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2 Samuel 24:1-25 – David’s Census


A terrible plague, seen as God's judgment upon David for taking a census of the people, is averted after David, following the advice of a prophet, acquires some land in Jerusalem, builds an altar, and sacrifices to the Lord.


The books of Samuel come to a close with this perplexing story of David's census, which, chronologically speaking, must have taken place earlier. Two points help to alleviate some of the strangeness of this text as a conclusion to Samuel:
First, the concentric arrangement of the last four chapters of 2 Samuel isolates them as a unit comprised of somewhat random texts collected together as an appendix of sorts. In this appendix, chapter 24 is paired with chapter 21, another narrative of national disaster, framing two lists of David's warriors and two poetic pieces attributed to David. This means that the chapters are somewhat intrusive with regard to the narrative:

A Narrative of national disaster (2 Samuel 21:1-14)
B List of David's warriors (2 Samuel 21:15-22)
C Poem: David's song of thanksgiving (2 Samuel 22)
C′ Poem: David's last words (2 Samuel 23:1-7)
B′ List of David's warriors (2 Samuel 23:8-39)
A′ Narrative of national disaster (2 Samuel 24)

Second, it must always be remembered that the story does not end with 2 Samuel 24. The section of the narrative continues through 2 Kings, and since the plot of land purchased by David becomes the site of the temple (1 Chronicles 22:1), the acquisition of the temple site is appropriately placed before the story of Solomon, who will build the temple (1 Kings 1-11).

The text falls into three units: David's census (framed by "Israel and Judah" in vv. 1, 9); David's confession (framed by "I have sinned" in vv. 10, 17); and David's altar (framed by "an altar to the LORD" in vv. 18, 25). Nagging questions remain: "Why did God incite David to sin?" "Why was God so upset by the census--a census God had commanded?" (see 1 Chronicles 21:1, where "Satan" [literally, an adversary] incited David). No satisfactory answers have been suggested, and we must look for the message of this text elsewhere. The story should be taken as a paradigm for reading all the David stories. David is a sinner, even a great sinner when one considers his adultery and murder. Nevertheless, he is also a person of great faith who recognizes his sin, the need for repentance, and that all his accomplishments have their origin in the grace and mercy of God.

2 Samuel 24:1-25

David’s Census of Israel and Judah

24Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.’ 2So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army,* who were with him, ‘Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, and take a census of the people, so that I may know how many there are.’ 3But Joab said to the king, ‘May the Lord your God increase the number of the people a hundredfold, while the eyes of my lord the king can still see it! But why does my lord the king want to do this?’ 4But the king’s word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to take a census of the people of Israel. 5They crossed the Jordan, and began from* Aroer and from the city that is in the middle of the valley, towards Gad and on to Jazer. 6Then they came to Gilead, and to Kadesh in the land of the Hittites;* and they came to Dan, and from Dan* they went round to Sidon, 7and came to the fortress of Tyre and to all the cities of the Hivites and Canaanites; and they went out to the Negeb of Judah at Beer-sheba. 8So when they had gone through all the land, they came back to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. 9Joab reported to the king the number of those who had been recorded: in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of Judah were five hundred thousand.

Judgement on David’s Sin

10 But afterwards, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people. David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.’ 11When David rose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, 12‘Go and say to David: Thus says the Lord: Three things I offer* you; choose one of them, and I will do it to you.’ 13So Gad came to David and told him; he asked him, ‘Shall three* years of famine come to you on your land? Or will you flee for three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to the one who sent me.’ 14Then David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.’

15 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from that morning until the appointed time; and seventy thousand of the people died, from Dan to Beer-sheba. 16But when the angel stretched out his hand towards Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented concerning the evil, and said to the angel who was bringing destruction among the people, ‘It is enough; now stay your hand.’ The angel of the Lord was then by the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 17When David saw the angel who was destroying the people, he said to the Lord, ‘I alone have sinned, and I alone have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house.’

David’s Altar on the Threshing-Floor

18 That day Gad came to David and said to him, ‘Go up and erect an altar to the Lord on the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite.’ 19Following Gad’s instructions, David went up, as the Lord had commanded. 20When Araunah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming towards him; and Araunah went out and prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground. 21Araunah said, ‘Why has my lord the king come to his servant?’ David said, ‘To buy the threshing-floor from you in order to build an altar to the Lord, so that the plague may be averted from the people.’ 22Then Araunah said to David, ‘Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him; here are the oxen for the burnt-offering, and the threshing-sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. 23All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king.’ And Araunah said to the king, ‘May the Lord your God respond favourably to you.’

24 But the king said to Araunah, ‘No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt-offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.’ So David bought the threshing-floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. 25David built there an altar to the Lord, and offered burnt-offerings and offerings of well-being. So the Lord answered his supplication for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.

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