David’s Census (Or How I Learned to Read the Bible as One Book)

When the Chronicler retells the story of David’s kingdom, he “conveniently” leaves out the story of Bathsheba and Uriah. Is this because the Chronicler wants to show a more sanitized version of David’s story? One where he is shown as a hero? No, because the Chronicler finds an even worse transgression: the census.

When we read the Bible piecemeal, we miss a lot. Seems like a basic statement, but the ramifications are profound. When we think about reading a book, we hardly think that it is appropriate to open the book in the middle and start reading on page 729. But we do this with the Bible every time we open it up, don’t we? We like to start in Matthew, and maybe we’ll check back at the beginning for some of the juicier stories from earlier. We don’t do this for context, but maybe for entertainment.

Unfortunately, the Bible isn’t written this way. The Bible is written for people who have knowledge of it from front to back. Knowing what happens in the front informs our knowledge of the latter portions. Those who read the Bible in the middle expecting to understand it completely are left frustrated, pushing them, remarkably, to later chapters rather than earlier ones.

One such example is the sin of David in I Chronicles 21. It seems innocent enough: David is incensed to take a census. The only indication that this may be trouble is that satan is the one who compels him to do so. It turns out that this census is so bad that God is furious at David, and threatens to wipe out Israel because of it. David is given a heartbreaking choice: which plague do I send to Israel because of this sin? The angel of death stands at the threshold of Jerusalem, waiting for the chance to take his sword out.

Why is this such a problem? It is not necessarily that Satan incited it. We know from the Books of Kings that God also had a hand in raising David’s heart to doing this deed. Unfortunately for us, the Bible does not always restate its moral principles; it already assumes that we know them. You would not expect an expert in trigonometry to reteach early principles on algebra in a lecture about proofs of derivatives in trigonometric functions. Addition is assumed in the content of the lecture. In the same way, the Bible expects that we think the thoughts of Torah, knowing its principles before we assess the world at large.

Exodus 30 lists out principles for enumerating a list of soldiers.

12 “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them.

16 You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for your lives.”

A few points to notice, here:
The half-shekel is given as a ransom for his life to Yahweh. This is done explicitly that there would be no plagues amongst Israelites. Ransom, or atonement, is given before war for the soldiers because killing on the battlefield is inevitable. But, blood demands blood and life demands life. Those who take life must lose theirs. Israel’s life is spared in war because they give the atonement shekel. David required no such payment: he neither asked for this payment himself nor did he ask Joab to collect it. Because of this, atonement for this sin, a plague, came after the census.

Secondly, this atonement shekel was taken from the Israelite soldiers as the means by which they would be brought to remembrance before Yahweh. Being brought to the remembrance of the Lord was a two-way street: Yahweh would remember his covenant with them, and they would remember their covenant with Yahweh. By not taking the payment, David caused his people to forget Yahweh. In a way, he became the head of the army over Yahweh. This is an usurpation of God’s bride, Israel. The Jealous God who does not share his glory would never stand for such an affront on his glory.

Atoning sacrifice is made at the end of the chapter, thanks to God’s compassion. Rather than wasting Israel with the sword, Yahweh has compassion; this compassion, in turns, allows for atoning sacrifice.

Knowing Torah helps us interpret the history of Israel even more concisely. We have fewer questions because we exist in their thought world. And, in understanding and judging Israel’s history rightly, we are closer to understanding the gospel of Christ more fully.

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