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)

One price for all

The atonement money was the first instruction about giving that God gave to his people in the Old Testament. Every Israelite man and woman who was twenty years old or more had to give a half shekel to the Lord to atone for their lives.

We're not told why it wasn't required before that age. We know that military service began at the age of twenty in Israel (Num 1:3), so perhaps God regarded twenty as the age of maturity and accountability.

Neither is it certain 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 amount. That's unusual, because giving in the Old Testament was normally on a proportional basis. Tithing was proportional: those who earned more, gave more; those who earned less, gave less. But not so with the atonement money: that was the same for each person; and there was a reason for it.

The atonement money was an offering to the Lord (v13). 'To atone' means to make amends, to put right, to compensate for wrongdoing. When you compensate someone, you offer them something to make up for the loss, or injury, they've incurred.

1Jo 2:2 says that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Jesus atoned for us (put us right with God) by offering his sinless life to compensate for the offence our sinful lives had caused him. And his offering was accepted.

The atonement money was the same for each person because Jesus paid the same price to atone for the sins of the poor man as for the rich man. That price was his death on the cross.

Ransomed lives

Exo 30:12 says that the atonement money was also a ransom for their lives, and yet Psa 49:7–8 says that no one can give to God a ransom for a life, the price is too costly. So why was it given?

The Old Testament is rich in symbolism. God commanded, in his Law, 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 showed that one day a price would be paid (by Jesus) 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 ever been prisoners? Yes, we have. Gal 3:22 says that the whole world is a prisoner of sin. Jesus, by his death, has ransomed us from our captivity to sin; he's paid the price that's set us free. We are no longer slaves to sin (Rom 6:6); we've been set free so we can be slaves to righteousness (Rom 6:18).

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

Protection from the plague

Exo 30:12 says that if each person paid the atonement money no plague would come on them when they were numbered. That means that if they had not paid the atonement money (which symbolized them accepting the atoning work of Christ), a plague would have come on them when they were numbered.

We're not told what plague it would have been, but the Book of Revelation describes the plagues that God is going to bring, in the last days, on those who have not accepted the atoning work 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 hadn't 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 mankind at the end of the age—with those who have not embraced the atoning work of Christ.

Used in his service

An aspect of the atonement money we haven't considered is what was done with it.

God commanded that it 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 moulded into the silver bases that supported the Tent of Meeting and the silver hooks and bands for the posts of the 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 now, any more than he did 2,500 years ago, but he does need it to perform his will on earth.

Everything we give to the Lord today should be used for spiritual purposes: to pay for the places where we meet; to support those in full-time ministry; to finance the preaching of the gospel in all nations; to provide for believers who are in need, and to give to the poor.

Michael Graham
October 2005

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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