An old fashioned Bible study is offered here.
Today and in the Old Testament, tithing was the giving of 10% off gross pay or “fristfruits.” These verse mention the tithe. Therefore tithing is brought forward into the church, right?
These verses are about the order of the priesthood of Jesus and Melchizedek, contrasted with the Levitical order of priesthood. Let’s keep the plain thing the main thing; then we won’t take verses out of context.
Here’s why imposing or advocating the church tithe from those ten verses is out of line.
This post is divided into seven sections:
My Expanded Translation
The Main Point
The Missing Words
Objections and Replies
What the NT Actually Teaches about Giving
How Does This Post Help Me Grow in Christ?
First, here is my (tentative) translation of the key verses. Readers are certainly encouraged to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham who was returning from the defeat of kings and blessed him. 2 Abraham apportioned a tenth of everything to him. First, (his name) is translated as “king of righteousness,” then also “king of Salem,” which is “king of peace.” 3 Without father, without mother and no genealogy, not having beginning of days nor the end of life, like the Son of God, he remains a priest continuously.
4 See how great this one is, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the best spoils! 5 On the one hand, even the descendants of Levi receive the priesthood and by command collect the tenth from the people according to the law, that is, their brothers, even though they descend from the loins of Abraham. 6 But on the other hand, the one without derived descent from them collected the tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 Without dispute, the lesser is blessed by the greater. 8 Further, in the one case, men who die receive the tithe, but in the other case he is declared as living. 9 So to speak also, through Abraham, Levi who receives the tenth paid the tenth, 10 for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
The background of this passage is found in Gen. 14:17-24. Abram and an alliance of other kings defeated another king and his allies. Abram gave a tenth of the spoils of war to Melchizedek, who brought out refreshments of bread and wine and blessed Abram. But the patriarch gave away all the rest of the spoils to the other kings, in case they should boast that they have made him rich. This relinquishment means Abram did not tithe perpetually to Melchizedek as some sort of institution or lifelong custom.
See my post Who Was Melchizedek? for my translation of all of Heb. 7 and a verse by verse exposition of Gen. 14:17-24.
Also see my post: Why Tithing Does Not Apply to New Covenant Believers
The meaning of Melchizedek’s name adds more spiritual significance to his person or character or ministry. He was a righteous priest and king of Salem who seems to appear out of nowhere. Somehow he came to know the true God.
For more examples of people outside Israel who had a certain knowledge of God, see this post:
The absence of Melchizedek’s parentage or genealogy is repurposed by the author of Hebrews to show a timeless aspect of Melchizedek’s ministry and priesthood. (The Greek word, from where we get our word genealogy, can be translated as “without descent.”) His calling comes from God himself, not by the law of Moses or any other known law—unknown to the author of Genesis or unmentioned by him. It is important to the author of Hebrews to bring out this interpretation because he is about to draw clear contrasts between Melchizedek on the one side and the law of Moses and the Levitical order, on the other. The author of Hebrews latches on to the absence of information about Melchizedek’s past because of Ps. 110:4, quoted in 7:25. Jesus is in the order of Melchizedek forever.
“like”: translations of this one verb can read: “made to resemble” the Son of God or “made to be like” the Son of God” or just plain “likened to” the Son of God. In fact, it may be that it is the author of Hebrews who is “making” Melchizedek “resemble” Jesus in the author’s typological interpretation. He’s the one who is likening Melchizedek to Jesus in a free interpretation. (Verse 15 also says “likeness.”) This passive participle in v. 3 here indicates that we need to be careful about saying Melchizedek was the preincarnate Son of God in a Christophany (manifestation of Christ). Melchizedek has been made to resemble the Son in the author’s interpretation. Melchizedek was not the Son, but like the Son.
Melchizedek was the king of Salem and its priest. This further argues against his being a preincarnate manifestation of the Son of God. It is one thing for the Angel of the Lord–who is said to be God in some verses–to come to earth and bring a message. In those cases he is the preincarnate Christ. But it is quite another to say that Jesus was a king over a city and a high priest for an extended period of time, perhaps all his life! Such dual incarnations is unknown in the New Testament and takes away from the incarnation’s uniqueness. To be more specific, he was not a priest and king of Salem for his entire lifetime in a strange incarnation, which the New Covenant author never once noted elsewhere. No. Jesus’s first and only incarnation is announced in the birth narratives and in John 1:14, and in various places in the epistles (e.g. Phil. 2:7 and 1 Tim. 3:16).
Therefore, Levi, existing in the loins of his great-grandfather, did not pay the tithe to preincarnate Jesus. And it is doubly misguided to impose the policy of tithing based on this out-of-context interpretation of v. 3 here.
See my post Who Was the Angel of the Lord?
“continuously”: it could be translated as “unbrokenly” or “perpetually” or “from beginning to end” (Liddell and Scott). In this context, it is best to translate it as “continuously” or “perpetually,” since the author of Hebrews indicates that the priest had no mother or father and was without beginning of days or end of life. As noted, the author did not read of any parentage in Genesis, so he has in mind Ps. 110:4 (see Heb. 7:17), which says, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever’ in the order of Melchizedek’” (Ps. 110:4, ESV). The author capitalizes on this verse, especially “forever.” And therefore maybe it is best to say that he also has in mind that the order itself is perpetual, rather than Melchizedek himself. Note the hesitant phrase in v. 9, “so to speak,” indicating that the author is interpreting Melchizedek symbolically or typologically, but does not say so until v. 9.
This symbolic or typological interpretation, however, is not to say that Melchizedek did not exist; he did. But it is to say that his perpetual ministry may be in view, rather than the man himself. This is seen in the last verse of Heb. 6, which says, “Where the forerunner Jesus entered [behind the curtain of the temple] on our behalf, becoming the high priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (v. 20, my translation). So Melchizedek’s order of priesthood is more important than the priest himself. And the author of Hebrews also engaged in symbolical or typological interpretation of Levi existing in the loins of his great-grandfather. This is family solidarity, wrapped in the patriarch’s body, so to speak.
Thus the author’s theological and typological interpretation–though inspired by the Spirit–is not a strong foundation on which to build the practical policy of tithing in the church. It’s best not to over-stretch an already delicate interpretation of Gen. 14:17-24.
Even Abram the patriarch, the founding father of the Hebrews and Israelites and Jews—all three titles of the same people by historical stages—paid the tithe—literally the “top spoils”—to Melchizedek. This was a one-time act because he gave away the rest of the spoils of war to his allies. Abram grew rich, but there is no record that he perpetually paid the tithe to the priest.
Here begins the contrast between the Levitical order and the order of Melchizedek, with the Greek particles men … de. Men is used in v. 5, and its counterpart de is used in v. 6. (This intelligent use of the particles indicates that the author of Hebrews had some rhetorical training in the Greek literature of the more conceptual or philosophical kind.) To draw the stark contrast, I translate the particles as “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.”
Here’s the contrast: On the one hand, Levi descends from Abraham, and so do his sons, who received the priesthood by mandate and command and the law of Moses (v. 5). They descend from the “loins” of their great-grandfather Abraham, an idea the author of Hebrews will carry to its logical conclusion in v. 10. On the other hand, the one without derived descent (the Greek word genealogy again, see v. 3) from these Levitical priests received the tenth or tithe from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. In v. 7, Melchizedek was a high priest and king of Salem; therefore he has greater status than Abraham does, so Melchizedek’s blessing indicates that he is superior to the patriarch and so is Jesus of greater status.
What promises could Abraham claim? The ones delivered in Gen. 12. God promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation, and everyone who blesses them will be blessed, and everyone who curses them will be cursed (vv. 1-3). He also received the covenant and a reinforcement or confirmation of the promises in Gen. 15. Abraham believed the Lord, and it was credited or imputed to him as righteousness (v. 6).
See my post: What Is Biblical Imputation?
God initiated and unilaterally acted by his grace, and Abraham responded with faith. So Abraham is the man of God who receives the promises, in distinction to the later people during the time of Moses who receive the law and are people of God’s law. Righteousness was supposed to come through the law, which is an inferior channel when it is stood in contrast to righteousness by faith.
The author of Hebrews drives home the point of vv. 5-6 in v. 7, as follows: the priest of greater status (Melchizedek) blessed Abraham and the priests of lesser status (embodied in Levi). Therefore, the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood. Jesus belongs to the priesthood of Melchizedek, and therefore Jesus the high priest is superior to the Aaron the high priest (see Heb. 7:11-28).
This verse shows another sharp contrast. The Greek is even stronger than the men … de particles in vv. 5-6.
In any case, the Levitical priests died, yet they received the tithe, while Melchizedek was declared by Scripture to be alive—or his priestly ministry embodied in the person of Melchizedek is still alive. He received the patriarch’s tenth of the top spoils of war.
Once again, the single main point is that the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood. Let’s not over-interpret it with the practice of tithing in the church. To do so is to take the verses out of context.
The phrase “so to speak” can also be translated as “one might also say” (Shorter Lexicon). Here the author of Hebrews reinforces that he is speaking symbolically or typologically, which we can read back into the previous eight verses. Therefore, we have to be careful about making too much of a literal reading of “living” (v. 8) “without beginning of days” or “end of life” in reference to Melchizedek (v. 3). It is probable that the best interpretation is that Melchizedek’s priesthood—not Melchizedek himself—represents those perpetual things.
“So to speak,” or “one might say” that Levi was in the loins of his great-grandfather when Melchizedek met him. So Levi submitted to the greater Melchizedek. Levi is inferior to him.
As noted, this symbolism or typology does not argue that Melchizedek did not exist; he did. Rather, the interpretation of the interaction between him and Abram and Levi–hidden in Abram’s loins–is symbolic and representative. It is the literary technique of similitude (making one thing like or similar to another). Melchizedek is like the Son of God; therefore Abraham and Levi submitted to the Son of God, so to speak.
It is not wise to leap from here to the church policy of the iron law of tithing or paying 10% off gross pay.
My Expanded Translation
My expanded translation is very, very interpretive, but it it is based on Gen. 14:17-24, the previous translation, the exegetical comments, Heb. 6:20, and New Testament theology as a whole. Readers are certainly invited to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham who was returning from the defeat of kings and blessed him. 2 Abraham apportioned a tenth of everything to him. First, Melchizedek is translated as “king of righteousness”; then king of Salem means “king of peace.” 3 Without known father, without known mother and no known genealogy, not having beginning of days nor the end of life in the office of priesthood he established, like the Son of God, he continuously remains a priest as head of his priesthood.
4 See how great this Melchizedek is, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the best spoils! 5 On the one hand, even the descendants of Levi, after whom the Levitical priesthood is named, receive this priesthood and by command collect the tenth from the people according to the law, that is, from their fellow countrymen, the Israelites, even though they also descend from the body of Abraham, like the priests do. 6 But on the other hand, Melchizedek, who does not share his ancestry with them, collected the tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 Without dispute, the lesser in status (Abraham and by extension the Levitical priests) is blessed by the greater in status (Melchizedek). 8 Further, in the one case, the priests who die receive the tithe, but in the other case Melchizedek is declared as living in his priesthood, even today. 9 So one might say also, through Abraham, Levi who receives the tenth paid the tenth, 10 for he was still in the body of his ancestor Abraham when Melchizedek met him. (Hebrews 7:1-10, my expanded translation),
You can skip this interpretive, explanatory translation, for it is not my main point. My entire post does not stand or fall on it. It is simply designed to help the reader understand who Melchizedek was and his superiority over Levi and Aaron.
The Main Point of Hebrews 7:1-10
The main of point of this passage is now clear. It is to demonstrate that the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the priesthood of Levi and Aaron. The rest of Heb. 7 supports this obvious point and goes further: Jesus belongs to the order of Melchizedek, and therefore Jesus is superior to the Levitical order and Aaron the first high priest (vv. 11-28).
Let’s keep the plain thing the main thing.
And therefore to draw the church policy of tithing from these Scriptures wrenches the plain purpose of this passage out of context. And out-of-context interpretations is a weak foundation on which to build a far-reaching church practice.
The Missing Words in Hebrews 7:1-10
One thing the verses do not say is the following: “And now I, the author of this epistle to the Hebrews, apply my theological and typological reading of Scripture to the church practice of paying the tenth off gross (or net) pay to the church!” If he had wanted to teach the practice of tithing, he would have said so. Instead, he had a theological and typological agenda, not a church policy agenda.
We will be able to see how important this silence is when we look at other passages about giving, where the NT authors really do leap from the page and announce in effect: “Here is what we apostles and our apostolic community and even Jesus himself taught about giving. Follow our teaching, and we don’t teach the iron law of ten percent!”
See the section, below: What The New Testament Teaches about Giving.
Also see Who Was Melchizedek? for a translation and exegesis of the whole chapter.
Objections and Replies
1.. But Abram paid the tithe before the law of Moses came down (Exod. 19).
As I noted in a related post, many things happened in Genesis that we don’t bring forward to today. God sent a plague on the Pharaoh’s family (Gen. 12), rained down fire and sulfur of judgment (Gen. 19), and allowed concubines (Gen. 29-30) before the law was given!
Recall that Agabus predicted / prophesied a famine. The Christian community prepared for it (Acts 11:28-30). Agabus did not say it was God’s judgment through nature. It was simply a warning of what was coming. Nature was taking its course. The New Covenant makes all the difference.
Further, Jesus endorsed one man and one woman (Matt. 19:8-9) for marriage, and that’s how the church lived after the cross and Pentecost.
We have to be very careful about transferring OT events or customs–whether pre-law or post-law–into the New Covenant.
As noted in another post, here’s what we bring forward from the entire Old Testament to the New Testament:
- Moral law (e.g. some in the Torah)
- Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs)
- Devotional literature (Psalms)
- Prophecies (Messianic or otherwise)
- Stories and principles to teach life lessons (e.g. Genesis and parts of the Torah and the histories and the Prophets, and so on)
- Universal revelations about who God is (e.g. he is loving and gracious and a judge)
- All the promises, e.g. salvation, redemption, blessings, and so on (2 Cor. 1:20)
(As a sidebar comment, I believe that Genesis was written after the law was given and reflects many, though not all, ideas in the post-Sinai history of ancient Israel. But that’s not the main point of this post.)
As noted in the same post, here are some things we do not bring forward from the Old to the New:
- Old Sinai Covenant (Heb. 8-10, all the next points come from it)
- Harsh punishments for private sins (Jesus took the penalties of sins on the cross)
- None of the curses embedded in the Sinai Covenant
- Rituals and ceremonies (yes, Sabbath is a ritual and we are free from it; Luke 6:5; Rom. 14:5-6; Col. 2:16-17)
- Jesus fulfills Yom Kippur
- Exclusive class of priests (we are all priests; 1 Pet. 2:5, 9)
- Kosher food laws (Mark 7:19; Col. 2:16; 1 Tim. 4:3; Heb. 13:9-10)
- Circumcision (Rom. 2:25-29; 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:2-3; Col. 2:11)
- Theocratic religious taxes;
- Animal sacrifices (Heb. 9-10)
- Festivals (three were required yearly: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (see Exod. 23:14-19; 1 Cor. 5:8; Col. 2:16)
- Natural disasters caused directly by God to judge nations: Click here: Does God Cause Natural Disasters to Punish People Today?
The documents of the apostolic community (The New Testament) can guide us.
Further, Paul did not sharply split the law given in Exodus on Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19) from Genesis. For him, the first five books of the Bible–the Torah–were the whole law. For example in Rom. 3:31, the last verse in that chapter, Paul says salvation by faith alone is established in the law. Which law? Where? In Rom. 4, he goes on to use Abraham as the example of faith, for the patriarch was in the law because Genesis was part of the law, and Abraham’s life is found only in Genesis. Therefore the law itself supports faith as the means to gifted righteousness.
Another example: in Gal. 4:21 he uses the same strategy of Genesis being in the law, writing: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” Then he discusses Sarah and Hagar, whose lives are recorded only in Genesis. He interpreted their lives allegorically and drew from Genesis spiritual truths, but he did not split Genesis off from the Torah. Therefore, even the law itself (Genesis) supports salvation through faith. And therefore, it is not as though Genesis supersedes the law after Exod. 19. Rather, the New Covenant Scriptures supersedes the whole Torah–except those areas mentioned in the list above. This is particularly true of the custom–not the moral law–of tithing in Genesis.
See my posts:
2.. But material resources really and actually changed hands, from Abram to Melchizedek. Therefore the tithe is valid even for the church today.
Yes, material resources really did change hands, but Heb. 7:1-10 is all about the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood over the Levitical priesthood. Levi existed in the loins of his great-grandfather and “paid” the tithe; that is, pre-born Levi submitted to Melchizedek. Jesus belongs to the order of Melchizedek and even fulfills it; therefore Jesus is superior to the priestly order of Levi and Aaron. Let’s not over-reach the purpose of Heb. 7:1-10 and teach tithing from it as a matter of church practice.
See the post:
3.. But the tithe went to timeless Melchizedek, who may have been a Christophany, so the tithe is timeless. Therefore we pay the tithe to Jesus the high priest today.
As noted in my comments under v. 3, Jesus was not a priest and king of Salem for his entire lifetime in a strange incarnation, which the New Covenant author never once noted elsewhere. No. Jesus’s first and only incarnation is announced in the birth narratives and in John 1:14, and in various places in the epistles (e.g. Phil. 2:7 and 1 Tim. 3:16). Melchizedek was like the Son; he was not the Son (v. 3). This is standard typology. Another example of a typologial interpretation: Joseph in Genesis is like Jesus, but he was not Jesus.
Further, the tithe simply indicates that Levi, still existing in the loins of Abram, submitted to the first and greater priest, Melchizedek. One gets the impression that if Abram had simply knelt before Melchizedek, submitting to him, and had spoken words that Melchizedek was the great high priest, and Melchizedek blessed him, then the author of Hebrews would have still argued that Levi himself bowed and spoke those words and received blessing while still in Abram’s loins. So the transference of wealth is incidental to the main theological point: the superiority of Melchizedek over Levi and hence the superiority of Jesus the high priest over Levi and Aaron the high priest.
Most importantly, to repeat, the author of Hebrews did not take the opportunity in his highly theological and typological passage to jump out of this passage and teach that the church should tithe as a matter of church policy. He could have, if he wanted, as the next section shows.
See the section “The Missing Words,” above.
What the New Testament Actually Teaches about Giving
When we look at what the NT teaches about giving, we can see why it is important that the author of Hebrews 7:1-10 does not use this opportunity to teach the church policy of tithing. As I noted in a related post, the New Testament authors (or Jesus himself) do take the opportunity to teach giving, and nowhere do they impose the iron law of ten percent.
We can’t cover all clear New Testament Scriptures on giving, but here are some key ones. I letter my points for clarity and conciseness.
A..Going all the way back to the initial building of the desert tabernacle, the people were willing and their hearts were moved (Exod. 35:4, 21-22). Yes, these resources were used to build the (now obsolete) tabernacle, but the offerings were voluntarily, and this outlook is what the New Covenant Scriptures adopts from the Old.
B.. Acts 4:32-37 says a small (but growing) community in Jerusalem, when the temple was still going strong, shared everything in common, but they did not demand the entire Christian community to pay a tax to them. They did not even bring up a tithe-tax to the growing Christian community. This giving was voluntary, the opposite of a tithe-tax. And no one was getting rich, either.
C.. Acts 6:1-7 says the Hellenistic widows in Jerusalem when the temple rituals were going strong were being neglected in the daily distribution of food, so seven deacons or servants were appointed to take care of the problem. The text never says the earliest Christians were to tithe.
D.. Gal. 6:6 says, “Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructors.” Those who are taught spiritual truths must share material things with their teachers. But the giving does not equal a tithe-tax or even a tithe. Paul missed his chance to impose the tithe on the Galatians. No amount was specified.
E.. In 1 Cor. 9:9 Paul quotes the Law of Moses for guidance: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” [Deut. 25:4]. Those who plow and thresh the grain should share in the harvest (v. 10). He applies this verse to support those who minister the gospel. They should be able to reap material benefits for the spiritual truths they share. But Paul, once again, did not impose a tithe-tax, even though in one chapter later, in Deut. 26, Moses had imposed the tithe-tax.
And further note that in Gal. 6:6 or 1 Cor. 9:9 Paul never uses the law of tithing to drive home his point about generosity and giving. Instead he used an ox and a farmer, not a Levite or priest! And the temple in Jerusalem was still under the Levitical system when Paul wrote those words!
F.. In 1 Cor. 9:13-14 Paul mentions that those who work in the temple get paid by the food of the temple and by the offerings at the altar. The temple rituals were still going on when he wrote those words, but the only conclusion he draws is this: “In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (v. 14). This was the perfect time to impose the tithe-tax, but he didn’t. Rather, the general principle is that people who minister the gospel should be able to receive support from those who benefit from their ministries. No word about ten percent off gross (or net) pay and a curse on those who refuse.
G.. In Mark 12:41-44, Jesus sat opposite to the offering receptacles for the temple treasury. Some people threw in huge amounts. But a widow put in two small copper coins. Jesus called out to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on” (vv. 43-44). The point was not a teaching on the tithe, but sacrificial generosity. God owns everything we have.
H.. In 1 Tim. 6:18-19, Paul urged the rich in this world to be generous (emphasis added): “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” No word about tithing 10% off gross pay or else be subjected to a curse-consequence. Just be generous.
See my post Why Tithing Does Not Apply to New Covenant Believers and point no. 21 for more teaching about giving from 2 Cor. 8-9.
The main point in all of these Scriptures is generosity. Preach that word during every offering. Leave tithing in the past, and grow people up past “inspiration and do-as-you-feel” in giving. Tell them the New Covenant and life in the kingdom of God requires generosity with God’s kingdom resources he has entrusted to kingdom citizens.
How Does This Post Help Me Grow in Christ?
In our reading of Scripture, whether devotional or studious, it is never a good idea to go beyond the purpose of a passage and impose our own agenda on it. This is especially true if our agenda is designed to influence the entire church with a policy. It is best to keep the plain thing the main thing, in any section of Scripture.
It is clear that the New Testament teaches generosity, not the iron law of ten percent off of gross (or net) pay. God endorses his New Covenant’s teaching, not a national theocratic tax called the tithe coming from the Old Testament, whether from Genesis or the rest of the Torah–all of it being the Law.
Dear people of God, give something regularly and generously.
That link covers other passages that seem to teach tithing (e.g. Matt. 23:23 and Luke 11:42). They don’t.