And what's wrong with taking a census anyway?
I don't believe we are told anywhere that taking a census is wrong. In fact, the Midrash to Numbers 1:1 speaks of 10 censuses of the Jewish people:
- When they went down to Egypt (Ex. 12:7);
- When they left Egypt (Ex. 32:28);
- At the beginning of the Book of Numbers (Num. 1:1);
- After the report of the spies;
- Once in the days of Joshua when the Land was divided;
- Twice in the days of Saul's kingdom (1 Sam. 15:4; 1 Sam. 11:8);
- Once by David (2 Sam. 24:9);
- In the days of Ezra (Ezra 2:64); and
- There will be one in the Days to Come (see Jer. 33:13; Tanchuma, Ki Sisa 9).
In Exodus 30, God makes certain commands concerning them:
12 “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. 13 Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord. ESV
And likewise in Numbers 1:
49 “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel. 50 But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle. 51 When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death. 52 The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, each man in his own camp and each man by his own standard. 53 But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” ESV
Jewish commentators, such as the Me'am Lo'ez comment that by counting heads rather than coins, David risked bringing the evil eye upon the people who were counted.
How can we make sense out of this?
The idea that Satan is an independent agent (independent of God that is) is related to the ideas of Dualism and is not well supported in Biblical Texts, and especially alien to the Hebrew Bible.
Satan's incitement of David is one and the same as God's incitement because Satan is under God's complete control and is therefore in a sense an agent of God (albeit an agent of disaster, destruction and judgement rather than directly an agent of grace). A similar logic is found in Job 2 after God has permitted Satan to afflict Job, He takes direct responsibility himself:
3 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” ESV
According to Jewish commentators such as the Me'am Lo'ez, David has sinned sufficiently enough at that point that God gave permission to the Satan to tempt David to conduct an illegal census. Not all Jewish sources agree that God directly or indirectly led David to sin by the census, but rather attribute David's act to his own inclinations to do what is evil in God's eyes. The Ralbag, in his commentary to the verse, refuses to accept the possibility that God moved David to sin, because, among other reasons, this would negate the justification for punishing David for the sin, and so he raises two possibilities to explain the language of the verse. Either this is a general statement that God rules the entire world, and so whatever happens in this world conforms with His will, or else the verse is defective, and it means: "And [David's heart] moved David," so that God was not at all involved in the sin.