Ki Tissa: When You Take
(Focus on 30:11 – 32)
Ki Tissa is a Torah portion that sits at the height of controversy for Israel, not just in their actions and its impact on their lives in the wilderness then, but even for you and I now it this portion sits at the height of controversy. The golden calf has caused ceaseless amounts of speculation as to why and how ‘they’ could do such a thing, having just been saved from Egypt in the most miraculous of ways. The incident beggars belief for many and is viewed as one of the most important episodes of the Bible as many use the golden calf for the basis of many of our doctrines today. Some say the Temple is merely reaction to the golden calf, some say the covenant wasn’t renewed until the time of Messiah once Moses smashed the tablets, and the sages even say that every person pays part of the price for the sin of the golden calf.
Despite the obvious focus on the golden calf, there are actually numerous other things for us to study before we get to his infamous occurrence. For example, the portion opens with the census, is followed by the description of the brazen laver, a description of the tabernacles anointing oil composition, the appointment of Betsal’el and the exhortation to keep the Sabbath. Even the 13 attributes of God are given here providing us with many avenues of study.
We will start in the beginning – at the census of which this Torah Portion is named after.
‘Ki Tisa’ is taken from verse 12 which begins with ‘when you take a census of the children of Israel…’. Ki tisa is rendered ‘when you take’, but rather the verse is literally read in the Hebrew as ‘when you lift up the heads of the children of Israel’ – not, ‘when you take a census.’
It’s a peculiar rendering of the verse and it appears like the translators have tried to place the meaning of the verse in language that you and I understand, i.e. a census, and whilst that is certainly been conveyed here, that the children of Israel are been counted, that’s not entirely true.
For reasons that I don’t completely comprehend the Torah has an aversion to counting people, so rather than Ki Tisa been a ‘counting’, it is really a lifting of the heads, an elevation of Israel, and really, it is the half sheqel coins that were counted, not necessarily the people themselves.
‘Why’ may elude me, but we see this aversion to counting Israel in that they were required to pay that price for their atonement, as God says, ‘so that there is no plague among them when you register them’.
We also see this in King David’s day where having numbered the people a plague did fall upon Israel. We read of this in 2 Samuel 24:10;
2 Samuel 24:10 (The Scriptures)
10 And the heart of Dawiḏ smote him after he had numbered the people. And Dawiḏ said to יהוה, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, I pray, O יהוה, take away the crookedness of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.”
In David’s case, 70 000 men of Israel died in the subsequent plague due to the census that David took. He notably did not accept the half sheqel for ransom for the souls of the men – so true to God’s word in Exodus 30, the plague fell upon them.
Understandably, many throughout history have differed on their interpretation of the census and the paying of the half sheqel tax.
For example the Essenes believed it was a tax that was paid only once in someone’s lifetime and the priests believed they were exempt. At the time of Messiah the half sheqel census was conducted annually in the lead up to Passover so that the Temple could pay for the sacrifices. This tax is what is been described in Matthew 17:24 – 27. Interestingly enough, Yeshua paid the tax though he stated that he disagrees with it, in context at least, to conducting the census on an annual basis.
Matthew 17:24–27 (The Scriptures)
24 And when they came into Kephar Naḥum, those who received the tax came to Kěpha and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the tax?”
25 He said, “Yea.” And when he came into the house, יהושׁע spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Shim‘on? From whom do the sovereigns of the earth take toll or tax, from their own sons or from the strangers?”
26 Kěpha then said to Him, “From the strangers.” יהושׁע said to him, “Then the sons are exempt.
27 “But, lest we cause them to stumble, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you shall find a piece of money. Take that and give it to them for Me and you.”
Clearly, counting is a contentious issue in scripture, but why?
The sages answer this by referring to multiple verses in the book of Genesis where, in God talking to Abraham, that he promised his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens or as numerous as the sand of the sea – to many to count.
The sages expound this by means of a parable. They say that Moses, upon hearing this command for counting Israel, said to God;
‘My master, it is written, ‘your descendents shall be like the dust of the earth’, and it is written, ‘I shall make your descendants like the sand of the sea too numerous to be counted,’ yet now you say that I should count them!’
Perhaps the lesson we are been taught here is that each person is to be treated as an individual. The Bible says that God ‘counts the number of the starts, He gives names to all of them’ (Ps 147:4) showing us that God treats the stars as special, so then how much more with the people of Israel? How then, is it that Israel could be subjected to census whereby one may feel dehumanized and reduced to a mere number?
Perhaps for this reason the commandment is not to count, but to ‘lift up the heads’ and elevate the sons of Israel, and perhaps for this reason Israel was commanded to pay the half sheqel for atonement ‘if’ Israel were to be counted.
Notably, ‘ki tisa’ is not necessarily a commandment by God to count the children of Israel, but a guideline given by God ‘if’ a king of Israel was to count the children of Israel. ‘Ki’, translated as ‘when’, can also be rendered as ‘if’, therefore, this is not a commandment as many would think.
Knowing that God sees His children as special, as the stars of the sky, we learn that God values each and every Israelite with equality and that He loves each and every one of us. We see this alluded in the fact that each man is to bring the same half sheqel to the sanctuary. As the scripture says ‘the rich does not give more and the poor does not give less than half a sheqel’. The process then demonstrated mans equality in the eyes of God who shows no partiality in judgment, it further meant that no Israelite could claim some form of higher right to the tabernacle in that the sheqel was paid to assist in it’s establishment.
Our next question though, is why half a sheqel?. Some of the reasons given are;
As before, the equality it demonstrated amongst the sons of Israel. Commentators say that the half sheqel demonstrated that we are not whole individuals if we live our lives on our own. This can refer to the need for community – that the tabernacle is only made whole when we unite to build it; this can refer to God, that we are only whole when we are with Him, and they say this can refer to our relationships, that the groom is only half until united with his bride etc.
Naturally, with that imagery the half sheqel has been the basis for many sermons and the basis for many conversations into the nature of our relationships be they romantic or otherwise.
Regardless though, in Christian and Jewish traditions one thing we learn from this is that the half sheqel is symbolic of a person’s soul.
I favor the sages though in how they try to explain the meaning of the half sheqel. Again, by means of a parable the sages say that when God first mentioned to Moses to ‘’lift the heads of Israel’ and that each man was to give atonement for his soul that Moses immediately consulted the Torah in order to ascertain the price that one should pay for atonement for one’s soul. Moses first thought that a man should pay 1 talent of silver (from 1 Kings 20:39), and that Moses consulted the laws pertaining to murder, the laws pertaining to sexual assault, in order to come up with the price for a person’s soul i.e. when someone takes or destroys a soul what was the price? Was it 1 talent of silver, the price of a bride’s dowry, 50 talents of silver?
In the Midrash Rabbah it continues on to state that Moses said to God;
‘Who is able to give a ransom for his soul? A man would pay any amount to save his life, but even everything he has is insufficient.’
As it says in Psalm 49: 7 – 8
No man can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for his soul – for the redemption of his soul is too costly.
So how then, is it that God accepts half a sheqel as atonement for our soul?
In the parables of the Midrashim the sages teach that God responded to Moses’ above question by showing him a coin made of fire saying;
‘I do not ask for ransom according to my ability to pay, but in their ability to pay’.
Meaning that you and I cannot pay the price for our soul but that the half sheqel was, if you will, a nominal payment whereby the actual payment was given by God himself by means of this coin made of fire made in Heaven, as per the Midrash at least. God then, is the other half of the sheqel and the one that provides the true payment for our souls.
A lesson we can derive from this however is that our relationship with God is one of a partnership, whilst He is the one that ultimately pays the price for our atonement; it’s not without engaging in a relationship with Him, which requires giving over of ourselves, our half sheqel.
This talk of payment and atonement clearly alludes to the Messiah, as we shall see in the last reason I’ll provide as to why the payment was half a sheqel.
The sages say that the verse informs us that a sheqel is 20 gerahs, therefore, each Israelite in giving half a sheqel is giving 10 gerahs.
They say these 10 gerahs that each man had to give were for the breaking of the 10 commandments. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish however says that Josef was sold for 20 silver coins and that at that time he had 10 brothers who received the equivalent to half a sheqel of profit when the sale of Josef was divided.
Therefore, the payment for half a sheqel was because Israel profited half a sheqel each from the sale of Josef. The half sheqel then is making amends, or tikkin olam, for Joseph’s sale. This alludes clearly to the payment of Messiah, and Israel’s sin in giving him over for profit.
Israel then, is atoning for the loss of Messiah who treasures each person in Israel equally, who is the One that ultimately pays the price for our atonement, and who wishes to live in partnership with his people.
Further Allusions to Messiah
The census alludes to Messiah in further ways and the price that he ultimately paid our sin.
Where it states in Exodus 30:12 and says that the census is taken for the ‘number’ of Israel the word there in the Hebrew is ‘Paqad’. Paqad means coincidentally ‘to number’.
Paqad however is the root word for ‘miphqad’ which means ‘an appointment, a designated spot or a census’, it is understood as a place of ‘inspection’. This is notable because ‘miphqad’ was the name of a gate in Jerusalem which connected the city to the Mount Of Olives. The miphqad gate was called this, the place of inspection if you will, because the Mount Of Olives was the main entrance into the city. It was therefore the place where the people were counted as they entered and left the city, it was the appointed place for the census. Unfortunately, just out from the gate on the Mount Of Olives was the place where people were crucified because it was the main entrance into the city, whereby the most people would see the crucified and understand the punishment for crossing Rome.
You may have surmised, but the connection to our parasha is that our Master Yeshua passed through gate of the census when he was crucified. When he entered as the Passover lamb he was inspected and the sages of the day found no fault within him.
Notably, when Yeshua left via the gate of the census, our Messiah was counted, inspected and found to be perfect as he passed by and made that ultimate payment for the sons of Israel. Yeshua paid his half sheqel, that infamous coin of fire, on the day he was ‘lifted up’.
The Missing 3000
In regards to the census I’ll note one last rabbinic teaching.
By means of a parable, again, the sages note that if you want to arrive at the number of the son’s of Israel, that you can take the first letter of the name of each tribe and add that number in order to try and ascertain how many male Israelites participated in the census.
Without going through this in depth, the sages add up this number and arrive to the number of five hundred and ninety seven thousand and note that it is deficient.
Why, because when Israel left Egypt the Torah notes that there was 600,000 sons of Israel that left – therefore, the number the sages arrived at by this method is deficient of 3000 people.
It is no coincidence then that 3000 people was the number that were slain by the sons of Levi after the sin of Golden Calf.
Which brings us to crescendo of the weeks Torah Portion, the infamous sin of the Golden Calf.
It’s difficult to even know where to begin when the Golden Calf is the focus of study. We often think, how could they have done this? How could they, having been saved so miraculously from Egypt, turn away from God and return to idolatry? How could Aaron participate in the sin?
Yet the most important lesson that we can derive from the sin of the golden calf is the most simplest.
It’s in the fact that Israel did not turn away from God, but that Israel crafted the golden calf as a means to worship YHWH.
Verse 1 states that the people asked Aaron to fashion ‘mighty ones’ or ‘gods’ to go before them. But this is a translator’s slant on what is being said, because really, the people asked for Aaron to make ‘Elohim’ to go before them. Yes Elohim can be plural, but it is also the word for ‘God’ that is used throughout the whole Old Testament when referring to YHWH. The people didn’t ask for ‘gods’, they asked for ‘God’, and we know that they were referring to the God of Israel, YHWH.
We see this in that Aaron declares;
Exodus 32:5 (The Scriptures)
5 And Aharon saw and built an altar before it. And Aharon called out and said, “Tomorrow is a festival to יהוה.”
And even when he said,
Exodus 32:4 (The Scriptures)
4 … “This is your mighty one, O Yisra’ěl, that brought you out of the land of Mitsrayim!”
So this is not some foolish people that returned to paganism, it was people worshipping God in their own way.
Further, they did not believe, as we would think, that the calf itself was God, or that the Calf was in any way alive. Though the prophets mock idolatry and point out idols are merely dead objects, this is not necessarily the belief of pagan people, or the belief that the people would have learnt from Egypt. They believed that the idol was their intermediary between them and God. Essentially, what Israel was attempting to do was replace Moses, who was the intermediary between Israel and YHWH.
Because of this, the Torah points out that ‘the people saw that Moses was long in coming down from the mountain’, because they were missing their intermediary.
What Where They Doing?
Now whilst Israel was participating in these sins there are many debates as to what they were doing exactly. Many will defend the children of Israel while some will say that they engaged in various forms of debauchery.
I think it’s important to defend Israel here in that they did not see themselves as abandoning God, but it does appear like their behavior was particularly immoral in nature.
Verse 6 alludes to this in that it states;
Exodus 32:6 (The Scriptures)
6 And they rose early on the next day, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
The word for play been ‘sahaq’ meaning ‘laugh, joke, insult, indulge in revelry’ which many have assumed as an allusion to sexual acts of immorality as was common in ancient forms of worship.
The sages further teach that the mention of Israel sitting down ‘(the people sat down’), or ‘dwelling’ as the Hebrew can be rendered, is a remez to further forms of rebellion. The sages say that when the people ‘sit down’ or ‘dwell’ that it means sin will follow. We see this in;
Genesis 37:25 (The Scriptures) - The selling of Joseph
25 And they sat down to eat a meal. And they lifted their eyes and looked and saw a company of Yishma‘ělites, coming from Gil‘aḏ with their camels, bearing spices, and balm, and myrrh, going to take them down to Mitsrayim.
Numbers 25:1 (The Scriptures)
And Yisra’ěl dwelt in Shittim, and the people began to whore with the daughters of Mo’aḇ,
Genesis 11:2 (The Scriptures) - The Tower of Babel
2 And it came to be, as they set out from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shin‘ar, and they dwelt there.
The sin of the golden calf then is equated to the selling of Joseph, the sin of the tower of Babel and even the joining of Israel to Moab. So serious was the sin that the midrash states;
‘there is no generation that does not receive a part of the punishment for the sin of the calf worship’
Which is fascinating, because unlike the sin of Babel for instance, the sin here was the people worshipping God, only in their own way.
The Most Important Lesson
Which returns us to the most important lesson of the golden calf.
You cannot worship God how you see fit. If you worship God in ways that you have deemed appropriate, but that He has not, then your worship will not be accepted.
There is only one way that God has detailed to humanity in how we are to worship Him, and that is through the observance of his Torah, and in the ways prescribed in His book.
Now I do try to just study the Bible ‘for what it’s worth’. I think we too often study with a mind to disproving other theologies and with perhaps attacking others that are trying to worship God.
When it comes to the Golden Calf it is difficult to not do so. It’s hard to not point out that Christmas is not in your Bible, that Easter is not in your Bible, that keeping any day as the Sabbath is not in your Bible. It’s hard to not point out that it matters how we worship God.
It’s hard to not point out how unbiblical it is to simply say that if something works for you, then go for it, if Christmas works for you then Jesus will see your heart and it will be fine, because the lesson we learn from the Golden Calf is that it might not.
We remain the servants and not the judge though, but this I know, God’s ways, the one’s that He wrote down, are the ways that are acceptable to Him. Not ours.
It’s hard to not point out that it actually matters whose side you’re on. People are nice the world over, everyone loves their Mother, everyone wants to live a happy life within a happy community, and most people want what is good for other people too and strive to do so.
Unfortunately been a good person is not good enough and our deeds will never be enough to pay the price for our acceptance before God.
What matters is who you know in life. It matters that you’ve sworn allegiance specifically to YHWH, to His Messiah Yeshua, and that you participate in the ways that He has deemed for us to live. This is why there is no distinction in the commandments between not murdering someone, and keeping the Shabbat, for they are both equally important. Not murdering people for reasons that should be obvious, but the Sabbath, in part, for reasons that it identifies you with the God of all things, so that He will know you and recognize you as one of His own on the day when He returns.
God is not returning for good people with good intentions, perhaps like many of the Israelites here at the golden calf, He is returning for His people.
I’ll re-emphasise that, God is not returning for good people, He is returning for His people.
For this reason He says to Moses;
Exodus 32:7 (The Scriptures)
7 And יהוה said to Mosheh, “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Mitsrayim have corrupted themselves.
Identifying the people of Israel as Moses’ people, and not his!
One of the greatest problems of Israel was how they chose to wait and herein lay another good lesson for us. For I can imagine the people of Israel looking up to the mountain – developing their return of Moses scenarios – developing their timeline charts – bickering with one another as to when Moses would return and why he hasn’t – and perhaps this may sound familiar of us today.
But, Yeshua I think would say, as He did to the disciples in Acts 1;
Acts 1:7–8 (The Scriptures)
7 And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.
8 “But you shall receive power when the Set-apart Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be My witnesses in Yerushalayim, and in all Yehuḏah and Shomeron, and to the end of the earth.”
It is not for us to know, and we not to forget that we are to be witnesses ‘to the end of the earth’.
And following this the angels appear in Acts 1 saying;
Acts 1:11 (The Scriptures)
11 who also said, “Men of Galil, why do you stand looking up into the heaven? This same יהושׁע, who was taken up from you into the heaven, shall come in the same way as you saw Him go into the heaven.”
As in to say why are you looking up at the sky? For He will come back but for you and I, like the disciples then have this mandate to be witnesses and to get to work. It’s not to just sit there and look up at the mountain to the point where we ignore the words of Torah that God has taught us.
We are His people and we are not called to sit and wait, we are called to ends of the earth, to act, and to bring His good name.
2 Peter 3:1–18 (The Scriptures)
13 …according to His promise we wait for a renewed heavens and a renewed earth in which righteousness dwells.
14 So then, beloved ones, looking forward to this, do your utmost to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless,
15 and reckon the patience of our Master as deliverance, as also our beloved brother Sha’ul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him,
16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them concerning these matters, in which some are hard to understand, which those who are untaught and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do also the other Scriptures.
17 You, then, beloved ones, being forewarned, watch, lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the delusion of the lawless,
18 but grow in the favour and knowledge of our Master and Saviour יהושׁע Messiah. To Him be the esteem both now and to a day that abides. Aměn.