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

Today I want to return to a reading from last week’s Mass. In that reading (from 2 Samuel 24) we hear the story of how King David ordered a census to be taken. Joab, David’s general, strongly cautioned the King against it, but David insisted. When the census had been completed, the Prophet Gad informed David of God’s anger and of His intention to punish David and all Israel. God offered David his choice of punishments: a three-year famine, three months of military fighting from Israel’s enemies, or three days of pestilence. David chose the pestilence, figuring that it was better to fall by God’s hand than an enemy’s. About 70,000 people died during those three days.

This raises two central questions:

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

What’s wrong with a census? – The first explanation can be found by focusing David’s lack of trust. God had called David to trust in Him—not in man, not in numbers. We have a tendency to rely too much on numbers, thinking that something is good, or right, or successful based on how many people attended or how many supported our 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? In counting his people, David seems to be seeking confidence in numbers rather than God; this is a sin.

David may also be guilty of pride. It could well be that he considered with pride the fact that he had amassed such a large number of people in reuniting Israel and Judah, in conquering the Philistines, the Hittites, and others. Taking a census was perhaps a way of flattering himself, of 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 in Judah. Including women, children, and those men too old or frail for service, would probably bring the number closer to 5 million people. Such a figure seems unlikely number and is a source of great debate among biblical scholars about biblical enumeration. That debate is too much to handle in this post, but may be a topic for future discussion. For now, let’s simply say that David ruled over a populous nation; his taking of a census likely indicates that he was proud of his accomplishment and wanted it acknowledged by his contemporaries and recorded in the annals of history: David, King of multitudes!

Others point out the sinfulness of counting God’s people. These are not David’s people to enumerate; they are God’s. Because counting hints at accomplishment and control, David sins in trying to know a number that is none of his business. This is a number that is for God alone to know, for He numbers His 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 used as an oppressive tool of government. The census provides David with the number of men “fit for military service.” In the ancient world, a census was often a tool for military draft. It was also a basis for exacting taxes. Finally, kings used it to measure their power and to manipulate and coerce based on that power. Even in our own time, the taking of the official U.S. census every ten years is often surrounded by power struggles, gerrymandering, tax policy changes, spending priorities, and the pitting of certain ethnic and racial groups against one another. A lot of troubles can be tied back to the census; numbers are powerful things. Those that have “the numbers” get seats at the table while those who do not have to wait outside. In amassing numbers, David increases his power and his ability to manipulate the people in sinful and/or unjust ways.

The taking of a census is not necessarily morally neutral. While there may be legitimate reasons for a country to collect this information, it can be used in sinful or unjust ways and can lead to power struggles. With this in mind we can see why the military commander Joab may have advised David against taking a census.

Exactly where David’s sin lay—a lack of trust, pride, acting as if they were his people rather than God’s, amassing power, or in some combination of all these things—is not made clear in the text. God is clear though in letting David know that he has sinned and seriously so. This leads to a second and more difficult question.

Why was Israel punished for something David did? As an opening disclaimer we ought to admit that there are some mysterious aspects of this incident and we may not be able to know the answer fully. All we can do is to offer some speculation. Let’s look at a few thoughts as to why all of Israel was punished.

The most common explanation emphasizes that Israel was not sinless in the matter. The census story begins as follows: 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 some undisclosed reason, and therefore permitted David to fall into this sin. Perhaps the census was also a matter of national pride, with the people thinking, “Look how big, prosperous, and powerful we have become.” This is only speculation, but the point is that according to the text, Israel was not blameless.

Another point must be to emphasize that the modern western notion of individualism is not a biblical one. We tend to think that what we do is our own business and what others do is theirs. We are thus outraged at the idea that many would suffer for the sins of one. In the biblical worldview, though, 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, Jr. said, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This is the biblical vision.

The decisions we make affect the people around us for better or worse. Even what we call “private” sins set evil loose, reduce goodness, and increase the likelihood of future and more public sins. We are our brother’s keeper and what we do or fail to do affects others.

To those who would say that God is not being “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; it will land us in Hell.

This is a difficult passage, but God knows how to shepherd us rightly. There are times when tough measures are needed. We do not know the precise nature of Israel’s sin that angered God, but His anger is His passion to set things right. He’s getting us ready for the “Great Day.”

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

  1. My Patrology professor said that there are really no new heresies. They are all a repetition of the same basic themes. This is also another way of saying that sin is very boring. My guess is that David’s (Israel’s) sin was primarily in trusting his own power rather than trusting in God. Despite how much Traditionalists will deny it, the “Sixties” have influenced every part of our Church. The idea that we must DO something permeates thought across the Church’s political spectrum: We must DO something about abortion, DO something about terrorism, or DO something about poverty, etc.

    We are called to DO the Corporal Works of Mercy; otherwise, we are called to pray and trust in God. Israel (Judah) was called to trust completely in God; rather they decided to make strategic alliances with Egypt and were punished for it. Lepanto was won with prayer, not with naval forces. The Cold War ended because of prayer, not because of US military policy.

    Abortion will not be defeated in Washington, it will be defeated by the Rosary. Terrorism will not be defeated by the Marines, it will be defeated by Eucharistic Adoration. At this point people start shaking and stamping their feet and saying “we must DO something meaningful.” Nope, unless and until we recover complete and absolute dependence on God, we are doomed.

    It is also worth repeating that every sin effects every other person on the planet. Too much modern analysis focuses on the idea that there are “private sins” that are really not the business of anyone else. Chaos Theory shows that tiny actions can have dramatic effects. In the same way, tiny, “private” sins can end up causing dramatic pain across the planet.

    God does not call us to do anything other than trust completely in Him.

  2. St Isaac the Syrian said: “Do not seek recourse to Divine justice because, if God was just alone, we would all deserve to be condemned. Rely, rather, on God’s mercy because it is by mercy that we are saved.”

  3. I remember Dr. Hahn saying something in a past talk about the 2 reasons for a census, either to raise taxes on the population, or prepare for war. Greed and Death? Not sure why the population would be punished, unless they somehow tied into variations on that theme.

  4. Msgr. Pope

    I just finished teaching this passage to my students yesterday–what a fun coincidence! I agree wholeheartedly with the first half of your analysis but I’d like to add something to the second half, regarding Israel’s complicity.

    One of the founding themes of I and II Samuel is that the Israelites made a terrible mistake in demanding a king like the other nations. They already have a king–God! Samuel warns the people that by having a king they will have a “head” who will act in their name and bring both merit and blame upon the nation. From now on they will have to follow the Law not only collectively but also in their head…and what could possibly go wrong?

    The other major theme of the books is intercession, played out in both successes and failures many times over throughout the story. God tests David in the punishment scene of chapter twenty-four, and David initially fails by allowing the punishment that he deserves to fall upon the people. The sudden ending to the book happens when David realizes what he has done and takes the curse of death upon himself for the sake of Israel, thus ending the curse. That’s the only way to “solve” the problem that the Israelites have introduced by demanding a king.

    Applying to the New Testament I leave as an exercise to the reader!

    1. Thank you! This is a great complement to Msgr’s comments. I would also add that David’s selection of punishment also reveals that learning the lesson of “quantification” is a process… as David selects the punishment that is the least amount of time. The lesson comes in when 70K fall despite the short duration and intervention that takes place. God Bless!

  5. Thank you Msgr. I have always wanted to know the answer to the question “Why was Israel punished too.” The first thing I realized after reading your answer is that I don’t read the Readings with full attention & meditation on what I read. I just skim over it & wonder why I didn’t understand. I will work to change that behavior.

    Your writings have opened my eyes and deepen my faith.

  6. Many thanks for that. When I heard that passage it really puzzled me as to what sin David had committed. This makes it very clear.

  7. Exodus chapter 30 might also shed light on this question. Here the LORD gives some directions for taking a census that involve each of the sons of Israel giving “a ransom for himself to the LORD…each who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary…half a shekel as an offering to the LORD.”(12-13) It also indicates that this offering is for the sake of making atonement.

    Did David neglect God’s directions?

  8. This makes me wonder if complying to a census is sinful?
    On another note the following statement from the author is very good and needs to be book length!

    “The decisions we make affect the people around us for better or worse. Even what we call “private” sins set evil loose, reduce goodness, and increase the likelihood of future and more public sins. We are our brother’s keeper and what we do or fail to do affects others.”

  9. Dear Monsignor: Thanks for this helpful post!

    As far as the punishment, in the 2nd Samuel account, the prophet presented to David, from God, three possible punishments (italics added):

    “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?”

    Then “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.'”

    King David chose the punishment; and when he did, he chose in a self-serving way: better that “us” suffer, but not “me.”

    Then, later, David sees what happens, and repents:

    When David saw the angel who was striking the people,
    he 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.”

    I think this insight, on David’s part, is the whole point of the choice of three punishments.

  10. When I read this and about Saul and David and all the Kings of Israel, I can’t help but think of this Scripture: 1 Samuel 8:4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

    6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. 7 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. 8 They are acting toward you just as they have acted from the day I brought them up from Egypt to this very day, deserting me to serve other gods.
    9 Now listen to them; but at the same time, give them a solemn warning and inform them of the rights of the king who will rule them.

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