This chapter is very confusing in a number of ways: The narrative seems to skip around a bit chronologically, and the underlying theological assumptions are something of a mystery.

The story begins with God angry at Israel and Judah again. Because he’s so angry, he decides to incite David against Israel and Judah by making David take a census. The reason for God’s anger is never stated, the reason for wanting to create a divide between David and the Israelites/Judahites is never stated, the rationale that has a census create that divide is never stated. We’re still on our very first sentence and I’m already totally lost. It’s just that kind of story.

For whatever reason, conducting a census is a Very Bad Thing. The rationale is never explained, though all the guesses I’ve seen run along the same lines as the Got Questions? article: “in those times, a man only had the right to count or number what belonged to him. Israel did not belong to David; Israel belonged to God.”

Of course, that answer isn’t without problems, since God is the one who compelled David to take the census, as he did in Exodus 30 and Numbers 26, where doing so was not a sin.

The only way out would be for us to interpret the idea that God compelled David to conduct a census in the same way that he hardened Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus – that the statement is one of belief in God’s absolute power, that all things happen under his control, rather than that he directly commanded David to hold a census.The purposes seem to be the same as well – directing the leader so that he would have an excuse to kill lots of people. Yet he is quoted as speaking directly to David, which gives a different impression.

My New Bible Companion suggests that the plan was to punish the Israelites and Judahites for “the sin of rebellion (against David)” (p.314). This would explain why it is the people who will be punished and why God’s stated desire is to “incite David against them” (2 Sam. 24:1), but is contradicted by the entire device of making David call for a sinful census to accomplish it.

Still, the taking of a census is apparently so inherently and obviously wrong that Joab – when he and the other army commanders are asked to count up all the battle-worthy men of Israel of Judah – protests. He asks David why he would ask for such a thing, to which David replies something to the effect of “because I said so.”

It’s interesting to note that Joab is again shown to be advising David, trying to steer him toward a better course of action, as he did when David’s plan to get rid of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11 was too hamfisted.

In the end, though, David is king and the king’s word is law, so his commanders conduct a census all through Israel and Judah, including Kadesh, Sidon, and Tyre, which “were not truly in Israel or Judah, even when under the control of David” (RSV, p.411). In all, they find 800,000 men in Israel and 500,000 in Judah, a far greater number than is at all likely.

Attack of conscience

The census in, David suddenly has the eerie feeling that he’s made a terrible mistake.

By morning, Gad the prophet arrives with news – there will be a punishment for the census, however David will be allowed to choose which he would prefer:

  1. Three years of famine;
  2. Three months of fleeing from his enemies;
  3. Or three days of plague.

As a side note, we’ve met Gad before, way back in 1 Samuel 22:5, where he warned David not to stay put. Though he is identified here as David’s seer, these are the only two mentions we get of him.

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez, 1866

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez, 1866

David chooses the third option, claiming that he would rather be in God’s hands than in the hands of a human foe. This does not, however, explain why he did not choose the first option.

The choices themselves are interesting. The first, of course, happened just a few chapters ago, in 2 Samuel 21. The second has happened twice, when David was fleeing from Saul beginning in 1 Samuel 20, and when he was fleeing from Absalom in 2 Samuel 15. That leaves the third option as the only one David hasn’t tried yet.

Seventy thousand people die of the plague, though the text reassures us that God stops his rampage before reaching Jerusalem. He does get quite close, though, stopping at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (which will apparently become the site of the future temple Solomon will build).

The phrasing seems to suggest that God decided to stop, then David begged him to stop, then he actually stopped. However, it makes more sense to take the bit about God stopping at Araunah’s threshing floor as a sort of introduction to the portion of the story that tells us how he was compelled to stop. Or perhaps the muddling of the chronology was an editor/author’s way of letting the audience know that God don’t take no instructions from nobody, by giving his decision to stop primacy in the narrative.

Seeing the mass destruction caused by the plague, David appeals to God. He is upset that God is killing so many innocent people just because he sinned. David is speaking directly to God when he calls him out. It’s a scene very reminiscent of Abraham’s appeal in Genesis 18.

Although his plea is still rather distasteful by modern standards. Rather than kill all these innocent civilians, argues David, why not kill all my innocent family members instead?

To end the plague, Gad instructs David to build an altar at Araunah’s threshing floor – implying that it is David’s action that will end the plague, and not that God had already decided to end it (or that the three days are up).

Araunah offers David the location, some animals to sacrifice, and some stuff to burn, but David refuses. He will not sacrifice what he has not paid for. Instead, he pays fifty shekels of silver for the location and animals, builds the altar, makes the sacrifice, and everyone gets to go home happy.

My study Bible notes that “fifty shekels of silver would be worth about twenty dollars” (p.412). Unfortunately, the note does not elaborate, but that seems like a very small sum to pay for so much. It seems that while David was too proud to pay nothing, paying next to nothing suited his conscience just fine. Perhaps it was an honour thing – allowing David to say that he paid for the location while also allowing Araunah to say that it was a gift.