How to read the Bible
I have been asked to explain the mystery of the half shekel: why were the Israelites in the desert during the days of Moses required to give a half shekel to be used in counting the number of males from and to certain ages, men who could serve in the military? Why not take a full shekel from each man?
I will not address here the basic question why the Israelites used shekels to count people in an indirect way rather than physically counting them. I addressed this question in my book “Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets” in the chapter entitled “May Jews Count People?” I will comment only on the question that was asked: why a half shekel and not a whole one?
The answer to this question reveals an entirely new way of reading Scripture.
But first, what is a shekel? A shekel was not a coin. The concept of using coins did not exist at that time. A shekel was a weight. It is thought to be 180 grams. So each male Israelite brought a lump of silver weighing a half shekel. The lumps were counted and the Bible states the number of these males was just over 600,000.
Most people are convinced that the Bible is a clear communication from God containing no ambiguities and certainly no obscurities. God, they think, wants people to understand certain ideas about life and what is proper and do some act and God said these things in the Torah in a clear fashion.
Nothing is further from the truth. The Bible from start to finish is filled with ambiguous statements and there is much that is totally obscure. I describe hundreds of ambiguities and obscurities in my series of books called “Unusual Bible Interpretations.” I show that once we recognize that many parts of the Bible are unclear, we get a totally different picture than most people think of the described events and this causes us to think about the subject that is being discussed. For example:
- Why did God create the world?
- Why did it take God six days to create the world?
- Why did Cain kill Abel?
- Why didn’t God execute Cain for the murder?
- Why did God destroy virtually all creation in the flood during the time of Noah?
- Why didn’t God know during creation that humans would need to be destroyed in the flood?
- Why were animals slaughtered in the flood?
- Were fish destroyed in the flood?
- Why did Miriam and Aaron, Moses siblings, criticize Moses about his wife?
- Was Joshua successful in accomplishing the mission the Bible states God gave him?
- What was the place where the Pentateuch wanted the tabernacle to be situated?
- Was Mordecai or Esther the hero of the book of Esther?
- Why do Esther and Mordecai have names based on the idols Ishtar and Marduk?
- The primary practice of Purim is feasting, drinking alcohol, and sending gifts. This reflects how the pagan Ahasuerus celebrated. He had banquets with excessive alcohol and shared the food and drink with his people. There is nothing Jewish about this kind of celebration. The notion that people should drink so much that they cannot distinguish Mordecai from Haman, which is mentioned in the Talmud, is also pagan. It reminds us of how Ahasuerus was so inebriated that he dismissed his wife Vashti whom he considered so beautiful he wanted to show her off to his people. Why do Jews celebrate Purim in this fashion?
In short, although there are many imaginative reasons that various rabbis offer why a half and not a whole shekel was used to count the Israelite males, the truth is that the Torah is obscure on this point and we have no idea why this weight of silver was taken and not another. It is possible that this was the smallest amount that could be useful, but this, like all other suggestions, is pure conjecture. As I mentioned frequently in other writings, good literature is filled with ambiguities and obscurities and this is good. It affords readers an opportunity to use their imagination and join the writer in in writing the book.