(Reprinted from Numbers [Vallecito, CA; Ross House Books, 2006], 211-214.)
25. And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
26. Thus speak unto the Levites, and say unto them, When ye take of the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then ye shall offer up an heave offering of it for the LORD, even a tenth part of the tithe.
27. And this your heave offering shall be reckoned unto you, as though it were the corn of the threshingfloor, and as the fulness of the winepress.
28. Thus ye also shall offer an heave offering unto the LORD of all your tithes, which ye receive of the children of Israel; and ye shall give thereof the LORD's heave offering to Aaron the priest.
29. Out of all your gifts ye shall offer every heave offering of the LORD, of all the best thereof, even the hallowed part thereof out of it.
30. Therefore thou shalt say unto them, When ye have heaved the best thereof from it, then it shall be counted unto the Levites as the increase of the threshingfloor, and as the increase of the winepress.
31. And ye shall eat it in every place, ye and your households: for it is your reward for your service in the tabernacle of the congregation.
32. And ye shall bear no sin by reason of it, when ye have heaved from it the best of it: neither shall ye pollute the holy things of the children of Israel, lest ye die. (Numbers 18:25-32)
The priests and the Levites had a common purpose, the service of the Lord. The priests were primarily centered on sacrifice and worship, whereas the Levites had instruction as their basic function (Deut. 33:10). While in the wilderness, the care of the sanctuary predominated for the Levites. Once they were in Canaan, only a small minority were needed for sanctuary service; the rest had broader duties, basically related to instruction.
In the church today, the division is somewhat less clear but is still there. The work of the clergy centers on worship, but, basic to worship now is preaching, a Levitical service. The clergy thus is not only the heirs of the priests but also of the Levites.
The modern Levites are Christian scholars. It is important to note how early thinkers and teachers, writers and philosophers, were basic to the life of the early church. The surviving literature of the church fathers tells us how important scholarship was to the early church. The pagan scholars were not connected with the various temples to the pagan gods. They were tutors to the wealthy and had only contempt for the common man. The ideas represented by Plato's Republic, the manipulation and total control of most people by philosopher-kings, were common to pagan thinkers. Scholarship was an adjunct to aristocracy, and was not a religious function.
Thus the support of scholarship by Christians was a remarkable development in the world's history. It is worth noting that the Reformation was the work of Christian scholars.
In this text, we are told, first, that the tithe was to be paid normally, in whatever form it was given, to the Levites. These gifts were holy and belonged to God for the work of His Kingdom. To misuse the tithe was to "pollute the holy things of the children of Israel," and it would bring God's judgment of death (v. 32). Second, the Levites were in turn to tithe the people's tithe to the priests or sanctuary, for the purpose of furthering worship. If what the Levites received was in the form of ranch and farm products, the best of the tenth had to go for worship, with nine tenths retained for Levitical purposes.
When Jesus and Paul required the support of the servants of God, they had reference to this law (Matt. 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 9:3-10, 16:2).
The observations of James Philip on this text are excellent. First, in God's plan everything depends on this fact of tithing. It provides the funding for a variety of activities, worship, health, education, and welfare, and also scholarship. The tithe is God's tax, the rent which is His due, but no man or institution is empowered to collect it. Thus, a people get the kind of society they pay for in their tithing. "It is plain to see that everything in the Israelite economy really depended on the principle of tithing being adopted and strictly adhered to. Only thus would the system work." The alternative to a tithing society is a tyrant state and its oppressive taxation.
Second, "the spiritual impoverishment" of our time is due to the failure to tithe. Men seem to prefer the Internal Revenue Service and its power-state to tithing and a free society.
Third, in Philip's telling words,
The significance of the tithe is that it is similar in principle to the institution of the Sabbath day of rest. Israel was to keep the Sabbath day holy and devote it entirely to God as a symbol that all days belonged to Him. In the same way the tithe is the symbol that all we have is the Lord's; to practice tithing is therefore a standing witness of our recognition that this is so.1
Both the tithe and the Sabbath tell us to rest in the Lord and in confidence that His government alone gives us peace and prosperity.
Then, fourth, the subject of tithing is referred to in Deuteronomy 12:6, 11 and 26:12, and Deuteronomy was used in the instruction of children. The tithe is important to shaping the future, and therefore children need to be taught its necessity.
We can add, fifth, that a non-tithing culture is a dying one, because it does not provide for its future under God. Christendom has been unique in world history, in that Christian scholarship has again and again revived culture by providing a framework for the future. When we look at the modern academic community at its best, we see men who are able critics, analysts, and historians, but their orientation is to the past and to the present. They are more than incompetent in their views of the future.
No other religion or culture has ever had any provision resembling this. The magi or wise men of Babylon were state-trained and state-controlled experts in various fields. The purpose of their work was to serve the state.
The quick rise of scholarship in the early church has not received sufficient attention. Paul says of Christ's purpose for His people,
11. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
12. For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-12)
The word prophet means one who speaks for God, one who enlightens us to see things in God's perspective. A teacher, didaskalos, is an instructor, master, doctor, or teacher. The early church thus had its doctors or teachers who were philosophers, theologians, historians, and so on. These were men supported by the believers.
In ancient China, and until recently, various scholars, Confucians especially, were state officials, and all scholarship was state oriented and state governed. This has been the pattern wherever in any culture we find scholars. The exception has been ancient Israel and, since Christ's day in particular, Christendom.
The Levites were not allowed to neglect worship. They had to tithe and thereby witness to the priority of the worship of God; the top tenth of the tithe to them had to go for worship. But nine tenths remained with the Levites in order to further the dominion mandate of the faith. Whether in the area of knowledge, agriculture, science, and in all things else, we are required to exercise dominion (Gen. 1:26-28).
Without the tithe, without the support of Christian scholarship, we get at best a static society, and static societies are very prone to decay and collapse.
The purpose of Christian scholarship should be to clarify our vision of the past and present, to make clear God's requirements of us, to further our knowledge in every sphere, to give freedom for the exercise of the arts and sciences under God, and much, much more.
Without the tithe and the provision for the Christian teacher and scholar, a moral paralysis overtakes the church and society. This century has seen the moral paralysis of men and nations. The crisis will not go away automatically; no historical pendulum swings men and nations back into health when they are willfully committing suicide. The crisis deepens daily, and the popular solutions are more and more ridiculous and inane. We have bought disaster; we will have nothing unless we turn to God's law and way.
1. James Philip, Numbers: The Communicator's Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 212.