Exodus 30:11 The LORD spoke to Moses: 12 When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the LORD, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. 13 This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD. 14 Each one who is registered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the LORD’s offering. 15 The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you bring this offering to the LORD to make atonement for your lives.
There are only a handful of times when a census was taken in the Old Testament. This census is directly commanded by the Lord. There are two primary purposes for taking a census: 1) to collect taxes 2) to count the number of able-bodied warriors available for battle. All that is well and good. What gets my attention today is v.12,
“at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered.”
The question that comes to my mind is, what’s with the plague? Why would the people be need to pay a “ransom” to avoid being afflicted by plague? I read through a number of my bible resources and couldn’t find much of an explanation, so I’ll offer my own interpretation, as well as a sense of why this strange practice may have implications for our lives today.
As I read this passage from Exodus, I was reminded of another passage involving King David who lived centuries after the period covered in Exodus. In 2 Samuel chapter 24 King David called for a census to be taken, against the advise of his army commander Joab who said to David:
3 But Joab said to the king, “May the LORD your God increase the number of the people a hundredfold, while the eyes of my lord the king can still see it! But why does my lord the king want to do this?” 4 But the king’s word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army.
Joab is suggesting to his king (very delicately I might add) that counting his warriors was an unnecessary and potentially unfaithful act. Joab had been with David for many years and had seen first-hand how God protected David and the Israelites from harm – no matter what their numerical disadvantage might have been. For those living in covenant with the living God, the number of warriors they could send into battle was irrelevant.
David’s insistence on taking a census may have indicated a growing trust in military assets – rather that the covenant protection of God.
God responded to David’s census with a plague of three days that killed 70,000 people. The half shekel ransom indicated in the Exodus passage was not only an act of worship to God, but also an atonement for their sins. Without the offering of atonement they would have paid for their sin via the death and destruction of a plague. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the small sin offering (ransom) instead.
Which brings us to you and me. What application is there for us in this passage? I don’t think we have to worry about a plague. However, we do need to worry about placing our trust in things other than the living God. I’ll admit I often look to all kinds of things for help before I turn to the Lord. Perhaps this is one of the traps of living in a “first world” nation such as ours. We have so many programs, assets, and resources available to us we can forget to pray, to earnestly seek the Lord to deliver us from life’s struggles and hardships.
Or, if you’re like me, you may be in the habit of going it alone. Independence is a sin of which I am often guilty. I don’t just leave God out of the equation, I leave other people out of the equation. There’s a tape in my head that tells me I can’t really rely on others. If I place my trust in people they will only let me down. So I struggle in silence – which is a really bad idea. One of the primary ways God comes to our aid is through other people. Hence, in a very real way, when I shut out others I may be shutting God out as well.
Questions for today:
Where am I placing my trust in something other than the living God?
Who are the people the Lord has placed in my life to help me get through hard times?
Gracious Lord, it takes a posture of humility and vulnerability to ask for help. I’m really bad at asking for help. Give me grace to remember in whose hands I truly belong. Help me to my knees that I may seek you always. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.