So far, we have looked at tithing as described in the book of Deuteronomy. But the practice of tithing in the ancient Near East certainly predates by far even the time of Moses, the leader who is quoted at length throughout that book. In the New Testament (the last part of the Christian Bible), we read in the book of Hebrews, chapter 7, that “Father Abraham” (the traditional ancestor of the Jews and Arabs, and a number of other ancient peoples) paid tithes to someone named “Melchizedek” (see verses 2, 4, 6). A reference back to Genesis, chapter 14, gives us further information about this Melchizedek who is said to be both king and priest (the name in Hebrew is often translated “king of righteousness,” but probably originally signified “legitimate [i.e, “righteous”] king,” a king who is not a usurper, one who is born to the throne). In this Genesis passage, which is undoubtedly ancient, possibly even contemporary with the events it describes, Abraham (here named Abram) is pictured as a resolute tribal chieftain who must rescue his nephew Lot from a coalition of enemy kings (actually glorified “kinglets” ruling over small city-states in the Late Bronze Age). Still, Abram’s courage is exemplary, for he and his small army of allies, including some 318 men from his own household (note the exact number as given in v. 14, a sign of contemporaneity), do succeed in rescuing Lot and recovering all his possessions; and in gratitude for this success, offers a “tithe” of the spoils of war to the aforementioned Melchizedek, who is described as “king of Salem” (probably a shortened name of the city-state of Jerusalem), and “priest of God Most High” (Hebrew, ‘El ‘Elyon). Once again, this “tithe” is specifically said to be from the spoils of victory (see v. 20), representing a one-time gift in gratitude for victory in battle (the practice of tithing was widespread in the ancient Near East—indicating a typical amount of generosity in giving to temples and/or royal officials).
So then, why is this tithe brought up in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament? Answer: this is once again the typical gift one might give to a temple and/or royal official (in a nice bit of parallelism, the recipient here is both a temple and a royal official, a point particularly stressed by the writer of Hebrews!). Also in a further bit of allegory, the writer of Hebrews then stresses that Levi (the ancestor of the Levitical priesthood—the priesthood found in the Mosaic Tabernacle, and later in the Temple of Solomon), as it were, himself paid tithes to Melchizedek (since his “seed” already existed, as it were, in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham). Talk about “paying it forward”!
OK, a lot of biblical details here. The point is, Melchizedek was greater than even Levi, the ancestor of all the later Israelite priests and temple officials (one pays one’s tithes to someone greater than oneself). In fact, even Father Abraham himself is not greater than Melchizedek (who in the book of Hebrews is taken as a type [or specific foreshadowing] of Jesus Christ—the greatest king/priest of all). The point of these chapters in Genesis and in Hebrews is that Abraham was great, but Melchizedek was greater. (Maybe, especially for the Hebrews references, one can also argue that we can bless our great-grandchildren in advance by giving a tithe of our victory-spoils to those who have blessed us in our military endeavors).
So in conclusion, next time you win a battle against a powerful enemy, celebrate your victory by giving one-tenth of your spoils of war to any powerful king/priest who has given you a blessing. After all, it was the accepted thing to do back in the ancient Near East.