The purpose of any study of biblical tithing should never be to justify stinginess, because this is clearly not the heart of God! Even if we find that the principle of tithing has no direct applicability to the Church, the study will nevertheless show that God surely desires a spirit of generosity and sacrificial giving.
That being said, I will show that if you wish to dogmatically insist on tithing Biblically, then you have quite a chore in front of you. During two out of every seven years, you must give 22.5% of gross. During roughly four years of every seven, you only owe 12.5%, but you must take another 10% with you to Jerusalem and consume it there. During the sabbatical and Jubilee years, you don’t owe any tithes or offerings at all, but you also can’t earn any money!
Tithing, as taught by scripture, may be summarized as follows:
- Technically speaking, tithing applies only to agricultural increase, because virtually all the people of ancient Israel depended on agriculture for their living. In practice, Judaism has always applied the principles to any form of personal increase. Of course, this broadening of application, though done in a spirit of Godly generosity, can be categorized as a “tradition of man.”
- The central understanding of tithing is that God is the real owner of everything; therefore, tithes and offerings are not ours to give! When a Jew “brings his tithes to the storehouse”, he is to do so humbly, realizing that he is merely conveying to God that which belongs to Him. Of course, there is always some ritual involved, but the ritual comes, not with the giving, but with the separating. In recognition of Gods bounty, blessings are always said at the time that the tithe is separated from the portion that God has graciously allowed the “giver” to keep for his own sustenance.
- Scripture does not demand just one tithe; rather, there are at least two separate tithes, and a smaller preliminary offering. We will not consider here the complex system of offerings (most of which were scripturally obligatory in Temple days) or taxes for the upkeep of the Temple itself.
- Before the larger tithes were given, one was to separate out the terumah gedolah, 1/40 of all his increase. This was not a “tithe” (ma’aser, or tenth), but a mandatory “offering” (terumah). Like the tithes, this was required from the “firstfruits”; in other words, “gross”, not “net.” The terumah gedolah was given to the cohanim (priests).
- After setting aside the terumah gedolah, one must then set aside the ma’aser rishon, or “first tithe.” This amount is a full ten percent of the gross, which in ancient days was given to the l’vi’im (Levites). Ten percent of this amount, the terumas ma’aser, was in turn parceled out to the cohanim.
- After setting aside the terumah gedolah and the ma’aser rishon, a “second tithe” was required. This tithe was a full ten percent of the firstfruits. Its disposition depended on the year. The produce of the third and sixth year of the shemittah cycle (the seven-year sabbatical cycle) was to be given to the poor. This was known as the ma’aser sheni. The produce of the first, second, fourth and fifth years was separated out and blessed, but was not to be given away—rather, it was to be brought to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) and consumed there. This was the ma’aser ani.
- During every seventh year of the shemittah cycle, and during every 49th and 50th year of the Jubilee cycle, no tithes or offerings whatsoever were required. This is of course because no work was allowed during those years.
As gentile Christians, we should realize that every mention of tithing in the Bible refers to practices mandated specifically by what we call the Mosaic Law—that is, the system of legal principles contained within the structure of the Mosaic, or Sinaiatic, Covenant. The covenants of the Tanakh (Old Testament scriptures), including the Mosaic Covenant, were covenants between God and Israel. The Mosaic Law was intended to set Israel apart from other nations and was never meant to be applied to believers of other nations.
The New Testament principle is that God’s people of the gentile nations should give cheerfully as God has prospered them. Though no amount can be legalistically demanded of others, I believe personally that if you don’t set a personal standard for giving that is sacrificial, you are in violation of God’s trust, just as much as if you were a Jew who withheld his tithes and offerings.
So, then, what is the “storehouse” to which tithes were to be brought?
Malachi 3:10 (ESV)
 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need
The storehouse is technically the Temple Treasury, more commonly known as the Court of Prayer, and more commonly still as the Court of Women. I don’t like the final term, because it is not true that women were never allowed to go farther into the Temple compound, and in point of fact, non-Levitical men rarely went beyond this court, either. The passage directly separating the Court of Prayer from the Court of Israel and the Court of Priests, where sacrifices were offered, was called the Nicanor Gate. Women were not allowed to pass through this gate, but when it was appropriate for them to move within, there was a separate door, the Gate of Offering Women, in the north wall of the inner Temple court.
Within the Court of Prayer, there were thirteen offering boxes, designated for contributions towards different tithes and offerings. It was into one of these that Jesus observed a widow dropping two small coins, Mk 12:42.