Chapter 3

Before the Law: Jacob

The story of Jacob's promise to give God a tithe begins on his journey to Haran, the home of his mother's family. (Gen. 28) Jacob had gotten the birthright that belonged to his brother, Esau, by taking advantage of a weak moment. Then by deception he had stolen the special blessing reserved for the firstborn as well. So, in addition to the greater inheritance and privileges that belonged to the firstborn, Jacob also had an extra blessing that would further empower him to prosper.

Esau was furious and was planning to murder Jacob for revenge. Jacob had to flee for safety, but before he left, his father, Isaac, spoke a final blessing upon him and his seed, to receive the blessing of Abraham and to inherit the land that God had given him. At this point in time Jacob has been extremely blessed. He has the family birthright, the family blessing, and the blessing of Abraham conferred upon him as well. He should have a strong sense of blessing and confidence in his life but he doesn't, as we shall see by his actions.

On his journey to Haran, Jacob spent a night at a place he named Bethel. As he slept he dreamed and saw the Lord standing at the top of a ladder that went from earth to heaven. In Genesis 28:13–15 we have the account of what the Lord said to him.

And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;
And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.

God told Jacob what he was going to do for him: give the land to him and his seed, multiply his seed, be with him and protect him wherever he went, and bring him back home again. It was God's promise to him and it was based on faith alone. It did not depend on any conditional requirements such as tithes, offerings, or sacrifices. It was based on the original promise to Abraham, which was based on faith alone without any tithes, offerings, or sacrifices either. All God wanted Jacob to do was to believe him. God wanted to keep the promise for Jacob just like he did for Abraham, who became the father of faith.

When Abraham had trouble believing God's original promise, God confirmed it to him by a covenant. But even then God put Abraham into a deep sleep and walked through the slain animals without him. There was no contribution made by Abraham that obligated God to make the covenant or to fulfill it. Abraham is known for his faith. That was his part in his relationship with God.

In God's covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob there is absolutely no sense of any tithe, offering, or sacrifice made by the men to gain the benefits and blessings they received. God came to them and made promises that covered every area of their lives and required nothing from them but faith. Abraham was eventually required to prove his willingness to offer his son as a sacrifice. That in effect was a test of his faith because everything God had promised him was depending on Isaac.

Jacob's Unbelief

Jacob didn't respond to God's promise in the same way that his father and grandfather did. Abraham and Isaac accepted the promise by faith and continued on with their lives as God directed, but not Jacob. In Genesis 28:16–22 we see how he responded:

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.
And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.
And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.
And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God:
And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

Faith takes God at his word; Jacob did not. Jacob responded to God's promise by making a vow, which showed his unbelief. He said, “if” you will do all this “then” you will be my God and I will give you a tenth of everything you give me. God had just promised to bless, protect, and fulfill the original promise that he made to Abraham. He didn't ask for a tithe or anything else. Jacob ignored what God had just promised and started trying to manipulate him by making a vow. His vow was a deal he was making with God. He had more faith in a foolish bargain than he did in God's word.

Jacob had more evidence to base his faith upon than Abraham and Isaac had when God came to them. Jacob had the benefit of hearing all the stories of what God had done in their lives. He had grown up in the great wealth that God had blessed them with. But when God made the same promise to Jacob that he had made to his father and grandfather, he didn't respond in faith like they did. Abraham left his country to go to an unknown destination. Jacob wouldn't even commit to having the Lord as his God.

Faith Pleases God

God didn't ask for a tithe. He wanted faith. Besides, God expected more than a tithe; he expected one-hundred-percent commitment. This is a lesson that Jacob was very slow to learn. It wasn't until returning about twenty years later, when he wrestled with God all night at the brook Jabbok, that he finally committed himself to God.

God would have preferred a response of faith instead of the promise of a tithe, which was just a bargain based on fear and unbelief. The same is true today. God is looking for faith but many people are tithing out of fear. They are afraid their needs will not be met if they quit tithing. Fear-based giving does not please God and neither does the preaching that promotes it. “For whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23b)

During the period of time before the Law, God purposely made the issue of sacrifices and offerings to be a matter of freewill so that they could be a true expression of faith and worship. God prefers not to cheapen his relationship with man by setting requirements for offerings.

Concerning Jacob's vow to give God a tenth, we don't know what he had in mind. Did he plan to sacrifice a tenth of his wealth on an altar? That isn't the usual concept of a tithe—normally given to someone for their use, not for sacrificial destruction. Did he think he would find a priest and give him a tenth? It's not likely that there were any other worshippers of the true God in the entire land of Canaan other than the descendants of Abraham. Even if there were, God had not yet ordained any formal system of worship that included giving and receiving tithes.

God didn't institute a priesthood or a system of tithing to support them until the Law of Moses was given. Unless Melchizedek was actually a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ it isn't likely that he was still alive when Jacob returned from Haran. According to estimates of biblical dates, Jacob's return from Haran was about 170 years after the time Abraham met Melchizedek.

God didn't praise Jacob for his vow to give him a tenth. The Bible doesn't even say if Jacob ever paid it. Apparently it was not an important thing in God's sight. After all, it wasn't God's idea. It wasn't an act of faith. It was just faithless deal-making by a man who really didn't know God.

God had kept his word to Abraham and Isaac without any vows on their part. He had blessed, protected, and made them rich according to his promise alone. Maybe when Jacob wrestled all night with God at the river Jabbok he realized that God had never wanted a tithe, he only wanted faith.

Understanding Scripture

Just because a story is in the Bible doesn't mean that it portrays the will of God for the people involved. It certainly doesn't mean that it is God's will for us today in the New Covenant. The Bible records many things that men did which were not the will of God.

In the book of Judges, chapter 11, we have the story of Jephthah, a man used by God as a deliverer for the nation of Israel. In verse 29 we read that the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. Therefore, we know that God was with him and he was anointed to do battle and be victorious over the enemy he was about to face. However, Jephthah didn't feel confident to trust God alone, so he made a vow in an attempt to make a deal with God that would guarantee his success.

And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,
Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. (Judg. 11:30–31)

Jephthah went out to battle and the Lord gave him victory, but when he returned he had the grief of keeping the vow he made.

And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.
And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back. (Judg. 11:34–35)

Jephthah gave his daughter two months to go and mourn with her friends in the mountains of Israel. The Bible then records the tragic ending of Jephthah's sincere-but-misguided theology.

And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: (Judg. 11:39a)

The Old Testament and the New Testament both record many things people did out of ignorance that were not the will or plan of God. Their stories are included for our benefit but they are not all patterns for us to follow today. We have to rightly divide the scripture to apply it to our lives correctly. Life in the New Covenant is based on spiritual union with Jesus Christ, not on past examples of people who weren't born again. The resurrected Lord Jesus Christ is the model for us today.

Scriptural Conclusions

Therefore, in regard to the statement that tithing was before the Law:

The next period of time to be considered is during the Law. The scriptural references to tithing during this period are also misinterpreted and wrongly applied to the church. An objective study of tithing during the Law reveals some important facts.