Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 5 (Fall 2000): 71-95
Copyright © 2000 by Detroit Baptist Seminary, cited with permission.






                 Mark A. Snoeberger*


In Leviticus 27 the Mosaic Law expressly commands the practice of

tithing, codifying it for all Israel as a combined act of spiritual service

and economic obligation for the advancement of the nation. This

codification, however, was by no means the birth of the tithe, but a new

expression of the ancient Near Eastern tithe infused with theological sig-

nificance for the new political entity of Israel.1

The payment of tithes was no novel practice, having been performed

for centuries by both biblical figures and pagans alike. It is well attested

that the tithe2 was present in the very earliest of cultures_-Roman,

Greek, Carthaginian, Cretan, Silician, Phoenician, Chinese, Babylonian,

Akkadian, and Egyptian--stretching back to the earliest written records

of the human race.3 This extra-biblical practice of tithing must, of

course, be considered when searching for the origin of the tithe. Was the

tithe a divinely conceived custom, original with Yahweh and unique in

its expression, or was tithing a divine adaptation of an originally pagan

custom, bequeathed with theological significance by divine fiat? Further,

was the tithe an act of worship alone, or a demonstration of political

subservience: a primitive form of taxation? Or was it a combination of

the two?

Many scholars (including most liberals) contend that the levitical


*Mr. Snoeberger is Director of Library Services at Detroit Baptist Theological

Seminary in Allen Park, MI.

l Henry Landsell, The Sacred Tenth or Studies of Tithe-Giving, Ancient and Modern,

2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955), 1:56.

2 The author intends the term in its technical sense--a tenth. As John E. Simpson

notes of the nearly universal pagan practice of tithing, "the amount so given was almost

invariably one-tenth" (This World’s Goods [New York: Revell, 1939], p. 88). Cf., how-

ever, Joseph M. Baumgarten, "On the Non-literal Use of ma'aser/dekate," Journal of

Biblical Literature 103 (June 1984): 245-51.

3 Landsell, Sacred Tenth, 1: 1-38; Arthur Babbs, The Law of the Tithe As Set Forth in

the Old Testament (New York: Revell, 1912), pp. 13-24; E. B. Stewart, The Tithe (Chi-

cago: Winona Publishing Co., 1903), pp. 7-13.


72                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


institution was borrowed strictly from early contemporary heathen prac-

tices.4 On the other pole, some, generally more conservative, scholars

contend that the universality of the tithe and the failure of attempts to

discover its origin within secular sources point to a much more ancient

practice--one instituted by God at the very dawn of human history.5

To make either claim, one must look to the early chapters of Gene-

sis for clues to the genesis of the tithe. If, indeed, concrete evidence for

its origin can be discovered here, one can be assured that the tithe origi-

nated with God and that it was revealed by him from the very earliest

times to mankind. Failure to discover the origin here does not rule out

the possibility of divine origin, but it does render the origin of the tithe

an argument from silence for either position. It is, therefore, the purpose

of this essay is to probe the OT material, beginning with the sacrificial

practices of Cain and Abel, continuing with the unprecedented payment

of tithes by Abram to the priest of the most high God, Melchizedek, and

concluding with Jacob's intention to tithe, for clues to the genesis of the

pre-Mosaic tithe. We will then decide whether sufficient evidence exists

to confirm its divine origin, then discuss briefly its relationship to the

levitical tithe and its continuing applicability (or non-applicability) to-



      AND ABEL (GENESIS 4:3-7)


So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the

LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the

firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard

for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no

regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the

LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? And why has your countenance

fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you

do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but

you must master it."6


In an attempt to establish the continuity of the tithe throughout

human history, several older conservative scholars adopted an alternative


4 H. Jagersma, "The Tithes in the Old Testament," in Remembering All the Way,

Oudtestamentische Studien XXI (Leiden: Brill, 1981), pp. 116-28; Marvin E. Tate,

"Tithing: Legalism or Benchmark?" Review and Expositor 70 (Spring 1973): 153; Ency-

clopedia Judaica, s.v. "Tithe," by M. Weinfeld; The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible,

s.v. "Tithe," by H. H. Guthrie, Jr. Included in this group are all those who view Israel's

"cultus" as evolutionary and not revelational.

5 Landsell, Sacred Tenth, 1:38; Babbs, Law of the Tithe, pp. 24-25.

6 All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the 1995 edition

of NASB.


The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                   73


text and translation to affirm that Cain's and Abel's sacrifices establish

tithing as early as Genesis 4. The LXX reading of verse 7 apparently

reflects the Hebrew "Htnl" (to dissect or divide) rather than the MT's

"Htpl" (reflected in NASB's "at the door"). The resulting English trans-

lation of verse 7 identifies Cain's sin as his failure to "divide rightly."

Furthering this conclusion is an alternate reading of a NT text, Hebrews

11:4, namely, that "Abel offered unto God a more abundant7 sacrifice

than Cain." The conclusion drawn from these combined readings is that

Cain's sin was specifically a failure to give an adequate percentage of his

income to God. The percentage, it is deduced, must be none other than

a tithe.8 This understanding is not unreasonable, as it follows the reading

of the LXX, the text (though not the interpretation) of the early church

fathers.9 However, the difficulty of this reading and the high degree of

accuracy of the MT at this point have led most modern commentators

to reject this reading out of hand,10 and with it the implied reference to

proportional tithing by Abel.


The Occasion


The preceding discussion does not render the Cain and Abel inci-

dent as having no value to the discussion of the tithe. On the contrary,

herein is the first recorded instance of an offering presented to God in

the OT--offerings that would later be expanded to include the tithe.11


7 The term in question, plei<ona, includes in its range of meaning both the qualita-

tive idea of excellence and the quantitative idea of abundance (BAGD, p. 689), though

most NT commentators have understood the usage in Hebrews 11:4 to be qualitative,

that is, "a better sacrifice."

8 Landsell, Sacred Tenth, 1:40-41; Babbs, Law of the Tithe, p. 25.

9 Clement, The First Epistle o/Clement 4, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander

Roberts and James Donaldson, 1st series, reprint ed., 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1977), 1:6; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.18.3, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:485; Tertul-

lian, An Answer to the Jews 2, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 2: 153; See also the note on

1:40 of Landsell's Sacred Tenth for a survey of other patristic support.

10 E. A. Speiser, Genesis, 2nd ed., AB (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978), p. 32.

Most commentators follow the MT without even entertaining the LXX reading in their

discussions (e.g., S. R. Driver, The Book of Genesis [London: Methuen & Co., 1904], p.

65; Franz Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis, 2 vols., trans. Sophia Taylor, reprint

of 1888 ed. [Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1978], pp. 181-83; Victor P. Hamilton, The

Book of Genesis, 2 vols., NICOT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990, 1995], 1:225-26; and

Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis, 2 vols., WBC [Waco, TX: Word, 1987, 1994], 1:96-106).

Claus Westermann gives an otherwise complete list of philological options for the verse,

but does not view the LXX reading as worthy of mention (Genesis, 3 vols., Continental

Commentaries [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984-95], 1:299-301).

11 The use of the word "expanded" in not intended to imply that the Israelite "cult"

evolved on its own apart from the sovereign hand of God, as is asserted by many liberals


74                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


The background of this incident is meager. We are no sooner told

that Cain and Abel have been born when we suddenly find the boys as

men, each with the respective occupations of agriculturalist and herds-

man. After a period of time, both bring an offering to Yahweh. Cain

brings some of the vegetables and fruits resulting from his labor as a

farmer, Abel an offering of some of his livestock. For some reason not

specified in this text, Yahweh rejects the former but receives the latter.

Several obvious questions arise from the narrative. How did Cain

and Abel know to bring an offering to Yahweh? What was the nature of

their offering? Why was Cain's offering rejected and Abel's accepted?

And, ultimately, does their gift have any bearing on the levitical tithe or

on the NT believer? Naturally, a correct understanding of the term used

for this offering (hHAn;mi) is essential to the understanding of the purpose

of the sacrifices presented in Genesis 4. We begin here in our search for

the tithe in the OT.


The Term Employed

Many have concluded that the offerings of Genesis 4 were intended

as atoning, expiatory sacrifices, based on the assumption that God's dis-

pleasure with Cain's offering stemmed from his failure to give a blood

sacrifice.12 This theory fails on two counts. First, the term used to de-

scribe the offering, hHAn;mi, is elsewhere used of a bloodless sacrifice,13 and

is the standard term used in the levitical code for the meal offering. Here

in Genesis 4 Moses avoids using readily available, general terms that


(see below); instead, it simply recognizes the progress of divine revelation which expands

man's knowledge and adjusts his responsibilities. We need not, indeed, must not see the

shadow of the Mosaic code veiled in the Cain/Abel narrative; nonetheless, this first re-

corded sacrifice does give us insight into God's expectations and the means by which he

communicated them to early believers.

12 Robert S. Candlish, An Exposition of Genesis (reprint ed., Wilmington, DE: Sov-

ereign Grace Publishers, 1972), p. 65. Scofield sees the sin offering in the phrase "sin is

crouching at the door." The term for sin (txF.AHa) may refer to sin or to its sacrificial rem-

edy, the "sin offering." Thus, Yahweh was informing Cain that he had not done well,

and that his only solution was to offer a blood sacrifice (The Scofield Reference Bible [New

York: Oxford, 1909], p. 11). The identification of this txF.AHa as a crouching beast (Cbero),

however, makes this option unlikely.

13 J. H. Kurtz goes so far as to say that the hHAn;mi was "exclusively" bloodless (Sac-

rificial Worship of the Old Testament, reprint of 1863 edition [Minneapolis: Klock &

Klock, 1980], pp. 158-59), as does Hamilton (Genesis, 1:223), though 1 Samuel 2:17

and 26:19 indicate otherwise. The term has a broader meaning than its technical sense as

a meal offering (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, s.v.

"hHAn;mi," by Richard E. Averbeck, 2:980-87). It is best to conclude that the hHAn;mi was

usually bloodless, and in its prescriptive, levitical sense (which is not the case here) was

always bloodless.


The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                               75


denote blood sacrifice (e.g., Hbaz,). While we may not extrapolate levitical

language anachronistically onto the Genesis 4 incident, Moses' usage of

the same term he would later use for the meal offering strongly suggests

that this sacrifice was not intended to be viewed as a sin or guilt offer-

ing.14 Second, the event is predicated on the culmination ("in the course

of time"—MymiyA Cq.emi [v. 3]) of a lengthy period of agricultural productiv-

ity ("Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground"

[v. 2]), indicating that this was no ordinary expiatory sacrifice, but a spe-

cial, additional offering--one of thanksgiving for God's abundant

blessing.15 Thus it is roughly, though not exactly, equivalent to Israel's

firstfruits or meal offerings, not to their regular sin offerings or tithes.

The term hHAn;mi, in its non-technical usage, is also frequently associ-

ated with payment of tribute or taxes (Gen 32:13 [14 MT]; Judg 3:15,

17-18; 1 Sam 10:27). For this reason, it may be suggested that Cain and

Abel's gifts were mandatory. However, the term may simply be em-

ployed ''as an expression of respect, thanksgiving, homage, friendship,

dependence,"16 which functions do not all imply obligation.


The Reason for Cain's and Abel's Offerings


Having deduced, then, that this was an offering additional to the

ordinary expiatory sacrifices, we move on to discover why the offering

was given. While biblical revelation gives us no precedent or mandate for

this type of offering, God's displeasure with Cain's offering implies that

Cain failed to meet some divinely revealed requirement. We have already

rejected the possibilities of the inappropriate content or quantity of the

sacrifice. Other options include inadequate quality in the offering,17


14 Bruce K. Waltke, "Cain and His Offering," Westminster Theological Journal 48

(Fall 1986): 365-66.

15 I assume that the practice of expiatory sacrifices has been a theological necessity in

every dispensation to effect forgiveness of sins and right standing before God. Cain's and

Abel's gifts, however, did not fall into this category.

16 HALOT (in English), 2:601. Cf. also George B. Gray, Sacrifice in the Old Testa-

ment: Its Theory and Practice (New York: Ktav, 1971), pp. 16-17; NIDOTTE, s.v.,

"hHAn;mi" by Richard E. Averbeck, 2:986; and TWOT, s.v. "hHAn;mi," by G. Lloyd Carr,


17 Waltke suggests that the  v; opening v. 4 is adversative, highlighting the "fat" and

"firstborn" elements of Abel's sacrifice in contrast to Cain's mere offer of "some" of his

fruits and vegetables ("Cain and His Offering," p. 368; cf. also Delitzsch, Genesis, pp.

180-81; Hermann Gunkel, Genesis [Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997], pp.

42-43; Allen P. Ross, Creation & Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis

[Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988], pp. 157-58); Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 1:1-11:26;

NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), pp. 267-68. We note, however, that

there is no equivalent of fat for Cain's offering, nor does Moses specify that Cain's of-

fering was not of the firstfruits. John Sailhamer, in fact, suggests that Cain was also


76                    Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal

deficient integrity in the offerer,18 or even the simple possibility that

Abel was the object of God's elective prerogative while Cain was

not19--the text does not specify. The NT commentary is simply that

Abel's offering was offered "in faith" while Cain's was not (Heb 11:4).

This may imply that God had given explicit instructions regarding ex-

piatory and other sacrifices;20 however, this argument flows purely from

silence. All that can be conclusively deduced is that Cain's sacrifice did

not issue from faith, but from other, inferior, motivation.




The offerings of Cain and Abel give evidence that men professing to

be God-fearers, from earliest times, brought offerings to Yahweh (v. 3)

from their bounty. There was, however, no percentage specified, nor any

purpose delineated other than direct worship and gratitude addressed to

God. Thus, there is little to link these offerings with the basis of the en-

suing levitical tithe, nor to shed light on its continuing applicability.

While it is possible that God may have established binding requirements

for offerings in the OT apart from written revelation, we certainly can-

not deduce from the Cain and Abel narrative that the tithe was among

these requirements.



  (GENESIS 14:17-24)


Then after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who

were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him [Abram] at the

valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). And Melchizedek king of Sa-

lem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High.

He blessed him and said, "Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor

of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered

your enemies into your hand." He gave him a tenth of all. The king of

Sodom said to Abram, "Give the people to me and take the goods for your-

self." Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I have sworn to the LORD God

Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a


bringing his firstfruits ("Genesis," in vol. 2 of The Expositors Bible Commentary, ed.

Frank E. Gaebelein [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], p. 61).

18 John J. Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975),

p. 99; John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 2 vols., trans.

John King (reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 1:196; Hamilton, Genesis,

1:224; Driver, Genesis, p. 65.

19 Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), p.


20 Landsell, Sacred Tenth, 1:41.

The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                               77


sandal thong or anything that is yours, for fear you would say, 'I have made

Abram rich.' I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten,

and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let

them take their share."

We move onward from Cain and Abel in our quest for the genesis

of the tithe in the OT to Abram's unprecedented tithe paid to

Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of the most high God. It is in this

passage that the technical term "tithe" (rWefEma) is first used in Scripture,

making it the first recorded instance of OT tithing. In this incident is

found the most promising data for the current study, thus a large seg-

ment of the essay will be dedicated to it.


The Occasion

In Genesis 14, Abram is informed that a band of marauding mon-

archs led by Chedorlaomer had sacked the pentapolis that included

Sodom; where his nephew Lot was living. Many of the goods of the city

had been seized, and Lot had also been taken captive. Abram gathers a

small band from his household, attacks and defeats the marauders in an

unlikely nighttime foray, pursues them far to the north, and recovers

what had been stolen. Emboldened by Abram's remarkable success, king

Bera of Sodom travels northward to the "King's Valley" just south of

Salem to meet Abram. He is joined by the local king, Melchizedek, in

the valley. King Bera begrudges Abram the spoils but asks for the re-

captured citizenry. Melchizedek, identified here as a priest of the most

high God (NOyl;f, lx,), brings out bread and wine to refresh and reward

Abram and his men, blesses Abram repeatedly, and blesses Abram's God

for the victory. As a biblically unprecedented reciprocation, Abram gives

to Melchizedek a tenth of all (presumably of all the spoils). The rest of

the spoils are then meted out and the incident is closed.


The Term Employed

The Hebrew term for "tithe" (rWefEma) is simply the adjectival form of

the number ten, rW,f,.21 The term is used infrequently in Scripture apart

from the levitical and deuteronomic legislation concerning its contribu-

tion within the assembly. The term's employment is by no means com-

plex, but it is precise. The tithe is an exact tenth, and is not used in a

generic sense to refer to multiple types of offerings of varying amounts.22

In Ugaritic and Phoenician sources the tithe was generally paid as


21 BDB, p. 798.

22 NIDOTTE, s.v. "rWefEma," by Richard E. Averbeck, 2:1035; cr. also H.

Jagersma, "Tithes in the Old Testament," p. 117.

78                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


the standard unit of taxation owed to the throne. While priests some-

times collected this tithe, there was often no idea of worship in-

volved--the priests were viewed as any secular recipient of the tithe

would be.23 Further, it is apparent that, even when the priests collected

the tithe, the state, and not the religious personnel, controlled its distri-

bution.24 This is contrary to the Mosaic legal practice, where, in all re-

corded situations save one (1 Sam 8:15-17), the tithe was paid to

Yahweh through the hand of the priest, and presumably dispensed by

the same.25

The ancient Near Eastern tithe was paid to the king on everything

earned by the subjects of the throne, including produce, animals, and

loot won in battle. For this reason it is not unusual that Abram paid a

tithe. What is unusual is the abruptness of Melchizedek's appearance,

the lack of explanatory details concerning his kingship and priesthood,

and the mystery surrounding his relationship to Abram. These enigmas

must be resolved along with other questions, such as whether Abram was

paying tithes to Melchizedek as his king or as his priest (or both) and

whether the tithe Abram paid was voluntary or mandatory. A brief look

at Melchizedek is in order to answer these questions.


The Recipient of Abram's Tithe—Melchizedek


Because Abram's tithe, unlike that of the other pre-Mosaic offerings,

involves a human as well as a divine recipient, and because that recipi-

ent's role seems even more prominent than Abram's in the context of the

narrative, Melchizedek merits special study. Rising suddenly to prestige

in verse 18 and vanishing just as suddenly a scant two verses later,

Melchizedek's function raises many questions. This brief study cannot

answer them all, but will endeavor to answer two: What did

Melchizedek's offices entail, and what was Abram's relationship to these



Melchizedek as King

Several questions must be answered concerning Melchizedek as king

before conclusions may be drawn about the tithe paid him. First, what


23 NIDOTTE, s.v. "rWefEma," by Richard E. Averbeck, 2:1035-36; M. Heltzer, "On

Tithe Paid in Grain at Ugarit," Israel Exploration Journal 25 (1975): 124-28. Cf., how-

ever, Averbeck's remarks on the Akkadian tithe (2:1036).

24 Jagersma, "Tithes in the Old Testament," pp. 123-24.

25 Ibid., p. 123. This is not to say that. the Mosaic tithe had no secular func-

tion--the Mosaic tithe provided poverty relief (Deut 14:28). However, its primary

function was to finance "the service of the tent of meeting" and to provide for the Levites

"who have no inheritance" (Num 18:21-32).

The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                               79


was the nature of his kingship and the extent of his realm? Second, and

closely related to the first, what was Abram's political relationship to the



Melchizedek's Realm

The term "king" (j`l,m,) may be misleading for the reader accustomed

to the pomp and prestige of present-day royalty. The fact that at least six

kings occupied such a small area of southern Palestine suggests that the

kingdoms were quite small and the kings little more than local chief-

tains26 who ruled a city and the small tract of surrounding land used by

his constituency. This is further attested by the fact that little extrabibli-

cal material survives to tell us about these "kingdoms." On the other

hand the marauding eastern kings were apparently much more powerful,

one each from the Elamite, Amorite, Hurrian, and Hittite empires.27

This is not to say, however, that these kings represented the full force of

these empires, nor that these empires were in the height of their glory

when the invasion occurred.

Melchizedek's realm was the city of Salem. This inexplicable short-

ening of "Jerusalem" has led many scholars, even conservative ones, to at

least entertain the possibility that this was not Jerusalem at all, but an-

other town, perhaps Shiloh, Shechem, or Samaria.28 Since, however,

Psalms 76:2 (3 MT) and 110:2, 4 identify Melchizedek's realm with

"Zion," and since the common identification of the valley of hvewA (v. 17)

is confirmed by 2 Samuel 18:18 to be the junction of the nearby Kidron

and Hinnom Valleys, there is no doubt that the city, was Jerusalem.

There is nothing to suggest, however, that Meichizedek’s reign in Jeru-

salem had any special significance to the narrative.29 Jerusalem was no

"holy city" until David's establishment of the seat of his kingdom and

the tabernacle (and later Solomon's temple) there.30


26 Philip J. Nel indicates a wide range of meaning for the term, the minimum ele-

ment being the exercise of rule over a realm, whether that be of a tribe, city-state, or

larger territory such as a country or empire (NIDOTTE, s.v. "jlm," 2:956).

27 Hamilton, Genesis, 1:399-400; Speiser, Genesis, 1:106-8.

28 For an overview of the options posited, see J. A. Emerton's article, "The Site of

Salem, the City of Melchizedek (Genesis xiv 18)," in Studies in the Pentateuch, ed. J. A.

Emerton, Supplements to Vetus Testammtum XLI (Leiden: Brill, 1990): 45-71.

29 Contra Driver, Genesis, p. 164.

30 In fact, the Jebusite occupation of the city until David's conquest of the city in

998 B.C., recorded in 2 Sam 5:6-8, makes it one of the last Canaanite cities to be con-

quered by Israel.

80                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


Melchizedek's Royal Relationship to Abram


Since it is widely held in liberal circles that the narrative concerning

Melchizedek (vv. 18-20) is a fictional, secondary insertion, very little

scholarship has been spent studying the historicity of Melchizedek or the

correlation of the Melchizedek pericope with the local context.31 This

void of serious study makes Melchizedek's relationship to the surround-

ing kings and to Abram difficult to discern.

Some propose that Melchizedek's was the smallest of the kingdoms

in the narrative, suggested by his lack of involvement in the defensive

campaign.32 Perhaps he could spare no men but could provide some

provisions for the victors.

Others have suggested that Salem, since it is to be associated with

Jerusalem (Ps 76:2 [3 MT]; 110:2, 4), the most prominent and advanta-

geous geographical location for a city in the region, would have been the

capital of a very important city-state in Palestine.33 Its presidence over

the "valley of kings," apparently a very famous and important place in

the ancient Near East34 also suggests that Melchizedek's kingship was a

powerful, even a supervisory one. Wenham suggests that his dual role as

king and priest would have made him a wealthy and hence a powerful

king, as evidenced by his supply of "royal fare" for Abram.35 He further

suggests that his supply of bread and wine was his duty as the "dominant

ally."36 There is no explanation given, however, why Melchizedek, if he

was so dominant, did not become involved in the military action. It is

also inconclusive that bread and wine were "royal fare" or that

Melchizedek's wealth exceeded that of the other local kings.

It seems, therefore, unlikely that Melchizedek exercised authority as

an overlord over Abram and the five western kings. This factor is of con-

siderable importance for discussing the tithe paid by Abram--it is un-

likely that the tithe represented a tribute or tax paid as a matter of duty

to Abram's ruler.


Melchizedek as Priest


Having established the unlikelihood that Melchizedek's regal


31 Hamilton, Genesis, 1:408-9, n. 4.

32 H. H. Rowley, Worship in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967), pp.


33 J. A. Emerton, "The Riddle of Genesis XIV," Vetus Testamentum 21 (October

1971): 413.

34 Gunkel, Genesis, p. 279.

35 Genesis, 1 :316.

36 Ibid.

The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                               81


authority extended over Abram, we now turn to Melchizedek's role as

priest of the most high God (NOyl;f, lxel; Nheko). We face similar questions

with Melchizedek's priesthood as we did with his kingship--What was

the nature of his priesthood and the extent of his authority as priest?

Second, and again related to the first, what was Abram's spiritual rela-

tionship to Melchizedek?


Melchizedek's Priesthood

Melchizedek is labeled by Moses as a NheKo--a priest. This is the first

mention of a priest in the OT, though the concept was not new. A priest

is someone who stands in the gap between God and man, representing

man to God and God to man.37 We note, then, that Abram, Noah, and

presumably all godly familial heads and clan-leaders in the pre-

Abrahamic era functioned as microcosmic priests in a limited capacity as

primitive mediators of what would later become the theocratic kingdom.

The first consideration in the study of Melchizedek's priesthood is a

very basic one--Whom was Melchizedek serving as priest? The text in-

dicates that the deity served was called "the Most High God" (NOyl;f, lxe).

What has been of considerable debate is whether this deity is to be iden-

tified with Yahweh, the God of Abraham, or with some local deity.

Liberals have generally contended that NOyl;f, lxe was a local deity.38

Based on their assumption that the Hebrew religion began with Abram

and over time evolved into modern Judaism, they naturally contend that

a reference to Abram's Yahweh in this pericope would be anachronistic.

This contention is furthered by their conclusions that the shortened

names for Myhilox,, NOyl;f, and lxe are very late developments,39 heightening

the anachronism of seeing Yahweh in Genesis 14:18-20. Further com-

plicating the matter is the absence of the article on lxe, suggesting that

this is a local god, and not the Hebrew God. Instead, it is assumed that

the use of lxe is the widely used Semitic term for various and sundry

gods, a term which Israel later borrowed as a designation for her evolving


This theory is fraught with bad exegesis and unbiblical assumptions.

First, it must be noted that the absence of the article is common with

compound names for God,40 rendering its absence here ancillary to the

discussion. Second, the Hebrew term NOyl;f, has no secular parallels other


37 NIDOTTE, s.v. "Nhk," by Philip Jenson, 2:600.

38 Speiser, Genesis, 1:104; Westermann, Genesis, 2:204; Driver, Genesis, p. 165;

Gunkel, Genesis, pp. 279-80. Wenham also takes this view (Genesis, 1:316-17).

39 Speiser, Genesis, 1:104.

40 Delitszch, Genesis, 1:409.

82                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


than a rather recently developed Phoenician god, whom Philo labeled as

]Eliou?n, o[ u!yistoj, who even liberals admit emerged long after the Is-

raelite usage had been established (Num 24:16, Deut 32:8, etc.). We

conclude with Speiser and Gunkel that the term was not borrowed by

Israel from her pagan neighbors; rather, Israel's neighbors borrowed the

term from her.41 Further, as Hamilton points out, the late Phoenician

deity  ]Eliou?n was the grandson of lxe.42 Thus, even if a correlation is

attempted, it fails to give us a single god, but two separate ones. In only

one other occasion in all known ancient Near Eastern literature are lxe

and NOyl;f, found together--in Psalm 78:35 of the Hebrew canon, and

that with reference to the God of Israel.43 We conclude that there is

simply no evidence for a god by the name of NOyl;f, lxe in the Canaanite

or any other pantheon.

Furthering this conclusion is later revelation in Psalm 110, where

Melchizedek's priesthood is discussed with reference only to

hvhyneither lxe nor its cognates are mentioned in the entire psalm.

Sealing the matter is Hebrews 5:6, 10, where the Greek equivalents of

both hvhy and lxe (ku<rioj and qeo<j) are used interchangeably in the

context of the priesthood of Melchizedek. There is no question that the

NOyl;f< lxe whom Melchizedek served as priest was Abram's God, the God

of Israel. Indeed, as Homer Kent points out, "it is inconceivable that

[Abram] would have acknowledged the priesthood of anyone other than

a representative of the true God."44 We add to this that Abram would

never have acknowledged anyone put the one true God as the "creator of

heaven and earth" and the God who gave him victory in battle (vv.


We move on now to discuss the extent of the authority of

Melchizedek's priesthood. It apparently was a common practice in the

ancient Near East for a king to function as a priest for his people.45 In

fact, it is apparent that Abram himself functioned in much the same ca-

pacity, building altars and offering sacrifices (functions of a priest) while

functioning as the leader of his clan as a "mighty prince" (Myhilox< xyWin;), a

term translated as "king" (basileu<j) in the LXX version of Genesis

23:6. This is in keeping with the dispensational setting of Melchizedek's

day. As yet there had been no establishment of a single central altar.


41 Speiser, Genesis, 1:104; Gunkel, Genesis, p. 280.

42 Genesis, 1:410.

43 Cf. also Psalm 7:17 (18 MT) for the use NOyl;f, with hvhy.

44 The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), p. 124.

45 Gunkel, Genesis, p. 280; Westermann, Genesis, 2:204-5; Wenham, Genesis,


The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                               83


There had been no formal introduction of Abram as the priest for the

world, though it had been privately revealed that his was to be the cho-

sen line to bring blessing to all the nations. Thus it seems likely that,

until this point, the dispensation of human government was in effect.

God-fearers of this period approached God through their various God-

fearing clan-leaders--such as Melchizedek.

This solution, however, only leads to another question. If

Melchizedek had jurisdiction as priest only within his own clan (there

being no biblical basis for regional high priests with hierarchical sover-

eignty over lesser priests) why did Abram recognize Melchizedek as his



Melchizedek's Spiritual Relationship to Abram

If Melchizedek's jurisdiction extended no further than his clan, the

tithe paid by Abram to Melchizedek46 seems a bit out of place. Hebrews

7:7, however, in discussing Abram and Melchizedek, insists that, "with-

out any dispute, the lesser is blessed by the greater," thus implying that

Melchizedek was in some sense greater than Abram when he blesses

Abram, and, presumably, when he received tithes from Abram.

Alva J. McClain recognizes the complexity of this passage and ac-

knowledges the possibility that "in the era before Abraham there were

other kings who held a similar mediatorial authority between their sub-

jects and the true God."47 He goes on to theorize that it was "this precise

point in Biblical history. . . [that] marks the end of an era and the begin-

ning of a new order of things."48 Melchizedek's blessing effectively her-

alded for the whole world that the mediatorial idea was being localized

in "concrete form historically in miniature."49 The theory makes

Melchizedek roughly comparable to other transitional figures, such as

Anna, Simeon, and John the Baptist, who, having announced the arrival


46 This essay assumes, with most commentators, that the tithe was paid by Abram to

Melchizedek, although the text is perhaps less than absolutely explicit on this point. R.

H. Smith contends that it was Melchizedek who paid the tithe as an attempt to bribe the

warlike Abram to leave the area ("Abraham and Melchizedek," Zietschrift fur die Alttes-

tamentliche Wissenschaft 77 [1965]: 134). This narrow view ignores, however, the

broader context of Scripture (Hebrews 7) and the traditional understanding of the pas-

sage (LXX). J. A. Emerton objects to Smith's view, but asserts that leaving Abram as the

tither contradicts verse 23, where Abram is said to have given all the spoil back to the

king of Sodom ("Riddle," p. 408). But this is not what verse 23 says. It says, in fact, that

Abram would not take anything that belonged to the king of Sodom. This statement

does not preclude his tithing or giving the culturally accepted share owed to hired mer-

cenaries (see below).

47 The Greatness of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), p. 50.

48 Ibid., p. 51.

49 Ibid., p. 50

84                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


of the Messiah, faded into oblivion. Representative of this view before

McClain was none other than Robert S. Candlish, who, though no dis-

pensationalist, on this one point sounds like one:

Melchizedek, as the last preserver, as it were, of the primitive patriarchal

hope, hands over his function to one more highly favored than himself, in

the very spirit of the Baptist--"He must increase, but I must decrease"

(John 3:30). His own occupation, as a witness and standing type of the

Messiah, is over; one newly called out of heathenism is to succeed and to

take his place He hails in Abram the promised seed, and blesses him ac-

cordingly Thus the Patriarchal, the Abrahamic, and the Levitical dis-

pensations appear, all of them, in their true character, as subordinate and


Although the theory cannot be verified (McClain and Candlish ar-

gue from silence that Melchizedek relinquished his priestly functions

after this incident), there is much to commend it. The timing is correct,

since Abram's call was quite recent. The public announcement is appro-

priate, for without it no one would have been aware of the dispensa-

tional change. The prominence of Melchizedek's delivery of blessings

(j`raBA is employed three times in the two verses of Melchizedek's brief

discourse) is also significant in light of the reciprocal blessings promised

in the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 12:1-3) to those who would bless

Abram. Melchizedek's repeated blessings and his disclosure that God

was blessing and being blessed51 specifically through Abram announced

to the listening world that Abram had been specially selected by God as

his unique mediatorial representative.52

The question still remains, however, why Melchizedek was viewed as

"greater" than Abram, able to give him a blessing, and worthy of receiv-

ing his tithe. The commentaries are generally silent on this issue, and the

question is difficult to answer. It seems best to understand that


50 Genesis, p. 143.

51 The action of blessing implied in the term j`raBA, as explained by Hebrews 7:7, al-

ways flows from the greater to the lesser. It is no contradiction, however, that

Melchizedek "blessed" God. While active blessing (the impartation of something of

value to someone) can never be offered by mortals to God, men can "bless" God in a

"passive and stative sense" by speaking highly of him or attributing praise to him

(NIDOTTE, s.v. "jrb," by Michael L. Brown, 1:764). Hebrews 7:7 is by no means at

odds with Genesis 14:20.

52 Victor Hamilton completely misses the point of the repeated use of j`raBA when he

begrudges Abram his blessings while his 318 companions went unmentioned with the

sarcastic comment, "As one would expect, it is the general, not the private, who gets the

kudos" (Genesis, 1:409). It is not because Abram was the "general" that he got the "ku-

dos"; it was because he was one with whom God had covenanted to make a great nation

and to be a source of blessing to all the nations.

The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                               85


Melchizedek was not permanently or personally superior to Abram, but

that at that moment Melchizedek stood between God and Abram and

as the better."53  Indeed, any time a person stands in the place of God

his superiority is instantly, if temporarily, confirmed by virtue of the

God he represents. McClain's comments (above) may also be informa-

tive: Melchizedek, representing the authority of the old dispensation,

was ceding the reins of the incipient mediatorial kingdom to its new

mediator, after which time Abram became superior to Melchizedek.

We thus conclude that Abram's recognition of Melchizedek as a su-

perior was not because Melchizedek was some type of regional high

priest, hierarchically presiding over all other lesser priests in the area.

Nonetheless, for the moment, Melchizedek stood in the place of God,

and, as such, exercised temporary spiritual authority over Abram, an

authority which Abram recognized by the giving of a tithe.


The Reason for Abram's Tithe

In the previous section we established that the basis for Abram's

tithe was the (temporarily)54 superior priesthood of Melchizedek. We

now move to Abram's purpose for giving him a tithe. Was it a social

(political) function or an act of pure worship? Was it mandatory or vol-


Some suggest that Abram's was a primitive payment to the deity for

making him victorious in battle.55 This is generally a liberal idea56 and is

held only by those who deny that Melchizedek was a priest of the one

true God.

Others, chiefly those who view Melchizedek as a theophany, view


53 Kent, Hebrews, p. 129.

54 By using this qualifier the author is not intending to negate the arguments of He-

brews 5-7 or Psalm 110. For typological purposes, that moment of superiority was cap-

tured by the later authors and coupled with a few of the sudden and mysterious factors

surrounding the appearance of Melchizedek in Scripture to provide vivid illustrations of

the superiority of Christ. As with all types there is not a one-to-one correspondence be-

tween every detail, thus it is not necessary to elevate Melchizedek to some mysterious or

supernatural plane to preserve the analogy between him and Christ (as some have done

by suggesting that Melchizedek's appearance in Genesis 14 was a theophany).

Melchizedek, it should be concluded, was simply a literal, historical human being whose

life was directed by God to serve as a type of Christ (See Kent, Hebrews, pp. 124-27).

55 Westermann, Genesis, 2:206; Speiser, Genesis., 1:109; Wenham, Genesis, 1:317.

56 A more radically liberal idea, held by Gunkel (Genesis, p. 281) and Driver (Gene-

sis, pp. 167-68), is that the character Melchizedek was pseudepigraphal, being invented,

along with the legend of the Jebusite coalition, in David's time to lend legitimacy to the

establishment of his new capital in Jerusalem.

86                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


the gift as a direct act of worship to God.57

Still others suggest that the tithe was rendered to Melchizedek as his

share of the spoils of battle in compensation for his role in the conquest

of the four invading kings, a "postbellum distribution of the booty, in

which the spoils are distributed equally between those who personally

fought. . . and for those who for one reason or another did not actively

engage in the fighting."58 This reminds us of similar incidents in Num-

bers 31:17 and 1 Samuel 30:21-25, where personnel left behind were

afforded shares of the spoils despite their failure to actively participate in

the battle.

While this last theory is attractive, it has a few flaws. First, the tithe

to Melchizedek is set apart from the rest of the distribution of the

spoils--the tithe occurs in verse 20, but the provisions for distribution

of the spoils are not made until the very last verse of the chapter. Fur-

ther, Abram's tithe is mentioned in close proximity to Melchizedek's

priestly blessing of Abram, suggesting that his tithe-giving had a purely

spiritual purpose, not a politico-cultural one. The king of Sodom clearly

did not understand this exchange, and apparently thought that the divi-

sion of spoils had begun in v. 20. He immediately jumped in and made

his bid for the people of his city, abandoning all hope of regaining any-

thing else. Abram's negative response is quite revealing: he wanted no

blessings, material or spiritual, from the wicked king of Sodom to be-

cloud or overshadow the priestly blessing he had just received from

Melchizedek, nor create any sense of obligation of Abram to Sodom.59

As a result, he renounced all claim to the spoils. Third, Abram's com-

ments in verse 23, that he would not take anything that rightly belonged

to the king of Sodom, seems to indicate that, after Melchizedek's tenth

and a small mercenary stipend for the efforts of Abram's companions,

the rest of the spoils went back to their previous owners. This is in con-

trast to the ancient Near Eastern custom. While the spoils belonged le-

gally to Abram,60 simple kindness required him to return the property to

its rightful owners.

It seems most likely that the tithe was paid to Melchizedek as a vol-

untary reciprocation for the priestly functions performed by

Melchizedek and a thank offering given to God for the success of the

military excursion.61 As such it represented a willing consecration of a


57 Candlish, Genesis, pp. 142-46.

58 Hamilton, Genesis, 1:413.

59 Ibid., 1:413-14; Ross, Creation and Blessing, p. 300-302; Sailhamer, "Genesis,"

pp. 123-24.

60 Wenham, Genesis, 1 :317.

61 Delitzsch, Genesis,1:410.

The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                               87


portion of the goods to God through the hand of the priest, in acknow-

ledgement that the whole belonged to God.62 It also represented

Abram's recognition that the dispensational baton, as it were, was being

passed to him by its legitimate forebear.

Why Abram chose a tenth and not some other amount is not ex-

plained. As has been already demonstrated, payment of a tenth was a

universal practice in the ancient known world. We may hypothesize that

God, though unrecorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, established the tenth

as a general figure to be spent on priestly administration, but it may be

that this amount was simply selected by Abram as a reasonable amount

to fulfill sacrificial duty to God. Nor have we ruled out the idea that the

custom was merely adopted from Abram's heathen neighbors. Genesis

26:5,63 which informs us that Abrabam obeyed God, along with all his

commandments, statutes, and laws, could point to the first of these op-

tions, but there is no clear link of 26:5 with the specific statute of tith-


We may only speculate about Melchizedek's subsequent usage of the

tithes he received, but it seems likely that they went to finance the

priestly services provided by Melchizedek as a mediator for God.64




While Abram's tithe apparently meets with God's approval, several

factors lead us to conclude that it has little bearing on the levitical tithe

and on our current practice. First, the tithe mentioned here is unique to

the transition between the dispensations of human government and

promise and has no genuine parallels in the rest of Scripture. Second, the

silence as to the origin of and the apparently voluntary nature of

Abram's tithe render it unlike anything in the rest of biblical experience.

Abram's tithe had a purpose, origin, and nature distinct from the Mosaic




So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put un-

der his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top. He called the

name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had

been Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and

will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and

garments to wear, and I return to my father's house in safety, then the


62 Candlish, Genesis, p. 142.

63 See W. W. Barndollar's extensive discussion of this verse in his "The Scriptural

Tithe" (Th.D. dissertation, Grace Theological Seminary, 1959), pp. 80-99.

64 Ibid.


88                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


LORD will be my God. This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be

God's house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You."


The second and only other OT mention of the tithe prior to the

giving of the Mosaic Law comes in the form of a tithe promised to God

by Jacob after his ladder vision at Bethel and God's reaffirmation of the

Abrahamic Covenant to Jacob there (vv. 10-15). As in the

Abram/Melchizedek narrative, the Hebrew term rWefEma is used, so we are

sure that it is an actual tithe in question. Since this term has already been

discussed, we move directly to a study of the occasion of this promised

tithe to understand its purpose and to glean insights into the validity and

continuing applicability of Jacob's practice.


The Occasion


The event comes at a particularly turbulent period in Jacob's life, a

fact which weighs heavily on our study. In chapter 27, Jacob, true to his

name, had completed the two-fold deception of his father and brother,

and had successfully stolen the birthright away from Esau. Esau's resul-

tant rage and apparent intent to kill Jacob for the deception led Jacob, at

his mother's bidding and with the blessing of his father, to flee to the

house of his uncle, Laban, until his brother's anger abated.

In route to Laban's house Jacob is arrested by a dream in the city of

Luz (which he later renamed "Bethel"). In the dream, Yahweh renewed

the Abrahamic Covenant with Jacob. In so doing, Yahweh confirmed to

Jacob that he was the chosen son through whom the covenant blessings

would flow. Jacob awakens in fear and quickly erects an altar at the site

of the dream and gives a sacrifice of oil on an altar to God. Upon mak-

ing the sacrifice he offers up a vow to God that he would make Yahweh

his God and give him a tenth, presumably of all his possessions, so long

as Yahweh spared him, provided for his needs, and prospered him dur-

ing his sojourn at his uncle's residence. God was true to his promise, but

there is no indication whether or not Jacob fulfilled his vow.

Again, questions arise from the narrative that affect our under-

standing of the promised tithe. Was Jacob's promised tithe an act of

faith or part of some sort of inappropriate "bargain" made with God? If

the latter, can Jacob's tithe be considered normative or foundational to

the study of the tithe in the rest of the OT, or have any bearing on its

practice (or non-practice) today? Whether or not the vow was actually

fulfilled, what was the reason and purpose for Jacob's tithe?


The Spiritual State of Jacob


While most evangelicals have maintained that this dream finds or at

least leaves Jacob converted, there are three factors in the narrative and

The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                               89


one in Genesis 32 which indicate that Jacob's vow to tithe to Yahweh

was an illegitimate act of worship.

First, Jacob's reaction of fright upon the appearance of Yahweh in-

dicates an improper relationship to God. Many commentators take the

reaction by Jacob to be a healthy, reverential awe of God and his de-

scription of the site as "awesome," inducing genuine worship.65 If this is

the case, Jacob's succeeding actions denote consecration. This is a le-

gitimate interpretation of the terms employed. In fact, the "fear of the

Lord" seems to be the OT equivalent for faith (Prov 1:7). The Hebrew

root xry ("to fear"), represented in the Jacob narrative by the Qal im-

perfect and niphal participle respectively, however, has a wide range of

meaning, extending from a meaning of "reverence" or "respect" on one

pole to "terror" or "fright" on the other.66 The present context favors the

second pole.67 First, whenever the term is used elsewhere of Jacob in

subsequent contexts, it clearly denotes "fright," that is, fear that caused

him to respond by running or conniving, rather than trusting (e.g.,

31:31, 32:7, 11).68 Second, Jacob's ignorance that God could be here in

Luz (v. 16) may indicate that he was shocked to find God here.69 Waltke

and O'Connor concur, demonstrating from the emphatic adverb NkexA

that the verse conveys "a sudden recognition in contrast to what was

theretofore assumed."70 If this is the case, then Jacob is betraying a

woeful lack of knowledge and respect for the Almighty. Third, as Ham-

ilton points out, this is the only instance in the patriarchal narratives

(except possibly 15:12) that a theophany is ever met with astonishment

or fright. The other patriarchs always "took theophanies in stride."71

Further developing the "fright" idea of the term xry is Jacob's ap-

parent lack of faith in the explicit promises of God. After hearing the

promises, Jacob makes a conditional vow whose conditions were the very

promises he had just received from Yahweh. In verse 15 Yahweh prom-

ises to be with Jacob, to keep him, and bring him back to the land. Ja-

cob responds in verse 20 that if indeed God remains with him, keeps


65 Candlish, Genesis, pp. 294-96; Delitzsch, Genesis, 2:165; Ross, Creation and

Blessing, pp. 491-94; Wenham, Genesis, 2:223-25; John J. Davis, Paradise to Prison:

Studies in Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), pp. 243-44.

66 BDB, s.v. "xreyA," p. 431.

67 NIDOTTE, s.v. "xry," by M. V. Van Pelt and W. C. Kaiser, Jr., 2:528-29.

68 Hamilton, Genesis, 2:244.

69 Ibid., 2:243-44.

70 Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax

(Winona Lake,IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 670.

71 Genesis, 2:245.

90                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


him safe, clothes and feeds him, and returns him to the land, then he

would make Yahweh his God, pay tithes, etc.72 By thus casting his con-

version in the future, Jacob is apparently refusing to exercise faith at this

time. Some suggest the conditional particle, Mxi (“if”) used here precludes

a genuine contingency,73 instead meaning “since," or “forasmuch as,''

much like the Greek first class condition. However, the grammar of this

passage suggests otherwise. In his remarks about conditional clauses, Ge-

senius comments:

With regard to the difference between Mxi (xlo Mxi) and Ul (xleUl), the

fundamental rule is that Mxi is used if the condition be regarded either as al-

ready fulfilled, or if it, together with its consequence, be thought of as

possibility (or probability) occurring in the present or future. In the former

case, Mxi is followed by the perfect, in the latter (corresponding to the

Greek e]a>n with the present subjunctive) by the imperfect or its equivalent

(frequently in the apodosis also).74

The immediately following lead verb (hy,h;yi) is in the imperfect, and all

the succeeding verbs of the protasis are cast in the perfect with the v con-

secutive (making their function equivalent to the imperfect), clearly

demonstrating that the vow represents a genuine contingency.75 Thus,

his actions of building an altar and his promise to tithe on his livelihood

are not deeds of faith; instead, they are wary, fearful acts of a trapped

person to appease and "strike a bargain" with God.

To the grammatical argument we add an obvious theological one.

The sheer brazenness of a mortal establishing a conditional covenant

with the Almighty gives evidence to Jacob's unconverted state. To place

God under obligation to act a certain way and to stipulate that God

must fulfill certain obligations before one consecrates himself is not an

act of faith but an audacious challenge to God's sovereignty, inspired by


72 Hamilton suggests that the latter half of verse 21 is actually part of the protasis,

not part of the apodosis (Genesis, 2:248). As such the verses should read, "If God stays

with me. . . protects me. . . gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safely

to my fathers house and if Yahweh shall be my God; then this stone. . . shall be God's

abode. . . and a tenth will I tithe to you" (2:237-38). This interpretation does little to

change the "bargaining" arrangement proposed by Jacob.

73 Candlish, Genesis, pp. 294-95; also Barndollar, "Scriptural Tithe," p. 108.

74 E. Kautzsch, ed., Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, 2nd English ed., rev. A. E. Cowley

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), pp. 494-95. On p. 496, the very passage in question is

used as an example of genuine contingency. Cf. also Waltke and O'Connor, Hebrew

Syntax, pp. 526-27.

75 Barndollar makes a serious error in affirming that "all the verbs which follow Mxi

in verses 20 and 21 are perfect" ("Scriptural Tithe," p. 108), a faulty affirmation which

he uses to support his theory that there was no actual contingency in Jacob's vow. The

grammar, in fact, proves quite the opposite.

The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                               91



Finally, the events surrounding Jacob's dream at Peniel and his

wrestling match there (32:24-32 [25-33 MT]) indicate that this latter

event was the actual conversion of Jacob. The name change (v. 28 [29

MT]) from Jacob ("deceiver") to Israel (probably "let God rule"76) is not

a mere change of name, but is representative of a change in charac-

ter--from a depraved self-server to one who recognizes and submits to

God's sovereignty. Likewise, Jacob's naming of the site "Peniel" ("the

face of God") is not due to his struggling with God himself,77 but be-

cause he has finally come to a point where he has recognized Yahweh as

his God and, much to his relief, is enabled to exercise true faith in the

promises made to him at Bethel so many years before.78 The contention

that Jacob's conversion experience took place at Peniel, then, naturally

precludes its occurrence at Bethel or some prior occasion.

One notable objection to such a late conversion date for Jacob, and

perhaps the reason why most commentators assume Jacob to be saved in

Genesis 28, is the bequest of the Abrahamic promises to Jacob at Bethel.

It is contended that God's reiteration of the Abrahamic promises to Ja-

cob assumes his salvation. This, however, is a logical non sequitur. The

OT teems with examples of beneficiaries of national election, even heads

of the mediatorial kingdom, who were never converted (e.g., many of

the judges and kings, most notably, Saul). The unconditional covenant

promises given nationally to the patriarchs and their descendants had no

direct bearing on their individual election to salvation (Rom 9:6). Thus

it was not necessary for Jacob to have been a believer to receive the

blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant.

This author, with a fair degree of confidence asserts, then, that Ja-

cob's vow to tithe was made while he was yet unconverted. This fact,

coupled with the silence as to the fulfillment of the vow render this ref-

erence to tithing a rather slender strand of evidence for affirming the

foundation of the levitical tithe or asserting an ongoing tithe in our pre-

sent dispensation.


The Reason for Jacob's Promised Tithe


The fact that Jacob settled on a tithe as opposed to some other


76 Hamilton, Genesis, 2:334. There is a bit of debate regarding the exact meaning of

this name. The scope of this essay, however, does not require interaction with the debate

except to assert that the change of name signals a change of heart.

77 Whether or not the "man" with whom Jacob struggled was a preincarnate form

of Christ is a matter of considerable debate; however, since this is not, apparently, the

source of the name "Peniel," the issue will be left unresolved.

78 Hamilton, Genesis, 2:337.

92                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


amount may indicate that he had some prior exposure to the tithe. Jacob

may have been following the lead of his grandfather or other God-fearers

with whom he was acquainted. In light of Jacob's faulty view of the ex-

tent of God's presence, authority, and faithfulness to His promises and

of Jacob's willingness to demean God's sovereignty by "bargaining" with

Him, it is more likely that he was borrowing the tithing practice of the

surrounding pagans. As with Abram, no clear conclusions may be


Nor is it certain what the purpose or method of payment was if, in-

deed, Jacob fulfilled his vow. While Abram still had a priest external to

himself, it seems unlikely, if McClain's and Candlish's theory79 is cor-

rect, that any legitimate priests of Yahweh remained to whom Jacob

could pay his tithes.80 Perhaps he would have consumed the tithe on an

altar to Yahweh, or used it to finance priestly duties performed among

his family. Again, the text gives us no sound answers.




Because Jacob's promised tithe resembles, even derives from, the

heathen practices of his neighbors, it adds little to our study. The basis

for the levitical tithe certainly does not derive from Jacob's practice. This

fact, coupled with Jacob's unconverted state and the silence of Scripture

as to the fulfillment of Jacob's vow, should cause us to dismiss Genesis

28 from consideration in the quest for the genesis of the tithe.





If tithing were confined to the Mosaic Law it would be easy to dis-

miss its validity today. In that the Mosaic Law has been set aside in the

work of Christ (Rom 10:4,2 Cor 3:7-11, etc.), tithing, as part of that

unified legal corpus, would also be set aside.81 The pre-Mosaic tithe

complicates the issue, raising the possibility that the tithe might be a

trans-dispensational practice, part of the moral code of God, and thus a

continuing obligation for NT believers.

There can be no denial of the fact of tithing before the Law;


80 Cf., however, Barndollar, "The Scriptural Tithe," p. 111.

81 To be sure, many a covenant theologian would recoil at such a statement and as-

sert that the law is still in effect and the command to tithe is still in vogue (e.g., Edward

A. Powell and Rousas J. Rushdooney, Tithing and Dominion [Vallecito, CA:. Ross

House, 1979], pp. 11-14). The scope of this essay does not include this issue, so it will

be left for others to debate. Instead this section will address the continuing validity of the

tithe strictly on the basis of the pre-Mosaic practice.

The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                               93


however, the assertion of a continuing principle necessitates more than a

mere mention of the term "tithe" prior to the giving of the Law. As

Pieter Verhoef, a non-dispensationalist, concedes, "a pre-Mosaic custom

does not, as a matter of course, transcend the Old Testament dispensa-

tion, becoming an element of the universal and timeless moral code."82

There must also be clear evidence that the tithe was divinely mandated

before the Law or somehow sourced in God's nature. Further, there

must be a parallelism between the practice of the tithe in the pre-Mosaic

period and that in our present experience.


God's Nature and Mandate and the Pre-Mosaic Tithe


Many suggest that the universal practice of the tithe and the failure

of attempts to identify its origin in the secular realm point to its divine

origin and continuing practice from Adam onward.83 Others do not

trace the practice to Adam, but contend that God gave Abram direct

revelation, and "started allover," establishing a new precedent with

Abram that was continued by Israel,84 and presumably today. There are

many flaws with this theory.

First, it has already been established that neither Abel's nor Jacob's

practices are legitimate paradigms for a biblical tithe. Thus, we are left

with only Abram's practice to prove that the tithe was practiced by all

God-fearers for the millennia prior to the giving of the Law. This hasty

generalization from a single datum of evidence renders the argument

very weak.

Second, universality of practice in the secular realm does not prove

that God is the originator of the tithe. This is yet another logical non se-

quitur. It seems far more reasonable that Abraham was not acting by di-

vine mandate, but in accordance with the ancient Near Eastern customs

of his day.85


82 "Tithing: A Hermeneutical Consideration," in The Law and the Prophets: Old

Testament Studies Prepared in Honor of O. T. Allis, ed. John H. Skilton (Phillipsburg, NJ:

Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974), p. 122.

83 Landsell, Sacred Tenth, 1:38; Babbs, Law of the Tithe, pp. 24-25. E. B. Stewart

further maintains that «divine acceptance. . . is a demonstration of a divine institution"

(The Tithe, p. 37). This is a classic example of a non sequitur.

84 R. T. Kendall, Tithing (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), p. 45; Driver, Genesis,

p. 166; Skinner, Genesis, p. 269.

85 This possibility in no wise reduces Israel's religion to a conglomeration of pagan

practices that evolved into a final form. God clearly created the OT Jewish legal system

by divine fiat, and was by no means bound to pagan customs in his formation of the

Law. On the other hand, neither was he obliged to avoid all pagan customs in the for-

mation of the Law. Timothy H. Fisher, for instance, notes that the pagan practice of cir-

cumcision predates God's institution of circumcision in Genesis 17 by hundreds of years

("A Study of the Old Testament Tithe," [Th.M. Thesis, Capital Bible Seminary, 1990]

94                                Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal


Third, there is no basis for claiming that Israel derived her practice

of tithing from Abraham or Jacob. On the contrary, it is clear that "the

normative significance of tithing must be considered within the context

of the ceremonial law."86 Indeed, both post-pentateuchal injunctions for

Israel to pay tithes reference the Law as the impetus for the injunction,

not the practice of the patriarchs (Neh 10:36-39; Mal 3:7-10).

Fourth, there is never an appeal to God's nature or to creation as a

basis for tithing. How a mere percentage, apart from an explicit com-

mand, can take on moral value is impossible to establish.

Fifth and in summary, the hypotheses that the pre-Mosaic tithe had

its basis in God's command, God's nature, or God's approval all argue

from silence.


Parallels to the Pre-Mosaic Tithe

Another argument against the continuing applicability of the tithe is

the simple lack of present-day parallels to the pre-Mosaic practice.

First, Abram's tithe was apparently a one-time act, not a regular

giving pattern. There is no record of Abram's return to Melchizedek,

and the references to his tithe in the singular in Hebrews 7:4, 6 point to

a one-time gift.87

Second, Abram's tithe was made strictly on the spoils of war seized

from the coalition of eastern kings. While the Hebrew and Greek texts

simply state that Abram made a tithe of "all," this clearly cannot mean

he gave Melchizedek a tenth of his entire possessions--Abram surely was

not carrying such a percentage of his property on a swift military raid. It

seems certain that it was only the spoils on which Abram tithed.

Third, there is no present-day recipient of a tithe that can parallel

Melchizedek. The church bears little resemblance to a priest/clan-leader.

Furthermore, the usage of the tithe by Melchizedek and the church

(missions outreach, etc.) are dissimilar.

We conclude, then, that there is nothing in pre-Mosaic tithing

practices to serve as a basis for viewing the tithe as a trans-dispensational


p. 11, n. 1). This issue is also addressed by David G. Barker ("The Old Testament He-

brew Tithe" [Th.M. Thesis, Grace Theological Seminary, 1979], p. 131).

86 Verhoef, "Tithing," p. 122.

87 Again, Barndollar shows extraordinary carelessness in his exegesis, maintaining in

support of a regular tithe that "the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews declares that

Melchizedek 'received tithes of Abraham' (Heb. 7:6). The plural number of the word

certainly suggests more than one visit by Abraham to Melchizedek for the purpose of the

presentation of his tithes to the Lord's high priest" ("Scriptural Tithe," p. 60). While the

King James Version does cast the tithe in verse 6 in the plural, and the Greek term for

tithe, dedeka<twken (dedeka<twke in the Majority Text and Textus Receptus), is incon-

clusive, a simple comparison with verse 4 results in a conclusion opposite Barndollar's.

The Pre-Mosaic Tithe                                 95


and thus a continuing principle for the NT church. There is simply no

evidence to support the claim.




In summary, this paper leaves the reader with the difficult and per-

haps unsatisfying verdict that the pre-Mosaic title did not originate with

divine revelation. In fact, the evidence suggests identifying the practice

of the patriarch's pagan neighbors as the basis for patriarchal tithing

practices. It is only as God placed theological significance on the tithe in

Leviticus that the tithe became mandatory and meaningful.

One looks in vain for evidence of proportional giving in the Cain

and Abel narrative, finding only a few short verses to even fuel the possi-

bility that any sacrifices at all were given to God apart from expiatory

sacrifices. Certainly there is insufficient evidence to support a tithe.

The first OT mention of the tithe is in the context of an extraordi-

nary event with no parallels in the levitical system or today. Instead, it

was a dispensational marker heralding the shift from the dispensation of

human government to the dispensations of promise. The recipient of

Abram's tithe and its purpose have no parallels in NT practice or in the.

levitical system.

The second OT mention of the tithe is even less helpful, as the

promised tithe of Jacob is never said to have been actually paid and the

giver has been demonstrated to be unconverted at the time of the vow.

The recipient and purpose of Jacob's tithe, if it ever materialized, are

cloaked in such obscurity that the identification of any parallels in the

present-day or in the levitical system is impossible.

We conclude, therefore, that the pre-Mosaic tithe was merely a

culture-bound, voluntary expression of worship reflective of the ancient

Near Eastern practice of the time, and adapted by Abraham as a means

of expressing gratitude and attributing glory to Yahweh.



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal

            4801 Allen Road

            Allen Park, MI  48101

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: