Monday, February 1, 2016

Why Would God Condemn a Census?

Sometimes we avoid difficult stories in the Bible, and that can be a problem. Now, it isn’t always. There are occasions when they would just be a distraction, times when people want to talk about an obscure passage because they do not want to face the straightforward truths in different places. And other times, discussing the esoteric is no more than a way to prove knowledge rather than increasing wisdom.

I don’t want to do either of those things. Still, the difficult stories remain in the Bible. If we believe, as Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 3:16, that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” then we have to be able to have honest, open discussions about them. But the goal must be to stick to the point. What is the easiest way to understand what has been said? How does it help us know God? And how can it make us better? If we stick to answering those questions, we can work through the Bible in a way that is practical and consistent with its purposes.

David’s Census

With all that in mind, I thought it might be a good idea to go over the Census of David. This is a story that appears in 2 Samuel 24 and in 1 Chronicles 21. David was a king of ancient Israel who lived about 3000 years ago, and about 1000 years before the birth of Jesus.

King David is one of the Bible’s central figures, but this particular story is not well known. In it, David orders a census of all the fighting men in Israel. After it is completed, however, God is displeased with David for conducting it. He promises to punish Israel, but gives David the option to choose one of three possible judgments. David chooses a three-day plague rather than extended periods of either famine or warfare. He chose the plague not only because it was shortest, but because it came directly from God and the Lord might perhaps relent. And though the suffering was terrible, the Lord did in fact relent and spared Israel from the worst of it.

We could ask many questions about this story. And since this is, after all, a discussion ministry, you are welcome to do so. Some possibilities come quickly to mind. Why does 2 Samuel say God caused David to call the census, when 1 Chronicles says it was Satan? Why did Joab, commander of David’s army, not include two of the Israelite tribes in the census? Why did God offer David the option to “pick his poison?” And why did God punish the people instead of David himself?

Those would all be good questions, obviously. Feel free to discuss them or ask any others. But in this article, I want to consider the biggie: Why was David wrong to hold the census?

David’s Crime

Many commentators think it was a matter of pride, and that makes a certain amount of sense. David, a warrior king, wanted to know how great an army he could call under his command. He was placing his trust in himself, rather than in God, and it led to ruin.

A very few others say that the sin was in conducting a census at all. I hate to say it, but honestly, that makes no sense. There is an entire book of the Bible, the book of Numbers, which takes its name from the fact that the Lord called for the “numbering” of the people of Israel before they entered the Promised Land. God literally commands a census there—twice (Numbers 1:2; 26:2). Nor was that a special limited circumstance. In Exodus 30:11–16, God gave Moses a set of instructions for every census that was to be performed.

In fact, I think the Exodus criteria may give us best explanation of what went wrong for David. We cannot be sure, of course. Since the Bible does not explain it outright, we are relying on conjecture. However, it seems reasonable, so I am going to make the leap.

The Census Tax

In Exodus 30, God told Moses that whenever a census was conducted, each person over 20 was to pay a tax as part of it. Everyone, regardless of rank and status, was to give a half-shekel. Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly how much that would be worth today. A shekel was a measure of weight for silver, but it is not known for certain how much silver it was. Also, we do not know what the value of silver was in ancient Israel. However, the best guesses I could find said a half-shekel was probably around five dollars. Certainly, it was not burdensome.

Which is the important point. This was not an offering, and it was not a sacrifice. The former is a gift to God, while the latter was to ask His forgiveness for sin. In either case, people were expected to give them according to their means. The census tax was different. Everyone was expected to make the same contribution.

That would make it easy to keep track, for one thing. If you wound up with $1,000,000, then it should mean you counted 200,000 people. But more than that, it was about equality. Every Israelite, no matter how rich or poor, was equally a citizen of Israel and a child of God. Requiring the same amount from everyone put this in relief. They all had the same value.

David’s Crime, Part 2

My opinion (and again, it’s just conjecture), is that David did not require payment of the census tax. It does at least make sense, since Exodus 30:12 says a plague would result if the tax were not paid. But more than that, my guess is David paid it himself. The money from the tax was meant to go to the service of God, and knowing David, it is unlikely he would try to withhold what was due to the Lord. Rather, he would have covered the cost, thinking he was doing something generous. In reality, however, he would have been making a statement of comparative worth. If he could pay for every Israelite, he was better than every Israelite, and owned every Israelite.

I could be wrong, and I readily admit it. It is just a thought. But it helps to give a reason. David was punished for pride, but not the pride most people assume. It wasn’t about the army he could command, but about how much more valuable he thought he was than anyone else. Therefore, the judgment was designed to show David who really owned the lives of his people (not that it was the sole reason for judgment, as 2 Samuel 24:1 makes clear). It is still a difficult subject, but this at least helps make some sense of it.

And as I said at the beginning, that is what we want to strive for. We have an interpretation that fits the pieces from a few different places in the Bible, but without being terribly convoluted. We get an insight into the thoughts of God and His command to be respected as the true Lord, before whom all are equal and to whom all belong. And therefore, we gain the possibility of application.

Lesson Learned

Every story of judgment in the Bible is a cautionary tale. It is like those memes going around right now. “This is David. David was the king of Israel. David conducted a census, and it resulted in a plague. Don’t be like David.” Well, ok, then. I guess I won’t count people? Maybe the United States shouldn’t hold the census every decade? Of course not. There is a missing piece, which understanding the idea of the census tax helps us to fill in. David’s sin was overestimating his own value and underestimating the value of others.

That is the lesson. That is what we need to avoid doing. All human life is equally precious to God, and all of it is accountable to Him. None of us is truly better than another. We need to remember that we are created equal. We all share the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27). And we should never do anything to degrade anyone else.

It’s really about judgment. Do people do bad things? Sure they do. We all do. And when they do, it can be helpful to point it out. But hypocritical judgment comes in when we point it out to be hurtful. Sometimes we don’t want to help someone be better. We just want to feel better about ourselves. And when we do that, we are basically saying we are worth more. That, I think, was David’s sin, and it could not be farther from the mind of God. We shouldn’t puff ourselves up at the expense of others. So yes, don’t be like David, but not because he had a census. Don’t be like him in thinking you are greater than everyone else.

This begs consideration of something else, too. According to my little interpretation here, David got in trouble because he thought he could cover the cost for everyone else. He couldn’t, but God can, and God did. That is what Christianity is all about. When Jesus died, he wiped away the debt of every person. Great or small, rich or poor, no matter what we have done, we are all equally far from God, and none of us has enough to make it back to Him. But Jesus paid the price so we could come near, so we can know we belong. He was the complete opposite of David in this case. He knew exactly what He had, but He gave it all away so everyone who believes in Him can share in His life. That’s love. That’s what we need, and what we should strive to reflect once we have it.

So what do you think? Do you get the same thing out of this story of David, or is there another lesson to be learned here? Because there is a lesson to be learned, I can guarantee that much. God does not say anything without a purpose. We just have to listen carefully.  

Thanks for checking out the Quest Forums blog! If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me here, on Twitter (@Quest_Forums), or on Facebook (“Quest Forums”). Links are in the sidebar. I am always looking for new questions and comments, so submit yours on any of these sites or by emailing And please, spread the word! The share buttons below are a great way to do that. I want to connect with as many people as possible, so if you know anyone with questions about the Bible, send them my way.

No comments:

Post a Comment