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.” – Exodus 30:11-16 ESV
The Tabernacle, like any other man-made structure, was going to require ongoing maintenance and upkeep. Over the next 500 years of use, its carefully crafted timbers, veils, furnishings, and gold-covered fixtures would need repairs and replacement. Its construction had been funded by donations from the people of Israel but to cover the cost of its maintenance, God required a tax be collected from every male who was at least 20 years old. To determine the number of eligible males, God ordered Moses to take a census or literally, a head count of the people.
According to the book of Numbers, this census was not taken until ten months later. The most likely reason for the delay was that the census was not necessary until the construction of the Tabernacle was complete.
The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company.” – Numbers 1:1-3 ESV
The completed census revealed a total of 603,550 male Israelites 20 years old or older. But that number did not include any men from the tribe of Levi because God had ordered their exclusion from the census.
“Do not include the tribe of Levi in the registration; do not count them with the rest of the Israelites. Put the Levites in charge of the Tabernacle of the Covenant, along with all its furnishings and equipment. They must carry the Tabernacle and all its furnishings as you travel, and they must take care of it and camp around it. Whenever it is time for the Tabernacle to move, the Levites will take it down. And when it is time to stop, they will set it up again.” – Numbers 1:49-51 NLT
These 603,550 male members of the Israelite community were ordered to pay a tax that would be used to cover the cost of maintaining God’s house. But there was a more important purpose behind this levy.
“…each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them.” – Exodus 30:12 ESV
The dual purpose behind the tax is clarified in verse 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.” – Exodus 30:16 ESV
This half-shekel tax was to be considered an offering to the Lord but it was to also function as a reminder to each Israelite of their status as God’s people. The Hebrew word translated as “ransom” is כֹּפֶר (kōp̄er) and it means “price of a life” or “redemption price.” This so-called tax was actually a payment made by each Israelite male to signify that their lives belonged to God. This payment did not atone for their sins because that was only possible through blood sacrifice. But it let every Israelite know that their lives were not their own. He had redeemed or purchased them out of slavery in Egypt and made them His own people.
The apostle Paul picks up on this idea in his first letter to the believers in Corinth.
Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT
The “atonement money” did not atone for sins, but it made atonement for their lives. And not only that, it served as a form of protection from God’s wrath.
“…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.” – Exodus 30:12 ESV
God warns Moses that the taking of the census could prove to be a dangerous proposition. Numbering the people could lead the Israelites to develop a sense of self-sufficiency and independence from God. When they discovered that they had more than 600,000 men of fighting age, they might be tempted to become overconfident and reliant upon their own strength.
“When God numbers or orders anything to be numbered, taking the sum of them denotes that they belong to Him, and that He has the sovereign right to do with them as He pleases. The action itself says of the things numbered, ‘These are Mine, and I assign them their place as I will.’” – A. W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus
God had promised to make of Abraham a great nation, and He had kept that promise. When the family of Jacob had entered Egypt there had only been 70 of them. But some four centuries later, their number had exploded.
…the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:7 ESV
And when the ten plagues from God finally forced the Egyptians to release the Israelites, they marched out like a mighty army.
…the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. – Exodus 12:37 ESV
This had all been God’s doing. Their exponential growth and miraculous release from captivity had been the work of Yahweh and they could not claim any credit for it. So, when the census was taken, they were not to marvel at their own might or become prideful of their capacity for self-rule. They belonged to God.
One of the keys to understanding all of this is to recognize that God ordered the census to record the number of fighting men. These were to be able-bodied male Israelites who could march into battle against the enemies who occupied the land of Canaan. But God wanted the Israelites to know that their vast numbers were not to be their hope. Years later, when the people were standing on the edge of the Jordan River preparing to enter the Promised Land for the very first time, Moses would remind them:
“The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.” – Deuteronomy 1:30-31 ESV
Each time the Israelites prepared to go into battle, the priests were to gather all the fighting men and tell them, “Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory” (Deuteronomy 20:3-4 ESV).
The book of 2 Samuel records a much-later event when King David took a census of the people of Israel. While he had been prompted to do so by God, it was meant as a punishment against the people for their wickedness. And David’s general, Joab, recognized the nature of this test from the Lord.
“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?” – 2 Samuel 24:3 ESV
But David went ahead with the census, and nine months and 20 days later, he received the good news.
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. – 2 Samuel 24:9 ESV
But David regretted his decision and immediately confessed his sin to God.
“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.” – 2 Samuel 24:10 ESV
He had wanted to know the size of his army, and when he had learned that there were 1,300,000 soldiers under his command, he knew he had made a drastic mistake. He probably recognized the pride he felt upon learning of his massive military might. A sense of arrogance and self-sufficiency must have welled up within him as he considered the size of his army. But then he realized that he was putting his faith in the wrong thing. He had taken his eyes off of the Lord. And while David received forgiveness from God, he still had to pay for his costly error.
…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. – 2 Samuel 24:15 ESV
To assuage the anger of God, David used his own money to purchase a piece of land where he commissioned the construction of an altar to God. He paid 50 shekels of silver for the land and 50 oxen, which he sacrificed on the altar. And as a result of this costly gesture, God relented.
…the Lord responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel. – 2 Samuel 24:25 ESV
David had placed a higher priority on the size of his army than the power of His God. For just a moment, he had taken his eyes off of the Lord and focused his hopes on the wrong thing. And God wanted Moses to protect Moses from making that same mistake. The number of able-bodied me who could take up swords against the enemy was to remind Moses and the people of Israel of God’s greatness, not their own. The census was really designed to glorify Israel’s God of Israel and not its army. And the tax was a reminder that the life of each of these men belonged to God. They were, first and foremost, an army of priests, a holy nation unto the Lord.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.