THE BOOK OF EXODUS describes the construction of the Tabernacle, the focus of Israel’s worship of God.
The Tabernacle was largely made of materials that were offered freely by the people (Exodus 25:2). But also, it was partly built by means of a tax. There was to be a census: ‘Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary… half a shekel as an offering to the Lord. Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upwards, shall give the Lord’s offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the Lord’s offering to make atonement for your lives’ (Exodus 30:13–15). We learn later that this census money was silver coins, which were melted down and used to make components of the Tabernacle (Exodus 38:25–28).
This was the ‘atonement offering’. ‘Atonement’ means reconciliation. It taught the people that despite their waywardness, God wanted to be reconciled to them. Generally taxes in Israel were ‘tithes’—people paid in proportion to what they had—but this offering was the same for everyone, rich and poor. Everyone’s life is of equal value to God.
The half shekel became established as an annual tax for the upkeep of the priests and the Temple. It was for payment of this tax that Jesus told Peter to go and catch a fish, in whose mouth he’d find a shekel coin with which he’d pay the tax for the two of them (Matthew 17:24–27).
The coin Peter found in the fish’s mouth would have been minted in nearby Tyre. It was typically Tyrean half-shekels that were used for the temple tax, because the Romans did not permit the Jews to produce their own coinage. The Jews particularly resented this rule, because the Tyrian coins bore images of their gods.
In the ruins of a public building that was demolished in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ad archaeologists found an extraordinary silver coin. On one side it has the image of a goblet, similar to the ones used in the Temple service at the time, and the words ‘half shekel’; on the other side a depiction of a branch with three pomegranates and the words ‘Holy Jerusalem’. The script on the coin is ancient Hebrew. It seems that during the Jewish revolt the Jews expressed their defiance of Rome by minting their own coins for the temple tax.
However, the true meaning of the ‘atonement offering’ is not the stamp on the silver—it’s the fact that God Himself has paid the ultimate price. ‘We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation’ (Romans 5:11).