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:
- What’s wrong with a census?
- 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.”