18 Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine: and he was priest of God Most High. 19 He blessed him, and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth: 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” Abram gave him a tenth of all.
Genesis 14:18-20 (WEB)
Genesis 14:20 is the first time the tithe (or “tenth”) is mentioned in the Bible. This passage is often used to show that tithing is a moral law that preceded the Mosaic Law. As such, tithing is to be considered an eternal principle that was not replaced by the New Covenant after Jesus’ death. Let’s examine this passage to see what the Bible says about tithing here.
The Whole Story
Let’s first look at the rest of the story surrounding those three verses. The first part of chapter 14 explains that five kings who ruled in the area near the Dead Sea rebelled against a king from the North (in Mesopotamia) and his three allies. The four kings from the North defeated the five kings from around the Dead Sea. The five kings fled and verse 11 picks up with what the four kings from the North did after winning the war:
11 They took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their food, and went their way. 12 They took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed. 13 One who had escaped came and told Abram, the Hebrew. Now he lived by the oaks of Mamre, the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner; and these were allies of Abram.
14 When Abram heard that his relative was taken captive, he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan. 15 He divided himself against them by night, he and his servants, and struck them, and pursued them to Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus. 16 He brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative, Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people.
17 The king of Sodom went out to meet him, after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine: and he was priest of God Most High. 19 He blessed him, and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth: 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” Abram gave him a tenth of all.
21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people, and take the goods to yourself.” 22 Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted up my hand to Yahweh, God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, 23 that I will not take a thread nor a sandal strap nor anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ 24 I will accept nothing from you except that which the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men who went with me: Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre. Let them take their portion.”
Genesis 14:11-24 (WEB)
Abram Gave Only from the Spoils of War
It’s clear from reading the entire passage that the “tenth” that Abram gave Melchizedek came only from the spoils of war (in verse 16) and not from Abram’s personal wealth or income. Abram only took his trained men out to war, and he only brought back the things the kings from the North took in verses 11 and 12. Therefore, we know that the tenth that Abram gave to Melchizedek had to come from the spoils of war. This idea is also backed up in Hebrews:
Now consider how great this man was, to whom even Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth out of the best spoils.
Hebrews 7:4 (WEB)
It’s clear that this does not set a precedent for the Israelites. Abram’s example was never used in Scripture to justify tithing to the Levites or tithing from spoils of war (both are included in the Law).
Abram Gave the Rest to the King of Sodom
In verse 21, the king of Sodom offers to let Abram keep the rest of the spoils of war except for the people. But Abram refuses and tells the king of Sodom to give his allies their portion and keep the rest for himself. Abram refused to keep anything for himself because God had already promised to bless him. When Abram became rich, he wanted everyone to know that it came only from God and not from pagan kings.
If Abram’s example is supposed to serve as an example for Christians, then we would be giving away everything – well, at least the spoils of war that is. But this portion of the story is hardly discussed when using Abram’s example to support the idea of a tithe for Christians.
Abram Only Tithed Once
As far as we know, this is the only time Abram ever gave a “tenth” or “tithe” to anyone for any reason. No other place in Scripture records Abram tithing to God or any representatives of God. Abram may have helped the poor in other ways, but he didn’t seem to make a habit of tithing.
Abram’s Example Was Never Used for Christian Giving
Finally, if Abram’s example was intended to set a precedent for Christian giving or tithing, then it seems logical that we would have found an emphasis on it in the New Testament after Christ’s death. However, neither Paul nor Peter nor James nor John seemed to think Abram’s example of a tithe was relevant to Christian giving. Instead, New Testament Scriptures emphasize the importance of giving out of love and giving according to the Holy Spirit’s leading. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve never taken my spoils of war to church.
It seems strange that we should break from the teaching of Jesus or the Apostles to enforce tithing as a Christian rule simply from Abram’s example in Genesis 14.
Tithing in the Bible Series
This article is the first in a series that will examine tithing as it is presented in Scripture. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I suggest you sign up for free updates to Provident Planning. I’ve also completed a series on the giving principles outlined in the New Covenant.
If you have questions or comments, please take a minute to leave them below!