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:
- What’s wrong with a census?
- 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.”