The first few verses in 2 Samuel 24 reveal a couple of things: the Lord was angered with Israel and he “incited” David to “Go, number Israel and Judah.” David did as he was told by the Lord and enlisted
Joab along with his army commanders to conduct a census. The group of men traveled from Aroer to Beersheba in 9 months and 20 days. When they arrived back in Jerusalem Joab reported “in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000.” (2 Samuel 24:9)
The following verse states “David’s heart struck him,” and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done…for I have done very foolishly.” (2 Samuel 24:10)
God gave David 3 options of punishment through Gad, David’s seer: Three years of famine, three months of fleeing from his enemies, or three days pestilence(plague). David chose not to “fall in the hand of man” and chose the three-day pestilence which killed 70,000 Israelites. (2 Samuel 14:13-14)
Why was it wrong for David to do a count of his men?
Why were 70,000 people killed for David’s sin?
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary explains the two reasons for conducting a census in those days: (1) to assess a tax on the population; (2) to prepare to conscript an army.Even though David was given an abundance of populated land along with Israel’s peace from its enemies, he either needed physical evidence of his nation’s power or wanted to expand his nation using military force.
In Hebrew incite is wayyaset. The Hebrew language often uses active verbs to show “not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing in which the agent is said to do.” Basically, God would allow people to do what they wanted, even if it was against his will, because it would teach them a lesson. This definition could also be applied to Pharaoh’s heart being hardened by God. God didn’t directly tell David to number his people or harden Pharaoh’s heart, but allowed it to happen because it is what they wanted. This census was allowed to be conducted under the protagonist’s watch because David was getting prideful after he reunited the people of Israel and Judah; wanting to tax them or gain more land. In either case God needed to humble David and this was the perfect oportunity to do so.
There is no mention of ransoms being taken during David’s census, which directly violated the law laid out in Exodus. “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the LORD when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD.” (Exodus 30:12-13) According to Lyons, the Israelites should have known these verses and complied with them. While reading this story it seems as if this law was completely abandoned and/or forgotten which led God to use David’s census in order punish the Israelites for not following the Law instituted by Moses. In 2 Samuel 24:1 it states God was already angered with Israel, so this could have been a test for them-which they failed. This is an example of a deuteronomic cycle: the Israelites sinned, were punished by the plague, and repented.
This is similar to the event of the Israelites not carrying the Ark of the Covenant correctly, which lead to the death of Uzzah in 1 Chronicles. Concerning this event David stated, “Because you did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule.”(1 Chronicles 15:13) He must have learned his lesson after the census.
Even though numbering people isn’t always bad, (Numbers 1 &26) this time it was NOT okay. David was getting a little too big for his britches and needed to be reminded where his blessings came from. The Israelites were drifting away from the Law and needed to be punished. Even though the plague was an extreme wake-up call it got the job done in Israel..until the cycle begins again.