Right of the bat, we have a bit of a discrepancy in these parallel passages that are otherwise in agreement (sometimes word for word agreement). 2 Samuel 24:1 says:
Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”
While 1 Chronicles 21:1 says:
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.
So, first question:
Who incited David?
Short answer: Satan did. Today in theology we often talk about the “active” and “passive” or more frequently “active” and “permissive” will of God. To say God allows something to take place, we recognize, is not the same thing as saying God is the one who directly causes it to occur. God actively redeems his people because he permitted them to sin of their own volition. The Ancient Hebrew mindset, it seems, did not account for such a strong distinction. It seems they would have been able to recognize the difference if they talked about it (hence the distinction that was made by the (later) writer of Chronicles), but nothing in their language could directly account for this. In either case, it remains that the two passages in juxtaposition make clear that Satan directly tempted David, David freely chose to give into this temptation, and that God allowed it all to come about because he was sovereign over the entire situation. The difference in the two passages, though, brings out a different emphasis in both. While in the Chronicles passage the idea is that David had gone so low as to succumb to the temptation of the devil, in the Samuel passage, the main idea is that God did not abandon Israel nor was God’s sovereignty ever in question. Given the themes of both books this makes sense. Chronicles seems heavily “David focused” and Samuel seems heavily focused on the relationship of God to the rulers of Israel (and how their rule is paralleled or not by God’s rule). This brings us to the next question:
What’s so bad about a census?
It is true that nothing specifically forbids a census in the Hebrew bible (per se), despite the incredibly popular rabbinical tradition that seems to be based upon this. So what’s the big deal? Well there are a few things: first, in Numbers the precedent is set that the census is done at the request of the LORD (YHWH), not by personal ambition. Lest we think this is a bit too shaky, we should note that the primary instruction for how a census should be conducted is Exodus 30: 11-16; which is place directly in the middle of instructions for building the tabernacle (and worship). This places the census completely within the context of divine relations to people, not secular ambition.
Still, even if we grant that David was not doing anything wrong by doing the census in itself, it appears he did not conduct it according to the way set out in Exodus 30. Specifically, it states that a small offering (half a shekel) was required of every person who was counted in order to act as a “ransom” for their lives to make a symbolic atonement (so taking a census was a very serious thing). This money would then be used or set aside specifically for worship to God. There is no indication that this was done (in fact it is strongly implied that God was the furthest thing from David’s mind when he did this). This brings us to the final question
Why was everyone else punished for what David did?
There are actually two things at play here. First, Israel was collectively redeemed as a family. Thus their fate was held together for all of them. When one sinned they all were held accountable. That may be at play, and certainly there are other passages have this idea in them, in which case the punishments are actually redemptive not punitive (they save the person punished, in the next life, lest they be destroyed for their actions now and forever). However, there may be a more individual accountability also.
Again, referring to the Exodus 30 passage, it was required by the law that when a census occurred an offering to God be collected from every person who was counted. That was not David’s responsibility only (even if he should have asked for it), but the responsibility of every person counted. Keep in mind that, at least concerning the Torah, these laws were drilled into every person from an early age. Everyone was thus fully responsible for the law and adherence to it once they were old enough to have learned it (this is what the contemporary Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah are intended to represent: adulthood comes about once the law has been thoroughly studied). Thus each person was responsible and God’s anger was with all of Israel. Also, considering it was only half a shekel, this was a relatively insignificant amount of money.
What do you think? Other questions? Also, please suggest future passages to be covered below.