The first reading for today’s (Feb 3) Mass describes how David decided to conduct a Census (likely in order to draft men for the army). The text speaks of this as a sin and though David regrets what he has done yet still God exacts a punishment. But the punishment afflicts not David per se but over 70,000 who died from pestilence at the hand of God. It is another of those difficult texts in the scripture where we struggle to understand how God is not acting “unjustly.” Why would God punish people who had not committed the actual sin in question? So let’s roll up our sleeves and wrestle with this text. It is similar to what we discussed when we considered the “ban” (Did God Command Genocide?) . As with many things Biblical there are often many different theories and explanations. We only have time to explore a few.
First the Story:
King David said to Joab and the leaders of the army who were with him, “Tour all the tribes in Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba and register the people, that I may know their number.” Joab then reported to the king the number of people registered: in Israel, eight hundred thousand men fit for military service; in Judah, five hundred thousand. Afterward, however, David regretted having numbered the people, and said to the LORD: “I have sinned grievously in what I have done. But now, LORD, forgive the guilt of your servant, for I have been very foolish.”…Gad [the Prophet] then went to David to inform him [of the Lord’s punishment]. He asked: “Do you want a three years’ famine to come upon your land, or to flee from your enemy three months while he pursues you, or to have a three days’ pestilence in your land? … David answered Gad: “I am in very serious difficulty. Let us fall by the hand of God, for he is most merciful; but let me not fall by the hand of man.” Thus David chose the pestilence….and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beer-sheba died. But when the angel stretched forth his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD regretted the calamity and said to the angel causing the destruction among the people, Enough now! …[And David} said to the LORD: “It is I who have sinned; it is I, the shepherd, who have done wrong. But these are sheep; what have they done? Punish me and my kindred.” (2 Sam 24:2-17)
And now some of the concerns, questions and some possible answers.
What was wrong with conducting a census? There are three possible answers to this question.
- David sinned by pride in numbering the men in his kingdom. The purpose for this was to raise an army. But God had given David no order to or reason to go to battle. It is rather David’s pride and ambition that he musters for battle.
- David violates the Deuteronomistic Code which forbade Kings to build military power for its own sake. The code referred to this as “multiplying horses” which is a euphemism for building a large army. Here is the pertinent passage from Deuteronomy: The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. (Deut 17:16-17). Hence the powers of a king must be limited but David has transgressed this planning to draft a large army without battle imminent. In so doing he abuses his power but taking large numbers of men from their families and from their farms and occupations.
- David sins by not trusting God. The need for a large army is rooted in a lack of trust that God can help him win either with a smaller army or can help him muster troops when the need arises. David’s planning for the future amounts to a failure to have faith in God.
Why did God punish the people who did no wrong? It hardly seems fair that 70,000 people should die for the sin of David alone. David has repented of what he did. It is true sometimes even after repentance we sometimes need to experience punishment, but is the punishment so severe and why is it directed at the people? And here is our central question: Is God being unfair? There are at least two explanations or answers.
- The People were not innocent. At the time of Samuel the people clamored for a king. Samuel told them that this was a sinful desire on their part for God was their King. Still they persisted in their demands and here is where we pick up the story: But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.” Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots… He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. (1 Sam 8:6-19). Hence the people are not innocent in this. They had been warned. Among the warnings was a very specific warning that the King would abuse his power to raise an army. Now David had planned exactly this. It is right that they should share in the punishment for they had forsaken God as their ruler and now they would have to suffer under the bad decisions of the earthly ruler they preferred.
- This is a moral tale that the innocent frequently suffer as a consequence of our sins – One thing that cannot be avoided is that the innocent frequently suffer from the decisions that others have made. For example, parents may squander their money, or drink too much, or behave badly. The children suffer though they did not do it. A bad pastor can bring down a whole parish, A bad general can get troops killed. Unfortunately our lives are interconnected and we cannot escape the fact that others often suffer for our bad choices. This is a sobering fact that should help us amend our ways. But, sadly, we are often insensitive to how our sins hurt others. David’s sin has hurt others and this is an important moral tale for us to heed for we too hurt others by our sins.
But # 2 still leaves unaddressed the fact that what is depicted in this story that God carries out is not merely the natural consequence of the bad choice of a leader. Rather it is God himself who personallycarries this out through his angels. What this likely reflects is a biblical focus on primary causality. God is the first cause of everything that happens. In modern times we tend to focus more on secondary causality. If I take a walk tonight the primary cause of the walk is not me, it is God. I am the secondary cause of my walk for I who move must first be moved by God. The biblical world was accustomed to see things in terms of primary causality. There is an old saying, “What God permits, he commits.” We are unaccustomed to see things this way and focus on ourselves and what we do as somewhat independent of God. It is a symptom of our anthropocentric age. We like to say when we observe bad things, “God did not do that, Hitler (or some other bad person) did that.” But honestly, everything that happens God “does” for he sustains all things and is the first mover of everything that moves. This sovereigntyof God interacts mysteriously with our freedom. Clearly the notion of primary causality (God) and how it interacts with secondary causality (Us) requires some sophistication (which we often lack today). God is sovereign and the cause of all but we are free and responsible. Hence God is the primary cause of this plague but David is repsonsible. And WE are responsible for what we do. And we must sober up to the fact that our bone-headed decisions can lead to great pain for others.
A Call to humility – In the end humility is called for when texts like these arise. From our perspective the cry too easily goes up: “That’s not fair!” But be VERY careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair we’d all be in Hell right now. As it is, God is merciful and none of us have ever gotten the punishment we deserved. God punishes David and his people. Perhaps they deserved it, perhaps it is just a consequence of bad choice of a leader. But in the end God summons his mercy and ends the pestilence. In the end it is only his grace and mercy that will ever see us through. We ought to have enough humility to banish notions of fairness in our relations with God. Mercy is the only way we stand a chance. Kyrie Eleison!
This song says, “Lord I’ve sinned but You’re still calling my name.”