Do you enjoy gift shopping? Are you one of those people who are filled with joy as they stroll through the aisles or scroll through Etsy, searching for the perfect item for their family member or friend or significant other? If so, then I’m glad one of us is, because I, unfortunately, am not like that. It’s not that I don’t like to give people things – giving is fun! It’s the shopping that’s tough. I’m really not great at picking out gifts, and even if I do find something pretty good, I still feel sort of ashamed of my efforts. The admiration I have for my mother or the delight I get from my close friendships are never adequately expressed through my paltry gifts. Still, I at least have to try.
Speaking of gift shopping, the Israelites were going to be doing a lot of that soon. God is finally putting the finishing touches on His instructions for Moses and thus the model for the tabernacle. The last few things He describes to Moses are the altar of incense, which, unlike the big altar outside of the tabernacle, was to remain inside the gold and blue and purple curtains, and a wash basin for the priests to use to keep clean during their service. God also gave the exact ingredients for the anointing oil for consecration and the incense for burning in the tabernacle. The loose ends are tied up and the details are in place. The start date for the Israelites’ biggest project yet is getting closer!
The Treasures Within:
God’s commands concerning His tabernacle are all business as usual in this chapter – except for one surprising section. God takes some time to explain to Moses what atonement money is. The concept is straightforward: at census time, each Israelite that is twenty years old or older has to pay a half shekel to God. Whether rich or poor, everyone must do this “to atone for [their] lives” (verses 15, 16). As simple as God’s words were, the meaning behind them is a bit more difficult to grasp. We’re used to the idea of atonement for sins – that’s what the entire tabernacle service is built around. It’s why Jesus would eventually die. We even know about tithing, where the Israelites would give God a tenth of all their stuff (this law comes a little later for the Israelites). But this atonement money law is none of those things! How are we supposed to understand this? How did the Israelites understand it?
In verse 11, the Bible very bluntly describes the atonement money as “a ransom for…life”. Verse 13 describes exactly how to measure this money out. Measuring and ransoms – it all sounds so cold and harsh. But then again, so are we. The definition of “atonement” is “reparation for an offense or injury”. After spending just a few chapters with the Israelites, we’ve already seen how offensive they were! And think about all the injury each of us causes just by blundering through life! It seems like a little atonement is due! From a purely economic point of view, you could say that it’s only fair. God gave life to people who didn’t deserve it, and in return those people paid atonement. Tit for tat. Quid pro quo. The circle of life. Right?
Sound a bit harsh? Maybe. I think there’s another way of looking at it. One of my favorite YouTube videos is actually a Thai short film. The video tells a story of a young woman and her daughter. It shows how well the mother takes care of her child and how, despite the abuse she takes for being a single mother, she powers on. At the end of the video, the child takes part in a traditional Thai ceremony for honoring mothers. As she bows at her mother’s feet, it is revealed that her mother did not actually give birth to her out-of-wedlock – she found a baby abandoned on the street, and decided to care for her.
A young girl bowing to her mother is weird in western cultures – about as weird as the Israelites paying money for atonement or church goers giving God offering or you and me dedicating our lives to God. It’s transactional and cold and harsh. But when you think of it from the point of view of a child who should have died but was given life? It makes a little more sense. We give to God our money and our time and our selves because we didn’t have to be here. We shouldn’t be here. But we are. And we’re thankful.
God’s Message To Us:
“I want You here.” On one hand, this all seems useless. God chose to give us life a long time ago. Even if we or the Israelites gave Him nothing, we wouldn’t suddenly drop dead. The half-shekels they gave God didn’t go into His heavenly safe or anything. The offering we give in church isn’t mailed to heaven. Even when you give God your life, He technically has no need of it. But the truth is that every time we thank God for our lives, we are reminded that we shouldn’t have them. We remember that the only reason we’re alive is because God values us. And so our minds are drawn to His goodness, our hearts are drawn to His love, and our souls are drawn to His. And we realize that this is why Jesus saved us, so that we would know this love. And we are thankful.
What do you think? What do you think was the purpose of atonement money? What did God write in this chapter for you?
There Are Always Questions:
- In verse 12, God says about the atonement money that when the people are counted and the money is paid, “then no plague will come on them when you number them”. This statement drew my mind to an infamous census that would be taken many years later, by King David. He numbered his people and then a plague came upon them because of his sin (1 Chronicles 21). Are the two stories in any way related? Or is King David’s case completely different?