This is my second article about the shortcomings of traditional interpretation of stories in the book of Genesis. The first covered the story of Noah's drunkenness and what I suspect really happened.
This article will address the issue of Abram's so called "tithe" to Melchizedek, a story which is used by Christianity to bolster the modern practice of tithing to the church.
This is not an anti-tithing article, so I won't go into the details of how tithing was not a practice of early Christianity until at least the sixth century C.E. The purpose of this article is simply to question the traditional view that Abram gave a tenth or tithe to Melchizedek. That this story has been misinterpreted to enable the transfer of wealth from often poor congregants to the church in order to enrich its coffers and finance its violent spread is, while consequential, not the primary focus of this inquiry.
Let's examine the story that unfolds in Genesis 14:
At that time Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of nations went to war against Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar).
These last five kings joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea). For twelve years they had served Kedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. In the fourteenth year, Kedorlaomer and the kings who were his allies came and defeated the Rephaites in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzites in Ham, the Emites in Shaveh Kiriathaim, and the Horites in their hill country of Seir, as far as El Paran, which is near the desert.
Then they attacked En Mishpat (that is, Kadesh) again, and they conquered all the territory of the Amalekites, as well as the Amorites who were living in Hazazon Tamar.
Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out and prepared for battle.
In the Valley of Siddim they met Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of nations, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar. Four kings fought against five. Now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits. When the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, they fell into them, but some survivors fled to the hills.
The four victorious kings took all the possessions and food of Sodom and Gomorrah and left. They also took Abram's nephew Lot and his possessions when they left, for Lot was living in Sodom.
Here we have the story of a rebellion and war amongst the various tribal factions living in Canaan at the time. Unfortunately for Abram, his nephew is caught up in the ordeal.
A fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew.
Now Abram was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, the brother of Eshcol and Aner. (All these were allied by treaty with Abram.)
When Abram heard that his nephew had been taken captive, he mobilized his 318 trained men who had been born in his household, and he pursued the invaders as far as Dan.
Then, during the night, Abram divided his forces against them and defeated them. He chased them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.
He retrieved all the stolen property. He also brought back his nephew Lot and his possessions, as well as the women and the rest of the people.
Abraham sets out to rescue his nephew Lot, and succeeds in recovering all of the siezed property and people.
After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet Abram in the Valley of Shaveh (known as the King's Valley).
Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (Now he was the priest of the Most High God.) He blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth. Worthy of praise is the Most High God, who delivered your enemies into your hand."
Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything.
Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give me the people and take the possessions for yourself."
But Abram replied to the king of Sodom, "I raise my hand to YHWH, the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth, and vow that I will take nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal. That way you can never say, 'It is I who made Abram rich.' I will take nothing except compensation for what the young men have eaten. As for the share of the men who went with me - Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre - let them take their share."
Melchizedek, a priest or a king, perhaps both, meets Abram to bless and congratulate him for what he has done. The text above indicates that Abram gives him a tenth of everything. Can we presume that by virtue of having recovered all of the goods and people, that Abram owned them and could do with them as he will, and gave a tenth to Melchizedek as some sort of religious obligation on his earnings?
The context, I'm afraid, tells a different story.
As is the case throughout most of this website (except where indicated) I've used the New English Translation (NET) when quoting the above passage. For the most part I feel the NET has done a good job translating the Masoretic Text. However, in this passage we have a glaring translation problem in verse 20, which I will illustrate by quoting the same verse from the New King James Version:
And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand." And he gave him a tithe of all.
Genesis 14:20 NKJV
The NET reads "Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything" while the NKJV reads "And he gave him a tithe of all".
The problem here is that the underlying Hebrew text has neither Abram's nor Melchizedek's name in verse 20. The NKJV rendering is more accurate. This NET's rendering (and that of many English translations) is a purposefully subjective assumption, and the reasoning for it, ironically, is found in the New Testament book of Hebrew:
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated "king of righteousness," and then also king of Salem, meaning "king of peace,"
Christian translators for the most part take it upon themselves to correct Genesis 14:20 to match Hebrews 7:2.
Let's look at how the underlying Hebrew actually reads. Here we'll use Youngs Literal Translation to get closer to a word for word translation into English:
And Melchizedek king of Salem hath brought out bread and wine, and he [is] priest of God Most High; and he blesseth him, and saith, 'Blessed [is] Abram to God Most High, possessing heaven and earth; and blessed [is] God Most High, who hath delivered thine adversaries into thy hand;' and he giveth to him a tenth of all.
(Genesis 14:18-20 YLT)
What you notice here is that if this passage is read naturally, it appears to say that Melchizedek gave a tenth to Abram! I believe this is the case, because the subsequent context supports it. Here is how I read what happened:
Abram had, with the help of his associates, recovered all of the goods and people lost in the battle that transpired in the valley of Siddim. For this Melchizedek awarded Abram a tenth of what he was returning (both of goods and of people) as reward for his service and success. The King of Sodom was not happy with this arrangement, and countered with his own offer to allow Abram to keep all the goods but return all of the people. Abram rejected both offers, not wanting it said that the King of Sodom made him wealthy. The only compensation he accepted is what his men had eaten (presumably from the goods reclaimed) and whatever share was due the leaders of his men.
When this passage is read naturally in this way, it make perfect sense, and has nothing to do with Christian tithing whatsoever. The be clear, the Christian concept of tithing is bereft of support from the Torah. Tithing in the Torah was a means to support the Levites, who were assigned to service to YHWH as priests at the tabernacle, related services to the tabernacle, and service throughout the land of Israel in designated cities. Levites owned no land on which to raise their own livestock or crops. They relied on tithes and offerings from the rest of the nation. Christian clergy are not heirs to or replacements of Levitical service, and thus are not entitled to exact tithes from anyone.