Session 1                                  THE TEMPLE TAX

HOW IT ALL STARTED

(Even though I often provide some key verses,

please take time to read the referenced Bible sections!)

The books of Moses tell us about the regulations regarding the Levitical priesthood and the required sacrifices.  If one reads Exodus and Leviticus, it becomes obvious that there is a lot of work to be done in and around the Tabernacle (later to become the Temple).  Priests have to be paid, worship materials have to be made and constructed, precious metals have to be gathered.  With some thought on these matters, the question might arise “Who is going to pay for all of that ‘stuff’?”

Exodus 30:11-16 gives us the foundation for the support of the worship center and the clergy.  Verses 12-13 say (ESV)  “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. 13 Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord.”  Verse 16 concludes:  “You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for your lives.”

Today, no decently-educated Lutheran pastor (I hope!) would suggest that you can ransom your soul by filling up the Sunday offering plate or by suggesting that you can keep your family free of the Covid-19 crud by coughing up some money for the weekly offering.  Scripture must not be abused this way!  

Some claim that this section of Exodus was not originally in the books of Moses because they find too many problems with what is being said  (WHY that is considered a valid argument escapes me!).  Others claim that this is a one-time collection for the “construction” of the “tent of meeting” (in other words, “The Building Fund!”).    This idea can’t be supported, since the Hebrew word here ( צבד ) means “service,” and does not mean “construction.”  Exodus makes no provision for a weekly offering; it merely says that a census (and only the men were counted) would assess each adult male the exact same amount.  Whether the man was rich or poor, the same amount was collected:  a half shekel.  It would seem that the original Temple Tax was a general fund.

WHAT IS A ‘SANCTUARY SHEKEL’?

A shekel (שֶׁקֶל plural: sheqalim—“sheh-cah-LEEM”) was a common coin in the Middle East among most of the peoples who lived there.  At Moses’ time, the shekel referred to in Exodus 30 was the “sanctuary shekel”  (see Exodus 38:24, ESV:  “All the gold that was used for the work, in all the construction of the sanctuary, the gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents and 730 shekels, by the shekel of the sanctuary.”  The shekel was normally a silver coin, but shekels of various peoples were not all of the same weight, so we cannot be sure how large this coin was.  Some shekels were made of gold.  The Hebrew text in Exodus 30:13 informs us that a half-shekel was 10 gerahs, but what was their “gerah” coin?

 We have examples of the shekels and half-shekels (naturally the half-shekel was half as large!) which were used at Jesus’ time.  Was this the same size as the shekel 1500 years earlier?  We simply don’t know.  The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew into Greek only adds more confusion.  It translates the “shekel” and “gerah” into “obols” and “double-drachmas.”1  A proper translation creates the following mystifying phrase:  “one half of two drachmas.”  These would refer to later coins and not Mosaic period coins.

It appears that “The shekel of the sanctuary” was a standardized unit created by the Jewish authorities for the express purpose of supporting the on-going expenses of the  Tabernacle and the requirements of sacrificing.  Were these coins being minted by the Hebrews during their 40 years of wilderness wandering?  That conclusion seems likely.  Despite claims to the contrary, an exact weight at the time of the Exodus is pure guesswork.  Later in history, we have examples and documentation that standardize the size of coins, down to the 100th of a gram of weight.

TEMPLE TAXES DURING THE TIME OF THE JUDGES

The Bible does not mention a specific tax during the period from Moses to Joshua and the period of the Kings starting with Saul, David and Solomon.  Some have assumed that if they needed money for the Tabernacle, they just took another census.  Here are two passages from the Book of Numbers which indicate more than one census was taken at Moses’ time (ESV).

  • Numbers 1:2 “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans…”
  • Numbers 26:2-4 “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers’ houses, all in Israel who are able to go to war.”

If multiple occasions for a census occurred during the 40 years in the wilderness, it seems possible that during the 200 or more years of the Judges, the worship at the Tabernacle was maintained by a tax levied at the time of additional censuses.  Nothing is said about an annual “Tabernacle Tax” during this period.

Throughout the time of the Judges, the people of Israel owed allegiance to no one but God.  Therefore, no outside country was able to levy a tax upon them.  Any taxes which were paid were strictly “in house.”

 We have a clue in 1 Samuel 8:10-18, especially verse 15 which warns against wanting a king:  He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.” (ESV)  This is taxation!  Apparently, there was no political taxation during the time of the Judges—only support for the worship center!

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1  Here is the LXX text at Exodus 30:13:   καὶ τοῦτό ἐστιν ὃ δώσουσιν ὅσοι ἂν παραπορεύωνται τὴν ἐπίσκεψιν· τὸ ἥμισυ τοῦ διδράχμου, ὅ ἐστιν κατὰ τὸ δίδραχμον τὸ ἅγιον· εἴκοσιν ὀβολοὶ τὸ δίδραχμον, τὸ δὲ ἥμισυ τοῦ διδράχμου εἰσφορὰ Κυρίῳ.