Purchasing forgiveness of sins?
I was recently asked by someone if there are Old Testament passages that speak about paying money for the forgiveness of sins. There are of course various Old Testament offerings, some voluntary, and some mandatory. And some involve offering up parts of your livestock or crops.
But this fellow specifically asked about the payment of half a shekel. The gist of his query was whether one could find a biblical suggestion for buying one’s salvation. He mentioned reading an article on this but needed help finding a biblical reference for it.
So to offer a reply, I did a quick search, and decided to do a whole piece on this matter. And the search reveals that this payment amount is found only a few times in the Pentateuch. Genesis 24:21-23 mentions “a gold ring weighing a half shekel”. And we also read about this amount in Exodus 38:25-27 which discusses materials for the tabernacle. These of course have nothing to do with purchasing atonement for sins.
The passage where we do have this amount, along with the suggestion of payment for sin, is Exodus 30:11-16. This text speaks about the census tax:
The Lord said to Moses, “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. 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. Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, 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. 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.”
The language here can be confusing, since we read about a “ransom for life” and the like. Does this mean folks could pay for their salvation, or buy atonement for sins? The short answer is no, and what follows will unpack that response.
Bear in mind that the money collected here was for the construction of the sanctuary. And since taking a census could be an act of disobedience, this also deals with possible punishment from God. At times God commanded a census, at other times he judged Israel for taking a census. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/05/05/difficult-bible-passages-1-chronicles-211-4/
As to the four English words that speak of atonement and so on in this passage, they all come from the one Hebrew word, kpr. If it sounds familiar, it should: just think of Yom Kippur for example: the Day of Atonement. And there can be different meanings for how this term is used. Christopher Wright says this:
But why, in this context, did the Israelites need ransoming, and what did it mean? There is no mention of sin or even ritual uncleanness in this passage, so the phrase “making atonement for your lives” (v. 16) should not be taken in that moral or spiritual sense. Verse 12b gives us the clue. Taking a census of the people was a dangerous thing to do. As we learn from later stories (cf. 2 Sam. 24), it seems to have generated the temptations to take pride in the numerical strength of the people of self-reliance in their military resources.”
A plague was a means of judgment used by God when a census was wrongly undertaken. Thus the reference to plague in Ex. 30:12. Victor Hamilton offers more commentary on this passage. He also looks at the 2 Sam. 24 text, along with a parallel in Numbers 31. He then comments:
There is no idea here of some OT form presaging medieval indulgences, of purchasing one’s salvation. Forgiveness and atonement cannot be bought and paid for by the one in need of redemption. There is no “he who puts the most on the offering plate receives the greatest forgiveness.” In both cases, Num. 31 and Exod. 30, the purpose is to prevent God’s lethal punishment on Israel for taking a census. This would be a normal procedure when legitimately required, but one that could become an occasion for boasting in one’s numbers rather than in one’s Lord, an occasion for advancing military power as one’s asset rather than divine power.
The temple tax is one that Jesus himself pays (Matt. 17:24-27) in order not to “offend” the Jewish authorities (see McEleney 1976). His onetime payment of this tax is unique to Jesus. Nobody else ever gets a half-shekel or four-drachma coin out of a fish’s mouth. Also, any connection between this tax and atonement is absent from the verses in Matthew.
Let me draw upon one last commentator, Philip Graham Ryken. He nicely wraps all this up for the Christian today:
The payment of this price did not atone for sin. As we have seen throughout Exodus, atonement for sin only comes through a sacrifice of blood. Everyone in Israel had already received atonement through the sin offering made on the altar of sacrifice. Salvation from sin is always a free gift of God’s grace – a gift that comes “without money and without cost” (Isa, 55:1b). There is no payment we can make for our sins. Nevertheless, the ransom paid during the census was called “the atonement money.” And although it did not atone for the people’s sins, according to God it “made atonement for their lives.” It rescued them from the particular punishment of the plague, reminding them that they belong to God and not to themselves.
Israel’s atonement money should remind us of the price that was paid for our redemption. The Bible says, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19b, 20a; cf. 7:23). And what a costly price it was! The Bible also says, “it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pet. 1:18, 19). The Israelites were ransomed with a sliver of silver, which was precious enough; but have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Jesus Christ paid for our sins through his death on the cross.
And we can all thank God for that. As the third verse of the old hymn “Rock of Ages” puts it:
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace:
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I die.