Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, ‘Go, number Israel, from Beer-sheba to Dan, and bring me a report, so that I may know their number.’ But Joab said, ‘May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundredfold! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?’ But the king’s word prevailed against Joab. So Joab departed and went throughout all Israel, and came back to Jerusalem. Joab gave the total count of the people to David. In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and in Judah four hundred and seventy thousand who drew the sword. But he did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab.
But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel. 8 David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.’ The Lord spoke to Gad, David’s seer, saying, ‘Go and say to David, “Thus says the Lord: Three things I offer you; choose one of them, so that I may do it to you.”’ So Gad came to David and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Take your choice: either three years of famine; or three months of devastation by your foes, while the sword of your enemies overtakes you; or three days of the sword of the Lord, pestilence on the land, and the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.” Now decide what answer I shall return to the one who sent me.’ Then David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress; let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but let me not fall into human hands.’
So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel; and seventy thousand persons fell in Israel. And God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it; but when he was about to destroy it, the Lord took note and relented concerning the calamity; he said to the destroying angel, ‘Enough! Stay your hand.’ The angel of the Lord was then standing by the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite. David looked up and saw the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell on their faces. And David said to God, ‘Was it not I who gave the command to count the people? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father’s house; but do not let your people be plagued!’…
…At that time, when David saw that the Lord had answered him at the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite, he made his sacrifices there. For the tabernacle of the Lord, which Moses had made in the wilderness, and the altar of burnt-offering were at that time in the high place at Gibeon; but David could not go before it to inquire of God, for he was afraid of the sword of the angel of the Lord. 1 Then David said, ‘Here shall be the house of the Lord God and here the altar of burnt-offering for Israel.’
Today’s passage parallels the account of the census taken by David and its consequences in 2 Samuel 24; but there are significant differences. In Samuel God, in anger against Israel, incites David to count the number in his army; whereas the Chronicler transfers this incitement to Satan (cf. Job 2:1-7; Zech.3:1f). The Chronicler reports briefly Joab’s conduct of it and gives the results – which differ in Samuel – and indicates that the numbers in Levi and Benjamin were omitted (v.6). The second section of our reading is only in Chronicles.
The Chronicler is rewriting material in Samuel/Kings after exile, when Israel as an independent nation and its monarchy no longer existed. In this new era the rebuilt Jerusalem Temple and its priestly system is central to Israel’s identity and the locus for God’s ‘name’. The divine will is made known and enacted through heavenly beings (‘angels’).
God’s promises to David of an unending dynasty of kings are recast in terms of a line of high priests mediating the covenant between God and people; and David is re-presented in a priestly guise as the instigator of this whole structure.
In our reading David’s realisation that the census was sinful, and his personal guilt, is given additional emphasis (vv.3, 16) and he explicitly intercedes on behalf of God’s people (v.17), a priestly function. Because the tabernacle resides at Gibeon (Benjamin) and David fears to approach it (vv.29f), he purchases a Jebusite site (i.e. Jerusalem) where he builds an altar, offers sacrifices and calls on God to end the plague. In 22:1 the Chronicler states that David decreed this precise location as the site for the high altar in the temple (to be built by Solomon).
Scripture offers more than one perspective on David to enrich our faith. We can learn from both.
Living God, we thank you for your word to us in scripture. Forgive us when we fail to take seriously differing perspectives and reject one in favour of another that fits more easily with our preconceived ideas. Help us to let go of anachronistic understandings of your promises of old; and to reinterpret them in ways that can inspire your people today and bring new life to your church. Amen.
The Revd Dr Janet E Tollington A retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge