The half-shekel of the sanctuary was a significant coin in the Jewish religion. According to Exodus 30:11-16, a half-shekel was to be given by everyone numbered in the congregation. This contribution became known as the temple tax, and the money collected was used for the upkeep of the temple. This coin, used at the time of Christ, has a fascinating history—a history that goes way back to the time of Ahab and Jezebel.

Jezebel, we are told was the daughter of Ethbaal, “king of the Sidonians” (1 Kings 16:31), although he was also the ruler of Tyre.1 When Ahab married Jezebel, he incorporated the worship of Baal and Astarte into Israel (1 Kings 16:31-33). Tyre and Sidon (along with Byblos) were the main cities of the Phoenician culture which occupied the territory roughly equivalent to modern-day Lebanon. The ancient Phoenicians were known for trade and commerce and “grew rich, trading precious metals from abroad, and produce such as wine, olive oil, and most notably the timber from the famous cedars of Lebanon.”2

The Baal worshipped in Tyre and brought into Israel by Ahab, was known as Melqart, Lord of Tyre. “Melqart, properly Phoenician Milk-Qart ‘King of the City’, less accurately Melkart, Melkarth or Melgart, Akkadian Milqartu, was tutelary god of the Phoenician city of Tyre as Eshmun protected Sidon. Melqart was often titled Ba‘l Ṣūr ‘Lord of Tyre,’ the ancestral king of the royal line. In Greek, by interpretatio graeca he was identified with Heracles and referred to as the Tyrian Herakles.”3

Notice the correspondence between Melqart and Heracles, or the Roman form of the name Hercules. Not many have heard of Melqart, but many have heard of his Greco-Roman equivalent. Others make the connection including the historian Herodotus who wrote, “In the wish to get the best information that I could on these matters, I made a voyage to Tyre in Phoenicia, hearing there was a temple of Heracles at that place, very highly venerated. I visited the temple, and found it richly adorned with a number of offerings, among which were two pillars, one of pure gold, the other of smaragdos, shining with great brilliancy at night.”4 Notice Herodotus mentioned two pillars, the most notable feature of Malqart temples and something we’ll comment on later.

The reason why the connection with Hercules is so interesting is because of what Elijah says during the contest on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal. As they were performing their various rites in an attempt to get Baal to bring fire down from heaven, the record says, “And it came to pass at noon that Elijah mocked them and said, ‘Cry out loud: for he is a god; either he is lost in thought, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.’ ” (1 Kings 18:27) Why did Elijah use those words? The suggestion is that he was referring to the myth surrounding Heracles/Melqart. For instance: “Melqart is likely to have been the particular Ba‘al found in the Tanakh whose worship was prominently introduced into Israel by King Ahab and largely eradicated by King Jehu. In 1 Kings 18:27 it is possible there is a mocking reference to legendary Heraclean journeys made by the god and to the annual egersis (‘awakening’) of the god.”5

Josephus also makes the connection between Melqart and Heracles when following the historian Menander concerning King Hiram of Tyre (c.965–935BCE):

“He also went and cut down materials of timber out of the mountain called Lebanon, for the roof of temples; and when he had pulled down the ancient temples, he both built the temple of Heracles and that of  Ashtart; and he was the first to celebrate the awakening (egersis) of Heracles in the month Peritius.”6

Having established this connection let’s focus on the two pillars, which were one of the most notable elements of the temples of Melqart:

“There was a magnificent temple to Melqart/Baal right in the centre of Tyre. All Phoenician temples incorporated two pillars: originally a wooden one for Astarte and a stone one for Baal. According to the ancient historian Herodotus, the Tyrian temple had one emerald pillar and one of gold. The emerald one may have been green Phoenician glass, though given the wealth of Tyre, it may well have actually been emerald. It had a candle inside so that it shone at night: the green obviously symbolises a tree so the emerald pillar must have represented Astarte’s wooden column. The gold one symbolised the wealth given by the earth, gold being then the most precious metal to come out of stone, just as it is now.”7

Notice what this excerpt says about the wealth of Tyre, for that is really what the Phoenicians worshipped; money was their religion. The twin pillars, representing the gods Baal and Astarte which were brought by Ahab into Israel, are quite famous. Based on the legend of one of Hercules’ journeys, the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar in antiquity were named after them. Strabo, quoting from a lost passage of Pindar, says “the pillars which Pindar calls the ‘gates of Gades’ when he asserts that they are the farthermost limits reached by Heracles.”8 However, on the island of Gades/Gadeira (modern Cadiz in Spain), which is just beyond the strait, there is a temple of Melqart constructed by the Phoenicians and which are widely proclaimed to be the true Pillars of Hercules.9

Why did the Phoenicians travel as far west as Spain, even to the edge of the then-known world? The Strait of Gibraltar leads out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic Ocean, and no sailor in ancient times went beyond them. Why did the Phoenicians travel far and wide, and why did they build temples to Melqart? Researcher Maria Aubet has this to say: “The temple at Cadiz was not used exclusively as a place of worship and sacrifice. It must be remembered who Melqart of Tyre was in the framework of Phoenician religion… In ancient trade, the temple built close to a market or place of exchange guaranteed the protection of visitors and merchants, and the religious institution acted at times as an efficient financial intermediary or bank. The sanctuaries in antiquity were the prime places of commercial transactions in a foreign country… Indeed, we know that the monarchs of developed countries negotiated covenants or commercial treaties, as did Hiram and Solomon.”10

It was all about the money! That was the god they worshipped, much like modern society.

Just north of Cadiz on the Spanish mainland is the city of Seville where there is a stone carving in the city hall showing the Pillars of Hercules: two columns with a ribbon upon which are written the Spanish motto plus ultra. It was these pillars that were eventually incorporated into the Spanish coat of arms.

It was the Spanish, along with other west European nations, that carried on the Phoenician tradition—and religion—of travelling off to far countries in search of trade, commerce and the accumulation of wealth. And so a prevailing theory holds that the dollar sign derives from the Spanish coat of arms. In 1492, Ferdinand II of Aragon adopted the symbol of the Pillars of Hercules and added the Latin warning Non plus ultra meaning “nothing further beyond,” indicating “this is the end of the (known) world.” But when Christopher Columbus came to America, the legend was changed to Plus ultra, meaning “further beyond.” “Charles V adopted the symbol, and it was part of his coat of arms representing Spain’s American possessions. The symbol was later stamped on coins minted in gold and silver. These coins, depicting the pillars over two hemispheres and a small S-shaped ribbon around each, were spread throughout America, Europe and Asia. According to this theory, traders wrote signs that, instead of saying dollar or peso, had this symbol made by hand, and this, in turn, evolved into a simple S with two vertical bars.”11

Let’s now step back into the time of Ahab and Jezebel. They incorporated Phoenician religion into Israel’s society, and the prophet Micah has this to say:

“The voice of the Lord cries to the city—and it is sound wisdom to fear your name: ‘Hear of the rod and of him who appointed it! Can I forget any longer the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed? Shall I acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights? Your rich men are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth. Therefore I strike you with a grievous blow, making you desolate because of your sins. You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be hunger within you; you shall put away, but not preserve, and what you preserve I will give to the sword. You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine. For you have kept the statutes of Omri, and all the works of the house of Ahab; and you have walked in their counsels, that I may make you a desolation, and your inhabitants a hissing; so you shall bear the scorn of my people.’ ” (Mic 6:9-16 ESV).

Micah describes his time, which included the corruption associated with the worship of money, as “the works of the house of Ahab.” From this, we can conclude that the worship of Melqart, or at least its spirit, had taken a firm footing in society. But the spirit of Melqart lived on even further.

There is an interesting parallel between the days of Ahab and the days of the Lord Jesus Christ. We know that John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah (Luke 1:17), and both Herod and Ahab were weak-minded men with domineering powerful wives—Herodias and Jezebel.

It was Herod’s father who had expanded the second temple in Jerusalem, which became known as Herod’s Temple. When Jesus entered that temple, he saw the spirit of Melqart alive once again: “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of robbers.’ ” (Matt 21:12-13 ESV). The unjust weights and balances of the days of Micah, described as the works of the house of Ahab, had returned and corrupted the Jewish temple.

When he said, “you make it a den of robbers” Jesus quoted from Jeremiah 7:11, the context of which describes a people who “burn incense unto Baal” (Jer 7:9). Baal had returned, in spirit, to Israel. Just like the temple of Melqart, the temple was in some sense the national bank. “It was a great public treasury with vaults containing immense stores of private wealth. These deposits never sat idle, but were loaned at high rates of interest.”12 What were the money changers doing in the temple? “The money changers made a business of accommodating those who had not the Jewish half-shekel for the annual temple tax… Every one, rich and poor, was expected to pay the half-shekel for himself during the month of Adar. It thus became necessary sometimes to change a shekel into two halves, or to exchange foreign money for the Jewish half-shekel. The men who followed this business made their living by charging a percentage for the exchange, and carried on their traffic with in the temple area.”13

And so we come back to the curious tale of the half-shekel. By the time we come to the days of Christ, the half-shekel had developed a history all of its own. The Jews used to obtain their coins from Greek mints, but after the days of the Maccabees, they wanted to find something else. Archaeologists tell us the “shekel, with the laureate head of Melqarth-Herakles (a pagan deity) on the obverse and an eagle (a graven image) on the reverse, averaged 14.2gm in weight and contained at least 94 per cent silver. These coins were minted in Tyre between 126/125 BC and 19/18 BC. After the Roman government closed the Tyre mint, these coins continued to be minted at an unknown mint, probably in or near Jerusalem, from 18/17 BC until AD 69/70. The Jewish coin makers continued to strike coins with the image of Melqarth-Herakles and the eagle. This was contrary to the clear teachings of the Word of God (Ex 20:3,4: Dt. 4:16-18; 5:8). Yet the rabbis declared that the Tyrian shekels were the only legal currency that was acceptable in the Temple (Hendin 2001:420–29; 2002:46, 47). The rabbis decided that the commandment to give the half-shekel Temple tax, with its proper weight and purity, was more important than the prohibition of who or what image was on the coin.”14

In an ironic historical twist of fate, Melqart’s image returned to the temple in Jerusalem. For almost one hundred years until the destruction of the temple, any business taking place therein had to be done using a coin with the image of Jezebel’s Baal. No other coin could be used.

There is an epilogue to the story of Jezebel’s Baal, and it concerns his consort Astarte. The whole myth surrounding the history of the continent of Europe is tied up with the city of Tyre. Herodotus says “In Tyre I remarked another temple where the same god was worshipped as the Thasian Heracles. So I went on to Thasos, where I found a temple of Heracles which had been built by the Phoenicians who colonised that island when they sailed in search of Europa.”15 Europa, as the legend has it, had been carried off on the back of Zeus who had appeared as a bull. The truth of the matter is the Tyrians built a temple on Thasos to spread their trade empire. But the connection with the legend surrounding the history of Europe is fascinating. As is this quote from Lucian: “There is likewise in Phœnicia a temple of great size owned by the Sidonians. They call it the temple of Astarte. I hold this Astarte to be no other than the moon-goddess. But according to the story of one of the priests this temple is sacred to Europa, the sister of Cadmus. She was the daughter of Agenor, and on her disappearance from Earth the Phœnicians honoured her with a temple and told a sacred legend about her; how that Zeus was enamoured of her for her beauty, and changing his form into that of a bull carried her off into Crete. This legend I heard from other Phœnicians as well; and the coinage current among the Sidonians bears upon it the effigy of Europa sitting upon a bull, none other than Zeus. Thus they do not agree that the temple in question is sacred to Europa.”16 The symbol of the beast carrying a woman is common to another coin, minted for the European Union, and the book of Revelation, which prophesies the development of Catholic Europe. In Revelation 17:4 we read of the woman riding a beast and then in chapter 18 we read that the system these chapters speak of is a revival once again of the spirit of Melqart: “And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble” (Rev 18:11-12 ESV). The language here is taken right out of the prophecy concerning Tyre in Ezekiel 27.

The curious story of the half-shekel of the sanctuary is simply the story of human nature throughout the ages and its worship of money. In this regard, history has repeated itself over and over. The lesson for us—to make sure our devotion is to Yahweh and not to the gods of this world.

References

  1. The Story of the Greatest Nations and the World’s Famous Events, Vol.1, Edward S. Ellis and Charles F. Horne, PhD, 1913
  2. National Geographic, Rick Gore, October 2004
  3. Melqart, Jesse Russel and Ronald Cohn, 2012
  4. Herodotus Histories, Hackett Publishing, 2014
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melqart
  6. Antiquities 8.5.3, Josephus
  7. Phoenicia.org
  8. Strabo, 3.5.5
  9. Greek Religion, Walter Burket, 1985
  10. The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade, Maria Eugenia Aubet, 1993
  11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dollar_sign
  12. http://www.bible-history.com/jewishtemple/JEWISH_TEMPLEJesus_and_the_Temple.htm
  13. Manners and Customs of the Bible, James M. Freeman, 1996
  14. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/11/01/The-Tyrian-Shekel-and-the-Temple-of-Jerusalem.aspx
  15. Herodotus, 2.44
  16. De Dea Syria, Lucian