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According to 2 Samuel 24:1 (NRSV)

Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go, count the people of Israel and Judah."

But according to 1 Chronicles 21:1 (NRSV)

Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.

How can we make sense out of this? And what's wrong with taking a census anyway?

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It is interesting that Joab (not an exemplary moral individual) disagreed with David (2Sa 24:2) about doing this, as if he believed it was morally wrong. –  mojo Feb 2 at 4:31

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

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:

  1. When they went down to Egypt (Ex. 12:7);
  2. When they left Egypt (Ex. 32:28);
  3. At the beginning of the Book of Numbers (Num. 1:1);
  4. After the report of the spies;
  5. Once in the days of Joshua when the Land was divided;
  6. Twice in the days of Saul's kingdom (1 Sam. 15:4; 1 Sam. 11:8);
  7. Once by David (2 Sam. 24:9);
  8. In the days of Ezra (Ezra 2:64); and
  9. 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:

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.

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In ancient times, a census was often used to tax the population or prepare for war. (I recently read that in Elizabethan England many parishes neglected the order to collect birth, marriage and death records as there was a legitimate fear the crown would use the information to levy taxes.) So David might have had selfish reasons for taking a census that conflicted with God's plans. –  Jon Ericson Mar 11 '12 at 5:28
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In addition to taxation, I've also heard that censuses were used as a means of displaying military might. Whatever it was, it didn't make sense even to someone as bellicose as Joab: 3 But Joab replied to the king, "May the LORD your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?" –  swasheck May 21 '12 at 21:32
    
This answer would be better with some references to Jewish sources, which are plentiful. –  Bruce James Feb 9 at 2:21
    
@Bruce thanks, any in particulr you'd like to point me at (or edit in)? –  Jack Douglas Feb 10 at 7:23
    
@JackDouglas See my answer for the Jewish sources. –  Bruce James Feb 10 at 15:50

Jack Douglas already does a good job of handling the possibility of concurrent causes, so I won't repeat his ideas on the first question. However, I think more can be said in answer to your second question.

What's wrong with taking a census?

We see in 1 Chronicles 21:3 that what's wrong is not a matter of procedure. The act of taking a census is one that Joab considers evil even before execution: "May the Lord multiply his troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all my lord's subjects? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?" Joab is not reminding David, "This is all well and good, but don't forget to collect the half-shekel." Rather he is attempting to dissuade the king from the enterprise at all.

The reason the census is wrong is because it is rooted in unbelief.

In Deuteronomy 7 God had promised that He would drive out the nations in the land. He even explains that the nations are bigger and stronger, but that they should not fear them and instead remember what God had done to Egypt. To believe in this promise is to say with the psalmist (ironically David), "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God." If God has already promised to drive out the armies, Joab's question is natural: "Why does my lord want to do this?"

Even more pertinent, though, is the text later in 1 Chronicles 27:23-24. The narrator explains: "David did not take the number of the men twenty years old or less, because the Lord had promised to make Israel as numerous as the stars in the sky. Joab son of Zeruiah began to count the men but did not finish. Wrath came on Israel on account of this numbering, and the number was not entered in the book of the annals of King David." In other words, to undertake such a counting was to show unbelief towards the covenant that God had established with Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.

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+1 very helpful cross references, thanks –  Jack Douglas May 21 '12 at 21:45

Wiersbe makes an important point that:

When he confesses his sins of adultery and murder, David said, "I have sinned"; but when he confessed his sin of numbering the people, he said, "I have sinned greatly" (italics mine).1

But a balanced explanation makes sure to note that neither version of the episode (2 Samuel 24, or 1 Chronicles 21) actually tells us what the sin was. Three possible explanations are offered by the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible:

At least two major factors complicate the reader's understanding of this incident. The first is the lack of any explanation of the nature of David's sin. Taking a census was not new and neither was it inherently wrong (cf. Num 1:2-3, 45-46; 26:2-4). However, these texts clearly indicate that David's action was sinful. The following are possible reasons: (1) David failed to collect the monetary offering required of each person counted (Exod 30:11-16). To do so would seem to be direct disobedience. However, the writer in Numbers mentions no offering in connection with a census, and the implication is that none was taken. (2) David was acting in simple pride. He wanted to gloat about the great numbers he had at his disposal. However JOAB's response seems to indicate a more serious problem. (3) David was depending more upon himself than upon the Lord for direction and protection. For example, the census could have been a first step in organizing a military draft. It certainly had a military flavor. Such an act would, in turn, imply that David had personal ambitions to expand his kingdom and a tendency to feel falsely secure because of his great numbers of potential soldiers. The punishment that followed seems to confirm the legitimacy of this last explanation. Since David was tempted to overstep his bounds because of a potential great army, its ranks were diminished significantly (cf. Gideon's experience in Judg 7).2

The census as military preparation seems the most on track:

  • David sends 'Joab, the commander of the army' and other 'commanders of the army' to take the census (2 Samuel 24.2,4; 1 Chronicles 21.2)
  • When they return with the tally of their census, they report the number of 'men who drew the sword' (2 Samuel 24.9; 1 Chronicles 21.5)
  • One of the three possible punishments David must choose is to 'flee three months before your foes while they pursue you' (2 Samuel 24.13), or alternately 'three months of devastation by your foes while the sword of your enemies overtakes you' (1 Chronicles 21.12), which is the one punishment David specifically requests not to happen: 'let me not fall into the hand of man' (2 Samuel 24.14; 1 Chronicles 21.13)

I would suggest David's actions were antithetical to the type of thought we find represented in Deuteronomy 20.1-4: Israel was to trust in God, not large numbers. David's decision to assess just how many 'men who drew the sword' throughout Israel may have been seen by other Israelites as a failure to trust in God.


1 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: The Complete Old Testament in One Volume, p.603

2 Editors Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, p.140

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Sorry to come in late here, but I don't see the ancient Jewish sources cited in any of the answers. There are two issues here: (1) who instigated David to conduct a census and (2) was the sin that David had a census taken, or the way he had it done?

First, let's look at the verse in 2 Samuel 24. Translations differ on a key point -- who was it that inticed David to conduct a census. Some translations capitalize the word "He" when refering to the instigator. JPS and Art Scroll (from the Art Scroll Tanach) for example capitalize the word (although Art Scroll does so with a footnote noting that this is an issue, and another version based on the Me'am Lo'ez commentary (Moznaim Publishing Corp. Jerusalem/New York) makes it a lower-case "he". Art Scroll notes that Onkelos -- the first century rabbi who translated the Torah into Aramaic -- translates the verse as "A satan [referring either to an unnamed "adversary" -- based on the indefinite article -- or an evil impulse (per the Rabbi David Kimchi, aka the Radak)] enticed David to count Israel." Based on the commentary of the Ralbag, Art Scroll explains that counting the population is sinful because it is likely to be motivated by a vain desire to assess a country's potency and a belief that strength is in numbers rather than in faith in G-d.

The Me'am Lo'ez makes this point as well. The Me'am Lo'ez also brings down the point of view that the "he" did, actually refer to the Satan, which in Jewish theology is not an all-powerful symbol of evil, but rather the angel of G-d who provokes our evil inclination, and then acts as prosecutor against us before the Heavenly Court. However, before the Satan can provoke, he must have permission from G-d (see, generally, the Book of Job). In this case, Art Scroll and Me'am Lo'ez agree, though that it was not G-d that asked for the counting; Me'am Lo'ez suggests that because of David's sins, G-d gave permission to the Satan to instigate the sin with regard to the Census as a test.

But the major issue here is not that David wanted to do a census -- there is much precedent for conducting a census, however the Torah, at Exodus 30:12-15, explicitly states that a king can never count heads, but rather he should require ever person to give a half-shekel and then count the coins. By doing so, Me'am Lo'ez points out, the people avoid affliction because "anyone counted is subject to an evil eye and thus susceptible to plague, as happened here."

The first clause of 24:1, though does not refer to David's sin with respect to the census taking, but refers to Israel's sin. What was that? One major reason mentioned by several sources is that Israel was not anxious to build a Temple at that point in time. While it is true that King David was not fit to build it himself, the Israelites could have, and should have, expressed a desire to build it themselves. The Midrash to this verse says that G-d informed David of this, that 70,000 people died because the people had shown no desire to build a permanent Temple. Me'am Lo'ez cites other possible reasons, including Israel's silence to the matter between David and Batsheva and the death of Uriah at David's instigation. He writes that "[t]his explains the connections between this chapter and the close of the previous one; the last of David's warriors named there is none other than Uriah the Chittite." Another possible reason for Israel's punishment, cited by the commentator, is the support given to the rebellion of Sheva the son of Birchi in Chapter 20, and the support for Absalom's rebellion, noting the verse in Joshua 1:18 "anyone who rebels against you...shall die."

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