Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Estimate of the Amount of Metal Used. - Exo 38:21. "These are the numbered things of the dwelling, of the dwelling of the testimony, that were numbered at the command of Moses, through the service of the Levites, by the hand of Ithamar, the son of Aaron the priest." פּקוּדים does not mean the numbering (equivalent to מפקד Sa2 4:9, or פּקדּה Ch2 17:14; Ch2 26:11), as Knobel supposes, but here as elsewhere, even in Num 26:63-64, it signifies "the numbered;" the only difference being, that in most cases it refers to persons, here to things, and that the reckoning consisted not merely in the counting and entering of the different things, but in ascertaining their weight and estimating their worth. Lyra has given the following correct rendering of this heading: "haec est summa numeri ponderis eorum, quae facta sunt in tabernaculo ex auro, argento et aere." It was apparently superfluous to enumerate the different articles again, as this had been repeatedly done before. The weight of the different metals, therefore, is all that is given. The "dwelling" is still further described as "the dwelling of the testimony," because the testimony, i.e., the decalogue written with the finger of God upon the tables of stone, was kept in the dwelling, and this testimony formed the base of the throne of Jehovah, and was the material pledge that Jehovah would cause His name, His manifested presence, to dwell there, and would thus show Himself to His people in grace and righteousness. "That which was numbered" is an explanatory apposition to the previous clause, "the numbering of the dwelling;" and the words הלויּם עבדת, which follow, are an accusative construed freely to indicate more particularly the mode of numbering (Ewald, 204 a), viz., "through the service," or "by means of the service of the Levites," not for their service. "By the hand of Ithamar:" who presided over the calculations which the Levites carried out under his superintendence.
The allusion to the service of the Levites under Ithamar leads the historian to mention once more the architects of the whole building, and the different works connected with it (cf. Exo 31:2.).
"(As for) all the gold that was used (העשׂוּי) for the work in every kind of holy work, the gold of the wave-offering (the gold that was offered as a wave-offering, see at Exo 35:22) was (amounted to) 29 talents and 730 shekels in holy shekel," that is to say, 87,370 shekels or 877,300 thalers (L.131,595), if we accept Thenius' estimate, that the gold shekel was worth 10 thalers (L.1, 10s.), which is probably very near the truth.
Of the silver, all that is mentioned is the amount of atonement-money raised from those who were numbered (see at Exo 30:12.) at the rate of half a shekel for every male, without including the freewill-offerings of silver (Exo 35:24, cf. Exo 25:3), whether it was that they were too insignificant, or that they were not used for the work, but were placed with the excess mentioned in Exo 36:7. The result of the numbering gave 603,550 men, every one of whom paid half a shekel. This would yield 301,775 shekels, or 100 talents and 1775 shekels, which proves by the way that a talent contained 3000 shekels. A hundred talents of this were used for casting 96 sockets for the 48 boards, and 4 sockets for the 4 pillars of the inner court, - one talent therefore for each socket, - and the 1775 shekels for the hooks of the pillars that sustained the curtains, for silvering their capitals, and "for binding the pillars," i.e., for making the silver connecting rods for the pillars of the court (Exo 27:10-11; Exo 38:10.).
The copper of the wave-offering amounted to 70 talents and 2400 shekels; and of this the sockets of the pillars at the entrance of the tabernacle (Exo 26:37), the altar of burnt-offering with its network and vessels, the supports of the pillars of the court, all the pegs of the dwelling and court, and, what is not expressly mentioned here, the laver with its support (Exo 30:18), were made. בּ עשׂה to work in (with) copper, i.e., to make of copper.
If this quantity of the precious metals may possibly strike some readers as very large, and was in fact brought forward years ago as a reason for questioning the historical credibility of our account of the building of the tabernacle, it has been frequently urged, on the other hand, that it looks quite small, in comparison with the quantities of gold and silver that have been found accumulated in the East, in both ancient and modern times. According to the account before us, the requisite amount of silver was raised by the comparatively small payment of half a shekel, about fifteen pence, for every male Israelite of 20 years old and upwards. Now no tenable objection can be raised against the payment of such a tribute, since we have no reason whatever for supposing the Israelites to have been paupers, notwithstanding the oppression which they endured during the closing period of their stay in Egypt. They were settled in the most fertile part of Egypt; and coined silver was current in western Asia even in the time of the patriarchs (Gen 23:16). But with reference to the quantities of gold and copper that were delivered, we need not point to the immense stores of gold and other metals that were kept in the capitals of the Asiatic kingdoms of antiquity,
(Note: Thus, to mention only one or two examples, the images in the temple of Belus, at Babylon, consisted of several thousand talents of gold, to say nothing of the golden tables, the bedsteads, and other articles of gold and silver (Diod. Sic. 2, 9; Herod. 1, 181, 183). In the siege of Nineveh, Sardanapalus erected a funeral pile, upon which he collected all his wealth, including 150 golden bedsteads, 150 golden tables, a million talents of gold, and ten times as much silver and other valuables, to prevent their falling into the hands of the foe (Ctesias in Athen. 12, 28, p. 529). According to a statement in Pliny's Hist. Nat. 33, 3, on the conquest of Asia by Cyrus, he carried off booty to the extent of 34,000 lbs. of gold, beside the golden vessels and 500,000 talents of silver, including the goblet of Semiramis, which alone weighed 15 talents. Alexander the Great found more than 40,000 talents of gold and silver and 9000 talents of coined gold in the royal treasury at Susa (Diod. Sic. 17, 66), and a treasure of 120,000 talents of gold in the citadel of Persepolis (Diod. Sic. 17, 71; Curtius, v. 6, 9). For further accounts of the enormous wealth of Asia in gold and silver, see Bhr, Symbolik i. pp. 258ff.)
but will merely call to mind the fact, that the kings of Egypt possessed many large gold mines on the frontiers of the country, and in the neighbouring lands of Arabia and Ethiopia, which were worked by criminals, prisoners of war, and others, under the harshest pressure, and the very earliest times copper mines were discovered on the Arabian peninsula, which were worked by a colony of labourers (Lepsius, Letters from Egypt, p. 336). Moreover, the love of the ancient Egyptians for valuable and elegant ornaments, gold rings, necklaces, etc., is sufficiently known from the monuments (see Rosellini in Hengstenberg's Egypt, p. 137). Is it not likely, then, that the Israelites should have acquired a taste for jewellery of this kind, and should have possessed or discovered the means of procuring all kinds of gold and silver decorations, not to mention the gold and silver jewellery which they received from the Egyptians on their departure? The liking for such things even among nomad tribes is very well known. Thus, for example, after the defeat of the Midianites, the Israelites carried off so much gold, silver, copper, and other metals as spoil, that their princes alone were able to offer 16,750 shekels of gold as a heave-offering to Jehovah from the booty that had been obtained in this kind of jewellery (Num 31:50.). Diodorus Sic. (3, 44) and Strabo (xvi. p. 778) bear witness to the great wealth of the Nabateans and other Arab tribes on the Elanitic Gulf, and mention not only a river, said to flow through the land, carrying gold dust with it, but also gold that was dug up, and which was found, "not in the form of sand, but of nuggets, which did not require much cleaning, and the smallest of which were of the size of a nut, the average size being that of a medlar, whilst the largest pieces were as big as a walnut. These they bored, and made necklaces or bracelets by stringing them together alternately with transparent stones. They also sold the gold very cheap to their neighbours, giving three times the quantity for copper, and double the quantity for iron, both on account of their inability to work these metals, and also because of the scarcity of the metals which were so much more necessarily for daily use" (Strabo). The Sabaeans and Gerrhaeans are also mentioned as the richest of all the tribes of Arabia, through their trade in incense and in cinnamon and other spices.
(Note: "They possess an immense quantity of gold and silver articles, such as beds, tripods, bowls, and cups, in addition to the decorations of their houses; for doors, walls, and ceilings are all wrought with ivory, gold, silver, and precious stones" (Strabo ut sup.). In accordance with this, Pliny (n. h. 6, 28) not only calls the Sabaeans "ditissimos silvarum fertilitate odorifera, auri metallis, etc.," but the tribes of Arabia in general, "in universum gentes ditissimas, ut apud quas maximae opes Romanorum Parthorum que subsistant, vendentibus quae e mari aut silvis capiunt, nihil invicem redimentibus.")
From the Arabs, who carried on a very extensive caravan trade through the desert even at that time, the Israelites would be able to purchase such spices and materials for the building of the tabernacle as they had not brought with them from Egypt; and in Egypt itself, where all descriptions of art and handicraft were cultivated from the very earliest times (for proofs see Hengst. Egypt, pp. 133-139), they might so far have acquired all the mechanical and artistic ability required for the work, that skilled artisans could carry out all that was prescribed, under the superintendence of the two master-builders who had been specially inspired for the purpose.