The Torah prescribes a special way of taking a census of Israel. When taking a census, the people of Israel were to each contribute a half-shekel coin. Then the census taker could tally the number of coins to arrive at the sum total of the people:
This is what everyone who is numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as a contribution to the LORD. (Exodus 30:13)
The coins provide a way to avoid numbering people off. God does not allow His people to be counted by means of assigning a number. Why? Unfortunately, the Bible does not explain it to us. For whatever reason, numbering off the people of Israel is considered a sin. Rashi suggests that numbers are more susceptible to misfortune, as happened in the days of King David.
King David took a census of his fighting men, but after the numbering was completed, he was conscience stricken:
Now David’s heart troubled him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have actedvery foolishly.” (2 Samuel 24:10)
As a punishment for David’s sin of counting thepeople, a plague fell upon Israel.
The prohibition on counting people seems inexplicable, but perhaps God wants to teach us that people are not numbers. When people are numbered, their individual merit is lost. Anyone who has ever dealt with government bureaucracy has felt the dehumanizing effect of being treated as simply a number. In the camps of Nazi Germany, the Nazis branded identification numbers into the flesh of their victims.
God told Abraham that his seed would be uncountable as the stars. This promise was understood to mean that the people of Israel should not be counted. For that reason, even David did not dare count all the Israelites. Yet God “counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them” (Psalm 147:4). With God, each star is a unique individual with its own name. How much more so is that the case with His people.
If we want to see the world with God’s eyes, we need to learn to see people as individuals. Each one is precious; each one possesses a unique soul of inestimable value.
After the half-shekels were collected and counted,they were used for the service of the Tabernacle. The priesthood used the money to buy the daily sacrifices. That way every person in Israel had a share in the sacrifices.
In the days of the apostles, the half-shekel was collected every year. Once, when it was time to collect the half-shekel, the Apostle Peter was abashed to realize that he did not have even a single coin. He went to the Master to inquire about what he should do. Yeshua told him to go to the lake, drop in a hook and catch a fish. In the mouth of the fish Peter found a coin worth a whole shekel. He used it to pay for his half-shekel and the Master’s.