David’s Census and the Plague
The biblical account of David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 is (for some) among the most enigmatic portions of the Bible. One of the first questions that arises when reading the text is who “moved” David to number Israel. Second Samuel 24:1 says that the Lord did, while 1 Chronicles 21:1 says Satan did. We have dealt with this idea in a previous article and shown that there is no contradiction between these verses (Lyons, 2003).
Another alleged problem that the skeptic is quick to point out is the “injustice” of God’s punishment for David’s sin. Because of David’s census, the Bible says: “So the Lord sent a plague upon Israel from the morning till the appointed time. From Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men of the people died” (2 Samuel 24:15). The skeptic accuses God of punishing the wrong people. If David sinned, why did the plague kill the people? In his Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, Steve Wells wrote: “Even David can see the injustice of God’s punishment” (2001). Wells further commented that those killed during the plague were “innocent,” implying that they had done nothing wrong in the affair.
Upon closer inspection of the biblical text, however, we see that Wells’ accusation of injustice on God’s part is inaccurate. Second Samuel 24:1 says that “the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel” (emp. added). Apparently, the nation of Israel had so sinned that they had angered God. Yet, even though God was angry, the Israelites could have manifested their obedience to God’s commands during the census. God gave Moses instructions hundreds of years earlier concerning any census taken among the Israelites. He said: “When you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord, when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. This is what everyone among those who are numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary...” (Exodus 30:12-13, emp. added).
In the accounts of David’s census, there is no indication that the people gave the ransom of half a shekel in order to avoid being plagued. The plaguing of the Israelites is exactly what one would have expected, knowing what God said in Exodus 30:12-13. The Israelites should have known these verses and they should have complied with them. The feeling that one gets from reading the accounts of David’s census is that the command to pay half a shekel ransom had been completely forgotten and neglected during the intervening years between Moses and David. The people died for their disobedience to God’s command. A similar event occurred when, under David’s leadership, the Israelites did not carry the Ark of the Covenant correctly, bringing about the death of Uzzah. Concerning that episode, David himself stated: “[T]he Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not consult Him about the proper order” (1 Chronicles 15:13, emp. added). Neither did the Israelites consult God’s Word about the “proper order” concerning the census.
God, through Moses, gave the Israelites instructions concerning a census. He also warned them that a plague would ensue if they neglected to follow these instructions. Hundreds of years after His warning, the Israelites were counted, with no indication that they offered half a shekel ransom to avoid being plagued. A plague ravaged the people, exactly as God had warned. Simple obedience to God’s instructions could have prevented the plague. It is the sad truth that God’s people are often “destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). King David once profoundly stated the solution when he said concerning God’s word: “Your word I have hidden in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).
Lyons, Eric (2003), “Who Incited David to Number Israel?” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/604.
Wells, Steve (2001), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, [On-line], URL: http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/1cor/index.html.