#257. Were the Levites allowed to eat their tithes anywhere OR only in front of Yahweh? (Num 18:31 vs Deut 12:17-18, 14:23)


The history of the institution of tithing—allocating a tenth part of your produce and flocks—in ancient Israel is anything but clear from the scattered biblical references. It’s apparent that the institution went through a variety of changes. In some of the oldest traditions, for example, we hear of kings who taxed their subjects one-tenth of their grain crops, fruits, and even flocks (1 Sam 8:15-17).

More commonly, however, the tithe is presented as part of the priestly institution. And as you might surmise from earlier entries here, since we known of at least two competing priestly guilds, each of which left behind a text—Deuteronomy (D) and Leviticus-Numbers (P)—differences and disagreements arose concerning the tithe. I have already noted these differences in contradictions #214-216.

This current contradiction is more the result of Josiah’s centralization of the cult at Jerusalem and what naturally followed because of this. As noted in contradictions #117, #187, #194-197, etc., the 7th century BCE text of Deuteronomy was written to legitimate and promulgate king Josiah’s religious reforms, one of which was the centralization of the cult and thus also Yahweh’s altar at Jerusalem, at “the place where Yahweh your god will choose to tent his name” (Deut 12:5, 11, 14, 18, etc.)

As noted in contradiction #138, prior to Josiah’s reforms, the earlier Elohist tradition informs us that sacrifices, and offerings of first-fruits and tithes to Yahweh occurred anywhere there was an altar to Yahweh, and the picture we get (indeed from the book of Kings as well—in fact right up to Josiah’s reforms in 2 Kngs 22-23) is that there were many earthen altars to Yahweh among the high places—all of which the Deuteronomic text comes down harshly against (for more see the rather lengthy post The Deuteronomist, sections “The Yahweh Alone Movement” and “The Deuteronomist and Josiah’s religious reforms of the 7th century BC”).

At any rate, one of the results of this centralization was that the tithes collected by the Levites and for the Levites were now to be eaten only in the presence of Yahweh, at “the place where Yahweh your god will choose to tent his name”—Jerusalem. As such our Deuteronomic author has Yahweh proclaim these words:

“You may not eat within the gates the tithe of your grain or your wine or your oil or the firstborn or your herd or your flock or all your vows that you’ll make or your contributions or your hand’s donations. But rather, you shall eat them in front of Yahweh your god in the place that Yahweh your god will choose” (Deut 12:17-18)

There are some interesting points to note here:

First, the Deuteronomist’s list of what not to eat within the gates, that is in the cities, including one’s home, is all-inclusive, as if our author was consciously making sure he left nothing out! It’s an exhaustive list.

Second, the prohibition not to eat tithes, first-fruits, donations, vows, etc. within the gates implies that this decree is working against an already practiced earlier custom to which our author, through the mouthpiece of Yahweh, strongly objects. Scholars usually note that the Deuteronomist is coming down heavily against earlier cultic practices now preserved in the Elohist source—a plurality of earthen altars to Yahweh, pilgrimages to these altars during Yahweh’s festivals, the eating of tithes and donations, etc. at any and all of these altars. Again, the author of Deuteronomy, most likely under the patronage of Josiah himself, sought to abolish these high-places where Yahweh’s earthen altars were erected, and centralize the cult at one altar only—“the place where Yahweh your god will choose to tent his name.”

Third, scholars have concluded, and I think correctly here, that in order for Josiah to centralize the cult at Jerusalem and thus require through divine decree to have all Israelites pilgrimage to “the place where Yahweh your god will choose to tent his name” for Passover and all of Yahweh’s festivals (see #194-197, #198-204, #205-208), for judicial proceedings, and for the consumption of any and all sacrificial meat, tithes, vows, etc. that geographically speaking we must be looking at a time period when Judah was relatively small. So when could Israel have been this small geographically for Josiah’s centralization to have worked? Certainly post-722 BCE fits this picture since Israel was no more—having been wiped out by the Assyrians—and all that remained was Judah, which fared only a bit better having been mostly disseminated by Sennacherib’s campaigns at the end of the 8th century. But even more can be said here.

Both biblical and extra-biblical sources confirm that the kingdoms of Israel, Judah, Moab, and Aram were all vassal states to the mighty Assyrian empire variously between the 9th and early 7th centuries BCE. That is they were paying tribute to their Assyrian overlords! But in the 7th century BCE, with the rise of Babylon, the Assyrians were forced to withdraw their presence from the region. This in and of itself ushered in a new optimism and claimants of independence in southern Judah which ultimately found their expression in the literary production of this time period—notably the Josianic text of Deuteronomy. Furthermore, the message this southern-produced text proclaimed was a direct result of the destruction, and for the most part disappearance, of Israel in 722 BCE and the withdrawal of Assyrian political power and sovereignty from the whole region in the mid 7th century—both events theologically understood as Yahweh’s doing! With Assyrian lordship gone, and Israel no more, the Judahite scribes of the south were able to produce a powerful literary masterpiece of political and religious propaganda.1

It is here in the mid 7th century that scholars place this composition. It fits Josiah’s religious reforms and it fits what we know of the geopolitical world at this time.

With respect to P’s contrary legislation, again sanctioned through the mouthpiece of Yahweh, although a handful of scholars still argue for a pre-Deuteronomic date for P, most are confident that P was written after D. Following this scholarly view, we might be inclined to say that P’s “Yahweh’s” decree that “you may eat it [tithes–that’s all that was allotted to the Levites in P (see #256)] in every place, you and your household” (Num 18:31) was written as a direct refutation of the Deuteronomic text written just a century earlier and under drastically different geopolitical concerns.

Regardless how one places these two decrees, these two compositions, in relationship to one another, the point remains: they are contradictory, and the individual authors of these two contradictory views each used Yahweh as a spokesperson to legitimate their own position on the matter.

Edited Addition (8/10):

Looking over Levine’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Numbers (p. 453), I notice that he address the issue of why in the Priestly source (Numbers 18), the Levites are allowed to eat their tithes anywhere, rather than necessitating that they eat it in the sacred precinct of Yahweh’s presence such as presented in Deuteronomy. I like his attentive response—an over-site on my part to the details of the text.

In both priestly contexts, the tithes and other offerings had to be eaten in front of Yahweh, at the Temple, because these offerings are delegated “to Yahweh,” and as such become holy. Therefore the eating of any holy food is to be done in the proper context—the confines of the holy sanctuary or Temple! Levine notes that there is a process of de-sacralization that happens to the tithes in Numbers 18. Since the Levites are required to give 10% of their tithes to the Aaronids—“to Yahweh” in P’s view—this in effect desacralizes the remainder thus allowing the Levites to eat them as common food, anywhere.

This leads me to further muse the possibility that P is explicitly written to rectify, and replace, D’s views—not only changing “Yahweh’s” earlier commandment, but more so providing the rationale for the whys of this change—placing a tithe on the tithes allocates the remaining 90% as common food. This doubly serves the Aaronid priestly agenda since according to their ideology only Aaronids, because they alone were consecrated, were allowed to eat Yahweh’s holy offerings! So the tithe on the tithe allows the Levites to eat their portion as common food, anywhere, and it also is in keeping with forbidding them to partake of Yahweh’s holy offerings!

I would further muse that the latter here was most likely the first agenda of the Aaronid priests, realizing that if Yahweh’s tithes are given to the Levites, then this in effect contradicts their hardline stance that only Aaronids can partake of Yahweh’s holy offerings. How did they solve this dilemma? By requiring a tithe on the tithes, thereby desacralizing the remaining portion of the tithes, and as a secondary benefit allowing the now unholy remainder to be eaten anywhere.

Finally, I realize that this is yet another excellent example of why I like what I’m doing here—not to be too boastful. But rather than simply listing Bible contradictions that really requires no knowledge of the individual biblical texts, authors, historical contexts, etc., I—and indeed many of my readers included—are more interested in understanding why the contradictions exist in the first place and what they reveal about the nature of this ancient text and its authors—namely, different and often stark oppositional views, alterations and rewrittings of earlier texts, and competing ideologies and belief systems, all of which the Bible as a corpus of 70+ different texts written over a 1,000 year period bears witness to on its own terms!


  1. For a good read on this topic in greater detail see Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 279-313.

4 thoughts on “#257. Were the Levites allowed to eat their tithes anywhere OR only in front of Yahweh? (Num 18:31 vs Deut 12:17-18, 14:23)

  1. Although not spelled out, is it not apparent that the “Tent of Meeting” along with the landless priesthood reflects the implied existence of an earlier itinerant priesthood?

    Not one that journeyed with an itinerant people, but one that traveled from settlement to settlement; perhaps to all “the high places” to ensure cultic compliance with the central authority. (No pork eating, Sabbath observance, etc.) The description of the tent indicates something very much intended to be seen by people who would have been awed by it’s magnificence.

    I speculate the earliest form of this traveling religion would accommodate all the religious variances (Ashera, El, Yaweh, Baal, etc.) of the region while steadily converging on a single standard. After many conflicts and incidences of country pagans stubbornly refusing to give up their traditions (perhaps first born sacrifice) the central authority finally set about eradicating the very existence of the rural cults and rewriting their customs as the resultant foreign contamination of a mythical purity “in the beginning”.

    It would have been necessary for such a group to have an armed force traveling with them for protection and in some cases for enforcement. A natural development would be to upgrade to having them travel with a veritable army when they acquired the backing of the powers that be to standardize the religion and thereby stabilize the region.

    Finally the priesthood was completely centralized in the central temple with resistance to the idea being at least partly overcome by placing the previously traveling center of worship IN the temple.

    I’m merely speculating. But I find the idea quite plausible.

  2. Furthermore, the message this southern-produced text proclaimed was a direct result of the destruction, and for the most part disappearance, of Israel in 722 BCE and the withdrawal of Assyrian political power and sovereignty from the whole region in the mid 7th century—both events theologically understood as Yahweh’s doing!

    The Bible’s after-the-fact explanations of events as Yahweh’s doing is, in my opinion, one of the strongest arguments against divine biblical inspiration. When Judah survived after Israel was conquered, the biblical text claimed that this was Yahweh’s doing because Yahweh promised David that a “lamp” would always remain (1 Kings 11:11-13, 30-36; 1 Kings 15:1-4; 2 Kings 8:16-19; 2 Kings 19:31-34); yet when Judah fell, this, too, was claimed to be Yahweh’s will–in contradiction to the previous unconditional promise! Manasseh was the fall guy (2 Kings 21:10-15; 2 Kings 24:1-4), even though the righteous Josiah reigned after Manasseh (2 Kings 23:21-27) and the Chronicler claimed (2 Chron. 33) that Manasseh repented!

  3. Wow – this is the first time I’ve come across your website (I was looking up the etymology of the name Ishmael) following my daughter introducing me to Documentary Hypothesis at university (she’s studying Hebrew and Jewish History at UCL, London). As you seem very knowledgeable to argue from a higher level criticism standpoint, I wondered id you have read any arguments refuting this hypothesis eg Evidence That Demand a Verdict by Josh McDowell pp 389-533? I would welcome your thoughts on it. Many thanks and shalom, Mrs Jennings

    1. Melanie, thanks and welcome.

      In general biblical scholars do not bother taking up the podium to refute—nay even read—-what non-specialist, who clearly have agendas outside of what these ancient texts say and in this case do not say and who display absolutely ZERO knowledge about any of the 70+ texts of the Bible, who wrote them, when, why, as a response to what historical concerns, etc., claim about these texts—such is the case for McDowell. From the little I’ve gleaned, such apologetics place their beliefs about the texts above the individual beliefs, contending voices, and divergent historical and literary contexts of the Bible’s 70+ texts and authors. It’s truly a sham(e) in this field that there are more books reaching the public by non-specialists disseminating subjective views and ignorance (and I am understating the case here, not overstating it!) about these texts, than real hard-earned objective, critical scholarship on the texts on their own terms and own historical contexts. My goals here, although introducing the material in somewhat of a playful guise—contradictions—is to faithfully and as objectively as possible reproduce to the best of my academic field’s ability the beliefs, worldviews, competing ideologies, and contending views on religion, sacrifice, Israel’s god, the monarchy, etc. that the Bible’s 70+ texts reveal when studied on their own terms. I’m interested in what the texts and their authors tell us and belief on their playing field—not what later reading communities claimed or believed about these once individual texts through an all-embracing imposed interpretive framework, which goes by the name “the Book,” and that too largely through the interpretive assumptions brought to bear on these texts by Christendom.

      I’ve written about this variously on this site. If you take the time to read some of the entries you’ll notice, hopefully, what I mean. Try the 14-post series on Genesis’ Two Creation Accounts, where I try to lay down the textual data for showing how the texts of Genesis 1 and 2 themselves reveal the hand of a different author—our sources.

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