The atonement money

Then the Lord said to Moses, 'When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the Lord. All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the Lord. The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives. Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the tent of meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for your lives.' (Exo 30:11–6)

Lives atoned for

The atonement money was the first instruction about giving that God gave to his people in the Old Testament.

Our opening text contains instructions for the census that was taken later of every male, twenty years old or more, who could serve in the army (Num 1:1–46). Each one had to give a half shekel to the Lord when they were counted to atone for their lives.

Their lives had to be atoned for before they could serve God, just as our lives have to be atoned for before we can serve God.

We don't know how much a half shekel was worth. My own opinion is that it was worth a substantial amount because God said that the poor were not to give less than that.

Both the rich and the poor gave the same. That's surprising because tithing, which accounted for the majority of giving in the Old Testament, was proportional: those who prospered more, gave more; those who prospered less, gave less. But not the atonement money. That was the same for each one, and there was a reason for it.

One price for all

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. (Rom 3:25a)

'Atonement' is one of the most important words in the Bible. The Day of Atonement was the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar: on that day atonement was made for the whole nation (Lev 23:26–32). Atonement includes the forgiveness of sins (Lev 5:13), but it's more than that.

The Hebrew word translated 'atone' in the Old Testament means to cover. It's used in Gen 6:14, where God told Noah to coat (atone, cover) the ark with pitch, inside and out. The pitch, which symbolized the blood of Jesus, made the ark watertight and protected those inside from his judgement (the waters of the flood).

But the word also means to pacify and to reconcile. It's used in Gen 32:20, where Jacob, having sinned against his brother Esau, who then wanted to kill him (Gen 27:1–41), sent him a gift to try to pacify him (atone, soothe his anger) and be reconciled to him (restore their relationship).

'Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered [Greek covered, concealed, hidden].' (Rom 4:7)

Jesus is the atoning (covering) sacrifice for our sins (1Jo 2:1–2). A cover conceals and protects. If we confess our sins to God, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1Jo 1:9); and the blood of his Son will cover (conceal) our sins and protect us from his judgement.

God has not appointed us to suffer wrath (punishment for our sins), but to receive salvation (have his anger against us soothed) and to be reconciled to him (have our relationship with him restored) through the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ (1Th 5:9; 2Co 5:20).

The atonement money was the same for each one because Jesus paid the same price to atone for the sins of the poor man as for the rich man: that price was his blood, shed on the cross.

Ransomed lives

The atonement money was also a ransom for their lives (v12), but Psa 49:7–8 says that no one can give to God a ransom for a life, no payment would ever be enough. So why did it have to be paid?

God's law commanded that animals were to be sacrificed regularly for the sins of the people, even though the blood of animals cannot take away sins (Heb 10:4). Those sacrifices pointed to the fact that one day the blood of Jesus Christ, God's Lamb, would be shed for the sins of the world (Joh 1:29).

In the same way, the payment of the atonement money pointed to the fact that one day a price would be paid, by Jesus Christ, to ransom our lives.

Jesus said, in Mat 20:28, that the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. A ransom is a sum of money, or other payment, that is made to secure the release of a prisoner. Have Christians been prisoners? Yes, we have. Gal 3:22 says that the whole world is a prisoner of sin (NIV 1984).

The blood of Jesus Christ has ransomed us from our captivity to sin; it's paid the price that has set us free. It's also set us free from our slavery to sin (Rom 6:6–7) so we can become slaves to righteousness (Rom 6:18).

And finally, the atonement money was a single payment because Jesus suffered once to atone for the sins of the world (1Pe 3:18).

Protection from the plague

V12 says that if each one paid the atonement money then no plague would come on them when they were numbered. That means that if they had not paid the atonement money (which symbolized their acceptance of the atoning sacrifice of Christ), a plague would have come on them.

We are not told what the plague would have been, but the Book of Revelation describes the plagues that God will bring, in the last days, on those who have not accepted the atoning sacrifice of his Son. They will be punished on earth by a series of plagues, as the Israelites would have been punished by a plague if they had not paid the atonement money.

God is consistent in his dealings with mankind. 'I the Lord do not change,' he says in Mal 3:6; and the way he dealt with his people in Exo 30 is a warning of how he will deal with those who are on the earth at the end of the age.

Used in his service

God commanded that the atonement money should be given to him, but he didn't need it for himself. The half shekels, which were made of silver, were melted down and used in the construction of the sanctuary and the surrounding courtyard (Exo 38:25–8).

With only a few exceptions, what was given to God in the Old Testament was used to perform his will. That should also be the case in the New Testament. God doesn't need our money for himself today, any more than he did 3,500 years ago, but he does need it to perform his will on earth.

Everything we give to the Lord should be used for spiritual purposes:

Michael Graham
October 2005
Revised July 2022

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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