By: Michael Peebles
Date: March 6, 2015
Scripture: Parashat Ki-Tissa, especially Exodus 30:11-16
This week in the annual reading cycle, the parsha starts off with God’s instruction for mustering or numbering the people. It requires that a kopher, or life-price, be paid by each person counted in the process. The issue is a thought-provoking one even at first glance, but as many things with Torah, the process of inquiry leads us on a journey deep into the hidden things of God. This post is intended to encourage such an enquiry, or perhaps to be a discussion starter.
The idea of a ransom being set on the life of someone is a notion that has been getting a lot of attention lately, because of the activities of the terrorists in the Middle East region. You may have already thought your way into this issue a bit. For instance, what would we give to redeem a family member from the hand of someone who would harm them? For most of us, the price would only be an issue to the extent of whether we could raise it or not. The bottom line is, there is no value in money that rises to the value of the life of someone dear to us.
Of course, God has nothing in common with a terrorist or kidnapper. He did not take physical control of the people of Israel to get money so he could buy anything at all, least of all power, which is the ultimate goal of the terrorist. The idea is preposterous! But why would he desire to have a relatively modest amount of the wealth of Israel redistributed at the time of counting, and what can we learn from this instruction?
Let’s consider the context. This is not about redeeming the firstborn, because that is covered by a separate instruction. This instruction applies to every male that is counted. For what purpose might such a counting take place? If the people are to be organized into tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands, then there must be a process of “numbering” that occurs, simply as a practical reality. Further, the whole issue of this kind of numbering is bound up with judgment, whether in matters that might arise within the nation, or in its application of collective military force to the nations (families) around it.
One of the interesting principles of Torah is that when a matter comes into judgement, all the parties come into judgement at once. The plaintiff and the defendant are subject to the same penalty because of the perjury law. The judges are required to inquire diligently and judge righteously. A variety of consequences can come upon any one who does not seek what is right in the matter regardless of self-interest. In a very real way, God himself enters into judgment. Otherwise, how is it that he is “proved righteous” as we try to follow his instruction together?
Doesn’t it make sense then, that at the outset, a part of the instruction would function as an object lesson? A reminder that regardless of social status, wealth, or other factors, for everyone within the whole group, the same life-price must be paid. A practical reminder that no one is able to gain preferment in judgment.
Further, verse 15 makes it clear that the half-shekel is “for an atonement over/against your souls” (lekhapper ‘al-naphshoteykhem). This has an interesting resonance with the use of the same word kaphar (covering/atonement) in its first instance of use – the covering usually translated as “pitch” that was placed on the ark of Noah to seal the ship during the judgment of the world by water.
So, one of the things we can gain from study of this instruction is that, whenever we prepare to enter together into a work of judgment, we must all have the same covering over our souls. This has many possible applications. Let’s be considering and implementing them together, especially as we enter into spiritual warfare needing a spiritual covering to keep the enemy from breaking through like a flood.
Question to ponder: What price might our Heavenly Father pay for our spiritual ransom?
(Hint: the first time the word “love” is used in the Hebrew text is in the passage of the binding of Isaac; Genesis 22:2)
Question for further study: What can we learn from Yeshua’s handling of this instruction?
(Hint: see the story of Peter sent to catch the fish with the coin; Matthew 17:24-27)