The Sin of Census

Ref: 2 Samuel 24 — This came up in a Bible study today and a great many people fail to understand the full context.

Recall that the Covenant of Moses was inherently tribal and feudal. God says that no one has any business poking around in your life who isn’t related by blood or covenant. A government that attempts to centralize certain things is evil. Normally David would have simply polled the chiefs of the Twelve Tribes for a mobilization count. It would be an estimate and David would accept their answer, and hold them to it if he needed to mobilize for war. Keep in mind that most smaller battles were fought with trained troops, but a full mobilization conscripts massive numbers of peasants who were far less trained. The trained professional warriors would command large formations in battle.

For David to take this kind of census violates the feudal trust of the tribal elders. It infringes on their rights, rights that everyone knew about and presumed you would know, so it wasn’t specifically recorded in the Bible. There was a second sin: A census typically meant a tax. Instead of taxing the nation through the elders, it was a direct tax on every individual man of military age. A great many were poor peasants who had no means to pay such a tax without serious hardship. It was typically a shekel, about two days’ wages. That was a huge amount for a peasant. Many of them went into debt to pay this.

So it was intrusive and stepped on the rights of the elders, and it was a painfully oppressive tax. It was a huge pain in the butt for everyone, not least the men assigned to take the census (which took nearly ten months), taking the whole nation away from more important work. David’s sin in choosing this caused the hedge of God’s protection to be removed from the nation. It was unilateral on David’s part; the people had no choice in the matter.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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8 Responses to The Sin of Census

  1. Iain says:

    Every time I’ve read this passage of scripture I couldn’t quite understand why God got so bent out of shape over a census so it went into the “find out when I get there” stack of questions. With a census as part of our Constitution and the tradition going back far into our western roots, it seemed to be a puzzlingly harsh condemnation on David. Thank you for bringing into an understandable context, now it makes perfect sense. Also, it throws a bright light on what I call the “Culture gap” between WC and ANE. A gap that has to be addressed if one is to understand radix fidem.


  2. Mr. T. says:

    This is one of those questions with I’m still struggling a little with because the punishments seemed a bit arbitrary and hard to understand. You (or at least I) can’t easily learn that much from them – except that you shouldn’t do certain things as a ruler, God can do and decide (anything?) and people will suffer as a consequence, possibly (?) randomly.

    You could fear that you make an error in judgment/leadership and suddenly you family/relatives/church gets a cancer epidemic or something like that. Hard to know if anything like this happens anymore in modern settings.

    Difficult things to put in perspective after the New Testament which seems more focused on individuals, not larger judgments of a nation. Basically any event can be a spiritual event which makes things quite confusing sometimes.


  3. Mr. T. says:

    To continue, you might except liberal churches that have women priests or support homosexuality (to use controversial modern examples) to get some spiritual punishments, but that doesn’t seem very obvious to me. If there were plagues or something happening modern people might stick to the scriptural orders more. Dunno, I’m not sure you can understand or generalize these examples very far, yet they have been written.


  4. Ed Hurst says:

    The missing piece of the puzzle is “covenant nation,” Mr. T. Israel was a covenant nation, so God’s expectation for them was different than with other nations. We have no idea what caused God’s ire in the first place, only that His wrath burned because of some failure against the covenant. Today’s Jews suffer peculiar problems because the covenant still applies, and they are not at all close to what it requires. The coming of their Messiah and His teaching are now part of that same covenant, but they rejected Him. The goal posts have moved for them.

    For the rest of the world, the binding covenant is Noah, not Moses. So far as we can tell, there is not a single nation in the world embracing Noah. Thus, there is no covenant nation, and God’s interaction with nations is quite different outside the covenant. They aren’t expected to have a clue, and aren’t treated with the same care as a covenant nation. Their fortunes are more randomized as they receive no clues at all. They get no covenant blessings or curses, but are herded blindly, from their perspective.

    However, in the New Testament, any church is expected to be a covenant nation on a far smaller scale. When churches fail that most basic requirement, they don’t qualify as a “church.” God treats them as He does non-covenant nations: just human organizations without the prophetic “word from God” about their particular sins. Thus, we have the appearance of a regime of interaction that is individualized. The same goes for marriages, which are also covenant bonds when done right. The covenants still apply today, but nobody much seems to be adhering to the applicable covenant, so they don’t get the kind of interaction and prophetic guidance that we see in 2 Samuel 24.


  5. Mr. T. says:

    Good points, thanks! I still don’t seem to have all the “puzzle pieces” together to understand how things worked back then – or how they work today. So the events and consequences of the Old Testament seem somewhat arbitrary and difficult to understand from a modern person’s perspective. But you could say that reality is organized differently and based on different decisions and principles depending on your Covenant status. But you don’t always know how God, other people, or reality operates or thinks. You can try your best and deal with the consequences, but trying to build a big (totally) predictive model is probably futile. We don’t have perfect information or a perfect view of the future/possible futures as humans.


  6. Ed Hurst says:

    You have your heart of conviction to guide you to all the answers you could possibly use. The mind will always have questions that remain unanswered this side of Eternity.


  7. Pingback: Feudal Covenant Nation | Do What's Right

  8. Mr. T. says:

    The brain and intellect just would want to grasp all the dynamics and reasons and inputs and outputs of reality and morality. Thankfully it’s not really needed in daily life, even though you should aim for perfection.


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