Paying a Ransom?

 

When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. (Ex. 30:12)

The questions spring out of the text: Why on earth is some kind of ransom needed because a census is being taken? What possible connection could there be between numbered in a census and being stricken with a plague?! The verse seems quite odd – though there is a rational and lovely explanation if we just read more carefully.

Let’s start by parsing the words a bit more carefully. For starters, the Hebrew for the word “ransom” is actually the very same word, “kopher,” that is used in the Torah to describe the protective layer or buffer between Noah’s Ark and the waters of the flood just on the other side – as well as the buffer we grow between ourselves and G-d on the eponymous Yom Kippur. In all cases, this buffer protects life against strong forces which otherwise would kill us merely because of proximity.

So, the Torah is describing some kind of protection racket! We have to protect our souls because we have been involved in the census?! Have we really gone any distance toward answering the question of why a ransom must be paid?

Actually, we have. And here is why: In Judaism, numbers of people do not matter. Each person has a soul on loan from G-d, so for a finite time only, we are capable of touching the infinite. Each and every one of us. And, for every person, there is a unique opportunity. No two people are supposed to lead the same lives. So being “one of two” is a way of diminishing our potential to touch the divine. It is a denial of what makes each person special: not our quantity, but our quality.

The Torah makes it clear that human life by itself has no ultimate value. What matters is not the fact that we are biologically alive; what matters are the choices we make. Or as Gandalf put it: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

So being involved in a census is dehumanizing, relegating a human soul to a mere equivalence. Considering any two people to be equivalent to each other is a threat to the unique quality of each person. Such an equivalence threatens our identities, our potential contributions to the world.

People are not numbers. We are all individual souls. So when we cease being individuals and we merely become numbers, then we endanger the purpose of our existence. Being part of a census denies our humanity. And all of that means that we have less of a reason to live: hence the plague. The plague is the means of culling out those who no longer have a purpose in life, who have been relegated to being nothing more than “one of many.”

So why does paying protection money save us from being deemed irrelevant and thus suitable for an early death? The answer is found in the purpose of those funds: they are used for the building of the tabernacle, G-d’s own home within the people. This was a unique and holy project, one that called for community-wide involvement and contribution. This means there is another lesson as well: we are allowed to put aside our unique qualities when doing so serves a much higher purpose, a holy and universal goal such as building G-d’s house.

This is also the lesson behind the uniforms worn by the priests: when serving they were to subsume their personalities and quirks, hide anything that made them stand out from other priests and then serve as functionaries. Priests were not free to improvise or add stylistic flair: when serving in the tabernacle, they had to do everything by the book.

But the rest of the time, individuality among priests was to be encouraged just as much as everyone else’s. Outside of very limited and special conditions, each person should offer a unique and valuable contribution. That is an integral part of the inherent value of each human soul.

We are not numbers. We are people.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    [another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

    And all the more cherished for it! Thanks for the instruction, as always!

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I love these pieces you two do. Keep them coming, please.

    • #2
  3. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    The ransom from sin? The buy back, the redeeming. The first born has a redemption price, too.

    I have a Torah question. May I ask it here? Maybe you could consider it and write about it another time?

    • #3
  4. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Stina (View Comment):

    The ransom from sin? The buy back, the redeeming. The first born has a redemption price, too.

    Entirely different word! The first-born is “consecrated” or “redeemed”, not the word that is translated as “ransom.” Ex. 13:2. 13:13. Num 34:6. The first place that “redemption” word is used in the Torah is Ex. 8:19.

    And I will make a distinction between My people and your people. Tomorrow this sign shall come to pass.’”

    The first-born are separated but we do not pay protection money for it.

    I have a Torah question. May I ask it here? Maybe you could consider it and write about it another time?

    I would be honored – ask away!

     

    • #4
  5. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Stina (View Comment):

    The ransom from sin?

    Note that sin is not mentioned in these verses.

    • #5
  6. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    iWe (View Comment):

    I have a Torah question. May I ask it here? Maybe you could consider it and write about it another time?

    I would be honored – ask away!

    If I’m wrong in my presuppositions, please correct me :)

    I know Jews recognize several covenants between God and His people in the Torah. The most easily recognizable is the Mosaic covenant, with the Ark of the Covenant, etc.

    I understand there is also the Abrahamic Covenant and the Noahic Covenant. I was doing some brief research and found that the Ark of Noah and the Ark of the Covenant are parallels. I was wondering if there’s an Ark for the Abrahamic covenant? And what exactly are the parallels and the Jewish understanding of an Ark?

    • #6
  7. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Stina (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):

    I have a Torah question. May I ask it here? Maybe you could consider it and write about it another time?

    I would be honored – ask away!

    If I’m wrong in my presuppositions, please correct me :)

    I know Jews recognize several covenants between God and His people in the Torah. The most easily recognizable is the Mosaic covenant, with the Ark of the Covenant, etc.

    I understand there is also the Abrahamic Covenant and the Noahic Covenant. I was doing some brief research and found that the Ark of Noah and the Ark of the Covenant are parallels. I was wondering if there’s an Ark for the Abrahamic covenant? And what exactly are the parallels and the Jewish understanding of an Ark?

    Thanks!

    There are translation errors. The word used for Noah’s ark is “Taivah” – a word ONLY found in the Torah to describe Noah’s boat, and the basket that holds infant-Moses on the Nile.

    The ark of the covenant is an “aron.” If you follow the links you can see where the words are found. 

    • #7
  8. Michael Collins Member
    Michael Collins
    @MichaelCollins

    I loved the Prisoner reference!  Great show, although the plots became to “way out” at times.

    • #8
  9. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Michael Collins (View Comment):

    I loved the Prisoner reference! Great show, although the plots became to “way out” at times.

    Me, too.

     

    • #9
  10. Steven Galanis Coolidge
    Steven Galanis
    @Steven Galanis

    Thank you for this enlightening information.  As I read the post,I could not help but think of the absolute delight with which the census takers of today go about their business, and the horrifying purposes for which the good ole federal census is taken.  The spirit of the governing authority behind the Scripture you share is obviously of a different kind!

     

    • #10
  11. KCVolunteer Lincoln
    KCVolunteer
    @KCVolunteer

    I to enjoy these posts. They help me to understand the richness of God’s word. I find these actually reinforce my understanding of the NT. So I too have a question. In the NT Jesus says, “Render to Caeser the things that are Caeser’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Is there a similar reference in the Torah or passage that helps us to understand?

    In my experience too few people make the distinction between, government that should be limited, and God who has no limits.

    • #11
  12. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    KCVolunteer (View Comment):

    I to enjoy these posts. They help me to understand the richness of God’s word. I find these actually reinforce my understanding of the NT. So I too have a question. In the NT Jesus says, “Render to Caeser the things that are Caeser’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Is there a similar reference in the Torah or passage that helps us to understand?

    Not really, no. We appreciate that religious leaders make lousy civil administrators. But there is no love for civil leaders or taxes. Instead, many Jews take a perverse joy in outsmarting systems created by doofuses – whether in law or taxation. We are more productive when we work to outsmart nature, and create better medical solutions and other technologies.

    In my experience too few people make the distinction between, government that should be limited, and God who has no limits.

    In my experience, G-d has endowed us with enormous powers, and tasked us with achieving full partnership. G-d limits Himself so that we (and the rest of the world) can exist. 

     

     

    • #12
  13. KevinKrisher Coolidge
    KevinKrisher
    @KevinKrisher

    Michael Collins (View Comment):

    I loved the Prisoner reference! Great show, although the plots became to “way out” at times.

    The Prisoner was (and still is) great television. There are a lot of different ideas about its overall theme. My own theory is that an intelligent and self-possessed person who asserts his rights as an individual will generally be rejected by a shallow and conformist society.

    • #13
  14. Steven Galanis Coolidge
    Steven Galanis
    @Steven Galanis

    iWe (View Comment):

    KCVolunteer (View Comment):

    I to enjoy these posts. They help me to understand the richness of God’s word. I find these actually reinforce my understanding of the NT. So I too have a question. In the NT Jesus says, “Render to Caeser the things that are Caeser’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Is there a similar reference in the Torah or passage that helps us to understand?

    Not really, no. We appreciate that religious leaders make lousy civil administrators. But there is no love for civil leaders or taxes. Instead, many Jews take a perverse joy in outsmarting systems created by doofuses – whether in law or taxation. We are more productive when we work to outsmart nature, and create better medical solutions and other technologies.

    In my experience too few people make the distinction between, government that should be limited, and God who has no limits.

    In my experience, G-d has endowed us with enormous powers, and tasked us with achieving full partnership. G-d limits Himself so that we (and the rest of the world) can exist.

     A government regime in Canaan ignorant of the things of God, let alone overtly hostile to them, was not an immediately foreseeable consequence before, during, and shortly after its conquest. The writer(s) of the Torah could go as far as envisioning a nation under His sovereign rule, and its governance by Israel’s descendants, but no further. 

    The God and Caesar paradigm, however, which shaped the events of the NT is a fascinating concept, and very relevant today. A partnership with God may be and is empowering, but it is highly perplexing, and quite dicey the way I see it! Jesus of Nazareth showed His followers how to do it. 

     

     

    • #14
  15. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Steven Galanis (View Comment):
    The writer(s) of the Torah could go as far as envisioning a nation under His sovereign rule, and its governance by Israel’s descendants, but no further. 

    Actually, the Torah is pretty apolitical. It refers to when a people wants to have a king, like other nations do – and it allows a limited monarchy. But there is no clear preference for any kind of government beyond the principles of a legal system, respect for the individual and their property, etc.  

    I reject the premise, obviously: the Torah itself (the 5 books) are dictation from G-d. Which is why I delve into every detail.

    • #15
  16. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    iWe (View Comment):

    Steven Galanis (View Comment):
    The writer(s) of the Torah could go as far as envisioning a nation under His sovereign rule, and its governance by Israel’s descendants, but no further.

    Actually, the Torah is pretty apolitical. It refers to when a people wants to have a king, like other nations do – and it allows a limited monarchy. But there is no clear preference for any kind of government beyond the principles of a legal system, respect for the individual and their property, etc.

    I reject the premise, obviously: the Torah itself (the 5 books) are dictation from G-d. Which is why I delve into every detail.

    Seems he’s pretty clear on the natural consequences of having an earthly king.

    • #16
  17. Steven Galanis Coolidge
    Steven Galanis
    @Steven Galanis

    iWe (View Comment):

    Steven Galanis (View Comment):
    The writer(s) of the Torah could go as far as envisioning a nation under His sovereign rule, and its governance by Israel’s descendants, but no further.

    Actually, the Torah is pretty apolitical. It refers to when a people wants to have a king, like other nations do – and it allows a limited monarchy. But there is no clear preference for any kind of government beyond the principles of a legal system, respect for the individual and their property, etc.

    I reject the premise, obviously: the Torah itself (the 5 books) are dictation from G-d. Which is why I delve into every detail.

    I’m glad you qualified the “apolitical”  aspect of it with another adjective.  After the first stoning under the “new constitution” the 5 books would have seemed anything but that. 

    • #17