priests’ "portion" from the Law in Numbers 18:26, properly belongs in the Temple storehouse! Although the timing and exact details will follow, this verse demands that Malachi 3:10 should be understood as only a command to the dishonest priests to "bring all ‘OF THE NECESSARY PRIESTS’ PORTION of the tenth of the tithe’ into the storehouse."
Therefore, instead of being commanded to bring the tithe to the Temple, the ordinary citizen was commanded to bring the tithes to the Levitical cities. Also, instead of being commanded to bring the tithes to the priests, the ordinary citizen was commanded to bring the tithes to the Levites. The Levites would, in turn, give the priests their share and they (not the people) would be responsible for bringing it to the Temple. Again, this proves the normal interpretation of Malachi to be wrong.
SINCE, therefore, Malachi 3:10 does not refer to the 90% (or more) bulk of the tithe which stayed in the Levitical cities for the Levites (and other non-ministering priests), THEN, Malachi 3:10 should not be used in any way whatsoever to command Christians to bring all of their so-called "tithe" into the so-called "storehouse" of the church. (Review the discussion at Second Chronicles 31:15-19.)
Neh. 10:39 "For the children of Israel and the children of Levi shall bring the offering of the grain, of the new wine, and the oil, unto the chambers, where are the vessels of the sanctuary, and the PRIESTS that minister, and the [LEVITE] temple guards, and the singers: and we will not forsake the house of our God."
Remembering verses 35-38, the "offering" from the "children of Israel" is the firstfruits, while the "offering" from the "children of Levi" is "the tenth of the tithe" for the priests and the "tithe" for the Levites who are ministering. According to Second Chronicles 31:15-19, the Levites’ share are daily portions.
Neh. 11:1, 3 "And the rulers of the people lived at Jerusalem: the rest of the people also cast lots, to bring one of ten to dwell in Jerusalem the holy city, and nine parts to dwell in other cities." ... "in the cities of Judah every one lived in his possession in their cities, that is, Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the Nethinim, and the children of Solomon's servants."
Neh. 11:20-21 "And the residue of Israel, of the priests, and the Levites, were in all the cities of Judah, every one in his inheritance. But the Nethinim lived in Ophel: and Ziha and Gispa were over the Nethinim."
Christian tithe-teachers do not want you to read the above texts. They want you to think that the priests and Levites spent all of their time ministering in the temple. In reality, they spent most of their time herding animals and working in their fields. Jerusalem was still in ruins after ninety years of being back in the land. There is simply no logical way to compare Old Covenant priests to New Covenant preachers. Again, it would be foolish to send food from tithes to a place other than where the people lived. Only their leaders and special workers permanently lived in Jerusalem (11:4-17).
Neh. 11:23, 36 "For it was the king's command concerning them [Levitical singers from verse 22] that a certain portion should be for the singers, a quota day by day." ... Neh. 11:36 "And of the Levites were divisions in Judah, and in Benjamin."
As we shall also see in the following texts, a small portion of the Levites’ tithe was brought up from their cities and used day by day to feed the singers who were on duty during their weekly course rotation. Once again we are reminded that the Levites lived in both Judah and Benjamin. This is far different from saying that all of the tithe was kept at the temple all of the time! What are the "divisions"of the Levites?
The Very Important 24 Courses of the Priests and Levites
Closely related to the Levitical cities is the fact that both priests and Levites had been divided by King David into 24 courses consisting of several houses, or families, per course. See First Chronicles 24 for the priests and chapters 25 and 26 for the Levites. Each course only ministered in the Temple one week out of twenty four (1 in 24), and, depending on how many families were in each course, each family only ministered in the Temple two or three days during its courses’ week of ministry. See also Ezra 6:18; First Chronicles 28:13, 21; Second Chronicles 8:14; 23:8; 31:2, 15-19; 35:4, 5, 10; Neh. 11:30; 12:24.
The biblical facts about the division of the priests and Levites into 24 courses proves that they did not serve full-time at the temple. Furthermore, only those priests above thirty and Levites above twenty years of age were qualified to serve. Therefore, it would be impractical to move the rest of the family to Jerusalem for only one week. Thus the majority of the family, including women and servants stayed in the Levitical cities.
Again, since the overwhelming majority of priests and Levites lived outside of Jerusalem in the Levitical cities (23 of 24 courses plus women, children and servants), and, since the TITHE was intended to be a major source of their FOOD, then common sense tells us that the basic tithe STAYED in the Levitical cities where the priests and Levites lived!
Neh. 12:27-29 "And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem ... out of the plain country round about Jerusalem, and from the villages of Netophathi ... Also from the house of Gilgal, and out of the fields of Geba and Azmaveth: for the singers had built villages round about Jerusalem."
What more proof do we need that the Levites did not live in Jerusalem?
Neh. 12:44, 47 "And at that time were some appointed over the rooms of the STOREHOUSE, for the OFFERINGS, for the FIRSTFRUITS, and for the TITHES, to gather into them out of the fields of the cities the PORTIONS OF THE LAW for the priests and Levites: for Judah rejoiced for the priests and for the Levites THAT WAITED."
Neh.12:47 "And all Israel in the days of Zerubbabel, and in the days of Nehemiah, gave the PORTIONS of the singers and the porters, EVERY DAY HIS PORTION: and they sanctified holy things unto the Levites; and the Levites sanctified them unto the children of Aaron."
These are extremely important texts for understanding the tithing system in Nehemiah and Malachi. First, the order of importance for items in the storehouse are (1) offerings, (2) firstfruits, and (3) tithes. In Jesus' day the temple shekel and thirteen (13) treasure chests provided the majority of the funds. Second, when the Law was strictly enforced, the "portions" of "tithes" were daily portions brought up from the Levitical cities as each course required. Third, "the Levites that waited" ["who ministered": NKJV; "served": NAS] were NOT ‘ALL’ of the Levites or priests -- they were only the ones actively serving in the Temple. Since more ministers were needed at the dedication of the wall around Jerusalem (our context), then greater daily portions would be needed. This should not be interpreted to disagree with 10:37-38 and Second Chronicles 31:15-19. Those appointed merely had the responsibility of insuring that enough tithe food was brought into the storehouse to feed those priests and Levites currently serving and does not refer to the great masses of priests and Levites who remain in their cities.
Neh. 13:4-5 "And before this, Eliashib the [high] priest, having the OVERSIGHT OF THE CHAMBER OF THE HOUSE of our God, was allied unto Tobiah: And he had prepared for him a great chamber, where PREVIOUSLY they laid the grain offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the TITHES of the grain, the new wine, and the oil, which was commanded to be given to the Levites, and the singers, and the temple guards; and the offerings of the priests."
While Nehemiah had been away in Babylon, all that he had accomplished in chapters 10-12 had stopped (verse 6). This text has all of the components of being the CONTEXT of Malachi 3:8-10! First, there had been a storehouse designated to hold the offerings, firstfruits, and daily portions of the tithes for the priests and Levites who were ministering during their one-week rotation. Second, Eliashib, the high priest, had EMPTIED this storehouse and allowed Tobiah, Nehemiah’s enemy, to occupy it. Third, the responsibility for this sin fell on the priests, under the leadership of the high priest.
Neh. 13:8-9 "And it grieved me bitterly: therefore I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber. Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and I again brought back there the vessels of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense."
Notice that the TITHES were NOT included among the items brought back into the storehouse! The TITHES HAD BEEN STOLEN BY THE PRIESTS! Compare Malachi 3:8, "Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed me. But you say, Wherein have we robbed you? In tithes and offerings." Very clearly the priests, and NOT THE PEOPLE, were guilty of robbing God by removing and keeping the tithes and offerings for themselves! (Don’t forget 10:38!)
Neh. 13:10 "And I realized that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field."
Nehemiah noticed that the daily portions of tithes which had been stored to feed the ministering Levites were missing. Notice that he did not say that the priests’ portions were missing! Strange indeed! Having nothing to eat, the Levites had returned to their fields. Again, the PRIESTS had stolen the portions of the TITHE which belonged to the LEVITES. Therefore, the Levites went back home and resumed farming and herding (like they did the rest of the year anyway).
Neh. 13:11-13 "Then I contended with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them [the Levites] together, and restored them to their stations." "Then all Judah brought the TITHE of the grain and the new wine and the oil to the storehouses." "And I made treasurers over the treasuries, Shelemiah the priest, and Zadok the scribe, and of the Levites, Pedaiah: and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah: for they were counted faithful, and their office was to distribute unto their brethren."
With the Levites back at their stations, the stolen tithe for their food needed to be replaced. Although we are not told what happened to Eliashib, in comparing verses 4 with 13, logic tells us that Nehemiah had replaced him. The "rulers" were then commanded to instruct the citizens to replace the portions of the tithes required to sustain those ministering -- a temporary one-time exception to 10:37-38. Therefore, Nehemiah’s discussion of tithes ends with his replacing of one overseer of the storehouse with four faithful and reliable persons representing both the priests and the Levites.
As a type of the Messiah, Nehemiah became the first to literally fulfill the Messianic type shadowed in Malachi 3:2-3 "But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appears? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness." On several occasions Nehemiah cleansed the temple, the priests, and the Levites and put those in charge who could literally offer an offering in righteousness. The historical events of Nehemiah simply must be included in any understanding of the book of Malachi.
If Nehemiah 13 is the context of Malachi 3:8-10, then it makes perfect sense. The priests, who had already been cursed by God three times in Malachi are NOT suddenly the ones to be pitied, because they are receiving another curse. They had taken the tithes OUT OF THE STOREHOUSE and withheld them from the Levites! Therefore, God is telling the PRIESTS in Malachi 3:10 to bring "ALL the tithe" that belongs in the empty storeroom back to that storeroom, especially the portion they had stolen from the Levites. Also, we have in Nehemiah a plain historical event of what is most likely the context of Malachi 3:8-10, especially in the light of the necessary cleansing of the priesthood from Malachi 3:1-4.
SUMMARY: In Nehemiah, numerous discrepancies exist between Old Covenant tithing and what is falsely presented as New Covenant tithing.
First, the Old Covenant system could not possibly work in our society. Many small churches, who give all the so-called tithe to the pastor, do not have enough other workers to receive the ninety percent (90%) of the tithe, and a full-time pastor could not survive on only one-tenth of the whole tithe. Thus, while a distorted form of tithing is taught in order to support the pastor, the pastor receives up to one hundred percent (100%) instead of only ten percent (1%) of the tithe. Again, compare Numbers 18:20-24 with 18:26 and Nehemiah 10:37b and 38.
Second, once again the contents of the tithe is ignored. Nehemiah occurs at least twelve hundred (1,200) years after the contents of the tithe were first described in Numbers 18 and Leviticus 27. While hundreds of other occupations must have existed, the tithe is still only required from land owners who farmed or had herd animals. It is the tithe of the grain, the wine, and the oil. Although, this formula was expanded by the Pharisees to include small garden spices, at no point does the true biblical tithe refer to products and money obtained through crafts and non land-use occupations.
Third, the political authority is still in charge of worship services, commanding tithing, and delegating spiritual leaders. He is God’s anointed ruler of the theocracy. Church-state union is the rule under the Old Covenant in which tithing applied. Persia, the conquering power, still received the first tithe as its spoils of war tax.
Fourth, most tithe-teachers need to keep their congregations biblically ignorant of the context of those who received tithes in the Old Covenant. How does one justify tithing to support those who, except for two weeks out of forty-eight (2 of 48), lived in rural fields as farmers and herdsmen. They certainly did not all live in Jerusalem and serve full-time in the Temple (a lie we might be led to believe).