And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 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. 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. Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the LORD. 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. 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 (Ex. 30:11-16).
The people needed a covering, an atonement before God. Why? The text does not say, but other texts tell us. This was a mustering of the fighting men of Israel. Moses counted them as they left Egypt, on the assumption that they would soon enter into a war against Canaan. Israel had left Egypt as an army: ''And it came to pass the selfsame day, that the LORD did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their armies" (Ex. 12:51). So God told Moses to number this assembly of tribal armies: "Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls; From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies" (Num. 1:2-3). After the plague that God brought on Israel for their fornication with the Midianite women, God ordered another census. ''And it came to pass after the plague, that the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, saying, Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, throughout their fathers' house, all that are able to go to war in Israel" (Num. 26:1-2). Joshua numbered them again a generation later for the same reason (Josh. 8:10).
A nation has a legitimate need for statistics on its military capability. It must count the costs of war. "Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace" (Luke 14:31-32). This is why the military commander of Israel numbered the people before he took them into battle.
The people needed an atonement before they marched into battle. The shedding of man's blood must be placed under tight covenantal limits. This is why the numbering of the circumcised males of Israel required their payment of atonement money. This numbering was only to be done in preparation for a war.
One thing is certain about this passage: it does not have anything to do with a civil tax. The State is in no way responsible for taking money from anyone for the purpose of making an atonement for his soul. Making atonement as God's representative is a priestly function, not a kingly function. The recipient of the funds was to be the tabernacle, not the civil government.
The atonement or covering was required by God whenever the adult males were numbered prior to military conflict. If they refused to pay, God threatened them with a plague. When David decided to number the people of Israel despite the fact that no war was imminent, his advisor Joab warned him not to do it (II Sam. 24:3). David refused to listen, and insisted that the census be taken. When he realized that this assertion of his sovereignty was wrong, he admitted his sin to God. The seer Gad was told by God to inform David that he would be given three options: seven years of famine for the nation, three months of fleeing before his enemies, or a plague. David asked God to make the decision, and God sent the plague in which 70,000 people died (II Sam. 24:15).1
1. The passage says that God was angry with Israel, so He "moved David against them" by numbering them (II Sam. 24:1). David could have brought the judgment of God on himself had he been willing to accept the curse of fleeing three months from his enemies, but he left the judgment up to God.
If the census had been a normal source of revenue for the civil government, it would have been an annual event. It was not an annual event; taking the national census was strictly limited to wartime, and required an atonement payment to the tabernacle. By acting as though the State had the authority to take a census at any time, David sinned against God. To "number" (paqad) the army meant to muster the troops for battle. James Jordan comments: "The word is also used throughout the prophets to mean 'visit' or 'punish.' There are other words in Hebrew which refer to numbering in the sense of counting up or adding up, as Exodus 30:12 aptly illustrates ("When you take a sum . .. to muster them"). Thus, the numbering spoken of here in Exodus 30 is not a mere counting census, but a visitation or judgment designed to see who is on the LORD's side. Those who pass over into the camp of the mustered men are thereby declaring themselves to be in the army of God, as opposed to the army of Satan. When the LORD comes, he comes to visit and punish, to muster all men and see who has and who has not passed over into his army."2 Jordan therefore concludes that this was not an annual census.
Jordan argues that it was the presence of God in their midst that threatened those who had not been covered by the payment of the atonement money. God walks in the midst of the army (Deut. 23:14), so the camp must be holy. "The fact that the money is used for the upkeep of the Tabernacle/Temple indicates a connection between the environment of the Temple (God's House) and that of the army camp (God's War Camp). Both are especially holy, and thus especially threatening to sinful man. Under the Old Covenant, each had to be especially sanctified, and the men who entered each had to be especially sanctified. . . ."3
Jordan also points out that in the Old Testament, holy war was a priestly function. Torched cities were called "whole burnt sacrifices" (Deut. 13:16; Jud. 1:17, in Hebrew). During a holy war, the soldiers became temporary priests by taking a Nazarite vow.4 "This is all to say that the rendering of specific judgments is a sabbatical and priestly function, not a kingly one. The kingly function in the Bible is in the area of leading, cultivating, and shepherding, especially through the skillful serving of one's subordinates (Mark 10:42-45).
The sword of the state executes according to the judgments rendered by the priests. (In the New Covenant age, every believer is a priest, just as the Old Covenant believers became priests by taking the Nazarite vow. In our system, the priests render judgment by sitting on a jury, and then the state executes the judgment.)"5
2. James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 227.
3. Ibid., p. 229.
4. Ibid., p. 231.
5. Ibid., pp. 231-32.
The point should be clear: the covering or atonement payment of Exodus 30 has nothing to do with the civil government. It is not a tax at all. "Thus, the military duty is priestly, and a duty of every believer-priest. Both Church and state are involved in it, since the Church must say whether the war is just and holy, and the state must organize the believer-priests for battle. The mustering of the host for a census is, then, not a 'civil' function as opposed to an ecclesiastical one, and the atonement money of Exodus 30 is not a poll tax, as some have alleged."6
6. Ibid., p. 232.
Jordan is being polite (or cautious) by refraining from mentioning the target of his exposition, but readers may not fully understand the nature of the theological problem unless they know the specifics of the debate. Jordan's target is R. J. Rushdoony.
There has been considerable confusion about this in recent years because of Rushdoony's insistence that this atonement payment became a civil head tax after the construction of the tabernacle. "It was used to maintain the civil order after the tabernacle (the throne room and palace of God's government) was built."7 He offers no evidence for this assertion. On the face of it, it seems utterly implausible. How did such a shift in the locus of taxing sovereignty take place? How did the State become the recipient of an atonement payment, thereby converting a ransom paid to God through the priesthood into a head tax collected by the State? This would implicitly transfer sovereignty from the church to the State, a procedure totally at odds with everything else Rushdoony has written about illegitimate State power.
7. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press, 1973), p. 50.
He correctly observes that this payment was an atonement payment to the tabernacle which was paid by those going into battle, and he cites other commentators to support his point - a relatively noncontroversial point.8 Problem number one: On what basis did the State become the recipient of this atonement payment? He tries to solve this problem by arguing that the tabernacle was as much a civil center as an ecclesiastical center. Civil taxes, he insists, were brought to God at His throne room, the tabernacle.10 "The sanctuary was thus the civil center of Israel and no less religious for that fact."9 Thus, a "poll tax," as he calls it, was always brought to the tabernacle. to He then stretches the argument to conclude that in Israel, "The basic tax was the poll or head tax (Ex. 30:11-16), which had to be the same for all men."l1
Thus, what is explicitly stated in the Bible to be an atonement payment made to the tabernacle, one which most commentators (including Rushdoony) believe was a payment associated with a military census taken immediately prior to a war, later became, in Rushdoony's interpretation, a normal revenue collection device for the State — indeed, the only source of legitimate revenue for the State. "First, the basic civil tax in Scripture, the only tax, is the poll or head tax, paid by every man twenty years of age and older (Ex. 30:11-16)."12 "Its purpose was to provide for civil atonement, i.e., the covering or protection of civil government. Every male twenty years old or older was required to pay this tax to be protected by God the King in His theocratic government of Israel. This tax was thus a civil and religious duty (but not an ecclesiastical one)."13
Problem number two: When did the State become the recipient of these atonement payments? He argues that the head tax "was used originally for the construction of the tabernacle (Ex. 38:25-28)."14 The key word here is originally. He implies that after the construction of the tabernacle, the money went to the State to finance its day-to-day operations. He does not explain anywhere in his writings just exactly how the day-to-day expenses of the entire civil government ---local, tribal, and national- could have been financed by this one tax payment, one which could be legitimately collected only prior to a war. He does not explain this obvious difficulty because it obviously cannot be explained - not without concluding that Israel was a permanent warfare State. He does not want to make such a conclusion, so he simply ignores the problem.
8. Ibid., p. 277.
9. Ibid., p. 281.
11. Ibid., p. 492.
12. Ibid., p. 510.
13. Ibid., p. 719.
14. Ibid., p. 50.
Why does Rushdoony make this unwarranted leap from an atoning tabernacle payment during wartime to a permanent payment to the tabernacle as a civil tax? Why doesn't he see the enormous threat to liberty involved in making the State a tax-collector in the name of atonement? Why does he fail to recognize that if this was the only legitimate tax in Old Testament Israel, that it would have created either an ecclesiocracy or a political tyranny? If the atonement payment was in fact a tax, one collected by the tabernacle's agents, meaning Aaronic priests, to be doled out as they saw fit to the civil authorities, then the church would inevitably be at the top of a single civil pyramid. On the other hand, if the civil magistrates possessed the authority to enter the tabernacle and collect the atonement payment, then the State would be at the top. Yet Rushdoony always argues that there is no single church-State pyramid of power in a biblical commonwealth; church and State are separate sovereign authorities under God and God's law.
Rushdoony's Unstated Problem
His unstated problem is that he does not want to face an unpleasant reality: the Old Testament never specifically says anything about what is proper for civil taxation, except in Samuel's warning against the king's collection of as great a percentage of a person's income as 10 percent (I Sam. 8). This is James Jordan's conclusion.15 It is also mine. If defenders of biblical law cannot point to any specific biblical laws that govern civil taxation, an apparent gap in their whole hermeneutic is exposed for all to see.
Rushdoony prefers not to face this problem directly, although he clearly recognizes that it exists. "Commentaries and Bible dictionaries on the whole cite no law governing taxation. One would assume, from reading them, that no system of taxation existed in ancient Israel, and that the Mosaic law did not speak on the subject."16 If the Bible is truly silent here, then the theonomist is placed in the seemingly embarrassing position of claiming that the Old Testament's law-order has specific guidelines and answers for all social and civil policy, yet he is unable to find explicit rules governing what has become the central issue of civil sovereignty in the twentieth century, namely, the legal sanction of tax collection. Yet apart from Samuel's critique of the king's collecting a tithe, the only references to compulsory payments in ancient Israel are the various tithes and sacrifices - clearly ecclesiastical- and the census atonement money of Exodus 30.
15. Jordan, Law of the Covenant, p. 239.
16. Rushdoony, Institutes, p. 281.
To overcome this embarrassment, Rushdoony offers a unique theory of Old Testament civil order and its relation to the taxing authority. "This failure to discern any tax law is due to the failure to recognize the nature of Israel's civil order. God as King of Israel ruled from His throne room in the tabernacle, and to Him the taxes were brought. Because of the common error of viewing the tabernacle as an exclusively or essentially 'religious,' i.e., ecclesiastical center, there is a failure to recognize that it was indeed a religious, civil center. In terms of Biblical law, the state, home, school, and every other agency must be no less religious than the church. The sanctuary was thus the civil center of Israel and no less religious for that fact."17
A Question of Sovereignty
He systematically refuses to explore the startling implications of this theory of the tabernacle as the only place where the Israelites paid their taxes to God as King of Israel. The issue is clearly not the "religiousness" of the civil order, for as he correctly says, all of society's institutions are equally religious - State, home, school business, etc. But this is not to say that all institutions are equally covenantal, for only three institutions - family, church, and State - bear the marks of the covenant, namely, the legitimate imposition of a self-maledictory oath.18
18. Gary North, The Sinai Strategy: Economics and the Ten Commandments (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1986), ch. 3.
Church and State collect their lawful payments from those who are covenanted to each institution, though not necessarily to both institutions: churches collect tithes from church members, and civil governments collect taxes from those under their jurisdiction. This has nothing to do with the question of the "religiousness" of either or both of these God-ordained covenant institutions. For example, private businesses are not entitled to collect taxes from anyone, except as agents of the civil government. Yet according to Rushdoony, businesses are inescapably religious institutions.
Rushdoony's argument throughout his career has been that all of life is inescapably religious. Following Van Til, he argues that all men are either covenant-keepers or covenant-breakers. "Neutral man does not exist. Man is either a covenant-keeper or a covenant-breaker, either obeying God in faith, or in revolt against God as a would-be god."19 Everything man does is therefore religious. This being the case, an appeal to religiousness as such cannot solve the crucial question he is dealing with: To which institution or institutions has God delegated the lawful sovereignty to collect His taxes and His tithes?
God was surely both King and Priest in Israel, but that is not the issue here. The issue is: Did He delegate to a single institution the lawful sovereignty to collect payments owed to Him in His capacity as both King and Priest? It is obvious that King Uzziah violated the temple by going into it to burn incense. God struck him down with Old Testament leprosy as a punishment (II Chron. 26:16-23). Rushdoony uses this example to defend the institutional separation of church and state.20 Speaking of priest and king, he writes, "The two offices were not to have an immanent union but only a transcendental one."21 But to allow one of these offices to collect payments owed by people to the other is unquestionably declaring an immanent (earthly) union of the two offices, as surely as Uzziah's attempt to offer incense in the temple was such a declaration.
The State is not to collect payments owed to the tabernacle for atonement purposes. Similarly, the priesthood is not to collect taxes owed to the civil government. The fact that the tabernacle, and later the temple, was the civil center of Israel was manifested symbolically by the fact that the Ark of the Covenant inside the holy of holies was the center of all Israel, and that inside the Ark were the two tablets (tables or copies)22 of God's law. God's law was the center of life in Israel, and God was present with His law in the holy of holies. This has nothing to do with the institutional details of tax collecting or tithe collecting; it has everything to do with the inescapable religiousness of all life.
19. Rushdoony, "Implications for Psychology," in Gary North (ed.), Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1976), p. 43.
20. R.J. Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press,  1978), p. 70.
22. Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 123-24.
Ed Powell's Modification
Ed Powell's essay, "God's Plan of Taxation," is an extension of Rushdoony's position, which is why Rushdoony allowed it to appear in his only co-authored book. There is one interesting addition that Powell makes, however. He quite correctly points out that the Levites were not subject to military conscription (Num. 1:47-49), and therefore they were not required to pay the so-called poll tax. Rushdoony had insisted in the Institutes: "It was paid by Levites and all others."23 Powell argues that the Levites were not part of the civil order, and so were not required to pay any tax to the State, and this was the only tax the State could lawfully collect, according to both Rushdoony and Powell. "This tax went solely for the purpose of supporting the state, and only those who were members of the civil order because of their military service paid it."24 Thus, in Powell's version of political theory, civil citizenship is based on two things, the payment of taxes and participation in the military. He clearly recognizes the connection between the "tax" of Exodus 30:11-16 and military service. Would he conclude that in New Testament times, ordained ministers of the gospel should not be allowed to vote or be required to pay taxes? If he denies this, then would he also conclude that they should be subject to military conscription?
What Powell does not recognize is central to Jordan's argument and mine: by becoming a Nazarite during a holy war, the soldier in Old Covenant Israel became a temporary priest. It was the army's very position as a temporary priesthood that made the payment of blood money mandatory if the soldiers were to avoid the plague when God came into the camp. Thus, the requirement to pay blood money to the tabernacle had nothing to do with the supposed status of the Levites as being outside the civil order. It had everything to do with the need for atonement by those who were temporarily set aside (made holy) for God's special purposes during a war.
The Rushdoony-Powell position leads to innumerable problems, especially in extending into New Testament times the erroneous principle of the head tax as the sole means of State financing. I have dwelt at some length on this explanation of Exodus 30:11-16 only because Rushdoony's Institutes presented the preliminary model of the Christian Reconstruction position. His few remarks on taxation are found in the sections of the Institutes that attempt to explain this passage. Thus, by systematically restricting any discussion of biblical taxation to the supposed civil head tax of the Old Testament, Rushdoony has eliminated the possibility of discussing such alternative tax policies as the gasoline tax used exclusively for local roadways, or income taxes lower than 10 percent, or sales taxes lower than 10 percent. He has made the head tax as the sole source of civic revenue, a conclusion unwarranted by the text and unworkable in practice.
23. Rushdoony, Institutes, p. 50.
24. Rushdoony and Powell, Tithing and Dominion (Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press, 1979), p. 64. The irony here is that it was my "freewill" offering to Pastor Robert Thoburn's church in Fairfax, Virginia, that financed the publication of this book.
The atonement money required from each adult male in Israel prior to a holy war had nothing to do with civil taxation. It was a unique assessment that took place only during the military census, and the taking of such a census was authorized by God only when war threatened the commonwealth. The State was not allowed to conduct such a census under any other circumstances (II Sam. 24). For the civil magistrate to have collected such a blood covering payment as a civil tax would have been an abomination. To have made it the only civil tax in Israel, to be collected on an annual or other regular basis, would have brought the wrath of God on the State. The collection of this mandatory payment was exclusively a priestly function. Thus, any discussion of the methods and limits of lawful civil taxation in Old Testament Israel must be based on passages other than Exodus 30:11-16.
R. J. Rushdoony's discussion of the atonement money as a civil head tax has been widely quoted by those who are not his followers on any other issue, especially those involved in the tax-rebellion movement, a movement which Rushdoony has repudiated. His work on biblical law has attracted British Israelites or "Identity" cultists who are the backbone of the tax rebellion movement. They seek a biblical argument to justify their refusal to pay the income tax. They argue that only a head tax is legitimate. But any appeal to Exodus 30:11-16 to defend such a position is illegitimate. This required payment was not a head tax or any other kind of tax; it was a blood covering for warriors-become-Nazarite priests who were about to go into battle.