Exodus 30:11-16

census-friezeExodus 30

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “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. 13 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. 14 Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. 15 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. 16 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.”

When I was a kid a good buddy of mine named Justin came over to spend the night. The next morning I got up and went to my part-time job keeping the grounds at the local children’s home. My mother and oldest brother were in Italy on a school trip. Condy, the middle brother, was in Charleston, South Carolina, at Boy’s State, an academic honors camp. My father was at work traveling and selling hardware. So Justin was left there in our house alone the next morning. I told him to leave whenever he wanted to and lock the door behind him.

It just so happened that that morning a census worker for the U.S. Census Bureau showed up at the front door. A census was being taken at the time.

“Is this the Richardson residence?”

“It is, but they’re not in.”

“Where are they?”

“Mr. Richardson is traveling.”

“Where is Mrs. Richardson?”

“Mrs. Richardson is in Italy.”

“They have an oldest son, David. Is he here?”

“David is in Italy with his mother.”

“They have a middle son, Condy. Is he here?”

“Condy is in Charleston at Boy’s State.”

“They have a youngest son, Wyman. Is he here?”

“Wyman is at the orphanage.”

At this, the census worker paused. “And who are you?” she asked.

“I’m just a neighbor.”

The worker stood perplexed and then left. My father especially laughs about this to this day wondering what the poor lady must have thought of my friend’s odd answers!

Taking a census can be a tricky thing. For ancient Israel, a census could be a dangerous thing. Exodus 30:11-16 describes the divine call for a prescription, but one gets the feeling in reading it that this was not merely about getting a good head count.

The danger of taking a census.

Here in the midst of the tabernacle prescriptions, we see a call for a census as well as warnings and stipulations concerning it.

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “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. 13 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. 14 Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. 15 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. 16 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.”

The most obvious question for us is why a census in particular would have warnings and ransom payments and a threat of plagues attached to it? Is a census simply a mechanical headcount for information’s sake?

In truth, there has never been a census in any age or any land that was purely for the sake of information. Lots of motivations might be behind such an act. Douglas K. Stuart offers some insights on how the ancient world viewed censi.

…in the ancient world, as far as we know, a census was taken for one of only two purposes: to prepare for war or to impose some sort of taxation. In ancient Israel there was technically only one purpose: to prepare for war. Because the Israelites had no right to go to war except for the taking and holding of the promised land by holy war as called explicitly by Yahweh through a prophet and because they had no right to impose taxes beyond the contribution system revealed in the law by God himself, the taking of a census would constitute in most cases an act of direct covenant disobedience.[1]

Now the fog begins to dispel a bit. If the primary motivation for taking a census was to assess potential military might and to impose taxes, we see why the Lord added warnings and a note of holy fear to this proceeding. After all, a great deal can go wrong when powerful men want to go to war or get more money for the people. It is almost as if God was saying, “You can take this census, but you cannot do it independent of Me or My sovereign rule. It must not become an occasion for your own manipulation for wealth or power.”

Philip Ryken further points out that a census carries with it the possibility of pride. “Who has the right to take inventory?” asks Ryken. “Only the person who owns whatever is being counted.” This means that “only God” could call for a count. Ryken continues:

            Whenever the Israelites took a census, they were in serious danger of forgetting this. After all, they were the ones doing the counting. Thus they would be tempted to think that their great numbers were a credit to them rather than to God. And although it was not a sin to take a census, it was a sin to rob God of his glory.[2]

Perhaps with this in mind we can understand what happened in 2 Samuel 24 when the anger of God burned hot against David for a census he took of Israel.

1 Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” 2 So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” 3 But Joab said to the king, “May the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” 4 But the king’s word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel. 5 They crossed the Jordan and began from Aroer, and from the city that is in the middle of the valley, toward Gad and on to Jazer. 6 Then they came to Gilead, and to Kadesh in the land of the Hittites; and they came to Dan, and from Dan they went around to Sidon, 7 and came to the fortress of Tyre and to all the cities of the Hivites and Canaanites; and they went out to the Negeb of Judah at Beersheba. 8 So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. 9 And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000. 10 But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” 11 And when David arose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, 12 “Go and say to David, ‘Thus says the Lord, Three things I offer you. Choose one of them, that I may do it to you.’” 13 So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” 14 Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” 15 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men. 16 And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 17 Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father’s house.” 18 And Gad came that day to David and said to him, “Go up, raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” 19 So David went up at Gad’s word, as the Lord commanded. 20 And when Araunah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming on toward him. And Araunah went out and paid homage to the king with his face to the ground. 21 And Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David said, “To buy the threshing floor from you, in order to build an altar to the Lord, that the plague may be averted from the people.” 22 Then Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him. Here are the oxen for the burnt offering and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. 23 All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king.” And Araunah said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept you.” 24 But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. 25 And David built there an altar to the Lord and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the Lord responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.

Yes, a census can be a dangerous thing. It has the potential to stoke the fires of pride or powerlust. It can make a ruler or a people think more highly of themselves than they should!

The stipulations of the census.

For these reasons, the Lord built stipulations into the census to serve as powerful symbolic reminders of the rulership of the Lord God over His people.

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “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. 13 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. 14 Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. 15 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. 16 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.”

The primary stipulation of the census was that all those counted would “give a ransom for his life.” As a result of this ransom, “no plague” would come among them. Each person counted was to give “half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs, half a shekel as an offering to the Lord.” Concerning the money paid, The IVP Bible Background Commentary explains:

The half-shekel payment made by each Israelite male as temple tax, at least until the sixth century B.C., would have been made in a measure of precious metal, not coined money. The average shekel weighed 11.4 grams, but this text refers to a “sanctuary shekel,” which is believed to be a smaller fraction of the common shekel. Weights discovered in archaeological finds evidence a shekel weighing 9.3-10.5 grams. The sanctuary weight listed here may also refer to a shekel of more standard value and weight than the “marketplace shekel”…The gerah (an Akkadian loan word) is the smallest of the Israelite measures of weight. It weighed approximately half a gram and was equivalent to one-twentieth of a shekel.[3]

Everyone alike was to give this half a shekel, rich and poor or like, no more and no less. This was to be “atonement money” and it was to be given “for the service of the tent of meeting.”

This is most fascinating and also most illuminating. The money given was to be seen as a ransom and an atonement. Why? Douglas Stuart defines the ransom payment as “a payment through which one symbolically bought his…life back from God.” He then goes on to argue that the ransom payment “recognized two important facts.”

(1) God owns the lives of his people, and (2) although he would have the right to require his people to lose their lives in battle, he generously gave them back their lives so they could enjoy the abundant life he had for them within his covenant protection.[4]

These arguments go in the right direction. However we view these payments, we must not view them as anything like “buying one’s salvation,” or any crude concept like the indulgences of Tetzel who crudely intoned, “When a coin in the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs!”

No, this was a symbolic gesture of very real recognition that God owned your life and that the life you had you had because God gave it to you. He could take it, though He normally gave it back. The ransom price simply reminded those counting and those being counted that they had no might or power as a people other than what God granted them. It was a recognition of His sovereign rule as well as of His gracious gift of life.

The fact that all paid the same amount is also important. A wealthy man’s life is not worth more than a poor man’s and a poor man’s life is not worth less. All human beings stand on level ground before the Lord God.

The census stipulations were therefore safeguards and reminders of who and Whose they were. They checked any thoughts of arrogant autonomy or self-sufficiency and they stood as a perpetual proclamation that the people, every single one of them, had God and God alone to thank for their lives.

The foreshadowing of the census stipulations.

As with every other aspect of life described and prescribed in Exodus, this too pointed to a greater ransom and atonement to come. Both concepts are present in this text.

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “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.

16 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.”

Victor Hamilton offers some helpful word-studies that show the link between these ideas and the same ideas present in the New Testament.

The meaning of kōper as “ransom” is established by its use with pidyōn (“redemption”) in Exod. 21: 30. The LXX’s word for kōper is lytron, formed from the verb lyō (“release [from prison, from slavery, from a debt]”). Lytron is the word Mark 10:45 uses in “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The book of Exodus is already connecting ransom with atonement.[5]

Just think of the ransom price paid by each Israelite male at the time of census. He was paying a ransom price for his life. How then must the words of Jesus and the New Testament have sounded to those used to such an idea?

Matthew 20

28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

1 Timothy 2

5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

1 Peter 1

17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

The ransom payment of Christ was unique and powerful. First, it was a life, not a coin. No mere half shekel this! On the contrary, we see that the ransom is Christ’s “life,” the giving of “Himself,” and “the precious blood of Christ.”

Christ Himself is the ransom payment!

And it is a once-for-all payment. Each man need not pay. One man has paid it all! He “gave himself as a ransom for all,” writes Paul! Hallelujah! For all! We could not pay, but He could…and He did!

And the ransom Christ paid is unrepeatable. It only needed to happen once. Christ gave Himself so that we could be free, we could get our lives back, we could live!

God has taken a census. He knows everybody who has ever lived or ever will. And He has offered a ransom payment for us all. The door is now open and the price has been paid. We need only come and trust and live!

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

 

[1] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus. The New American Commentary. Vol 2. Gen. Ed., E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), p.636.

[2] Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus. Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p.935.

[3] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.114.

[4] Douglas K. Stuart, p.636-637.

[5] Hamilton, Victor P. (2011-11-01). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 15897-15902). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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