Exodus 30:11-16 (ESV)
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.”
OK, but why is the LORD threatening a plague? And why does He call this a ransom, instead of a tax?
First, some background. The ransom is just for males over twenty (see Numbers 26:2).
“Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers' houses, all in Israel who are able to go to war.”
Only men able to go to war are counted. This will show that they’re a formidable army. That’s a problem.
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. 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.” – 2 Samuel 24:9-10 (ESV)
The problem is overconfidence. The Israelites are learning to trust themselves instead of depending on God. That’s why the “tax” is called a ransom and why the LORD threatens a plague on anyone who doesn’t pay. It’s a ransom because it’s to make atonement for your lives.
And what’s wrong with their lives? Sin. Despite the Israelites daily dependence on manna, they need to be reminded of their dependency on God. This answers another question. Why is the ransom the same for all, rich or poor?
Because everyone is sinful.
This one-size-fits-all principle sets the stage for the cross. No one is so bad that the cross can’t cover their sin. No one is so good that they don’t need it. Christianity views everyone as equals in what matters most. We’re all created in the image of God and we’re all guilty of sin. This basic equality is so foundational to our civilization that we have formally declared it to be obvious.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” – The Declaration of Independence
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