1 Chronicles 21 – “David’s Catastrophic Census”

swordHebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Satan incites David to count the people of Israel. God is angered, and He kills 70,000 men in a plague. David buys a threshing floor, sets up an altar, and offers sacrifices that appease God and end the plague.

II. Photo
Jerusalem is nearly destroyed: “David looked up and saw the angel of the LORD standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand directed against Jerusalem…” (v. 16)

III. Important Verses
vv. 1-4: Satan arose against Israel and incited David to number Israel. David said to Joab and to the commanders of the army, “Go and count Israel from Beer-sheba to Dan and bring me information as to their number.” Joab answered, “May the LORD increase His people a hundredfold; my lord king, are they not all subjects of my lord? Why should my lord require this? Why should it be a cause of guilt for Israel?” However, the king’s command to Joab remained firm, so Joab set out and traversed all Israel; he then came to Jerusalem.
v. 5: Joab reported to David the number of the people that had been recorded. All Israel comprised 1,100,000 ready to draw the sword, while in Judah there were 470,000 men ready to draw the sword.
vv. 9-14: The LORD ordered Gad, David’s seer:  and tell David: Thus said the LORD: I offer you three things; choose one of them and I will bring it upon you.” Gad came to David and told him, “Thus said the LORD: Select for yourself a three-year famine; or that you be swept away three months before your adversaries with the sword of your enemies overtaking you; or three days of the sword of the LORD, pestilence in the land, the angel of the LORD wreaking destruction throughout the territory of Israel. Now consider what reply I shall take back to Him who sent me.” David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for His compassion is very great; and let me not fall into the hands of men.” The LORD sent a pestilence upon Israel, and 70,000 men fell in Israel.
v. 22: David said to Ornan, “Sell me the site of the threshing floor, that I may build on it an altar to the LORD. Sell it to me at the full price, that the plague against the people will be checked.”

IV. Outline
1-6. David counts the people
7-14. God kills 70,000 people with pestilence
15-27. David buys a threshing floor, sets up an altar, and appeases God
28-30. David lives in fear

V. Comment
The narrative of chapter 21 is primarily drawn from 2 Sam 24. Verse 1 recounts how “Satan” incites David to count the people: “Satan arose against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” In 2 Sam 24:1 it is God, not Satan, who incites David to sin. Hamilton offers three possible explanations for the shift: “The first is that the Chronicler was bothered by the attribution of morally questionable activities to [God]; i.e., he incited David to take a census, then punished David for doing so. To that end the Chronicler deleted [God’s] part in the story as a stimulating factor and replaced him with séaœtΩaœn (Kluger 1967: 159). But if the Chronicler was concerned with saving [God’s] image from tarnish, why did he leave unmolested other stories in which [God] was responsible for Rehoboam turning his back on the wise counsel of his advisers (2 Chr 10:15), or in which [God] sends a deceiving spirit into the mouths of Ahab’s prophets? Closely related to this explanation is the suggestion that the Chronicler downplayed [God’s] complicity in this event with his substitution of séaœtΩaœn, primarily because he was concerned to paint as beautiful a picture as possible of the relationship between [God] and David, [God] chosen servant (Day 1988: 136–37). Accordingly, the Chronicler omitted any reference to [God’s] arbitrary anger with his people during David’s reign and told the story simply as a temptation episode. A third possible explanation is that the contrast between 2 Sam 24:1 and 1 Chr 21:1 ([God]/séaœtΩaœn illustrates a development in how OT thought explains evil. Most of the earlier literature of the OT explained evil in terms of a primary cause ([God]). Later OT literature, such as Chronicles, expanded on this by introducing the concept of a secondary cause in its explanation of evil (séaœtΩaœn).” (“Satan” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. V, pp. 985-989)

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
De Vries, Simon J. “1 and 2 Chronicles,” The Forms of Old Testament Literature vol. 11 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989).
Hamilton, Victor P. “Satan” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. V, pp. 985-989.
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One thought on “1 Chronicles 21 – “David’s Catastrophic Census”

  • This is clearly one of the most intriguing stories in the Bible. In my research on this subject, I find that there are about three reaons why David’s action was considered a punishable sin:

    1. The census was NOT ordered by God, as opposed to the census in Exodus 30 carried out by Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.
    2. The census was not carried out according to laid down procedure. An indirect census is recommended in Exodus 30, associated with the payment of half a shekel of silver.
    3. The census reflected David apparently taking pride in his accomplishments and his dependece on the arm of flesh.

    The last is probably the most egregious sin committed by David in this instance.

    It appears there was already some collective national falling out of favour with God by the Israeli nation. This plague appears to be a way in whcih God metes out the punishment. The question remains whether it was necessary for God to go through such circuitous a route- but God is all knowing and all wise.

    Dr. Emmanuel Babalola

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