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In 2 Samuel 24:1 (NET), it states that God "incited" David to take a census:

The Lord’s anger again raged against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go count Israel and Judah.”

The story goes on to state in 24:10 that

David felt guilty after he had numbered the army. David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly by doing this! Now, O Lord, please remove the guilt of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.”

As a punishment, the text states in 24:15

...the Lord sent a plague through Israel from the morning until the completion of the appointed time. Seventy thousand men died from Dan to Beer Sheba.

The story ends in verse 17, with David saying to the Lord

“Look, it is I who have sinned and done this evil thing! As for these sheep—what have they done? Attack me and my family.”

So, why did God destroy 70,000 Israelites instead of David's family when David conducted the census? As David himself says, it was David who sinned not the Israelites, so why were they punished?

(Editor's note: There is another account in 1 Chronicles 21:1)

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    There is a related question "Who incited David to take a census and what's wrong with taking a census anyway?" which explains why the census was sinful, but not why Israel was punished for David's sin. – James Shewey Aug 31 '16 at 0:11
  • Hello collen and thank you for your well formed question. Unfortunately it is a duplicate so I have voted with James to close this. – user10231 Sep 2 '16 at 9:52
  • Actually, I'm in favor of leaving this open because the other question "explains why the census was sinful, but not why Israel was punished for David's sin." so this seemed like a different question - though it might not first appear as such. – James Shewey Sep 17 '16 at 3:43
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There are two reasons for this.

First, the census was not conducted in accordance with the Law, which called for a "ransom" to be paid by each person enrolled.

Exodus 30:11–16 (Masoretic Text - JPS Tanakh)

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to the LORD. Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the LORD‘s offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the LORD‘s offering as expiation for your persons. You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before the LORD, as expiation for your persons.

Furthermore, the people of Israel do share responsibility, since it was they who insisted on having a king installed over them in the first place, even though the Lord warned them through Samuel that it would bring misfortune upon them (1 Samuel 8:6-19).

Gregory the Great wrote on how rulers behavior often reflect the hearts of the rules, commenting in the context of this census:

The characters, then, of rulers are so assigned according to the merits of their subjects, that frequently they who seem to be good are soon changed by the acceptance of power. As holy Scripture observed of the same Saul that he changed his heart with his dignity. Whence it is written, When you were little in your own eyes, I made you the head of the tribes of Israel”[1 Samuel 15:17]. The conduct of rulers is so ordered with reference to the characters of their subjects that frequently the conduct of even a truly good shepherd becomes sinful as a result of the wickedness of his flock. For that prophet David, who had been praised by the witness of God himself, who had been made acquainted with heavenly mysteries, being puffed up by the swelling of sudden pride, sinned in numbering the people. And yet, though David sinned, the people endured the punishment. Why was this? Because in truth the hearts of rulers are disposed according to the merits of their people. But the righteous judge reproved the fault of the sinner by the punishment of those very persons on whose account he sinned. But because he was not exempt from guilt, as displaying pride of his own free will, he himself endured also the punishment of his sin. For that furious wrath which struck the people in their bodies prostrated the ruler of the people by the pain of his inmost heart. But it is certain that the merits of rulers and people are so mutually connected that frequently the conduct of the people is made worse from the fault of their pastors and the conduct of pastors is changed according to the merits of their people.

Morals on the Book of Job XXV.16

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