Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

David's Sin: Counting the People

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

David's Sin: Counting the People

Article excerpt

The Book of Samuel records a curious episode: The anger of the Lord flared up against Israel and He incited David against them, saying: "Go and number Israel and Judah? (II Sam. 24:1). David then made a very reluctant Joab, his army commander, responsible for counting the people so that I may know the size of the population (24:2). It is not certain what caused the Lord's anger. However, the theological difficulty of God inciting David to sin is toned down in the Book of Chronicles: Satan arose against David and incited David to number Israel (I Chron. 21:1).

At any rate, this census was regarded as a grievous sin on David's part, leading to the death of 70,000 people by pestilence. Commentators are divided as to the exact nature of David's offense. Some say it was because the counting was done without using the half-shekel (Radak, Abarbanel). Others accuse David of pride (see Ramban on Numbers 1:3). Others again blame him for putting his trust in numbers rather than in God (Ralbag). Yet Saul took a census of the population on two occasions (I Sam. 11:8; 15:4) and none of the people were affected.

I propose an alternative explanation. In II Samuel it is stated: David reigned over all Israel, and David executed true justice among all his people (II Sam. 8:15). This is followed by an enumeration of all his key administrators: the chief of staff, recorders, priests, scribe, etc. Chapter 20 goes on to record the later years of David's reign. An ominous, unconsidered name is added here to the list of his chief advisors: Adoram was in charge of forced labor (II Sam. 20:24). It should be noted that the same chapter records an insurrection and names its leader: 'We have no portion in David, no share in Jesse's son!' ... All the men of Israel left David and followed Sheba son of Bichri (II Sam. 20:1-2). This second rebellion against David (the first was led by his son Absalom) points to the king's waning popularity. The appointment of Adoram may have been one reason for the growing disaffection. …

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