In II Samuel 24 David fires up the bureaucracy and takes a census of the people of Israel. It’s an arduous process of over nine months having your pencil-pushers comb the land to count noses. It’s also a high crime against God’s law that leads to the climactic moment of intercession in II Samuel.
Wait, what? How is counting noses a crime against God? Well, you could glance over to Chronicles, where the parallel version of the story makes Satan the instigator of the census. There’s also the suggestive fact that only God takes a census of Israelites before this, and that His Abrahamic promise explicitly makes the Israelites “innumerable.” There’s a strong rabbinic tradition that grows out of that line of reasoning. And of course there is this very story, and the consequences that follow from the census here. Remember, the Old Testament teaches by consequences.
But say you don’t remember your rabbinic traditions as well as you should. Or, horribile scriptu, you are not up on your covenant history. What then? How can such a handicapped reader tell that David’s action is bad, bad, bad?
Joab, that’s how. When David commands the census it’s his bloodthirsty, hot-headed, solve-with-violence commander-in-chief who tries to stop him. Joab never met a problem he couldn’t solve with cunning, steely resolve, and a stab in the back. When you order Joab to murder someone, he immediately sets about improving on your proposed method because murder ain’t for amateurs. If Joab cautions you to think twice about something, you’re basically two steps from Sodom.
Consider the Deuteronomic law, specifically the laws governing the behavior of kings in Chapter 17. Along with not multiplying wives and copying out the Book of the Law as his constant rule and guide, the future kings are forbidden from allying with Egypt and acquiring their horses and chariots. The rationale behind the law is to prevent the militarization of Israel, and taking a census fits right in with that.
The royal census is not a red-tape exercise or a study in demographics. It’s not even primarily for purposes of taxation. It’s to count how many sword arms you have so you can ramp up the expansionist military protocols, build a standing army, and tax the people accordingly.
Is this totally insane? Plenty of nations do it, including Philistia and the country in which I currently live. But that’s the point. Israel isn’t supposed to be like any other nation. They are a kingdom of priests and all that. The Deuteronomic laws pertaining to kings are meant to stop Israel from becoming a military power, relying on the strength of alliances and armies instead of the fiery angels and good old fashioned miracles.
So David does a bad thing, Joab of all people tries to stop him, and then God pays a visit with a menu of Deuteronomic curses to choose from. David repents of his evil folly, but God’s still gonna cut him down—he must choose between three years of famine, three months of defeat in battle, or three days of pestilence.
- Didn’t we just finish a long famine? So that one’s out of the question. Besides, three years is a long time!
- Three months of getting knocked around by Ammonites and Syrians and whatnot? Humiliating! And all the gains of David’s great military prowess reversed? I don’t think so!
- So that just leaves three days of pestilence. It’s only three days, right? Can’t be that bad.
After 70,000 people drop dead in three days, David realizes he may have made a terrible decision. God presses pause on his angel of death and looks meaningfully at his pitiful covenant mediator. Remember when David was perfect? Man, I miss that David. He’s grown an awful lot since his epic failures, but that’s still no match for being high priest of the world. Too bad…I guess we will just have to—
I love this scene because it’s so quick and so understated and the book ends immediately after. David transcends every stupid moment he’s had over the previous book and even goes beyond the perfect David of youth. He speaks up with, for once, the Right Answer.
“Let your hand be against me, Lord, but spare these people.”
David finds the only possible solution to this situation that he has created. The curse of death should not fall on the Israelites, just like it should not fall on the seven sons of Saul, just like it should not fall on David’s first son by Bathsheba. The priestly action of intercession—the curse of death should fall on the king.
That’s the only solution to all the problems with the mystical communion of land-people-king. That system will never, ever work unless the king is able to act as a priest and take upon himself the sins of his people. By taking the curse on himself, he breaks the curse—just like Abigail in I Samuel 25, just like the people of Israel in I Samuel 14, just like Je—spoilers. That comes later!
When David takes the penalty for the census on himself, the pestilence ends. God instructs him to erect an altar at the spot to commemorate the moment. That’s the final act of the king of Israel in the books of Samuel. He intercedes for his people, builds an altar and offers sacrifice to God, and the book ends immediately.
In addition to all the cool intercessory stuff, David also shows us the first steps out of the corporate guilt mechanism. In a Girardian mode, David breaks the old way and makes it possible for a new mechanism of sin and guilt to emerge. Although I must say, I do wonder if we have made ourselves blind to the idea of corporate guilt. Mayhap a people who rely on the doctrine of Original Sin ought not be so hasty.
At any rate, the prophet Ezekiel will later make a very big deal about this in his revelation of individual, not corporate, guilt. So will Jeremiah, with kingdom of priests in which anyone can do this fancy intercession…but the only way for that to happen is for the priest to do it first and perfectly. Hello, New Law! There’s like, fulfillment and stuff going on in the Bible.
Read more Old Testament.