30 Shekels of Silver
Confluence March 30, 2018
I [Grace Henry] grew up hating math.
I’d understand the logic of an equation, work the problem out in my mind, then get careless with the details and get the sum wrong. “What’s the problem?” I used to moan to my mom, “I get the concept – I just made a little mistake at the end!” Turns out in mathematics the exact sum matters. Most of the time, at least.
One thing I’ve learned in the Middle East is that numbers can be both precise and symbolic. Some numbers have a story.
So in my country, for example, the number 40 conveys the meaning of “a very long time” or “unaccountably much” (my apologies to readers in their 40s!). You might say that something unusual happens “once in 40 years” – an idiomatic equivalent to “once in a blue moon.” A patchwork quilt is known as “40 patches” because it’s made with so many pieces. Forty is both a countable number and a symbol.
Numbers in the Bible can function this way also. The number 7 represents fullness, completion and rest. God himself rested on the 7th day. “Jesus, how many times should I forgive my brother? Up to 7?” More like 77, Peter (Matt 18:22).
When a number keeps cropping up in the Bible, it’s wise to take a second look. Could there be a story or a link I’m missing here?
I don’t believe there’s an encoded meaning in every number – before you write me off as a mystical weirdo! But it makes sense that a God who reveals himself in story, who inspires the writing of every verse and who places his inspired stories within specific cultures, would inspire the use of culturally significant symbols.
Let’s take a look at 30 shekels of silver.
Thirty pieces of silver tells a story instantly recognizable to most Christian believers. It was the blood money paid to Judas by Jewish religious leaders – compensation for his betrayal of Jesus. When we hear “30 pieces of silver” we think betrayal of the worst possible kind. Greed. Total injustice. Guilt.
But 30 shekels – or pieces – of silver appear several other times in the Bible’s meta-narrative as well.
1. Exodus – the amount to compensate for the death of a slave
In Exodus 21 the Lord relays through Moses the rules surrounding personal injuries. If a bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull must be stoned” (v32).
2. Leviticus – the amount to consecrate a woman to the Lord
Leviticus 27 lays out the regulations around dedicating something to the Lord – whether it be a person, an animal, land or property – and how to “redeem” or buy back your oath. The value of a male 20-60 years old was set at 50 shekels, and a female’s worth was set at 30 (v4).
3. Zechariah – the amount paid the shepherd
This passage, though often cross-referenced with Jeremiah’s purchase of a potter’s field and then with Judas’ betrayal, is less straightforward. Here the 30 pieces of silver are paid to Zechariah in his prophetic enactment as a shepherd. At the Lord’s prompting, the shepherd throws the silver into the house of the Lord to the potter.
Matthew Henry comments on this passage: “The prophet here is made a type of Christ, as the prophet Isaiah sometimes was; and the scope of these verses is to show that for judgment Christ came into this world (John 9:39).”
4. Matthew – the amount paid for Jesus’ betrayal
Though Matthew, Mark and Luke include Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, only Matthew the tax collector includes the exact price. Matthew knows the precise numbers.
And the chief priests would have known the Old Testament laws laid out in the Pentateuch. In their valuation, at least, Jesus’ life is equivalent to that of a slave. Or a woman. It seems an intentional act of dishonor.
Even if the amount offered by the chief priests was not set intentionally, it’s a telling detail that shows Judas’ estimation of Jesus. Yes, it was an amount enough to purchase a field, and yet Judas doesn’t demand a price equitable with an honored teacher. He plays out the evil intentions of his heart, unconscious of his prophesied significance in the larger story.
Isaiah’s prophetic words ring in our ears:
He was despised and rejected by man,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised,
and we esteemed him not (53:3).
The Big Story reveals a Messiah we never expected. One we “esteemed not.”
We never expected a servant king.
The true King lowered himself. Walked the ground he’d created. He did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). It’s figuratively appropriate that the one who intentionally took on the form of a bond-servant would be put to death at the price of a slave.
We couldn’t have anticipated a dishonored teacher.
Though societal honor is measured in part by the company one keeps, Jesus constantly defied expectations of with whom an honored teacher should associate.
Jesus’ inner circle includes women. Women fund his ministry. Sit at his feet in the role of a student. Jesus doesn’t select an equitable inner circle, but spends his social credit giving honor to the lowly. He goes to sinners’ houses and eats with them – both actions which bestow honor. He defends his choice to spend time with sinners and tax collectors to religious leaders (imagine Matthew writing the interaction in Matthew 9:10-12! Boo-yeah!).
Though he’s a 20-60 year old male, it’s fitting that Jesus’ betrayal doesn’t identify him as top of the pecking order, but specifically with women. Jesus was dedicated to God the Father’s purposes from birth, an act witnessed at the temple by Anna and Simeon. He was aligned with the weak in his life and death.
We never expected the promised Shepherd of Israel to be led like a lamb to slaughter.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth (Isaish 53:7).
The full worth of God’s gift to us can never be measured.
No matter how much we scrutinize it, the math will never add up. Jesus lived an example of downward mobility. We have received all God’s riches at Christ’s expense. Hallelujah!
Those who follow Jesus spend their lives amazed by the riches of His unfathomable mercy.
In awe of our inclusion in His story.