Exodus 30:11-16: The Census Tax

Having already discussed in broad detail some issues of biblical taxation [1] I thought it worthwhile to discuss the issue of the census tax (also considered the temple tax) in particular.  As it is one of the most notable biblical taxes in terms of its presence in scripture, provoking a discourse between Jesus Christ and Peter, as well as in its absence (as in the census of David), as well as in its significance for believers, it is worthwhile to examine.  Let us therefore examine what this law says, how this law is shown in either obedience or disobedience in scripture, and what this law means.

A Ransom For The People

Exodus 30:11-16 is a tax that serves to ransom those counted in a census from a plague sent by God as judgment.  It reads as follows:  “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  “When you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them.  This is what everyone among those who are numbered shall give:  half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (a shekel is twenty gerahs).  The half-shekel shall be an offering to the Lord.  Everyone included among those who are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering to the Lord.  The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when you give an offering to the Lord, to make atonement for yourselves.  And you shall take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the Lord, to make atonement for yourselves.”

It is noteworthy in this passage that so often there is the repetition that this half-shekel tax is counted as atonement money.  When something is repeated so often, there cannot help but be a particular emphasis, that the taking of a census is a very unwise act.  Now, it is not without importance that one of the main tasks of our contemporary governments over the world is to number its citizens, to tax them regularly, to keep track of their activities, and to build up an immense amount of statistics about their well-being and proclivities.  Knowledge is a necessary prerequisite to control.  By pointing out that taking a census–the numbering of the people to provide glory and honor to the rulers–is itself an immoral task, and by attacking a tax to it (equivalent to two days’ labor for everyone counted of the age of 20 and above), the taking of a census itself can be seen as an act of oppression towards the people by increasing the tax burden upon them.

Interestingly enough, though, this tax burden is not to be kept for the state, but is rather to be “offered” to the tabernacle of meeting as a monument.  Therefore the state that assesses this tax does not profit of its deeds, but rather enriches the religious establishment of the nation for whom the offering of the people is a monument to the mercy of God.  Nonetheless, the fact that a census is considered to be a sin that demands atonement itself strikes at one of the foundations of the modern state–its immense collection of statistics about the people under its rule for the purpose of control.

That I May Know The Number of the People

One of the most notable biblical examples of the disobedience to this law concerned the census of David.  As there are two different accounts to this act, in both 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21, let us examine both to see what they uncover when taken together.  Let us also ask ourselves for what purpose this census was taken, and who it was taken of.  Let us also note the results of the census, as a warning for ourselves.

2 Samuel 24:1-4 reads as follows:  “Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”  So the king said to Joab the commander of the army who was with him.  “Now go throughout all the tribes of Israel, and from Dan to Beersheba, and count the people, that I may know the number of the people.”  And Joab said to the king, “Now may the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times more than there are, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it.  But why does my lord the king desire this thing?”  Nevertheless the king’s word prevailed against Joab and against the captains of the army.  Therefore Joab and the captains of the army went out from the presence of the king to count the people of Israel.”

The companion passage to this one in 1 Chronicles 21:1-6, to better understand what was going on:  “Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel.  So David said to Joab and to the leaders of the people, “Go, number Israel from Beersheba to Dan, and bring the number of them to me that I may know it.”  And Joab answered, “May the Lord make the people a hundred times more than they are.  But, my lord the king, and they not all my lord’s servants?  Why then does my lord require this thing?  Why should it be a cause of guilt in Israel?”  Nevertheless the king’s word prevailed against Joab.  Therefore Joab departed and went throughout all Israel and came to Jerusalem.  Then Joab gave the sum of the number of the people to David.  All Israel had one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and Judah had four hundred and seventy thousand men who drew the sword.  But he did not count Levi and Benjamin among them, for the king’s word was abominable to Joab.”

Let us therefore compare these passages and see what they mean.  From an examination of the two we can understand some of the reason for the census as well as the human purpose.  We see that Satan rose up against Israel, condemning them for some sort of sin, and that God’s anger at this sin allowed him to allow Satan to move David to count Israel so that he could enforce judgment upon them (and for which he took responsibility–as it is said in 2 Samuel).  Despite the fact that the census was for military purposes (as it counted men of military age–those above 20), it was opposed by Joab and the commander of the troops themselves.  The opposition of Joab to the census led it to be incomplete rather than to the desired standard of exactitude wished by David himself.  Additionally, Joab recognized that the census would be a cause of guilt among Israel but may have been less sensitive to the fact that God was looking for precisely such a cause in order that Israel may be judged with a plague.

Interestingly enough, the choice of punishments given by God through Gad, the seer of David, reveals precisely this.  As it says in 1 Chronicles 21:7-15:  “And God was displeased with this thing; therefore, he struck Israel.  So David said to God, “I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing; but now, I pray, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.”  Then the Lord spoke to Gad, David’s seer, saying, “Go and tell David, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord:  I offer you three things; choose one of them for yourself, that I may do it to you. ‘ ”  So Gad came to David and said to him, “Thus says the Lord:  ‘Choose for yourself, either three years of famine or three months to be defeated by your foes with the sword of your enemies overtaking you, or else for three days the sword of the Lord–the plague in the land, with the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’  Now consider what answer I should take back to him who sent me.”  And David said to Gad, “I am in great distress.  Please let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are very great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man.”  So the Lord sent a plague upon Israel, and seventy thousand men of Israel fell.  And God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it.  As he was destroying, the Lord looked and relented of the disaster, and said to the angel who was destroying, “It is enough; not restrain your hand.”  And the angel of the Lord stood by the threshing floor of Oman the Jebusite.”

Let us note a few things about this judgment.  For one, let us note that among the options of famine, military defeat, or plague, that David chose the penalty that God had set for himself in Exodus 31 for breaking this law.  David chose wisely in letting God judge and trusting (correctly) in His mercy.  Presumably God judged those whose sin provoked him to allow David to be tempted to conduct the census in the first place, allowing the judgment to fall on those whose actions provoked God to judge.  Additionally, let us note that the avenging angel himself, the Angel of the Lord, appears to be the preincarnate Christ Himself, who was moved even at this stage to take judgment upon the sins of Jerusalem.  Let us note additionally that the place where the Angel of the Lord stopped, the threshing floor of Oman the Jebusite, was the temple mount, Mount Moriah, where Isaac had been brought to be sacrificed and where the temples to God in Jerusalem were later built.  God therefore chose the place of the temple for himself by the place where His judgment stopped.

The Temple Tax

This relationship between the judgment of God upon the census and the existence of the temple system remained for many centuries.  We know this because in the time of Christ’s life on earth the temple half-shekel tax was still taken and it provides an example of the biblical view on taxation itself.  Let us therefore examine this passage and what it means.

Matthew 17:24-27 gives this account of the temple tax:  “When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?”  He said, “Yes.”  And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon?  From whom do the kings of this earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?”  Peter said to Him, “Then the sons are free.  Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first.  And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”

What is this passage saying?  For one, it says that this tax from the census was assessed for many centuries after it was originally assessed.  Additionally, we notice that the temple establishment (which profited from this tax) wished to use the nonpayment of the tax as a potential cause of offense from Jesus.  Peter defends his Master (properly) as as loyal, tax-paying citizen and not a rabble-rousing and seditious rebel.  The payment of taxes, after all, is the litmus test of political loyalty.  Those who oppose or withhold the paying of taxes strike at the legitimacy of the authority over them and mark themselves as rebels.

Jesus Himself was exempt from the tax, being the Son of God and the one for whom the temple taxes were collected.  That said, despite the fact that he was exempt from paying the tax as the Son of God, he still paid the tax anyway to avoid causing offense.  This sets a precedent for the orderly taxpaying by citizens of earthly realms who happen to be called into Christianity.  The status of being a citizen of the realms of heaven does not allow us to neglect our responsibilities to the realms of which we are citizens or subjects on this earth.  And through his defense of Jesus and his obedience to the law, Peter was able to fish for his tax payment at no charge to either Christ nor himself.  Jesus therefore implicitly rewarded Peter for his own defense of law and order with the temple taxmen.

What This Tax Means For Us

Let us note, though, what this tax means for us.  There are several lessons for us, three I will choose to comment on today.  First, it is worthwhile to comment on the implications of this law for the information gathering tendencies of the contemporary government.  Second, let us comment on the obligation of tax paying by citizens.  Third, let us comment on the implications of this tax on the equality of humanity.

First, by commenting that taxation is necessary to atone for the sin of counting citizens, this law points out that it is a sin for nations to collect immense amounts of personal data about their own people for the purposes of comparison with other nations or control of the lives of those citizens.  Furthermore, the story of the census of David shows that responsibility for that sin lies on the people in charge–those who count the people and wish to control them and know about them in detail bear the price of that sin, for which either repentance or retribution is necessary.  The fact that governments are not supposed to profit from this tax also means that censuses are not to the opportunity for governments to increase their own tax base at the stake of the people at large.

Nonetheless, it is a civic responsibility for citizens to pay the taxes they are charged, even when they (like Jesus Christ) may be exempt from the taxes, to avoid causing offense.  There is no quicker way to cause offense to a nation or to an authority than to cease to pay one’s taxes.  The price of participation in a nation’s economic system is the obligation to pay taxes, which is one’s duty as a loyal citizen.  And as Christians are required to be law-abiding citizens of their nations and realms, obedience is required except when that involves disobedience to God (at which point the Christian is to ask for deliverance by the ultimate authority of heaven, or, failing that, accepts the judgment of the physical authority).  Christians are to be examples of faithful obedience to the law to the outside world, and this includes matters of taxation.

Finally, let us note that the census tax is a regressive tax.  Because its assessment is the same whether the payer is rich or poor, it is a much higher proportional burden to the poor than it is to the rich–it serves as two days’ wages for the unskilled agricultural laborer.  This need not be a bad thing, though.  The fact that the assessment of this tax is equal for all who are counted of adult age means that all such people are equal in the eyes of God.  Equal payment means equal respect and equal status, for God is not a respecter of persons.  In the ancient world, this equality tended to count towards men because only men were counted for warfare or taxpaying capabilities.  However, as our world counts both men and women, the census tax itself recognizes the equality of all humanity in the eyes of God.  As Paul says in Galatians 3:26-29:  “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  We are all sons and daughters, and therefore we are all free and equal.  Let us therefore recognize this fact, and act accordingly.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/on-biblical-taxation/

About nathanalbright

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13 Responses to Exodus 30:11-16: The Census Tax

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  6. Robin Mauro says:

    This article misquotes Matthew, and then uses the misquote to say Jesus wasn’t required to pay the temple tax, rather than the citizens not being required to pay.
    Matthew 17:25
    (Peter’s response, which this writer left out, after Jesus asked who is required to pay the tax) “And he said (Peter) of strangers.”
    I am not sure the motivation of the author of this article to twist the Word this way. Perhaps it was to insist we must pay tax, which Jesus makes clear is not actually required of citizens, but then gives us the example to do so anyway, so as not to offend. The whole rebel commentary here is debatable, as we are told to obey the laws of the land, but on the other hand, Jesus himself was a rebel in many ways, like turning over the tables of the money changers.
    I am not sure how this relates to Exodus 30:15 where it appears to be that everyone is required to pay the temple tax, not just strangers. I need to do more research on this.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The Census tax of Exodus 30:11-16 states that whenever a census is calculated (the United States and many other countries do this every ten years), that a redemption tax is owed in order that God does not strike a curse on Israel, as happened during the time of David. It appears, though, that at some point the temple establishment started requiring this tax as ordinary revenue divorced from the original purpose of redeeming Israel from a curse relating to the census, and in that case it is quite possible that there were exemptions to the ordinary temple tax based on one’s status, and as the Son of God and a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, He had a higher status than any of the priests collecting the money, but He chose to pay the tax for Himself and Peter so as not to offend. Where you are getting the whole idea of twisting the Word or worrying about rebel commentaries is somewhat puzzling to me.

  7. Excellent analysis of Exodus 30 and related passages! Well done.

  8. I will echo what was already said. Excellent writing and excellent analysis of this passage. You might be interested or you probably already know what Bonhoeffer said about number. I cannot now remember the book but it is worthwhile noting the period during which he wrote.

    If you are interested, please check out my blog at http://www.thinkheaven.com. Any insight or input will be appreciated. God bless you. You are in inspiration.

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