Shouldn’t we Let David Off the Hook?

Dear Fr. John, I was intrigued by one of the first readings during daily Mass [not too long ago]. Why was God angry with David counting his people (taking a census)? What’s wrong with taking stock? What’s wrong with planning ahead or being proactive? I hear the argument made that David’s action implied a lack of trust in God. But aren’t we supposed to “do our best and leave the rest to God”? How does doing our best imply lack of trust? When is “doing our best” doing too much? There’s also a saying that goes something like this, “God will not do for you what you can do for yourself”. But we also hear about “total abandonment to Divine providence”. So where do we draw the line? How do we discern when we’re doing just enough and when we’re encroaching into God’s zone?

KingDavidGiovanniFrancescoBarbieri(il_Guercino)c1768The passage you refer to occurs in 2 Samuel 24. But there is a parallel passage about the same incident in 1 Chronicles 21, and the two passages need to be read and studied together. In both cases, the biblical writers make clear that taking a census under those particular circumstances was contrary to David’s mission of being a God-centered king of Israel. Even David himself repents of having done it. So the bottom line is clear: David stepped over the line with this one.

Limits of Our Knowledge

What’s not so clear is why taking a census was sinful, why it constituted stepping over the line. The Old Testament permitted census-taking under certain conditions and for certain reasons, but ancient Middle Eastern culture in general saw taking a census as an act by which kings oppressed their people. Census information was utilized for purposes of taxing, forced labor, and military service. It was believed among some ancient cultures that a census-taker obtained a mysterious power over the people, and so a census-taker only had the right to take a census over people who actually belonged to him. Some Bible scholars speculate that King David, in this case, was adopting this pagan attitude in taking this census, ignoring the special relationship that the King of Israel had to Israel’s God, who was the real and sole ruler of Israel.

Various Theories and Two Certainties

But that is only one scholarly explanation of why David’s census-taking in this case was sinful. Many other theories abound. Biblical scholars do not agree on the reasons. Perhaps the occasion was not propitious; perhaps David’s intentions were vain and self-centered; perhaps his objective was twisted… We simply can’t give a completely satisfactory answer. We only know two things for certain:

  1. First, in the Old Testament census-taking was not in and of itself a sinful action. In this sense, the observations you make in your question are legitimate: prudence, foresight, good planning – these are good and virtuous uses of our God—given intelligence, and we shouldn’t belittle them. But they are not all-powerful (because of our human limitations), and we have to avoid turning them into idols (thinking that we can or should be able to control everything).
  2. That brings us to the second thing we know for certain about this event. In this particular case, for reasons not clear to us, David’s decision to take a census of Israel was not in Israel’s best interests, and it led to pain and suffering for the nation. In this particular case, in other words, the use of that particular tool was not called for, but David did it anyway.

Spiritual Resonance

From a spiritual perspective, this incident (at least, as regards how it recorded in the Scriptures) shows us a lot about God, and that is where I would put the emphasis. It shows us that God is involved and interested in the life of his people. It shows us that he cares about our decisions. It shows us that he respects our freedom and that our freedom can be abused – our human dignity is such that we can make a truly positive or truly negative impact on the world. It also shows us that the Lord is merciful (he compassionately reduced the just punishment for David’s sin). These are the lessons that the sacred writer wants this incident to illustrate, I think. It forms part of the whole Davidic cycle, which needs to be read and meditated on as a whole. David’s entire life and career is what we need to learn from, not only bits and pieces.

I know I haven’t answered your question completely (I simply can’t!), but I hope these observations can at least help you accept and appreciate the incident as recorded in the holy Scriptures


Art: King David, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (il Guercino) c. 1768, Uploaded by Wmpearl, PD, Wikimedia Commons.

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