Week of 4 Epiphany: Wednesday, Year 2   2 comments

Above:  An Orthodox Icon of David

David, the Census, and Bad Theology

JANUARY 31, 2024


Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.


2 Samuel 24:2, 9-17 (Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition):

So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army, who were with him,

Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people.

And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king:  in Israel there were eight hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand.

But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people?  And David said to the LORD,

I have sinned greatly in what I have done.  But now, O LORD, I pray you, take away the iniquity of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.

And when David arose in the morning, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying,

Go and say to David, “Thus says the LORD, Three things I offer you; choose one of them, that I may do it to you.”

So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him,

Shall three years of famine come to you in your land?  Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you?  Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land?  Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.

Then David said to Gad,

I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but not let me fall into the hand of man.

So the LORD sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time; and there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men.  And when the angel stretched forth his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD repented of the evil, and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people,

It is enough; now stay your hand.

And the angel of the LORD was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.  Then David spoke to the LORD when he saw the angel who was striking down the people, and said,

Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done?  Let your hand, I pray you, be against me and against my father’s house?

Psalm 32:1-8 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven,

and whose sin is put away!

2 Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt,

and in whose spirit there is no guile!

While I held my tongue, my bones withered away,

because of my groaning all day long.

4 For your hand was heavy upon me day and night;

my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you,

and did not conceal my guilt.

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.”

Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

7 Therefore all the faithful will make your prayers to you in time of trouble;

when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.

8 You are my hiding-place;

you preserve me from trouble;

you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

Mark 6:1-6 (Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition):

He went away from there and came to his own country; and his disciples followed him.  And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying,

Where did this man get all this?  What is the wisdom given to him?  What mighty works are wrought by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?

And they took offense at him.  And Jesus said to him,

A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.

And he could not do mighty work there, except that he laid hands upon a few sick people and healed them.  And he marveled because of their unbelief.

And he went about among the villages teaching.


The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Some Related Posts:

Week of 4 Epiphany:  Wednesday, Year 1:


Matthew 13 (Parallel to Mark 6):



Often I read a biblical text and find it inspiring.  Then we have 2 Samuel 24, which leads me to argue with its theology.  I write these devotions for sequential reading, as the lectionaries tend to be sequential, so I do not feel the need to repeat certain statements every second or third or fourth, et cetera, post, but I do repeat one maxim I have quoted elsewhere in this series because it has direct bearing on my interpretation.  As Donald Armentrout has said, the best way to read the Bible is through the “Gospel glasses.”  Not all parts of the Bible are equal, for the four canonical Gospels are more important than 1 and 2 Chronicles, for example.  In this case, Jesus trumps the theology in 2 Samuel 24.

So, what was sinful about David’s census?  The narrative indicates that the purpose was military.  Was David overconfident in his army, indicating too little trust in God?  If this is a moral of the story, God does not come across as one in whom I would seek to put my trust.  Rather, God comes across more like a vindictive and omnipotent SOB.  Finally, God’s vindictiveness does run its course, for God orders the angel to stop its destructive work, David builds an altar on the future site of the Temple at Jerusalem, and God averts the plague from Israel.

D. D. Whedon’s Commentary on the Old Testament (1873), a work with whose theology I seldom agree, does summarize a crucial plot point in 2 Samuel 24 well.  The Reverend M. S. Terry wrote the following note regarding verse 15 on page 554 of Volume III:

…David was vainglorious over the multitude of his warriors, but this one stroke almost decimates them….

So, in the narrative, God tells David, in so many words, trust in me OR ELSE!

That portrait of God as a vengeful deity who attacks innocents disturbs me.  This is the same theology which feeds Penal Substitutionary Atonement, which says that Jesus took your, my, et cetera, place on the cross.  So, according to this idea, Jesus was the innocent who died for you and me.  This is bad theology.  It is also only one of several interpretations of the Atonement dating to the age of the Church Fathers.

…God is love.

–1 John 4:8c, Revised Standard Version

Love does not say to Jesus or one of those who died in 2 Samuel 24, “I am really mad, but not with you.  So go, suffer, and die for another person’s sin(s).”  Yes, there is punishment for sins, but that is often passive on God’s part.  God does let our chickens come home to roost, even if only for a limited time.  But there is also mercy.  Judgment and mercy coexist in the Bible, as I have written many times in my devotional blog posts.

In the torture and death of Jesus, we see our Lord and Savior not only identifying with the outcasts of society, as he did when he dined with them, for example, but becoming one of them.  The Roman Empire did its worst to him, and it seemed to have succeeded briefly.  It shamed Jesus in an attempt to eliminate him, but our Lord refused to stay dead for long.  And so he pointed out the superior power of God, as well as the relative weakness of evil and the Roman Empire.  And, by grace, God transformed shame into triumph, hence the Church’s adoption of the cross as its symbol.  In Christ there is no more judgment, just mercy.  He is the Good Shepherd who takes care of all his sheep.

My theology of the Atonement, as I have written in other devotional blog posts, is that it is the result of the entire life cycle of Jesus of Nazareth, from Incarnation to Ascension.  The crucifixion was a vital part of the process, but the Resurrection was more important, for, without it, we would have dead Jesus.  There is no salvation in dead Jesus.

Jesus (the historical person, that is) was in the future tense for the timeframe of 2 Samuel 24, obviously.  But am I to believe that God’s personality changed drastically within a few centuries?  I hope not!  Instead, I state that theology, as recorded in the Bible, changed.  Jesus (and in this case, 1 John) trump 2 Samuel 24.

Often, when bad things happen, we search desperately for meaning.  “Why did these events happen?” we ask ourselves.  It can be tempting to understand them as divine retribution, but what kind of nature are we accusing God of having?  We need to think about that seriously during our reflections.



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