There is no shortage of opinions when it comes to the topic of how much we should be giving. Some believe it is a set percentage, while others argue for the concept of grace giving in this New Testament age with the amount determined by the heart of each person. As we explore this issue, I believe it’s important to understand the historical examples of giving demonstrated in the Bible. When it comes to biblical giving, the best explanation I’ve seen classifies giving into two categories: required and voluntary. Let’s look at these two types of giving as we break history into three time periods to keep things in proper context.
Period 1 – Pre-Mosaic
The time before Moses also predates the law, so it’s good to review what happened during this time. In the book of Genesis, we see quite a few examples of offerings taking place. Here’s a brief summary of those offerings:
In Genesis 4, we see the first offerings to God given by Cain and Abel. We are not told of any requirements that God gave to them concerning this sacrifice, including any amount or frequency of the offering, so we won’t seek to draw many conclusions from it.
In Genesis 8, Noah built an altar and gave a sacrifice of the clean animals as an offering to God out of his apparent thankfulness following the flood. We’re not told of any command for Noah to make this offering or an amount dictated to him. We only see Noah making a joyful and voluntary offering to God.
Twice in Genesis 12 and 13, we see Abram (later renamed Abraham) offering up a sacrifice to God in appreciation of God’s announcement that he will be the father of the nation of Israel. By every indication, this is a voluntary offering with no amount dictated.
In Genesis 14, we see the first mention of a “tithe” or a tenth when it comes to an offering. In this chapter, Abram is returning from victory with a large amount of spoils taken from the enemy. On his way home, he runs into a priest of God named Melchizedek. Abram receives a blessing from the priest and at the same time, he has an opportunity to show his thankfulness to God by presenting a gift to the priest. We are told that Abram gave a tithe, yet we don’t read a command for him to do so. He wasn’t told what to give and up to this point, we have no record of Abram giving a tithe of anything else. Abram is simply giving a tithe of the spoils of victory. We also don’t see a record of Abram doing this again in the future. This offering took place in a specific situation in which Abram was thankful and joyous and wanted to give to God and he did so voluntarily. He may have chosen a tenth because it was a common practice for people in that culture to give that amount, even pagans. We’re not told why.
The last mention of the tithe before the law comes in Genesis 28, when Jacob was basically trying to strike a deal with God by offering a promise to give a tenth if God would bless him. This is not an example set for us to follow and it was a voluntary offering that wasn’t commanded by God.
In all of these examples of pre-Mosaic giving, the common characteristics are that they were all voluntary and we see no command given by God on amount or frequency.
There is one exception we need to consider in Genesis 41. In the history of Joseph, we do see an example of required giving. Here, we find that during the seven years of prosperity, there was a requirement for people to give so they would be prepared for the seven years of famine. Genesis 41:34 says, “Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years.” God revealed to Pharaoh, through Joseph, a required system of giving for the country of Egypt, which we would understand as a tax system. The tax rate for Egypt at that time was set at 20% and it was required, not voluntary.
There is a very unique difference in the example given in the story of Joseph. All of our previous examples of giving were voluntary and as a show of gratitude to God. In the story of Joseph, we see a required gift with a stated amount and it was not to be given to God, but to the government. It’s important to note this as we will see that trend continued throughout scripture.
Period 2 – Moses to Jesus
During this time of the law, we typically think about the requirement of a tithe to be given by the people. There is so much more depth in relation to giving during this time period though and to understand it we first need to review the structure of the nation and the three tithe system the Israelites were required to pay.
Israel was a theocracy, which means that God was the head of the nation and He appointed people to serve in His government. The leaders He chose were the Levites. As such, they did not receive any land when it was divided among the tribes. The Levites were in essence the government workers in God’s theocracy. Since they had no way to support themselves, they were dependent on the other eleven tribes. Here we find the purpose of the tithe, to support those who performed the work of God’s government. We read more about this tithe in Numbers 18:24, where it says, “For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.”
This tithe to the Levites was required as a form of taxation. That’s why it was considered robbing God when they didn’t pay it. In Malachi 3:8 we read, “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions.”
In Deuteronomy 12:17-18 and 14:22-23, we read of a second tithe (10%) that was to be given for the festivals and feasts. These events were to bring God glory through the rejoicing of the people of Israel in a time of celebration. It was a required offering, but one for the enjoyment of the people and ultimately the glory of God.
There was also a third tithe that was to be given every third year, which averages out to just over 3% per year. We see this additional 10% offering mentioned in Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and 26:12-13. This final tithe was to be given “to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled” (Deut. 26:12). In a nutshell, this required offering was given to support the poor.
In total, the three tithes required of the Israelites amounted to around 23.33% annually. That’s not much different than what we see today in our tax system used by the government to raise money for many of the same purposes.
In addition to the three tithes, the Israelites still had other fees and costs. They were required to leave crops around the edge of the field for the poor. They had to pay a temple tax. They also had to let their fields sit idle every seventh year, so in those years, they didn’t even produce a crop to provide them with income.
In addition to the required offerings, we also see opportunities for the Israelites to give voluntarily. As it was before the time of Moses, these voluntary offerings were given out of thankfulness to God and was the best of what they had, their firstfruits. Firstfruits are the first crops to come out of the harvest, which was also typically the best in quality. The timing is also important to note because these crops would be given while the rest remained in the field. Talk about giving being faith in action. Out of faith, they would give away what they harvested while the portion they kept for themselves was still in the field and could be wiped away by locusts, hail or some other disaster. A firstfruits offering was given out of trust in God to provide the rest. God was faithful though as we read His promise in Proverbs 3:9-10, “Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”
In Exodus 25:1-2, we read “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me.’” This is an example of a voluntary offering as Moses prepared to build the tabernacle. God didn’t require them to give to this project, He simply presented them with an opportunity. In Exodus 35:21-22, we read of the response, “And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him…” It boiled down to an issue of the heart and those who wanted to give, did. Finally, we see the result of their generous hearts in Exodus 35:5-6, when they had to restrain the people from bringing their offerings because they already had more than enough to complete the job.
The same thing can be seen in 1 Chronicles 29 when David was preparing to build the temple. Verse 9 captures the response of the people well, “Then the people rejoiced because they had given willingly, for with a whole heart they had offered freely to the Lord.” This was another voluntary offering. It was presented as an opportunity and the people responded generously with joyful hearts.
To summarize this period from Moses to Jesus, we once again see required giving being a stated amount going to the government and voluntary giving being out of the desire of the heart and without a prescribed amount or frequency.
The New Testament confirms that giving hasn’t fundamentally changed since the time of Christ. Jesus confirms the idea of paying your required amount to support the government when He says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).
The New Testament also confirms the prior pattern for voluntary giving. In Acts, we see the example of Christians sharing what they had with each other and selling their possessions and laying the proceeds at the Apostles feet. This was not required of them, but a voluntary act of love and generosity. When Paul presented the Corinthians and the Macedonians with an opportunity to help the poor Christians in Judea, he didn’t command them to give a certain amount. Instead, he presented them with an opportunity and let them decide what it was they were going to give. The response was that they gave joyfully and abundantly.
We even get a glimpse of voluntary giving in heaven when John writes in Revelation 4:10-11, “… the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
When looking at the historical examples of giving, I find a great deal of clarity in the two categories of required and voluntary giving. The proper response to required giving was always obedience. The appropriate response to voluntary giving opportunities wasn’t to dismiss them and let someone else provide the funding. Rather, it was a call for every person to search their heart and review the resources available to see how much they could give out of an abundance of joy and thankfulness. Today, we see the statistics that show an average giving of around 3% by American churchgoers. It often makes us equate grace giving with a lower standard than the tithe that some recommend. In reality, if we all approached voluntary giving with the same heart as our predecessors, we might find that it takes giving to a whole new level in this age of prosperity.
Brad Graber, CFP® has been working with clients on personal financial planning and investment issues since 1996. He invests his time mentoring and educating individuals on ways to be better stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them.