The Census and the Plague

The Census and the Plague September 1, 2021

I had another new (to me) insight into a text, one that I suspect will be obvious and old hat to colleagues who study the Hebrew Bible but which I will share in the hope that those with more expertise will chime in and say what they think about this topic.

Having started a series on doublets – twice-told stories – in the Bible, we found ourselves working through the Lord’s Prayer. From there a natural doublet to go to next is one that connects directly to the dual aspect of the final petition(s): “Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil/the Evil One.” Does God lead us into temptation/testing unless we beg that God not do so? How does that relate to the influence of evil within and without ourselves, personal or otherwise? This connects naturally with the theme of the story told in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 about David conducting a census of his fighting men. In the earlier version it is God who incites David to do this, and then punishes him for doing what God incited him to. In the later version, Satan is the one who incites David, the same verb being used but with a different actor. That in itself creates quite a conundrum. But anyone who is profoundly disturbed by the idea that God would provoke someone to do wrong and then inflict punishment in response will understand what motivated the author of Chronicles to change the story.

All this I had thought about before. Reading the story in the context of a pandemic, however, had an influence on the thing that occurred to me for the first time. Many of the Psalms not only express repentance, but ask God to reveal to them what they had done wrong. Others complain that they are suffering and have done nothing wrong. Human beings look for a cause, for who is to blame, when bad things happen. If a plague occurred soon after a census was taken, people would have assumed a causative link between the two. Indeed, we can imagine someone who was an asymptomatic carrier of a serious illness being in the king’s employ and sent out to conduct the census. After each visit by that individual to a village or town, illness would soon appear in their midst. For them to recognize the connection was appropriate and insightful, although unfortunately they lacked modern medical knowledge that would have allowed them to ultimately blame microorganisms rather than God, Satan, or King David.

I’m not aware that anyone has suggested this last point in relation to this story as a way to make sense of it from our perspective. If they have, if I’ve suggested something new and helpful, or if there’s some major aspect of this that I have overlooked that negates my point, I trust that someone will point it out to me.

In the meantime, get vaccinated, wear a mask, and do what you can to avoid contributing to anyone wondering why God, Satan, or President Biden has brought suffering upon them, if you inadvertently bring an illness their way…

Of related interest:

Not Precisely Superstition

Bart Ehrman, “Sin and Divine Punishment as a Dominant Theme of Scripture”

Shira Golani, “Is There A Consensus That A Census Causes A Plague?”

Richard Beck, “David’s Census: God or Satan?”

The Biblical Census in the Time of King David

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