Tithing before the Law

With some methods claiming that the command to tithe was established before the Law, our initial investigation and search for answers begins with a consideration of all the examples of Scriptures in the time before the giving of the Law.

Did the tithe originate with Moses? No, Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils of his victory to Melchisedec (sic), and Jacob promised God a tenth for His blessings, and these men lived 300-400 years before Moses and the Law. (from an article entitled Should Christians Tithe?, www.letgodbetrue.com/bible/practical/tithing.htm)

...the truth is that tithing predates the law by nearly 600 years. In Genesis 14:20, Abraham gave the priest Melchizedek a tenth of all his goods after a daring rescue of his nephew Lot. (Hilarious Giving: Debunking Five Tithing Myths, www.lifeway.com)

A careful examination of Scriptures will see whether these claims hold up.

Abraham (formerly called Abram)

Genesis 14:11-24 The four kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. 12 They also carried off Abram's nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom. 13 One who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshcol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.

17 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). 18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20 And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself." 22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, 'I made Abram rich.' 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me--to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share."

A number of conclusions may be arrived at from a brief analysis of this primary passage regarding the actions of Abraham.


  • This was a spontaneous act of gratitude by Abraham. It cannot be considered an act of obedience since there was no command to do so by God or by Melchizedek.

  • Abraham did not command or desire it of anyone else in his household or company, not even of Lot who had now received everything back.

  • Abraham gave only of the goods he had extraordinarily acquired in this one rescue mission, all of which he had already vowed -- of his own choice -- not to keep (Genesis 14:23). Abraham is never shown as having gone back home and then return to give of his own possessions that God had blessed him with.

  • Abraham gave to one who appears to be a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus (a Christophany: see Appendix D). In the least, it was to a priest (and priesthood) that was directly established by God.

  • This giving of a tithe was a one-time event in Abraham's life. We never hear of Abraham or his son ever returning to give another ten percent, nor being commanded to.


A foundational question arises from what we have considered, so far, in regards to this one-time event in Abraham's life.


  • If Abraham is the classic example for claiming that tithing was established before the Law, how does his experience have anything to do with our common practice of today?


Jacob (grandson of Abraham)

Genesis 28:20-22 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth."

Jacob is used as another pre-Law example of tithing, typically second only to Abraham. Some merely reference Jacob in passing while others closely associate his act with that of Abraham.

Gratitude (Genesis 14:20; 28:22): The earliest reports of tithing have nothing to do with the law. Once Abraham and Jacob realized the mercies of God, thankful giving of the tithe seemed natural and necessary. (Emphasis ours. Tract: Ten Biblical Images of The Tithe, American Baptist Churches USA, 1993)

Others specifically single out Jacob's act, though often using similar terms...

Out of gratitude, Jacob also promised a tenth of his possessions to the Lord in Genesis 28:22. (Hilarious Giving: Debunking Five Tithing Myths, www.lifeway.com -- the publishing arm of the Southern Baptists)

As we analyze this brief passage regarding Abraham's grandson, Jacob, we must keep in mind the claimed "gratitude" and professed similarity to Abraham's spontaneous action.


  • Jacob bargained with God: If you'll do for me, I'll do this for you! This actually opposes what God has commanded, that we are not to put Him to test (see Matthew 4:7). This appears to be the act of a rebellious individual who had not yet learned to trust God. His example is far removed from the spontaneous gratitude and actions of his grandfather Abraham. Nowhere do we see Abraham making such a bargain with God.

  • Jacob was not acting out of gratitude at this time. His bargain only implied that he would feel gratitude if God did this for him. In fact, Jacob made his intent to follow God contingent on God first doing something for him: "If God will be with me ... and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear..." Sadly it is at this level that many people today want to serve God.

  • We are not even told in Scriptures if Jacob ever did give his bargained-for tithe. We do know that he offered sacrifices, which were consumed by those in attendance, and poured out a drink offering on the ground (Genesis 31:54, 35:1,7,14). But sacrifices are a completely different subject than tithing.

    Don't miss that the first part of Jacob's bargain, "and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house", didn't come true. Jacob had even brazenly named the place Bethel, meaning "the house of God" (Genesis 29:19). Yet, God's house ultimately went to Jerusalem. Bethel by the time of the later prophets was being referred to as Beth Aven, meaning "the house of wickedness" (Hosea 4:15, 10:5), as it was home to an abominable calf-idol merely called Jehovah. It seems God doesn't respond to well to one-sided presumptuous bargains imposed by men.


This obscure event in Jacob's life actually leaves us with more questions than answers.


  • Some skip Jacob's example, yet use Abraham's: If one is valid, why shouldn't both one time experiences be equally valid as examples? To be fair, some actually use Jacob's encounter indirectly to say that it proves the tithe was common, or commanded in Jacob's day, but they make this argument from the silence of Scriptures.

  • If Jacob was going to actually give his tithe, presupposing that give had to mean to another person, to whom was he going to give it? There was not yet a temple and priests (or church and pastors).

  • Is Jacob the type of example we would want believers to following? Is bargaining with God acceptable in regards to obtaining a blessing from a tithe?


More examples from before the Law

Here's the problem. The multitudes of other pre-law examples that we're often assured are (or should be) there, all seem to be missing!


  • Where are any examples from the lives of all the other righteous individuals who lived before the Law in regards to giving a tithe? If this practice was a widespread norm, before or after Abraham, where is the biblical evidence in support of it?


Other than the two isolated and very different occurrences above, only examples of sacrifices are shown as being common from the fall to the giving of the Law. Sacrifices are a completely different subject and they were clearly commanded by God prior to the Law. It was God who actually sacrificed the first animal as a covering for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21). The Law later built upon the early establishment of sacrifices, giving more details to how they were to be practiced and showing more of the symbolism that would later be fulfilled in Jesus.

All sacrifices are no longer required in the New Testament church (Hebrews 9:26-28, 10:1-14) as these pre-Law ordinances and subsequent portions of the Law were all fulfilled in Jesus.

Whereas a drink offering was mentioned in regards to Jacob, it should be noted that there were a number of offerings before and during the time of the Law. The many types of Old Testament offerings can be divided into the following classifications: (1) propitiatory (expiatory atonement): sin offering, guilt offering; (2) dedicatory (consecratory): burnt offering, grain offering, drink offering; (3) communal (fellowship): peace offering, wave offering, thanksgiving offering, vow, freewill offering. Only the "freewill" and "vow" offerings of the communal category were not mandatory -- until the giver had freely committed to give them. Overall, the offerings of the Law were directly tied to, and intertwined with, the entire sacrificial system.

As Jesus is our atonement, the one who consecrates us for His use, and who is our peace bringing us into fellowship with God, He fulfilled all need of the offerings of the Law in His perfect sacrifice and offering unto God.