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In 1 Chronicles 21,1-2, David is tempted by Satan to number Israel:

And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel. And David said to Joab and to the rulers of the people, Go, number Israel from Beersheba even to Dan; and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it.

Just numbering people seems not (to me!) such a guilty operation. This episode seems more like a literature trick to assign a fault to David, maybe starting from a real fact (census).

Why a numbering was chosen (that is a plane, pacific event) to create a guilt, and not something more striking, like a battle or a war?

Is there a meaning in Satan's request to number Israel?

Could it be just highlighted by today's translations, just to recall Luke 2:1-3

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

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NOTE: The same story is told in 2nd Samuel 24 (it's nearly identical, but I figure I'd mention it anyway).

Taking the census is David ceasing to trust in God's ability to protect him and Israel, and instead trusting his own and Israel's own natural might.

I don't think it's about pride, but about security. More importantly, it is about security apart from God as protector. This is one of the Nation of Israel's reoccurring sins: fearing man, they look to their own strength or foreign nations for security, whether it be Assyria, Babylon, or Egypt - their favorite alternative to trusting God.

That's why it's sin; it's David trusting in chariots and horses for Israel's security instead of God (failing Psalm 20, one of David's psalms). It's not vanity or pride, but fear and lack of trust. We are to fear God, not man. If fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, surely fear of man is (one of) the beginning of foolishness! =P

To an extent, it's analogous to Saul's sin, when Samuel was slow to arrive. Saul said he was 'afraid of the people' and so violated God's commands - Saul was afraid of his own people, David, after being secure from internal threats, was afraid of foreign armies.

Indeed, this was not the first time David was afraid and looked to foreign help for protection! Before becoming king, David was protected by God as he hid within Israel from Saul and his mercenaries dedicated to hunting him. But after one to many close calls, David said to himself,

1 Samuel 27:1

Now I will perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than to safely escape into the land of the Philistines.

So David makes an alliance with the Philistines, with the son of the king of Gath (though deceives him by pretending to kill Israelites when he's really killing Amalekites). David looks to foreign king for his protection, and uses lies to protect himself.

It is not unreasonable to think that when fear filled David from foreign invaders, he was once again looking for protection outside of God in a moment of weakness, and wanted Israel's fighting men numbered. Note, when Joab gives the report, it's clear he's numbering military aged males: "And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000."

While we don't know precisely when in David's life Psalm 25 was written, I read it as David trying to correct in his own heart his stumbling here in numbering the fighting men. Him fearing "my enemies, for they are many, and they hate me with cruel hatred. [...] Redeem Israel, O God, Out of all their troubles!, but now asking God to forgive him his transgressions and sins, and protect Israel, and that those who trust and fear God are given guidance.

Exodus 30:11 specifically gives a rule for when numbering the fighting age males: each person is to pay a ransom to God for their own life, to acknowledge God holds their life in their hands. The ransom is equal between rich and poor: the poor can't say they are worth less to God, and the rich can't say they are valued higher than others. If Israel does not pre-emptively pay the ransom for their lives, God will send a plague, according Exodus 30:11.

My speculation is that if Israel fails to acknowledge God holds their life (individually, and as a nation) in His hands, and boldly think their own military might provides for their security, God send a plague to specifically cut their population (and thus military strength) down.

When David sins by numbering the fighting men, God gives David three choices of punishment instead of the default of plague: "Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' pestilence in your land?"

Three years of famine would make all the peoples (including fighting age males) weaker and ill in health, and stunt their physical growth, and make the nation dependent on foreign food supplies. (Oh, you fear Egypt? How about I make you depend on Egypt for your food)

Three months of fleeing from his enemies: fleeing from his enemies is exactly what David was fearing that made him number the men in the first place.

Three days of plague: cutting the population down. If you count on your horses and soldiers, let's just take them away.

"Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” David's response is to reiterate the fear that brought him into this mess, but this time bringing his fear to God instead of trusting in his own might to bring deliverance.

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The key to answering this question is found in 1 Chron 21:3 (= 2 Sam 24:3) -

But Joab replied, “May the LORD multiply His troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all servants of my lord? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?”

That is, David wanted to number the army purely for reasons of vanity - he wanted to be able to boast that he had the largest army in the world at the time (1.3 million according to 2 Sam 24:9 or 1.1 million according to 1 Chron 24:5 - big even by today's standards!)

That is, David had not learned the lesson (or failed to remember) that others already had learned, that Israel's victories were the result of Israel's faithfulness and God's power and NOT the size of the army!

  • This point was driven home to Gideon (Judges 7).
  • It should have been a lesson learned (or remembered!) by David himself during his encounter with Goliath (1 Sam 17)
  • Jehoshaphat was also reminded of this when he faced a huge army of Moabites and Ammonites. The Prophet told Jehoshaphat:

2 Chron 20:15, 17 - And he said, “Listen, all you people of Judah and Jerusalem! Listen, King Jehoshaphat! This is what the LORD says: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army, for the battle does not belong to you, but to God. ... You need not fight this battle. Take up your positions, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid or discouraged. Go out and face them tomorrow, for the LORD is with you.’ ”

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  • I'd argue David had forgotten the lesson, rather than failed to learn it, but that's a small nit to pick. Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 21:59
  • @JoelCoehoorn - I would agree. I will update the answer accordingly.
    – Dottard
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 22:20
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"When you tke the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord when you number them" Exodus ch30 v11

I suggest that David's operation neglected to collect any "ransom for the Lord", and that this is where the sin lay. The Exodus command warns of the danger of plague, and this is the penalty suffered by David's people.

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  • interesting hypothesis... thanks for providing it Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 18:57
  • @DanFefferman: Old hypothesis. I found it in an old commentary long ago. Now I don't have to write an answer because he did.
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 23:15
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Taking a census was not a sin in itself, but in the Chronicles account, it was against God's will. The question is complicated by the fact that the account of 2 Samuel sees the census as being conducted at God's command, not Satan's provocation. In any case, God sometimes did command that a census be taken.

Numbers 1:9

As the Lord commanded Moses, so he numbered them in the Wilderness of Sinai. [detailed list intervenes]... 46 even all those who were numbered were six hundred and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.

Should we then presume that Joab's advice to David was prophetic, in the sense that God did not order the census, and David was showing a lack of faith in God's power to bring victory to the army? The question is not easy to answer in the light of how the same episode is dealt with in the Book of Samuel. While Chronicles says it was Satan who prompted David to conduct the census, 2 Sam 24:1 says

The Lord’s anger against Israel flared again, and he incited David against them: “Go, take a census of Israel and Judah.”

Not only is Satan not mentioned, but God directly commands David to conduct the census. Also, the objection of Joab is much shorter here, simply asking David why the census is needed rather than trying to convince David that is not God's will. After all, the narrator has just informed us that God ordered David to take the census.

Joab replied to the king: “May the Lord your God increase the number of people a hundredfold for my lord the king to see it with his own eyes. But why does it please my lord to do a thing of this kind?” 4 However, the king’s command prevailed over Joab.

Conclusion: In Chronicles, taking the census was a sin inspired by Satan. In 2 Samuel it was not a sin. Instead David was responding to God's command. In this account, the sin lies in the background, apparently having to do with God's relationship with Israel; but David simply did as God instructed.

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