A previous article looked at whether Abraham tithed freely as a result of God’s promises. This article will examine a similar case: that of Jacob’s tithe. Did he tithe freely, without obligation?
To understand Jacob’s tithe, we first need to understand the background of his life and recent history leading up to that event.
Jacob fled his home out of fear of being killed by his brother (Gen. 27:42-45). He was essentially sent into the wilderness. He was already heir to the promise made to Rebekah (Gen. 25:23). Being Isaac’s wife, she probably told Isaac of God’s prophecy to her.
To receive his inheritance, Jacob would have to be covenantally faithful to God. He was on the run because he chose to go along with his mom’s deception in order to defend God’s promise of his inheritance from his rebellious father, who, despite God’s promise to Rebekah, was trying to give Jacob’s inheritance to Esau.
Not to mention the fact that Esau had already once before sold his birthright to Jacob in exchange for some food. It was legally Jacob’s anyway by that point. Was this negotiation short-sighted of Esau? Most certainly. Remember his words: “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!…I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” (Gen. 25:30-32) Esau was so hungry that he thought he was about to die. Had he not eaten for days or weeks? Doubtful. He had come in from the field, presumably from a day of hunting. He was being dramatic. Jacob was being entrepreneurial and future-oriented. They made an exchange that was agreeable to both parties.
Therefore, by giving his blessing to Esau, Isaac was trying to overturn a legal agreement between Jacob and Esau. Not only that, he was trying to overturn God’s promise as well! In order to counter this nasty business, Rebekah and Jacob engaged in deception, and that deception put Jacob at odds with his family.
Jacob’s inheritance, therefore, depended on continual covenantal faithfulness to God after leaving his father’s house. He had already been faithful enough to come this far: to upset his family and call down his brother’s wrath upon him. He would have been foolish to abandon his faith in God and his faithfulness to God’s covenant after being stripped of the amenities of his daily routine (sources of food, shelter, drink, loving parents, etc) and driven into the wilderness.
After bearing witness to the vision of God and hearing God’s promise to him at Bethel, he arose and made a covenantal promise to God: if you keep me safe, provide for my daily bread while I am away, give me clothing to wear, and get me back to my father’s house in one piece then everyone will know that you are my God (“then the Lord shall be my God”). (Gen. 28:20-22)
He wasn’t saying “Unless you do these things, then…” as if he were threatening to turn and worship some other god in protest. Jacob had no intention of doing that. He was simply reminding God (as various kings, priests, and prophets have done throughout history) of the promises that he had made in his own name (Heb. 6:16). For example, Moses made a similar plea later in Exodus 32:12-14.
Jacob’s vow was one of covenantal subordination: as Gary North so clearly put it, instead of “If you won’t, I won’t,” Jacob was saying “If you won’t, I can’t.”
Jacob made another promise: he will tithe on whatever increase that God gave to him in the period between leaving and returning to his father’s house. At that point, he had no riches. He had no idea when he would return to his father’s house; he had only just left. He was acknowledging that his life was in God’s hands. Whatever God decided to bestow him with, he would accept and tithe the increase.
Why a tithe? Because that’s what Abraham gave to Melchizedek. The 10% is a token payment a lower priest makes to a higher priest. A token of what? Subordination. Why?
Because God is sovereign over all the universe, even over the individual hairs on our heads. God’s sovereignty is point one of the Biblical covenant. God’s priests are his earthly representatives who act on his behalf and guard and administer the sacraments; this is point two, hierarchy.
There are rival gods (idols) that pagans have constructed throughout history. Borrowing God’s model, all false gods have priests. Who are these priests? They are the earthly representatives of their god.
As we’ve seen before, tithing is an aspect of the priesthood. The lower priest tithes to the higher priest. The high priest owes no tithe because there is no higher priest to tithe to. Again, this is an aspect of hierarchy, point two of the Biblical covenant.
As North points out:
Jacob was coming before God at Bethel in the name of the biblical covenant: the sovereignty of God (point one: God’s sovereignty), his own sonship (point two: hierarchy), the blessing from his father (point four: sanctions), and his inheritance (point five: inheritance). He was affirming point three: law. How? By affirming the law of the tithe. (The Covenantal Tithe, p.48)
Isaac was a priest as the head of his household. While living under his father’s roof, Jacob did not owe a tithe because his father was the highest priest, and therefore there was no higher priest to tithe to. When Jacob left his father’s household, he became obligated to tithe because he was now living outside of his father’s household.
Here’s a question: who would he give his tithe to? Who would be the legitimate authority responsible for accepting his tithe? Anyone? Laban? A priest of a local pagan village? Would he “tithe” that money to God by pocketing it himself and distributing it at his own leisure?
Though the Bible doesn’t say, Jacob would have followed Abraham’s example of tithing to Melchizedek by giving his tithe to the highest priest: his father, Isaac (“so that I come again to my father’s house in peace”, Gen. 28:21). If he would have given the tithe to anyone else, he would have been visibly subordinating himself to the ecclesiastical authority whom the recipient of his tithe represented. Therefore he would not have tithed to pagan priests because he did not want to visibly subordinate himself to false gods.
He also would not have kept that money for himself because he would have been breaking the covenantal hierarchy. By keeping it for himself, even though there was a higher priest to give his tithe to, would have been exerting his own sovereignty over that money.
In effect, he would be saying “Yes, there’s a priest, a representative of the sovereign God of the universe to whom I can tithe and subordinate myself to. He exerts a claim of ownership over all things, not just some things. But instead of agreeing with him about that, I’m going to exert a rival claim: I own all things that the power of my might and my own hand have gotten for me. He didn’t play any part in my success. I did. He doesn’t get his share, because none of it is his share.”
He would have been, in effect, tithing to a false god: himself, whom he would be setting up as a god higher than the sovereign God of Abraham. He would have been committing the same sin Adam and Eve did: to be like God.
He affirmed to God that, upon his return to his father’s house, he would pay a tithe on whatever he had earned while living outside his father’s priestly jurisdiction. This was not a promise to do something extra. It was a promise to do something required. It was an affirmation of his faith in the covenant. It was an affirmation of his adherence to the law of the tithe (point three), which acknowledged his subordination to a priest (point two) by acknowledging God as the source of the blessings (point four). By this, he would maintain his inheritance (point five). God honored this request. (The Covenantal Tithe, p.50)
As the Bible tells us, Isaac lived long enough for Jacob to return home. Isaac lived 180 years, and when he died both of his sons were there to bury him. (Gen. 35:29)