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The Law of the Census and Poll Tax--Part 1

Jan 09, 2009

Many have heard the story of David's sin in numbering the people (2 Sam. 24; 1 Chron. 21). It is often taught that his sin was in taking a census, but in fact there was no law against taking a census. However, it had to be accompanied by a poll tax. David did not collect the poll tax, so he sinned. The basic law is recorded in Exodus 30:12-16.

" (12) When you take a census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord when you number them, that there may be no plague [negef, a trip of the foot; stumbling] among them when you number them."

The Hebrew word translated "plague" has more than one meaning. Isaiah 8:14 uses the word, and the NASB translates it as a rock "to stumble over." It has to do with stubbing one's toe or tripping over something. In the case of David, the judgment of God could have been any one of three things, because God gave him a choice: three years of famine; three months of military reversals; or three days of plague.

God could have judged them by the law in a variety of ways. This shows that the term negef is not limited to what we would call a "plague." The passage continues:

" (13) 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.

A half shekel was the normal equivalent to one day's wage at common labor. This is the poll tax that David did not collect when he numbered the people. That was David's sin. There was no law saying that anyone had to take a census, but if they did, the half shekel had to be collected from each man numbered.

" (14) Everyone who is numbered, from twenty years old and over, shall give the contribution to the Lord. (15) The rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than the half shekel, when you give the contribution to the Lord to make atonement for yourselves."

The census was not to determine how many people lived in the land. It was to determine how many men of military age were in the land. The military age was twenty years old (Num. 1:20, 22, 24, etc.). No upper limit is given, but for the priests it was fifty (Num. 8:25). I suggest that the upper age limit for the military was also fifty, except for the commanders who could remain in a safe place as they got older.

Yet the law is silent on the upper military age, partly because commanders were often elderly, and also because this also speaks of spiritual warfare, where there is no upper age limit. In the laws of spiritual warfare, the military age of twenty speaks of spiritual maturity, rather than physical maturity. Some are spiritually mature enough long before they turn twenty, and some who are older are yet unqualified.

So the Poll Tax is a military tax. The King (or federal government) was primarily an office of a military commander. Before Israel had kings, they had Judges, who were, in effect, military commanders who were called to deliver Israel from their various captivities after they repented of their idolatry. Both the King and these military Judges also served as the Chief Justice in the highest earthly Appeals Court.

The Poll Tax was thus used to support the federal government, which consisted primarily of military headquarters and the Supreme Court. Today, with the invention of paper money to facilitate trade, I would add a third federal function--to issue a national monetary supply equal to the total of all the goods and services (wealth) in the land. But in biblical days, all money consisted of goods having value, whether it was barley, wheat, gold, or silver.

Some may argue today that the Poll Tax was unfair, because a half shekel was required from the men, without regard to their state of poverty or wealth. Socialist thinkers in the past two centuries have invented the progressive income tax, where the concept of fairness has replaced justice.

But God is more concerned with justice than fairness, although often the two ideas coincide. The Poll Tax was designed to emphasize the fact that all men are equal under the law and have an equal responsibility for the defense of the nation. When rich men are allowed to pay more, they assume greater responsibilities and are given greater influence (empowerment) in making policy. Government tends to cater to their wishes, and it is not long before the rich, in effect, buy their way into positions of power.

God is more concerned with equal rights than with "fairness" in funding the federal government. Besides, the Poll Tax was a modest sum--only one day's wage for an average poor man. With our Socialist progressive taxes today, how many days does an average poor man have to work for the federal government? The last I heard it was over five months.

The Poll Tax that is collected in a census was to be given to God. Exodus 30:16 says,

"And you shall take the atonement money from the sons of Israel, and shall give it for the service [abodah, "defense"] of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the sons of Israel before the Lord, to make atonement for yourselves."

At first glance it would seem as if this money was to be used in much the same manner as the tithe of the tithe, which was to be given to the high priest of the tabernacle or temple. While it does appear that the temple served as the national treasury, it was primarily the temple of God that may have needed a military defense in time of foreign invasion. The term "service" has a military connotation even today. I have pointed out in the past that the term is used in places such as Num. 4:23, where it is translated "perform the service" (KJV); but Bullinger's notes on this verse give a more literal rendering, "war the warfare."

The above verse is written in the context of the priests and their duties, so it would apply to spiritual warfare. But in Exodus 30:16, where the half-shekel is given on behalf of the Israelite army for "the service," it should be understood that it is for the temple's military defense, along with the defense of the entire nation. In time of foreign invasion, this money should be given to the king for use in supporting a military operation to defend the temple, the federal government, and the nation itself.

The Poll Tax was called "atonement money" and a "ransom" to protect the people from divine judgment. Both words come from the same Hebrew term, kopher or kaphar, which mean "covering." In fact, our English word "cover" is derived from this Hebrew term.

The Poll Tax is essentially a tax on military-age men to cause them to recognize God's lordship and headship in battle. Later, Samuel told the people, "the battle is the Lord's" (1 Sam. 17:47). In other words, Jesus Christ is recognized as the top General of every military campaign. The Poll Tax represented the people's recognition of His sovereignty, and it was a commitment to be obedient to His specific commands as well as His general laws of war.

If the people followed His leading, they would be divinely protected, for He would see to it that there were no casualties on their side. Thus, the battle of Jericho saw no Israelite casualties, but when Achan violated one of the laws of war, 36 Israelites died in the next battle (Joshua 7:5). The soldiers were covered by the Poll Tax in Moses' final census, but when Achan violated the will (law) of God, others suffered for his sin. It is important to have an army of mature Christians only.


This is the first part of a series titled "The Law of the Census and Poll Tax." To view all parts, click the link below.

The Law of the Census and Poll Tax


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Category: God's Law

Dr. Stephen Jones


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