The Tithe of Malachi 3:8-11 Was a Tax

Word of Faith, a.k.a., Prosperity Gospel, preachers love to talk about tithing. That refers to a traditional practice of giving 10% of your income to your church. If you listen to them, most likely you will hear the same things I heard.

  • “Tithing is the door that opens up the blessings of God.”
  • “If you tithe, you will be blessed. If you don’t tithe, you will be cursed. It’s that simple.”
  • “10% of your income belongs to God. Therefore, if you don’t tithe, you are robbing God.”
  • “Every sinner I know who got saved started by tithing. Then they saw how God blessed them and gave their lives to Christ.”
  • “God can’t bless that which is cursed. That’s why God isn’t answering your prayers. You’re not tithing; therefore, you are cursed.”

If you don’t mind my giving away the ending, all of that is crap. But I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so I’ll show you where that doctrine came from, and why it is both unbiblical and unchristian.

But first I want to make it clear I am not against tithing per se. Many people have given 10% of their income to the church their whole lives, and it has never been a hardship for them. It can be a good exercise in discipline and stewardship of the resources God gives you. I am certainly not against giving to your church. The church needs money to function, just like any other organization. What I am against is the message that every Christian is required to give 10% of their income to the church, even when it is a genuine hardship to do so.

Giving to the church should be done voluntarily and not under compulsion (2 Cor 9:7). It should carry neither the threat that God will curse you if you don’t, nor some false promise that God will give back to you more money than you gave. God loves a cheerful giver. Give because you believe in the work your church is doing and want to contribute to it, not because some preacher told you to pay your protection money. And if you think tithing carries a supernatural guarantee of positive ROI, stick around, because you need some truth.

What Do the Scriptures Say?

There are several scriptures that explain tithing. I believe the one most abused by prophets of greed to line their own pockets is Malachi 3:8-11.

8 Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.

 9 Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.  

10 Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

11 And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the LORD of hosts.

(Mal 3:8-11 KJV)

I can hear your thoughts now. How can you say this is unbiblical? There it is from the Bible, plain as day.

  1. If you don’t tithe, you’re robbing God (verse 8).
  2. You’ll be cursed if you don’t bring all your tithes to God (verse 9).
  3. If you tithe, God will pour you out a blessing for which there is not room to receive, and God will rebuke “the devourer” for your sakes (verses 10-11). I don’t know what “the devourer” is, but I want God to rebuke him.

I will probably say this a thousand times if the LORD lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting scripture doesn’t mean they are speaking the word of God. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all that begins with three things: Context, context, and context. This reading and the doctrines that derive from it are out of context. Therefore, it is not the Word of God. I’ll show you why.

How Do You Read?

Reading it rightly includes reading the whole passage. How do I know it’s out of context? Because I read the whole book of Malachi, not just the verses cherry-picked by prosperity preachers. Reading it rightly also includes asking the right questions, for example, who is this for? What is it really about? What did it mean to the people it was written for? So let’s see what a difference context makes.

Who Is This For?

If you read the whole book, right away you should see this is not for America or the church today, nor for you as an individual believer.

An oracle. The word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.

(Mal 1:1 NRS)

The very first verse Malachi writes tells us his whole message was for Israel. Contrary to what you may have been taught, America is not Israel. They were a theocracy. America is a democracy. And the church is not Israel. Israel was a nation. The church is not tied to any particular nation. Even though tithing was a requirement for Israel while the Temple stood, that doesn’t mean it is required for us today. Because Israel was a theocracy, the tithe could be considered a tax. Giving to God is voluntary, but taxes are not voluntary. And again, America is not a theocracy. It is a democracy. In a democracy, the church cannot impose a tax on people. Therefore, giving to the church is voluntary.

What Is It Really About?

To answer this, we have to ask another question: What is the tithe? Contrary to what you have been taught, the tithe is not 10% of your income, and it never was required of everyone, even in ancient Israel.

There are three parts to the Biblical tithe.

  1. 10% was given to the sanctuary in Jerusalem (the temple tithe).
  2. 10% was given to the Levites (the Levites’ tithe).
  3. 10% every three years was given to the poor (the poor tithe).

Add that up: 10 + 10 + 10/3 = 23.33. Why don’t they tell you you must pay 23.33%? Maybe because they know people would balk at that, especially if they claim that’s gross, not net. Many churchgoers can accept 10% of their income as reasonable, but 23.33%? On top of taxes that you already said are not voluntary? A lot more people would be challenging that.

That being said, prosperity preachers don’t claim all of these tithes. They tell you about the first part, claiming that the church has taken the place of the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, they are entitled to 10% of your income. And as Malachi says, if you don’t pay them your tithe, you are “robbing God.” But if we must pay that, then we must pay not only the temple tithe, but the Levites’ tithe and the poor tithe. They never tell us who should receive those. And they certainly don’t connect those with any blessing or curse.

Here is where context is important. The tithe Malachi refers to in the passage above is not the first tithe to the temple, but the second tithe to the Levites. Malachi was chastising Israel for not supporting the Levites. It had nothing to do with the tithe to the temple in Jerusalem.

A Tithe for the Levites

Who were the Levites, you ask? Levi was one of the twelve sons of Jacob whose descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel. While the other tribes were each given a plot of land, the Levites did not have any land of their own. That’s because God set them apart to serve as priests and ministers to all the tribes, with the provision that they would be supported by a tithe of all food produced in the land of Israel. You had to be from the tribe of Levi to be a priest, but not all Levites were priests. The majority of them served administrative roles in either the Temple or the government, as we see here.

 2 David assembled all the leaders of Israel and the priests and the Levites. 3 The Levites, thirty years old and upward, were counted, and the total was thirty-eight thousand. 4 “Twenty-four thousand of these,” David said, “shall have charge of the work in the house of the LORD, six thousand shall be officers and judges, 5 four thousand gatekeepers, and four thousand shall offer praises to the LORD with the instruments that I have made for praise.”

 (1Ch 23:2-5 NRS)

The Temple had not been built yet, but God had already told David that his son Solomon would build the Temple in Jerusalem. In this scene, David knows he is about to die, and he wants Solomon to know the assignments of the Levites. You see they administered not only the work of the house of the LORD. They were also officers, judges, and gatekeepers, i.e., civil officials. That is how we know tithes were taxes. At least some of them went to the people who were responsible for the administration of the government.

The claim some preachers make today is you are robbing God because the church is entitled to the Temple tithe. But when Malachi talks about robbing God, he means the Levites’ tithe. Therefore, there is no chance he is saying you must give 10% to your church. Why didn’t Malachi make that clear, you might ask? Because the people he wrote this for would have understood that. They didn’t need to have that explained to them. This is what happens when you read the Bible and “just do what it says,” but don’t take into account the fact that it was not written to us today. The book of Malachi was written to Israel in approximately 400 BC, not the church in the 21st century.

Food, Not Income

Furthermore, the tithes were not taken in money. Every tithe came from food that was produced in the land of Israel. That means only farmers and herders tithed. They gave tithes from the crops they grew and the livestock they raised. It was only food from the land, so fishermen did not have to tithe. It was only from the land of Israel, so Jewish farmers outside Israel did not have to tithe. And it was not money or income, so merchants and craftsmen did not have to tithe. If you think about Jesus and his apostles, four of them were fishermen. They did not tithe. Matthew was a tax collector, so he did not tithe. That did not stop them from following Jesus. Heck, Jesus himself was a carpenter. He did not tithe.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it say you have to give 10% of your income to your local church. In the time of the New Testament, there were no local churches. Believers gathered in people’s houses to worship. Even in the Old Testament era, they did not even say you had to give 10% of your income. They tithed food, not income.

What Did It Mean to The People It Was Written For?

The storehouses Malachi refers to collected food, not money. And as I already mentioned, this tithe was to feed the Levites. Since the Levites had no land of their own, they could not grow food themselves. God commanded those Israelites who were blessed with their own land and produced food off that land to set aside a portion of it to feed people who by the nature of their calling could not produce food for themselves and their families.

Since the tithe was food and not money or income, what does it mean that God would “open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it”? Opening the windows of heaven meant that God would send the rains in their season to make their crops grow. There would “not be room enough to receive it” meant their land would produce plenty of food for the tithers, more than enough to fill the Levites’ storehouses and their own personal storehouses.

What is “the devourer”? The word in Hebrew is ha-’ochel. KJV and ESV call it “the devourer,” while NRSV calls it “the locust.” NIV is the most explicit, saying “I will prevent pests from devouring your crops” (Mal 3:11). I think in context, NRSV and NIV get it right (see Translation Notes below). Even if the farmer is diligent in plowing, planting, and keeping wild animals away, and the right amount of rain comes at the right time, there is always the threat the locust will come in and devour all the work of their hands.

This was answering the objection that the tithes were too much of a burden for them. God is telling the landowners, “Obey me concerning the tithes, and I will make sure you have plenty of food left for yourselves and your families.”

When God chides them for not bringing the tithes to the storehouses, they understood that was the Levites’ tithe, not the temple tithe. God is chastising them specifically for not supporting the Levites. Of course, they still had to bring the temple tithe and the poor tithe as well. But that’s not what this verse is talking about. Notice how there are tithes not only designated to the Temple and its administrators but also to the administrators of the government, the judicial system, and the poor. Also notice the tithe is food, not money. I’m stressing that point, because that was part of the purpose of the tithe: to be sure everyone in the land of Israel could eat, even those who could not produce food themselves.

This was especially important during the religious festivals. Holidays like the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles were supposed to give them a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God on earth.

In the Kingdom of God, no one goes hungry. There is plenty for everyone, rich or poor.

It doesn’t matter if you are a wealthy landowner with full barns, a craftsman getting by on your trade, a tenant farmer, a fisherman, a day laborer living hand to mouth, citizen or alien, Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, widow or orphan, too poor or disabled to work, can’t afford it–none of that matters. You can eat your fill. God has blessed our land with plenty of meat, bread, grain, fruit, olive oil, and wine for everyone. It also shows why they collected food, not income, as tithes. It wasn’t because they didn’t have money then. They did (Gen 23:12-16; 2 Sam 24:23-24). It was because you can’t eat money.

Tithing and Taxes

So when Malachi talks about tithes in this passage, he’s really talking about taxes, not the voluntary giving we do in church. For those who didn’t meet the requirements to tithe, there were other taxes. But since we’re focused on the Levites’ tithe, I find it interesting that God commanded a tax that was only for the wealthy (landowners) and for the purpose of paying government officials and feeding the poor. When the wealthy complained about paying taxes and feeding the poor, God told them, “You have two choices. You can set aside the 23 1/3% I commanded for the priests, Levites, and the poor, because they can’t produce food for themselves, and keep 76 2/3% of what I provide. Or you can keep 100%, let people who serve Me and the public go hungry, and take your chances that the rain and the locusts will be favorable.”

When people wax nostalgic about the 1950’s and the old Leave It to Beaver suburban lifestyle, do they ever stop and think in the 1950’s, the wealthiest people were taxed 90%? They still lived well. Warren Buffet gives away 99% of his income to charity, and you don’t see him in line at the soup kitchen. When you deny government services and public assistance to the people, you rob the nation (verse 9). That is the real meaning of Malachi’s message on tithing.

Why Not Theocracy?

We are a democracy, not a theocracy. Our constitution is set up to allow everyone to follow whatever religion seems good to them, even if that’s no religion. Therefore, the government cannot be seen as favoring any religion over the others. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

Just because Israel was a theocracy does not mean we have to be. God does not have any kind of fetish for theocracy or any particular government. There is no authority except from God, so God can work with any form of government (Rom 13:1; Joh 19:11). The only thing God requires from those in authority is justice and righteousness (Isa 1:17; 3:14).

If we want God’s favor, we need to do what ancient Israel failed to do: execute justice and righteousness, defend the rights of the widow, the orphan, and the alien, protect the poor from exploitation by the rich and powerful, accept the results of our democratic elections because there is no authority except from God, and see that no one lacks basic necessities, no matter what race, religion, or nationality they are (Jer 7:4-6; 22:3). That is what I think a real Christian nation would look like.

Summing It Up

If your preacher is telling you that if you don’t give at least 10% of your income, you are robbing God, and that is the root of all your problems, they do not know how to read the Bible in context. Don’t be afraid. God is not going to sick “the devourer” on you. Tithing or not tithing has nothing to do with whether God answers your prayers or whether you are saved or not.

The blessing and curse described in Malachi 3:8-11 had nothing to do with giving to the Temple then or to the church today.

In the New Testament, it’s possible some people tithed voluntarily, but no one in the church was required to tithe. Jesus never connected his healing and ministry to people tithing to him.

But he had to get money somehow. Yes, people gave to him voluntarily but never as a quid pro quo. And no, tithing does not guarantee God will give you more money than you had before. If they promise positive ROI for giving to them, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t materialize.

On the other hand, if you go to a church where no one feels obligated to give 10% or any minimum amount, where some give more than 10% and are happy to do it, some give 10% because that’s what they have done their whole lives, some struggle to give 1% but give what they can, and some really can’t afford to give anything but come because they want to worship God in spirit and in truth, chances are good there is a place for you there.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment or question below. No trolling, but I am happy to engage in honest discussion and debate. As always, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Translation Notes

Ha-‘ochel (Mal 3:11 WTT): Verb qal participle, masculine singular absolute with definite article.

The most common meaning for this verb (’achal) is eat, consume, or devour. As a participle (’ochel), it often refers to some kind of destruction or the means of destruction itself, such as fire, wild beasts, the sword, famine, or pestilence. Sometimes it is the locust (Joe 1:4; 2:25; 2 Chr 7:13; Amo 4:9) or more broadly of pests that devour crops (NIV). Since in this context Malachi is talking to farmers concerned about locusts devouring their crops, this seems most likely.

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