Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 3: Harmony of the Law, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
respecting the Payment of Tribute
Exodus 30:11-13, 15, 16
11. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
11. Loquutus est Jehova ad Mosen, dicendo,
12. When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel, after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them.
12. Subduces summam filiorum Israel, prout numerati fuerint inter eos: dabunt singuli redemptionem animae suae Jehovae quum numeraveris eos, et non erit in eis plaga quum numeraveris eos.
13. This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs:) an half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord.
13. Hoc dabunt quisque transiens inter numeratos, dimidium sicli secundum siclum sanctuarii. Viginti obolorum est siclus, dimidium sicli erit oblatio Jehovae.
15. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls.
15. Dives non augebit, et pauper non diminuet ex dimidio sicli, dando oblationem Jehovae ad expiandas animas vestras.
16. And thou shalt take the atonement-money of the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation; that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls.
16. Accipiesque pecuniam expiationum a filiis Israel, et dabis eam in opus tabcrnaculi testimonii: eritque filiis Israel in memoriale coram Jehova, ad expiandas animas vestras.
12. When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel. The tribute which God here demands at the taking of the census, is very fitly annexed to the First Commandment; for God, in making them tributary to Himself, shews that they were under His jurisdiction and power; and because He had purchased them to Himself, He willed that this voluntary gift of acknowledgment should be paid to Him. Princes, in numbering their subjects, make an estimate of their power; but God, who needs not the aid and assistance of men, would have the Israelites testify, at least by some sign, that they live in subjection to Him by whom they were redeemed. Therefore, when David numbered the people, (2Sa 24:2,) it was a kind of emancipation of them from their subjection to God; and hence this pride, or temerity, or ingratitude, was so severely punished. But because it was useful and right that the people should be numbered, it is permitted upon this condition, that by paying a ransom for every individual, they should acknowledge God as their sole King. The word is not badly rendered by some an atonement or expiation, because, whilst they confessed that they owed their life to God, He was appeased towards them on the score of this testimony of their gratitude. But it may be derived from a word meaning to cover; for when they voluntarily subjected themselves to God, and fled beneath the shelter of his wings, they were protected and secure, under this covering. Therefore it is said below, that this gift was offered to God as “an atonement for their souls;” and this is expressed in other words, that there should “be no plague” or destruction among them, because their safety rested in God’s protection alone, that they should not be exposed to any evils. And since they had been Pharaoh’s servants, their freedom would have been unlawful unless God had authorized and maintained it. Wherefore it was just. that they should ascribe their deliverance by a solemn rite to God, lest they should suffer the punishment of fugitive slaves. But He appointed the same sum for all, that every one, of whatever rank, from the least, to the greatest, might know that they were altogether His. Nor need we wonder, that since this was a personal due, (as it is commonly phrased,) their condition was not taken into account, so that the rich should pay more than the poor, but that the same price should be paid for every soul. The shekel 330 of the sanctuary was equivalent to an Attic tetra-drachma, which Budaeus estimates at 14 sols French, or thereabouts; for the didrachma amounts to seven sols, and the common drachma to three and a half sols, minus a denier Tournois. This is the didrachma of which mention is made in Mt 17:24; for when the Jews were conquered by the Romans, it is probable that, in order to make their yoke more galling, this right of tribute was transferred to their conquerors. For this divinely prescribed offering being the symbol of their freedom, exempted the Jews from all heathen dominion, as if free or only belonging to God. But. since by their own rebellion they had shaken off God’s yoke, He purposely suffered them to be despoiled of their right, in order to subject them to the tyranny of strangers. And this occurred just before Christ’s coming, that this new and unwonted oppression might increase their longing for Him. But inasmuch as this tribute was paid by command of the Law, the Jews were reminded that they were a people consecrated to God.
I am indebted to an anonymous writer in that useful little publication, “Notes and Queries,” vol. 5, p. 325, for the following note. Having given a translation almost identical with that in the text, he adds, “which is as much as to say, that the sickle (or shekel) equalled 14 solidi, less four deniers; or 13.67 solidi. But owing to the rapid declension in the value of French coin after the tenth century, it is manifestly impossible to assign a value to these solidi, unless the precise date of their coinage were known. A writer may, of course, allude to coin indefinitely precedent to his own time. In the present ease, however, we may, as a matter of curiosity, analytically approximate to a result in this way: — The drachm, is now known to have contained about 65 grains of pure silver, consequently the tetradrachma contained 260 grains. The present franc contains about 70 grains of pure silver, and consequently the sol, or 20th part, is 3.5 grains. This last multiplied by 13.67 produces about 48 grains. But the weight of the tetradrachma is 260 grains; therefore the sol with which the comparison was made, must have contained upwards of fivefold its present value in pure silver. Now, according to the depreciation tables of M. Dennis, this condition obtained in 1483, under Charles VIII., at which time Budaeus was actually living, having been born in 1467; but from other circumstances I am induced to believe that the solidus Gallicus mentioned by him was coined by Louis XII. in 1498, at which time the quantity of pure silver was fourfold and a half that of the present day.” Dean Prideaux, Connexion 1:3, says, “Every Jew annually paid a half shekel, i.e., about eighteenpence of our money.”