Atonement Part 2 – The Half-shekel

Atonement is key to understanding everything YHVH has done, is doing, and is going to do. His entire plan revolves around it. For this reason, it is important to understand what it really means – not according to today’s culture, but according to the ancient near eastern culture. We need to understand atonement in the same way that the children of Israel understood it – as YHVH taught it to them throughout the Bible.

In the previous study, we looked at atonement as it applies to the tabernacle and altars. We found that our uncleanness and our sins leave stains on the altars, ark, and tabernacle; and that the blood of sacrifices purified them by cleaning off those stains. This led to the definition of atonement as it applies to the tabernacle and altars – a restoration or a returning of the tabernacle and altar to the condition needed to fulfill their purpose.

The next challenge I came across was the idea that atonement could be “bought.”

YHVH said to Moses, “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to YHVH 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 YHVH. Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give YHVH’s offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give YHVH’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 YHVH, so as to make atonement for your lives.” Exodus 30:11-16

Until this point, I had never heard of buying atonement in all my life. I understand the concept of ransom and buying somebody’s freedom, but to buy atonement? How can that work? It almost sounds like bribery, yet in this passage of scripture we see that money is given as a ransom for a person’s life and for an atonement.

What is this atonement for? Nothing is mentioned about sin or uncleanness like it is for the atonement of the tabernacle and altars. Is there a need for forgiveness? This atonement seems directly related to the census, and many times, in order to understand what is going on, we need to look at a few details in context. Let’s start here by looking into why a census needs to be taken.

The Census

YHVH 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

Here we see that a census was taken before going to war, but censuses were also taken for a few other reasons. In Numbers 26, a census was taken for military reasons, just like above, but it was also to properly divide the nation of Israel into their respective cities upon entering the Promised Land. In Numbers 3-4, a census was taken of the Levites and priests to appoint them for tabernacle services (this census was taken at the same time as Numbers 1 above.), however, the Levites and priests never had to pay the half shekel when a census was taken. In 2 Chronicles 2, Solomon took a census to determine the number of foreigners in the land so that laborers could be distributed. In Ezra 2, a census was taken after the return of some of the exiles from Babylon. What do all of these events have in common that could contribute to the reason money had to be collected? In order to understand this, we need to fast-forward to the first century.

First Century History

During the first century, there were about 7 million Israelites world wide, but only 1 to 2 million of those lived in Israel. Due to the Babylonian exile, the other 5 million Israelites were still spread throughout the Roman empire, which nearly completely surrounded the Mediterranean Sea. This means that nearly 5 milllion Israelites were spread out from Israel to Spain in the north, and from Israel to across the northern area of Africa in the east and south. In order to be part of the temple services, festivals, and complete certain atonements, these 5 million Israelites had to travel from great distances to be present at the temple.

At the time of the exile, the trip from Babylon to Israel alone is estimated to have taken four months – one way! Consider being an exile during those times with the income and children you may or may not have today. How often do you think you could make this journey? Add to your current situation the list of reasons that each individual person would offer sacrifices.

  • Restitution for wrongdoing (Num. 5:5-10)
  • Touching an unclean thing (Lev. 5:1-6)
  • Making an unintended oath (Lev. 5:1-6)
  • Sinning against a person (Lev. 6:1-6)
  • A woman who is unclean due to menstruation (Lev .15)
  • A woman who is unclean due to childbirth (Lev. 12:1-8)

This is only a few of the reasons for sacrifices, not mentioning the daily offerings and feasts. Thankfully, the majority of the sacrifices that would be offered were voluntary, but there were a few that were manditory. This could end up being a lifetime of traveling! Now that the majority of Israel had been taken into Babylon and spread throughout the Roman empire, how would they be able to participate in these temple services and their benefits? This is where the half-shekel comes in.

The Half-shekel

According to Josephus, most Jews in the first century only made it to Jerusalem once or twice in their lifetime. That makes for a lot of missed sacrifices and feasts. However, we will see that YHVH provided a way for everybody to have a part.

YHVH said to Moses, “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to YHVH 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 YHVH. Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give YHVH’s offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give YHVH’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 YHVH, so as to make atonement for your lives.” Exodus 30:11-16

In the first century, a census was taken and the half-shekel was collected anually. The money that was collected was always used for the temple service. It purchased the animals needed for the daily sacrifices and the Day of Atonement service, as well as the Passover lamb.

In this ancient culture of Israel, many of the people lived in large communities regardless of where they dwelt. Although it was difficult for everybody to make the journey to Jerusalem more than once or twice in their lifetime, they could count on at least one person from each community to make the trip. Those who were able to make the journey would take with them a collection of the half-shekels that each person payed. This helped serve as the census of his community.

First century Israelites understood that it was through their half-shekel that they were able to participate in the sacrifices and temple services. Because their half-shekel helped buy the animals needed for national sacrifices, they could still benefit from all of the offerings they had to miss out on.

The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give YHVH’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 YHVH, so as to make atonement for your lives.” Exodus 30:15-16

In every case that a census was taken in the Old Testament, we can see that there was some sort distance put between those who were counted and the temple. For example, upon entering the land, each tribe was given their own lot of land in Israel. At this point in time, the land was large enough to require a long journey for some to get to Jerusalem where the temple was, just as it was for the Israelites who were exiled. The distance, whether due to the size of the country or due to the exile, took from the people the opportunity to worship YHVH the way He prescribed. This was resolved through the “payment” of the half-shekel. The ability to participate in the offerings to YHVH and to receive the benefits from those offerings was restored. It was each person’s half shekel collected during the annual census that allowed temple services to continue, and, at the same time, represented every single person in those services.

Once again, we can see atonement as a type of restoration. It is a restoration for the nation as it provides the means to obtain the animals needed for sacrifice, it restores the temple and its services in the same way, and it restores those who send the half-shekel by representing them as it is brought to the temple. Because of this collection of half-shekels, everything is restored to its original purpose.

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