The Second Tithe: Origin and Purpose
By Mario Niño
The concept of stewardship began in Eden as a responsibility assigned to Adam and Eve. It is expressed by the Hebrew word radah (Gen. 1:26, 28). The New Testament uses the Greek word oikonomía (Lk. 16:2), translated as “stewardship.”
Coming to the Christian Era (CE), we observe that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the imperial army, under the leadership of Titus, is affected by the religious practices of Judaism. Before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the Jewish people dedicated a first tithe for the support of the Levites, (Heb. ma’aser; Lev. 27:30-34, and Num. 18:19-28). They also dedicated a second tithe for charity and the annual feasts in Jerusalem (Deut. 14:22-29). “Such laws applied to the first six years of the seven-year cycle during which crops were grown.”1 This was part of a seven-year cycle, in which the land was dedicated to planting and harvesting for the first six years. In the seventh year, any product of the land was to be dedicated to the poor (Ex. 23:10, 11). Various laws were no longer observed by Jews after the destruction of the second temple. The second tithe showed the reality that generous consideration had to be given to the less fortunate.
The purpose of the second tithe that was practiced in Israel in Old Testament times is explained in the book Patriarchs and Prophets by Ellen G. White, chapter 51, entitled “God’s Care for the Poor.”2 Ellen White is calling attention to taking care of the poor, the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger:
To promote the assembling of the people for religious service, as well as to provide for the poor, a second tithe of all the increase was required. Concerning the first tithe, the Lord had declared, “I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel.” Numbers 18:21. But in regard to the second He commanded, “Thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God, in the place which He shall choose to place His name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks; that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always.” Deuteronomy 14:23, 29; 16:11-14. This tithe, or its equivalent in money, they were for two years to bring to the place where the sanctuary was established. After presenting a thank offering to God, and a specified portion to the priest, the offerers were to use the remainder for a religious feast, in which the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow should participate. Thus provision was made for the thank offerings and feasts at the yearly festivals, and the people were drawn to the society of the priests and Levites, that they might receive instruction and encouragement in the service of God.3
Every third year, however, this second tithe was to be used at home, in entertaining the Levite and the poor, as Moses said, “That they may eat within thy gates, and be filled.” Deuteronomy 26:12. This tithe would provide a fund for the uses of charity and hospitality.4
Every seventh year special provision was made for the poor. The sabbatical year, as it was called, began at the end of the harvest.
Every seventh year special provision was made for the poor. The sabbatical year, as it was called, began at the end of the harvest. At the seedtime, which followed the ingathering, the people were not to sow; they should not dress the vineyard in the spring; and they must expect neither harvest nor vintage. Of that which the land produced spontaneously they might eat while fresh, but they were not to lay up any portion of it in their storehouses. The yield of this year was to be free for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and even for the creatures of the field. Exodus 23:10, 11; Leviticus 25:5.5
Israel’s system of tithes and offerings designed by God included three components: (1) The first tithe went to the maintenance of the Levites and was administrated by the Levites. (2) The second tithe that was intended to support the annual feasts and personal charity was administrated by the Hebrew family. (3) The offerings were part of the worship and support of the operation of the sanctuary. We must remember that by the year 1445 BCE, when the people of Israel gathered at Mount Sinai to receive instructions as to how things should work in Israel in the civil, social, economic, religious, etc., components of society, there was no social security system among the different peoples and nations as we see practiced today in most countries of the world. God, then, included in its design to Israel a second tithe, which not only supported the annual convocations in Jerusalem but allowed Jewish families to help their brothers and sisters, especially the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger. This was in line with love, the main principle in the foundation of the government and the character of God.
“The contributions required of the Hebrews for religious and charitable purposes amounted to fully one fourth of their income. So heavy a tax upon the resources of the people might be expected to reduce them to poverty; but, on the contrary, the faithful observance of these regulations was one of the conditions of their prosperity.”6 In the original design, God gave Israel a number of privileges and protections.
In this divine plan, God took responsibility for most of the expenses each family faced. Seventy-five percent of their income was available for food and general expenses. Of course, it was difficult for a family to spend 75 percent of annual income on food and personal expenses; so, in general, Hebrew families grew richer year by year. This was a good plan for giving prosperity to the people, and Israel became a rich nation.
Meanwhile, the second tithe was a blessing because it cultivated a noble spirit of benevolence. The principles underlying this system can be adopted by and adapted to our time, although we recognize that there is not any biblical support to require the practice of the second tithe in the New Testament for the Christian church. The second tithe had the purpose of helping people in need, and it was not an additional support for the sanctuary.
1 Geoffrey Wigoder, editor, The Encyclopedia of Judaism (Macmillian Publishing Company, 1989), p. 707.
2 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 530-536.
3 Ibid., p. 530.
5 Ibid., p. 531.
6 Ibid., p. 527.