The Lord said to Moses, “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord. Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the Lord’s offering to make atonement for your lives. You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for your lives.” [Exodus 30:11-16 ESV]
I asked when the tithe turned into a tax. Scripture never calls what is collected for the temple or the Priests a tax.
How often was a census taken in Israel? What are the words used to describe the money collected. What are the implications to the story in Matthew 17? What are the implications for the Christian throughout history?
In the Hebrew Scripture there are several words used for numbering the people. However, the word used in Exodus 30 is better translated “muster” which means head, top, beginning, chief or choicest, as well as sum or division. Three times God commands Israel to count the fighting men, not the entire population. Before they entered the Promised Land each fighting man was required to redeem themselves.
Toward the end of his life King David counted the fighting men. He was not instructed by God to do so, nor is there any indication those counted paid redemption for their lives. Counting the fighting men of Israel was an act of arrogance and the entire nation was punished for his rebellion.
In Exodus the money collected from each person counted was not called a tax but the price for atonement. During these censuses the people were not redeemed by an offer of sacrifice. They redeemed themselves, paid for their own lives. Perhaps, and I am only making an assumption, they redeemed themselves from the possible death they would face as a warrior for the Lord. The consequence of not paying the redemption was certain death. Death in war is a fact facing all. Being in God’s army and redeemed guaranteed life even during war.
Those numbered were going to war. They were entering the Promised Land and devoting the inhabitants to destruction. God promised to be with them yet, they refused to go in, except for Joshua and Caleb, because of fear. So none went. God turned them around because of their rebellion. At the end of their wanderings, before they went in to take possession of the land, another census was taken. Not one man was alive, except for Joshua and Caleb, counted in the first census. Their rebellion against God, in the face of His absolute promise, guaranteed their deaths before seeing what was promised. They paid the redemption price but still died in the wilderness because of rebellion.
Whatever money was collected was God’s just as much as they were God’s people. Each person gave same amount whether rich or poor and was a sign to them of their inclusion in God’s kingdom, His army, and His victory. It is called atonement money. Atonement brought peace between God and His people.
We are at war in this world. While here we are enlisted in His army, at war with His enemies. Rebelling against this purpose does not remove us from His kingdom for we are at peace with Him. We are not at peace with this world. When Peter compromised with those seeking the temple tax, which is not even vaguely related to the redemption money collected during the two census’ in Numbers, he sought to mitigate conflict with the world. Jesus moved his thinking, and moves mine, back to the truth of His kingdom. Money has no value in His kingdom. It is the people who are His who have value.
God redeemed us yet we are still responsible to obey. Those who are rich must rely upon the blood of Christ and offer themselves. Those who are poor must rely upon the blood of Christ and offer themselves. Only as a citizen of His kingdom will we have peace. We do not get to choose the method or means of salvation, only obey.