What’s So Sinful About a Census and Why Did Israel Get Punished for Something David Did?

In Wednesday’s Mass, at the first reading from 2 Samuel 24, we hear the Story of How King David ordered a census to be taken. David’s general Joab strongly cautioned the King against such a measure, but David insisted on it anyway. Upon completion of the census the Prophet Gad informed David of God’s anger and intention to punish David and all Israel for this sin. God offered David the choice of a three year famine, three months of military fight from Israel’s enemies, or 3 day’s pestilence. David chose the three day’s pestilence, figuring it was better to fall by God’s hand than an enemy’s. 70,000 people died.

OK, some questions to be sure. The two central questions are:

  1. What’s wrong with a census?
  2. And Why did Israel get punished for something David did?

What’s wrong with a Census? – Rather than simply reinvent the wheel, I would like to point out that Sr. Ann Shields does a good job explaining what was wrong with David’s call for a census. You can listen to her recording here: Sr. Ann, Renewal Ministries. In effect she focuses on David’s lack of trust. For God had called David to trust in God, not in man, not in numbers. Sister rightfully points out that we have a tendency to rely too much on numbers. We tend to think that something is good, or right or successful, based on how many people attended, or how many support a cause or view. Of this tendency we must be very careful. Is our power or rightness rooted in numbers, in popularity, in profit, or in God? David in counting his people is, it would seem, seeking confidence in his numbers, rather than God,  and this is a sin. Since Sister Ann handles this very well, I want to refer you to her recording if you’d like to consider this more.

I would like to add to Sister’s reflection that David may also be guilty of pride here. For, he could well have considered with pride the fact that he had amassed a large number of people in reuniting the Israel and Judah, in conquering the Philistines and the Hittites et al. Taking a census was a way of flattering himself, and making a name for himself. The numbers ARE quite impressive. So impressive, in fact that we moderns doubt them: 800,000 men fit for military service in Israel, and 500,000 men in Judah. This number of over 1 million men does not include women, children or the elderly. Hence the full census number may have closer to 5 million. This seems an unlikely number, and opens up the great debate among biblical scholars about biblical numeration.  That debate is too much to handle in this post, and may be fit for later discussion. But for here,  let it be said, David was enthroned over a numerous nation and his census is a likely indication that he was quite proud of his accomplishment, and wanted that accomplishment recorded for history and/or his contemporaries: “David: King of multitudes!”

Yet again others point out the sinfulness of counting GOD’s people. These are not David’s people to number, they are God’s people. Since counting hints at accomplishment and control, David sins in trying to know a number that is none of his business, a number that is for God alone to know. For God numbers the people and calls them by name (cf Gen 15:15).

A final area of sinfulness surrounds the manner in which a census can be and often is an oppressive tool of government. Note that David is delivered a number of men “fit for military service.” Hence in the ancient world, a census was often a tool of military draft. It was also a tool used to exact taxes, and for Kings to measure power,  and manipulate and coerce based on that power. Even in our own time the taking of the Census every ten years is often steeped in power struggles, political gerrymandering, tax policy, spending priorities, the number of seats in the legislature, and the pitting of certain ethnic and racial groups against each other. A lot of mischief and political power struggles are tied back to the census, because numbers are powerful things. Those that have “the numbers on their side” get seats at the table. Those who do not, can wait outside. Thus, David, in amassing numbers, amasses power and the capacity to manipulate his people in sinful or unjust ways.

So a census is not a morally neutral thing, necessarily. While there may be legitimate needs for a country to amass data, it often happens that the data can be used in sinful or unjust ways, and lead to power struggles. With some of this reflection in mind we can see why it may have made some sense for the military commander Joab to advise David against taking a census.

Exactly where David’s sin lay, whether in a lack or trust, or pride, or acting as if they were his people, not God’s, or in amassing power, or in some combination of all these things, is not clear in the text. But God is clear: David has sinned, and he has sinned seriously. But this leads to a second and more difficult question.

Why did all Israel get punished for something David did? Here too there are a number of things for us to consider. But, as an opening disclaimer we ought to admit that there are some mysterious aspects of this incident and we may not be able to fully know the answer, just offer some speculation and issue some parameters. Let’s look at a few thought that emerge from the punishment of all Israel.

The main view emphasizes that the nation was not sin-free in the matter. The census story in 2 Samuel 24:1 begins by saying, The Lord’s anger against Israel flared again and incited David… to number Israel and Judah.  Hence God was angry with the whole nation for an undisclosed reason. And thus God permitted David to fall into this sin. Perhaps by way of speculation,  the Census was also a matter of national pride, as the people collectively thought with David, “Look how big and prosperous and powerful we have become.” This is only a speculation. But the point is that Israel is NOT sin free according to the text.

Another point must be to emphasize that our western and modern notion of individualism is not essentially a biblical view. We moderns tend to think, “What I do is my business, and what you do is yours.” We are thus outraged at notions that many would suffer for the guilt of one. But in the biblical worldview, we are all interconnected:  There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one member suffers, every member suffers; if one member is honored, every member rejoices. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a member of it (1 Cor 12:25-27). Dr. Martin Luther King said famously, Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere. This is the biblical vision.

The fact is, the decisions I make, affect people around me for better or worse. Even what we call “private” sins set evil loose, reduce goodness and make future and more public sins likely. We need to rediscover our interconnectedness in the modern Western World. We are our brother’s keeper, and what we do or fail to do affects others.

To those who would say this is not fair and that God is not “fair” in punishing Israel for what David did, there must be this strong advice: Be VERY careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were “fair” we would all be in Hell right now. Rather, it is mercy we should seek. “Fairness” is a bad bet, and will land us in Hell.

So, here are some thoughts on a “difficult” passage. Sr. Ann has some good insights to add if you click on the link above. This is a hard passage, but God knows how to shepherd us rightly, and there are times when tough measures are needed. We do not know exactly the nature of Israel’s sin that angered God, but God’s anger is his passion to set things right, and he’s getting us ready for the “Great Day.”

32 Replies to “What’s So Sinful About a Census and Why Did Israel Get Punished for Something David Did?”

  1. What’s wrong with a Census?

    David may be guilty of this sin or that sin or some other sin altogether. The fact is that we don’t have all the facts. We don’t know the whole story. Something is left out.

    But that should tell us something about proper scriptural exegesis — the Bible does not purport to be a full and complete and exhaustive history of the events described therein. Some information is expected to be understood already by the reader, such as the geographical locations of certain areas, or who that other census-taker, Caesar Augustus, was. And other information, which we might desire to have, simply is not always provided.

    There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a census. A census of counting people is not objectively sinful. Indeed, major portions of the Old Testament itself read as if it were a census report. Scripture certainly keeps count of the number of people and their names and genelogy.

    Rather, the point is, in some manner, in some way, in connection with the taking of a census, David sinned. As to exactly how it related to a census, we do not have enough information. Something is left out. “Exactly where David’s sin lay, whether in a lack or trust, or pride, or acting as if they were his people, not God’s, or in amassing power, or in some combination of all these things, is not clear in the text.”

    The point is, David sinned. Apparently, that’s all we need to know for God’s teaching purposes in including this incident in the scriptures.

    Why did all Israel get punished for something David did?

    Why was all of Egypt punished by plagues for something that Pharaoh did?

    Sin is not an act done in isolation. We are not islands unto ourselves. Sin is not a purely individual matter. Rather, sin is an intensely social act. Every sin, even that committed “in the privacy” of our room, when we are all by ourselves, is a social act. Even those “private” sins affect other people because the sin affects us, it changes us, and it therefore changes how we relate to others. Sin necessarily has consequences, not only for the sinner, but for other people as well. Other people suffer because of our sins. That is the nature of sinful conduct and sinful thoughts.

    And that is one of the things that God is trying to reveal to us here — that your individual sin adversely affects other people, a natural consequence of your sin is harm to other people.

    1. “that your individual sin adversely affects other people”
      Good thought. Even those who are innocent in ignorance can suffer. Remember what injuries and deaths were caused to Israel when Achan kept some of the spoil of Jericho. (Joshua 6:18; chap. 7)

      So even a congregation of Christians must look to itself to keep itself clean of disobedient members. (Mt 18:15-17)
      (quotes from newadvent Douay)

    2. Years ago I attended a class called ‘The Bible Through The Eyes of the Rabbis’ at a synagogue. The Rabbi told us that Jews may count cattle and sheep, gold and silver, but never human heads. The reason is that humans, being made in the Image of God, have a special dignity.
      I agree with Msgr. Pope, about the ways in which governments (and corporations) can manipulate people. Currently, the world believes that we are overpopulated yet some experts believe there would be 2 acres of habitable land for every person, on a planet with 10 billion people. We only have 7 billion. A lot of us – the Boomers- are going to be gone in 30 years.
      Please watch, on YouTube, ‘The Demographic Winter’ (or read the book). A number of economists, one a Nobel winner, believe the worldwide economic decline is due to our population control agenda. Read CIA and UN population statistics to see that over 100 countries are at, or less than, replacement levels. Spain, Russia and Iran are offering payment to people who will have babies. We need to replace Mama and Daddy, so the replacement rate is 2.1 babes per mother. Spain is at 1.3 and Singapore at 0.9 babies per Mom. The Far East and Eastern Europe hardly have any children under five. Now, Melinda Gates, the British Government, the IPPF, the UNFPA and Marie Stopes, are targeting Africa, where there is an average of 80 people per square mile. Britain has 1010 people per square mile.
      Contraception is itself fraught with problems. The progestin type, increases susceptibility to local and systemic infections, especially in the highly concentrated morning after pills. The increase of HIV and HPV among women is blamed on this. Third World women were guinea pigs for these drugs before they were marketed to Western women. Estrogen, excreted in our water for 50 years, has produced egg bearing male fish from the Thames to the Potomac. It is also implicated in the higher prostate cancer rates. The WHO lists it as a Class 1 carcinogenic. So, whether by abortion or sickness, we are gradually killing humans off.
      Of more recent concern, is the research done by Dr. Lionel Tiger (true name) at Rutgers, Dr. Gandestad at UNM, Dr. Maner at FSU and others in England: Women on the pill are inclined to pick genetically similar mates. These relationships tend toward infertility, miscarriages and sickly children, as is expected if one marries one’s cousin. In addition, the woman is turned off to the man once she stops the pill. So much engineered tragedy – that began with population counts.

  2. very troubling passage, when considering the
    State this world is in, gives me a different light on the word counting.

  3. Excellent Msgr! Thanks for the exegesis on a difficult OT passage. Things were so complicated back then! 🙂

  4. Thank you Msgr! This reminds me of a very sparsely-attended day of recollection given by a wonderful priest/preacher…as he looked around the mostly empty room, he simply said, “Well, God wants me to FEED His sheep; He didn’t say to COUNT them!”

  5. I do not struggle with David’s sin of taking a census. What I struggle with is his choice of punishment. If I recall, one of them was to be pursued by his enemies. To me, that would have been a better choice than the pestilence. Perhaps, the possible consequence of David’s death would have been more catastrophic, in terms of a bad outcomes, than a pestilence.

  6. Why was the census wrong?
    I think that your answer “Yet again others point out the sinfulness of counting GOD’s people” is the only one relevant here. Lust for power didn’t matter- see what happened to Saul. Presumption led David to the counting, which was a slur on God’s right to count and direct his people. That is, it was a denial of God’s right to rule. Moses and others counted God’s people only at God’s direction.
    Cf. 1 Sam 15:22, when Saul presumed to disobey God’s instructions, ‘excusing’ himself by offering the forbidden spoils as ‘a sacrifice to the Lord’: “For obedience is better than sacrifices: and to hearken rather than to offer the fat or rams. Because it is like the sin of witchcraft, to rebel: and like the crime of idolatry, to refuse to obey.” Strong rejection of what man’s opinion said was ‘just a little thing’.

    Why did all Israel get punished for something David did? From 1 Sam 8:
    “And the word was displeasing in the eyes of Samuel, that they should say: Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel: Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you. For they have not rejected you, but me, that I should not reign over them … Now, therefore, hearken to their voice: but yet testify to them, and foretell them the right of the king, that shall reign over them.”
    Verses 11 through 17 say what most people already know: that man’s government is more often oppressive than not. And if the Leader chooses a punishment easy on him and hard on his people? Verse 18: “And you shall cry out in that day from the face of the king, whom you have chosen to yourselves: and the Lord will not hear you in that day, because you desired unto yourselves a king [instead of Me].”

    A good lesson: Are we obeying God in every little thing? Do we show by our actions that we have the humility to let Him rule over us?

      1. Sorry- didn’t realize it would be taken as “insisting”. I was focusing more on what I think is the important [not “only”] lesson: Applying David’s lapse of judgment to ourselves, if possible. Paul says, “For what things soever were written were written for our learning: that, through patience and the comfort of the scriptures, we might have hope.”
        So “learning” is the chief thing; if we apply then we’ll have hope of God’s reward.

  7. Ultimately, the census was a for a purpose. Take your pick of Davids motives –

    1) Ensuring tax collectors extracted enough from each town.
    2) Bragging about how many people were under his thumb.
    3) Ensuring enough participation in a draft of young men.

    God being a libertarian, was not happy 🙂 j/k

  8. Thanks for an interesting column. I’ve wondered about this story regarding David myself. It makes one really think about some of the structures that we hold as necessary and fundamental in our lives, and the role of pride and humility in each and every one of our actions.

  9. I will point out that Israel had been warned by God when they demanded a king that they would be held accountable for the sins of the king that was appointed. I think this is part of the reason that God allowed the people to be punished for God’s sin – they had chosen the leadership of fallen men over the leadership of God and thus they would suffer for the falls of the men who led them.

    I think David’s sin was pride. He was counting the people as if they were his personal belongings, rather than acknowledging that the people belonged to the God who made them.

    1. Your comment makes me wonder what they would have been like had they not asked God for a king. How would that have affected the course of history?

      1. History outside of the rather small nation of Israel? I’m guessing not much. God would still have to send his Son to undo the effects of sin earthwide. (John 3:16, as the Church of Tebow and NBC have it. 🙂 )

    2. Good comment, I guess I didn’t see yours before I posted. (See below for my scriptural cites.)

    3. Israel did choose imperfect people to be kings instead of perfect God. Naturally, they were held accountable. Good point!

  10. As we are in an election year, it’s hard not to see one application of this being that the moral quality of a nation’s leader really counts, sometimes in ways that political scientists and historians would now dismiss.

  11. Thanks Msgr..beautiful explanation..but i had a doubt regarding the 3 options given by God to David and his choice…3yrs famine affect whole people..same with 3days pestilence..but 3months of fleeing was only for David…optimally..David should have chosen the second option as punishment for his sins and also to save his people as a just King…instead why did he choose 3days?

  12. I used to be gravely troubled by incidents like this where people suffered God’s wrath, such as a the Passover. Then it was pointed out to me that God was not sending the innocent to hell or torturing them. He was taking back the life He had given, which He is free to do. Perhaps all of those who died were quickly taken to heaven?

    1. “He was taking back the life He had given”

      Why “quickly taken” anywhere, though? If they went back to the ground from which they came, they are in the deepest of sleeps- until the resurrection:
      “till you return to the earth out of which you were taken: for dust you are, and into dust you shall return.” Gen 3, newadvent.org Douay
      “There is no man that lives always, or that hopes for this: a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know nothing more, neither have they a reward any more: for the memory of them is forgotten” Eccl 9, ibid.
      “and after that he said to them: Lazarus our friend sleeps: but I go that I may awake him out of sleep. His disciples therefore said: Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. But Jesus spoke of his death: and they thought that he spoke of the repose of sleep. Then therefore Jesus said to them plainly: Lazarus is dead.” John 11, ibid.

  13. A problem I had with this passage is that God incited David to sin. However, a footnote pointed out that in 1 Chronicles 21:1 it is Satan who incited David to take the censuss.

    1. Good catch, Flamen. 1 Chr 21:1-
      “And Satan rose up against Israel: and moved David to number Israel.” newadvent.org English
      “Consurrexit autem Satan contra Israël, et concitavit David ut numeraret Israël.” ibid. Latin
      “καὶ ἔστη διάβολος ἐν τῷ Ισραηλ καὶ ἐπέσεισεν τὸν Δαυιδ” ibid. Greek

      The first two- quotes from Douay and Jerome (as I understand)- have “satan”; no footnote.
      The Greek has ‘diabolos’, which is “devil”.

      Staying with the first two, we can note that “satan” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word for “resister”. Since the Great Resister would be the one who resists or opposes the Great God, we have a natural use of the word as a proper name. Cf. Rev 12:8, ibid.: “And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan.” Whether Satan or a [human] satan gave David the idea, I have to agree with Brandy that the sin being punished “was pride. He was counting the people as if they were his personal belongings, rather than acknowledging that the people belonged to the God who made them.”

      That concept, if we like, can take us back to the First Sin. Adam treated The Fruit as if it was his own to use as he saw fit. Of course, it was no ‘mere fruit’, being as it was the subject of a specific command from God: “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat. For in what day soever you shall eat of it, you shall die the death.” Gen 2, ibid.
      Then, as I and others pointed out, Israel had no grounds for complaint about a disaster visited on them by ‘kingship that they themselves chose over me [God].’

      BTW ‘diabolos’ means “slanderer”, so “Satan the Devil” is an appropriate label for one who (a) opposed His right to rule over his own creation, and (b) said God lied to Adam about the death penalty. Not for nothing, then, did Jesus pray to have his Father’s name “hallowed” (sanctified, cleaned up) from the false accusation of “liar”. (“But God is true and every man a liar …” Rom 3:4, ibid. Challoner’s note says, “God only is essentially true. All men in their own capacity are liable to lies and errors:”)

  14. What a wonderful blog. This fed my soul this morning. Thank you so much. I am stunned with the severity and mercy of God…His greatness and holiness is so beyond my ability to fathom…reading this entry has given me a new awareness of His awesomeness.

  15. What a beautiful exegesis! I could not have put what @Diane Peterson above said any differently! Bless you!

  16. David’s choice of accepting God’s punishment instead of man’s punishment;Was the smartest choice. for the simple fact that a man’s hatred runs deeper than the sea, therefore at his hands you can only expect annihilation. At God’s hands, because of his undeniable love us even at the last breath you can always count on his mercy. For his love for us supersedes everything else.

  17. David’s choice of accepting God’s punishment as opposed to man’s punishment;Was the smartest choice. For the simple fact that a man’s hatred runs deeper than the sea, therefore at his hands you can only expect annihilation. At God’s hands, because of his undeniable love for us, even at the last breath you can always count on his mercy. For his love for us supersedes everything else.

  18. How often do nations base their strength, importance, seniority, and privileges on numbers or majority status? I love America, but she is such a nation. Here, minorities are not viewed, overall, as important as the dominant race. This probably won’t change before Jesus comes, although I have hope.

  19. I have read many articles on this subject. This is one of the best I have read. It explains a perplexing question that many students of the Bible have asked themselves.

  20. Wow what a great explanation Pope. I woke up searching as to why it was wrong for David to count fighting man. If I can personalise this, I wonder how many things we count in our lives that we are not suppose to? We plan and organise or predict our future plans based on numbers without expanding our faith in God, instead trust in our good paying jobs, business or spouses at the expense of faith in God. My biggest lesson is to learn to trust God without counting numbers (trusting God in darkness. Our human tendencies always look for possibilities (it must make sense) whilst us Christians we are to live by faith ” the just shall live by faith” Hebrews 10v38, Romans 1v17 and Habakkuk 2v4, moreover “what is impossible with man is possible for God”Luke 18v27 NIV. I am looking at my life as to what should I trust God for and do not count or explore possibilities with my feeble mind but rather leave it up to him. I find this still hard because my brain is conditioned to plan ahead and make calculations to make my plans or decisions according to facts or let me say science. Do not misinterpret me, I am not saying do not make plans but make sure you do not trust your plans more than God. Remember he is the one with a better plan for you (Jeremiah 29v11). I am learning to commit every plan to him and trust him more than my sought to be well calculated plans. Whew! Learning to fully trust God is a journey. I am glad I am in it. Thank you for such a blog.

  21. Some good explanations on this ethically difficult issues. God alone knows why such action merits such tragedy and if He alone is privy to that information we will have to be content with His response “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the hings revealed belong to us and to our children forever..” Deut 29:29.
    in addition, I see other possible explanations. The people and the armies of Israel are ultimately God’s armies and people whom no one can number or should number. The reason being that God’s might or blessings is not dependent in these stats, which can misinform people of His designs. A reduction in number may be misunderstood as God’s lack of support(e.g. Gideon’s soldiers reduced before going to battle) or increase in numbers automatically means God’s favor(e.g 7,000 people , compared to rest of Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal).

    People have a natural tendency to put greater confidence in might(such as represented in size and strength of resources) more than in humility and vulnerability that that has no where else to turn but simple faith in God alone as the only real resource. The former tend to obscure the glory, authority and grace of God in our trial, the latter tend to accentuate and reveal it.

  22. Maybe this was brought out didn’t have time to read all. Scripture explains scripture the reason for the plague is clearly stated in Exodus 30:12. A price of ransom was to be paid lest a plague be poured out. While other facts could play a part the bottom line is that David for what ever reason refused to collect the price for ransom. This is why the plague hit.

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