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Pissing Off God

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Bible Conflict: King David’s Census

By James Donahue

Among the strange stories emerging from the Old Testament books is that of King David’s order to Joab, the commander of his army, to count the heads of all of the fighting men in the land.

Now census counting is common in contemporary nations throughout the world. It is a way for the leaders of nations to learn how many people live in various areas and to record other vital information that helps in leadership decisions. It is a major part of the election process in the United States. But in Israel and Judah at the time of David’s reign, there apparently was a prohibition against counting heads and it appears to have had both holy and possibly financial reasons.

Under the laws explained in the earlier Old Testament books of law the Hebrew people were told that a man only had the right to count the number of people, animals or things that belonged to him. Since Israel belonged to God, counting the heads of the people, even by the king, therefore was a sin.

In Exodus 30:12, there was one way in which a census could be taken by the king. The verse reads: "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 may be no plague among them when you number them." In other words, a census could only be done at God’s command and ransom money had to be paid by the people to "atone" (or perhaps pay) for the counting.

So here is where the conflict within the story is found. In 2 Samuel 24:1 we read: "Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’

In 1 Chronicles 21:1, the same story is told slightly differently. It reads: "And Satan stood up against Israel and provoked David to number Israel."

So who provoked the census, was it God or Satan? Bible scholars have been scratching their heads over this scriptural problem for centuries. Some have attempted to explain it away by suggesting that after Satan moved David to order the census, God got involved and allowed it to happen as a chastisement against David.

As it turned out, David later repented and as punishment, the loving God in the sky brought a plague on the people that killed 70,000 in three days. David was allowed personal repentance by building an altar and making a burnt offering.

David built his altar on a threshing floor owned by Araunah, located at the top of a nearby mountain. Araunah offered a gift of the property to his king, but David insisted on paying for the site.

He said in verses 22-24: "I will surely buy it from you for a price; nor will I offer burnt offerings to the LORD by God with that which costs me nothing." He was implying that a sacrifice that cost him nothing was not a true sacrifice.

Scholars use this as a lesson in giving for believers. What is blatantly overlooked, here, is that David as king of Israel was given everything he needed from his subjects. Thus the money he paid for the property was paid for by taxes paid to him by the people.

We also have a problem wondering how David’s "atonement" covered the three-day slaughter of 70,000 people allegedly caused by his rebellious decision to count their heads in a national census.