God goes back into a little interior design and gives specifications for an altar. It involves horns and gold and seems like it should look pretty Goat herd-chic.

The census and the head tax

But God takes a quick break from all this planning to ask Moses to take a census of the people. It seems that God’s new redecoration project has cost him a bit more than he was expecting, so he tells Moses to collect from each person he counts half a shekel. He gets a bit weird when he calls this a “ransom” and says that everyone over the age of 20 has to pay “that there be no plague among them” (Exod. 30:12). Just God being God. Why ask nicely when you can just threaten with plagues, y’know?

Exodus30We can see this in two ways: Firstly, there’s the spreading of social costs across the population, same as our modern taxes. We value roads and schools, so that’s where our communal money goes, whereas these guys value incense and the slaughter of lambs. But the second issue is the use of the word “ransom” and the threat of plague for failure to pay. This strikes me as yet another remnant of human sacrifice, where individuals can replace their bodies with money and thereby defer sacrificing themselves. If they don’t pay, the human sacrifice is back in play and God will come collect his due personally.

An interesting addition to this story is the instruction that “the rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less” (Exod. 30:15) than the half shekel. To me, this says that the authors of the Bible would have been familiar with the concept of a progressive tax, which I find rather interesting from a historical perspective.

This passage is used by the Christian Right in the U.S. to justify a flat tax, but I think that may be an incorrect interpretation. This is not a general tax, but a specific “soul-atonement” tax for religious purposes, like tithing. To me, the implication here is that each male adult’s life is worth the same (or, from the negative perspective, they are equally guilty of sin). Far from arguing in favour of a flat tax in a modern setting, I’d say this passage may actually be arguing for the equal worth (or sinfulness) of all (male) people.

The last thing I want to point out about the census and tax is that the value of a shekel is specified (Exod. 30:13). According to my Study Bible, this is because the value of the older Hebrew or Phoenician shekel was different than the post-exile Babylonian shekel. The fact that the author of the text felt the need to specify which should be used makes it pretty clear that the text was written – or at least amended – long after Moses’s death.

The laver and the perfume

Now that we’re done with the census, God gives instructions for Moses to make a bronze laver to hold water. Aaron and his sons must wash their hands and feet whenever they do priest-y things, “lest they die” (Exod. 30:20), which is pretty germophobic if you ask me.

Lastly, God gives instructions for the making of incense and oil that are to be used only by the priests. If anyone else makes either, he “shall be cut off from his people” (Exod. 30:33,38).

I get the whole “I paid a ton of money for this unique designer scent, so I don’t want anyone wearing a cheap knock-off” thing, but really, this kinda makes God look like a catty 15-year-old.