David’s Weird, God-Induced, Ultimately Tragic Census

A araunah_davidnumber of candidates exist for “Worse Verse in the Old Testament.” For many, its Psalm 137:9 (the “smashing babies against rocks” verse), or any of the passages in which Yahweh directly orders Israel to “wipe out” every resident of Jericho (Joshua 6:17) or the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:2, which specifies killing “children and infants”).

I’d like to add another to the list: 2 Samuel 24:1.

The Lord burned with anger against Israel again, and he incited David against them: Go and count the people of Israel and Judah.

This entire story is bizarre, if not disturbing. First, Yahweh is enraged for unspecified reasons against Israel, so he incites David to take a census, which – again, for unspecified reasons – is clearly a sinful act (Joab tries to talk David out of it, and David himself is repentant as soon as the census is complete). For David’s sin, Yahweh then punishes the entire country, killing 70,000 people. Which leads us to 25:16:

But when the divine messenger stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord regretted doing this disaster and said to the messenger who was destroying the people, “That’s enough! Withdraw your hand.”

This isn’t one of those stories they teach you in Sunday School. The injustice of Yahweh’s actions is obvious and bewildering. Not only do 70,000 people die for David’s sin, but David only sins because Yahweh “incites” him to do it!

The verb translated “incites” is used a few other times, attributed to Jezebel convincing Ahab to take Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:15) and Satan convincing Yahweh to strike Job’s family (2:3). The only other time is when David asks Saul if Yahweh had incited the king to try to kill him (1 Samuel 26:19), after which Saul immediately repents, indicating that Yahweh had not, in fact, been behind his attempts.

So Yahweh here is portrayed engaging in incitement that previously has only been attributed to Jezebel and Satan.

Then he regrets his actions, another example of several in the Old Testament that confounds those who believe in an omniscient and omnipotent God while holding to the literal truth of the Bible. Yahweh’s regret (or repentance or grief at his own  actions) is attested in Genesis 6 (regret at creating humanity), Exodus 32 (repenting after Moses’ intervention of a decision to destroy Israel), 1 Samuel 15 (regret of crowning Saul king), Amos 7 (canceling two planned disasters at Amos’ urging) and Jeremiah 42 (regretting even the exile itself).

But some of these are pretty significant decisions to regret. Creating humanity? Destroying his chosen people? The exile? Killing 70,000 people?! Seems like Yahweh, taken at face value, is incredibly, dangerously rash.

This chapter should really cause some reevaluation of how we handle the narratives of the Old Testament. There is obviously a subset of people who read the Bible literally and use the genocidal and exilic passages to argue that God punishes a nation’s sin by visiting upon it death and disaster. Yet most people reject the logical application of such beliefs when someone is brave (or foolish) enough to do so out loud. The Pat Robertsons of the world are quickly shouted down when they attribute the Hatian earthquake or Indonesian tsunami to the faith, or lack thereof, of the victims.

On one level, they should be applauded for their consistency, but a truly consistent rendition of texts such as 2 Samuel 24 would include not just “crediting” God for natural disasters but giving him the credit for the murderous actions of tyrants such as Adolf Hitler. After all, if God can incite David to sin in a way that costs the lives of 70,000 people, who’s to say he can’t incite a madman to euthanize 10 million people?

And now we run headlong into the problem of biblical literalism. If God can be so capricious that he can incite people to sin in ways that lead to suffering and death, and if he can slaughter thousands of people in a hasty decision he later regrets, is that a God of love? Of mercy? Of justice? Is that a God worth worshiping at all?

We can’t ignore or sweep aside the fact that the Old Testament portrays God in unpleasant, even abhorrent ways – nor should we do so. But we can choose to study and interpret these texts in a healthy, holistic manner that affirms the love, grace and justice of God as revealed through his incarnation in Jesus. That might mean rejecting their historical factuality. It might mean adopting a metaphorical approach or, if necessary, simply setting them aside temporarily as too problematic for a given stage in our faith journey.

Texts like this aren’t taught in Sunday School, but perhaps they should be. Perhaps only by wrestling with these deeply disturbing portrayals of God can we learn how to approach scripture in a truly healthy way.

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