By: William Jackson
As we read Exodus 30, we see that God requires everyone, regardless of class, to pay a half shekel (verse 13). I don’t know about you, but when I first read this passage, I imagined the Israelites lining up and paying a half-shekel coin. Yet I come to find out I was mistaken. So what is this shekel? Here, we will find out through the Torah and ancient history what God actually meant by shekel.
Oldest Coin about 600 BCE
If you thought they were talking about an Israeli shekel1, you’ll have to reconsider, as it wouldn’t come into existence until about 66 CE about 1,512 years later. Okay, no problem, since the Israelites just left Egypt, God must have been talking about an Egyptian coin. Sounds good, but here we have a problem – Egypt wouldn’t establish a coin currency until its Greek colonization2 took place around the 7th century BCE, over 700 years too late. You see the Greeks were among some of the first societies that used coins, but that didn’t happen until around 600 BCE3, over 800 years after God requested the half shekel. So it couldn’t be a coin because it wasn’t invented yet.
If we look at Exodus 30:24, we see that it states the measures of the ingredients for the holy anointing oil were to be calculated using the Shekel for the Sanctuary. Therefore, the shekel was considered a weight of measure. The half shekel was a measured piece of silver offered for the temple. Basically, each Israelite surrendered a piece of silver weighing about 8 ounces or a half a shekel. The commerce of precious metals was common – it was how things were done back in those days. Often these metals were fashioned into jewelry as a way of keeping them close at hand and displaying one’s wealth. Remember that before the Israelites left Egypt they took silver and gold jewelry from the Egyptians (Exodus 11:2, 2:35). At today’s rate of approximately 17 US dollars per ounce, a half shekel (8 grams of silver) is around five dollars4.
So why the immediate need for this wealth in the desert? Well, we will find out six chapters later when the sockets of the Tabernacle were made from silver (Exodus 36). There were 96 silver sockets in all5. In addition, the supporting rings and hooks were made of silver (Exodus 38:10-119). In Exodus 38:26-28, God goes into painstaking detail about much silver was gathered and where it was used.
God had a purpose for all that silver jewelry that was gathered from the Egyptians. We also need to remember that before the commission of the Tabernacle, God was specific in directing the Israelites not to make gods of silver (Exodus 20:20). Maybe taking away their silver and putting it to good use removed their temptation.
For additional insight into this topic, listen to Jeff Gilbert with Talking Torah6