Wednesday, March 26, 2008

King David Wants to Know -- and so do we

Here’s an interesting story. King David decides to take a census. “But why?” they ask him. "What does it matter how many of us there are?" There are two main reasons a ruler usually wishes to take a census, and neither of them is good news for the populace. One has taxation in view; the other, a military draft. David appears to have been thinking of the latter.

God is not pleased. David needs to rely on God, not numbers, to win his battles, just as he has been doing up to now.

When we work at cross-purposes with the Almighty, we can expect to lose. David does, and the people do. Of course, since this is the true God at work, even their loss is ultimately their gain, for that is the purpose of chastisement, as every loving parent knows.

God offers King David three forms of chastisement, from which he may have his choice. David chooses three days of pestilence upon the kingdom. Tens of thousands of people die. Then God says “Enough,” and the plague ends. Then the King offers God a sacrifice.

The same story is recorded in 2 Samuel 24 and in 1 Chronicles 21. A comparison of the two accounts raises some questions, both textual and moral.

The textual questions:

1.) Who instigated this whole incident? In one account, it’s the Lord. “And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah. (2 Samuel 24:1) In the other account, it’s the devil. “And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel." (I Chronicles 21:1)

2.) What was the result of the census? In 2 Samuel 24:9, “there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah [were] five hundred thousand men. But I Chronicles 21:5 tells us, “And all [they of] Israel were a thousand thousand and an hundred thousand men that drew sword [1,100,000]: and Judah [was] four hundred threescore and ten thousand men that drew sword [470,000].

3.) God offers David a choice of punishments: famine, defeat in battle for three months, or plague for three days. But the length of the famine differs in the two tellings. In 2 Samuel, it’s seven years; in 1 Chronicles, it’s three.

One interesting point in which the two accounts agree is David’s choice: “let me fall now into the hand of the LORD; for very great [are] his mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man." (1 Chronicles 21: 13; 2 Samuel 14:13-14) To fall into the hands of the Lord may be a fearsome thing, but not nearly as fearsome as falling into human hands!

Another point not in dispute is the number who died: Seventy thousand, in three days.

The moral questions:

1.) If the Lord moves David to take a census, as the 2 Samuel account has it, why is doing so a sin? Shouldn't we rather call it obedience? If it was wrong, why did the Lord move David to do it? Isn't "wrong" defined as an infraction of God's Will?

2.) King David himself asked the next moral question, saying to God, “It is I that have sinned and done evil indeed; but [as for] these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, O LORD my God, be on me, and on my father's house; but not on thy people, that they should be plagued. ( I Chronicles 21:17; 2 Samuel 24:17) Why should the people suffer for what David has done?

“And God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it: and as he was destroying, the LORD beheld, and he repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed, It is enough, stay now thine hand.” (1 Chronicles 21:15; 2 Samuel 24:16)

3.) Does God ever do evil?

4.) Does God ever repent? If so, in what sense?

What do you think?



Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Here's what I think about the textual issues.

The account in 1 Chronicles is being more literal about who instigated this incident: the devil. However, the devil can only do what God allows him to; God is the One ultimately in charge. Hence, the 2 Samuel account is not wrong to say God did it, but God did it indirectly.

And why would God allow the devil any scope at all? Why did He allow the serpent to be in Eden? To allow us to grow, by providing us spiritual tests and problems to be solved. Same reason your math teacher gives you problems to solve, so your understanding of mathematics will deepen. Except that lessons in Life are more painful. (Well, maybe! I'll have to think about that one. Math is pretty painful for me!)

The other discrepancies serve to show us what we do and do not mean when we say all Scripture is inspired by God. We do not mean the Holy Spirit dictated a text verbatim. We do mean the writers lived in great intimacy with the Holy Spirit and wrote as He moved them.

But they were human beings, not automatons exploited by the Holy Spirit. Thus, they sometimes made errors in such matters as dates, amounts, and other factual details. What they DID get right, without any error, because they were consummate experts in it, is *how to relate to God*. Which is what we care about. And all we really should care about. The rest we can chalk up to normal inter-observer error.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

And here's what I think about the moral issues.

Why did the people suffer for what their king had done?

God had a lesson to teach the people, too. It had been their idea, not His, to have a king. God had permitted them to, but only as a condescension to their stubborn will. Now King David was giving them an example of what kings tend to become a tyrant. I speculate that this is the reason God allowed the people to suffer for what their ruler had done.

No, of course God never does evil, and never has anything of which to repent, and never could "repent" anyway, as God is changeless. He has known from all eternity what He would had wouldn't do. We chalk up such statements as these as further examples of God's condescension, in that He speaks in such crude terms as the ancient readers could understand. And/or to the fact that Christ had not yet come; the fullest Revelation of God had not yet been given.