In this chapter, David takes a census of the nation and incurs the wrath of God.
As I've stated a couple times regarding 2 Samuel chapters 21-24, this chapter is not chronological with anything in the book, including the other parts of this appendix. The formal story ended in chapter 21, and the last three chapters of the book (including this one) are just a collection of several stories from David's reign that didn't fit elsewhere. It also included a couple songs that are meant to epitomize David's life. This particular story is peculiar and deserves closer attention, because I think it is likely moralizing, but since we are given this story without the immediate context from David's life or Israel's culture and political situation at the time, it is harder for us to process than the earlier portions of Samuel.
With all that as an introduction, I will now discuss the story itself.
It begins with a bold but perplexing statement, that the LORD's anger burned against Israel, and therefore he incited David to sin by ordering a census. There are at least three confusing elements to this statement, which I will address in order.
1) Why is God's angry with Israel? While we can imagine many possible reasons, such as Israel's nearly perpetual idolatry, we don't know the actual reason. Rashi (a famous Jewish commentator) is also confused: speaking of God's anger, he says "I do not know regarding what". It's possible that the author is interpolating God's anger as the source of Israel's troubles. It would certainly be consistent with other parts of the OT, such as Deuteronomy 28, which seems to place all the troubles and distress of Israel at the hands of God's anger, caused in turn by Israel's disobedience. It is widely believed by people in the OT that distress and poverty are signs of God's disfavor, while wealth and glory are signs of God's favor. I don't believe the OT itself, taken as a whole and in context, supports this theory, but passages like Deut 28 certainly push in that direction. On the other hand, David's life itself contradicts this principle, because David was honored by God and even called a "man after God's own heart", yet he suffered for a long time at the hands of Saul,
2) Why would God "incite" or "cause" David to sin? It's clear that this is intended to be a punishment, but taken at face value this appears to undermine the notion of free will, as well as raising difficult questions about what constitutes sin. How could God "incite" someone to sin, and then punish them for sinning? Even more simply, how could God, who is supposed to be sinless, himself cause someone to sin?
Regarding these points, I think it's likely that my previous statements are just reading too much into an isolated comment. What is clear is that God somehow brought about the circumstances that would encourage or induce David to call for a census, but since we don't know why God was angry in the first place, it is hard for us to understand God's actions in this situation. Therefore I think it is best to interpret this verse conservatively, because it is incidental to the story and largely devoid of context.
3) Why is taking a census a sin? This is the question that is perhaps the easiest to answer of the three, although at first glance it is pretty confusing. It's confusing because Moses was twice commanded to take a census of the Israelites. The first census was in Numbers chapter 1, the first generation going out of Egypt, and the second census was in Numbers chapter 26 when the second generation, that grew up in the desert, was about to enter the promised land.
This, therefore, is the third major census, and there's no obvious reason why this census is a sin while the other two censuses were okay. My opinion is that the census is considered sinful because it is presumptuous towards the promises of God. In a nutshell, God promised to the Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky. By seeking to count the men of Israel, David is challenging that promise (in a manner of speaking) because he is counting the men to see if God did what he promised. That's why Joab replies, "let there be 100 times as many people", because he's trying to say that God will multiply the people and bring glory to Israel, and that David should not question it.
Why were the first two censuses okay? The biggest reason is that God commanded them to happen. The second (more situational) reason is that they needed to count the men over 20 in preparation for warfare. It wasn't a purely political move, the census was a military action because they were both counting and organizing the people (organization by family and clan was an inherent part of the census). In this case, there is no war, so David's census is (as far as I can tell) purely for his own gratification. The background to this chapter is relatively sparse, but it appears that David just wants to know.
Either way, this puts Joab in the unusual position of trying to convince David to avoid sinning, when usually it is Joab who is the man of bloodshed and David the righteous guy.
Joab goes out and spends over 9 months taking the census. There is a rabbinic tradition that Joab was deliberately stalling in the hope that David would change his mind before the task was completed.
Nevertheless, the census is completed and it's almost like from that very moment David reverts back to his normal form, and he is immediately grieved over what he has done. David shows his true heart, immediately repenting and pleading for mercy. However, because God had planned to do this out of his "burning anger", it seems that there is no escape from punishment this time. Another peculiarity of this story emerges though, when Gad gives David a choice of his nation's punishment. I can't think of any other story like this when a man is given a choice of some set of punishments. There are three punishments with the first being longest, and then shorter, and then the shortest. However, they are in reverse order of severity, because the famine would be least severe, while defeats in battle is more severe, and pestilence likely the most severe.
David chooses the direct punishment of God, which means the pestilence. Rashi mentions that David chose pestilence because it is also more equitable. In famine, the king always eats, and in war, the king is surrounded by loyal men to protect him, but in a plague, there is no security or status or bodyguard for protection.
The next peculiarity of this story is that the pestilence, a plague killing the people of Israel, is manifested in the form of a destroying angel. The bible speaks on some occasions of destroying angels, but in this case it is an angel that is openly visible to David and the other people. I don't have time to discuss the role of angels in depth here, but let it suffice to say that angels act as agents of the LORD's will, enforcing his decrees and plans in many different ways (such as preventing Adam and Eve from returning to Eden, Gen 3, and later securing Israel's passage during the exodus, Ex 14:19). That is the role of the angel in this case, bringing the plague as divine judgment on Israel.
However, as David predicted, the LORD had mercy and stopped the angel from destroying Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is a former city of the Jebusites, and it appears that a remnant of the Jebusites survived in the area. In terms of their political situation, the Jebusites may have survived but they are clearly a minority in the midst of a hostile foreign power. Even other Israelites would cower at David's presence, so how much more would a Jebusite give away all his possessions and be glad that David wasn't coming to kill him and his family like Saul tried to kill the Gibeonites.
The conclusion of the chapter, however, is that David refuses to offer a sacrifice that is given to him by another man. He will only give a sacrifice that is from his own wealth and his own possessions. After everything that I said about plagues and angels and free will (or lack thereof), I think this last part of the chapter about the altar is "the point" that the author wanted to get across. I feel like everything in this chapter is a buildup to the moment when David refuses to offer another man's oxen as his own sacrifice, and insists that he should buy everything that he is giving away.
Perhaps David had in mind the words of Nathan the prophet, when Nathan spoke a parable about a rich man who refused to take an animal from his own flock, but stole from another man in order to prepare a meal for his guest (2 Samuel 12:1-4). Perhaps, having been rebuked for taking the wife of another man, David is now refusing to take the oxen of a man even when it is freely offered to him. I certainly think the parable of Nathan has some parallels to this passage, especially 2 Samuel 12:4 that says, "and [the rich man] was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him." I can only imagine David responding to that by saying, "May I never take from somebody else what I am not willing to give myself."
One could also issue comments about the intercessory power of the altar, David's sacrifice intervening between God's judgment and the nation (much like the intercessory censer that Aaron wielded in Num 16:45-47), and other similar things. However, the sense that I get is that this chapter is more about David and the meaning of sacrifice than these other spiritual concepts. This is about atonement for sin and it establishes a very simple but important concept: for atonement to have any meaning, it cannot be something "which costs me nothing".
How can David's statement fit into the framework of substitutionary atonement that is implicit in the Passover? If the guilt of men can be transferred to an animal, and the animal dies for the sins of a man, then isn't that another way of saying the man "pays nothing" for his atonement, since the death is experienced by another being, namely, the lamb? A simple response is to say, "the man is offering an animal out of his possessions; he suffers material loss." To some extent that is true, and that seems to be David's most direct point, but I don't think it fully addresses the question. How can money atone for sin?
It cannot. If it could, there would be no need for the shedding of blood. This leaves us with a paradox. How can atonement be "substituted" onto another, such that an animal dies to atone for the sin of a man, if David now insists that the atonement for a sin must not be "free"? In a similar way, "everyone shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deut 24:16), which seems to imply that the punishment for sin cannot be transferred to another. However, in 2 Samuel 12:13 Nathan says, "The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die."
How then can this paradox be resolved, such that a man dies for his sin, and yet another dies in his place, and yet the sin is taken away and the man "shall not die"? The only way I can imagine this being possible is if a person dies with their offering, sharing in the death of the atonement, and therefore dies yet lives on. In part, I think the Passover is about transferring guilt to an animal so that the demands of the Law may be satisfied, and in part I think it's about the admission of sin and guilt and the proper penalty of death that lies over each person.
Much more could be said about this, but for now I will defer. I will leave my readers with one final thought. If we die with our offering (in a mystical sense), and we share in death with our offering, then it suggests almost a mystical union between a person and his or her sacrifice. The Passover (and substitutionary atonement in general) is perhaps not as much a substitution, as it is an identification, saying, "this is me, this is the death that I deserve to die." Yet even knowing all this, it is still a mystery to me how a person can die in one sense, and yet live on in another. I think this is one of the greater mysteries of God's redemption, so I don't really have the answers, just the questions.
And with that, we conclude 2 Samuel and will move on to 1st Kings.