If you’ve read 1 and 2 Samuel, you’re familiar with the stories of how David became the successor to King Saul, and how David himself reigned as King. This plague story comes at the very end of 2 Samuel: chapter 24. Chapters 21-24, in fact, form a kind of bridge from the end of David’s life (although the stories aren’t necessary from his old age) to the beginning of 1 Kings, where David is on his deathbed and schemes are afoot as to his successor as king. (1)
If we back up and look at 2 Samuel 21, we learn that there is a famine in the land. David realizes that the famine was caused by bloodguilt from the house of Saul, who had at some point in his reign killed many of the Gibeonites. They were a non-Israelite tribe whom the Israelites were not supposed to harm (Joshua 9). A delegation of Gibeonites demanded justice, and also David identified seven descendants of Saul whom the Gibeonites subsequently killed and publicly displayed their bodies.
But Rizpah, the mother of two of the seven men, stayed at the bodies and shooed away birds from the corpses. David learned of this, and ordered that the bodies be buried, along with those of Saul and Jonathan. Thus, the famine ended.
Now, to our plague story. As 2 Samuel 24. God is angry at Israel again—the text doesn’t say why, but the “again” connects us back to chapter 21--and God incites David to take a census of Israel and Judah. In other words, God puts the idea in David’s mind or otherwise suggests the census.
David tasks Joab and the other army commanders to take the census. Joab responds respectfully but also asks David why he wants to do this. But David sent them out, and the text describes their path among regions and cities.
(Joab is an interesting character in the stories of David, a commander who fulfills David’s orders and “speaks truth” to the king, but also a dangerous person who took matters into his own hands, and whom David couldn’t entirely trust. He killed Absalom for instance, contrary to the king’s orders, and then rebuked David for failing to lead in this situation: 2 Samuel 18:1-19:8. David’s last deathbed order was to have Joab slain for the murders of Abner and Amasa: 1 Kings 2:5-9).
Nine months and 20 days after David had ordered the census, Joab and the commanders returned and reported that in Israel there were 800,000 “soldiers able to draw the sword,” and 500,000 in Judah. But David “was stricken to the heart” that he had done this, and he beseeched God in repentance to remove his guilt.
The next day, Gad the seer received God’s word and reported to David that he (David) had three choices: three years of family on the land, three months of running from his enemies, or three days of pestilence. God would do the one that David chose.
David did not want to be pursued by enemies, for God’s mercy is greater than humans.
David did not choose which of the other two options, and God sent a pestilence that killed 70,000 people. The angel of God’s work was about to strike Jerusalem but God instructed the angel to stop. At that point, the angel was at the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
David say the angel and beseeched God, “I alone have sinned, and I alone have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house.”
The word of God came to Gad, who told David, “God up and erect an altar to the Lord on the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” When Araunah saw David and his servants coming, he prostrated himself and asked what David wanted. David said he was there to purchase the threshing-floor. Araunah offered him the place as a gift as well as oxen and yokes for the offering.
David responded that he wanted instead to purchase them, “I will not offer burnt-offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” He paid Araunah fifty shekels of silver and erected the altar there. God accepted the offering and averted the plague.
The same story in 1 Chronicles 21 differs in some details. (2) Notably, it is Satan who incited David to commence the census. Among other different details, Joab reported that in Israel there were 1,100,000 men “who drew the sword” in Israel, and in Judah 470,000. These numbers did not include Levi and Benjamin, “for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab.”
In Chronicles, the Jebusite’s name is Ornan—and in this story, Ornan himself sees the angel of the Lord, and he had four sons, who hid from the angel.
In this story, David paid him 600 shekels of gold by weight. With the burnt offering (lit by God’s own fire from heaven), the angel “put his sword back into its sheath.”
The chapter ends by indicating that the Tabernacle was at the high place at Gibeon, but David feared the angel’s sword and could not go there to inquire of God.
Again--without knowing about the nature of infection and disease transmission—the writer attributes the plague to the agency of God, working via an angel. In the writer’s understanding, the disease came as a result of God’s anger with his people, just as the plague in Numbers 25 expressed God’s angel. In this case, the plague was one “option” of God.
1.As you read these complementary passages, what stands out to you?
2.A question from earlier. Someone comes to you and says, “I think God is punishing me for something, because I have this serious trouble in my life.” What would you say to them?
3.The comedian Flip Wilson popularized the phrase, “The Devil made me do it!” Have you ever used that amusing excuse for doing something you regretted, or for which you were criticized?