II Samuel 24

By Levi Clancy for לוי on

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2 Samuel 24 can be split into three section: David takes a census of Israel (2 Samuel 24:1-9); David is stricken with grief over his acts, and is given a choice of various punishments to descend upon israel (2 Samuel 24:10-14); God orders an angel to deliver a plague onto Israel as punishment for David's actions (2 Samuel 24:15-17); and David erects an altar at the spot where the angel was halted by God (2 Samuel 24:18-25).

1 Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go, count the people of Israel and Judah." ... 8 So when they had gone through all the land, they came back to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. ...10 But afterward, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people. David said to the Lord, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly."

At first I wondered: Why would god incite David to do something, and when David goes to do it, then God gets really upset?

This chapter begins a bit confusingly but the answers are clear with some guidance: he of 2 Samuel 24:1 actually refers to Satan, as indicated by 1 Chronicles 21:1, and the census is clearly stated as wrong in Exodus 30:12. However, the exact reason for why a census is so awful is not totally resolved. According to Exodus 30:12, when the king does take a census, offerings must be made to God to atone for the act; it must be a royal encroachment on divine power.

It is unclear what role God's anger had in David's temptation. Perhaps some accidental sin had caused God to shun Israel in anger, and this void left David vulnerable to the Devil's temptations.

Regardless, the census begins in 2 Samuel 24:5 with crossing the river Jordan, making explicit what had been tacit, that the events so far in 2 Samuel 24 had occurred in Jerusalem, the political center and also the axis mundi where the divine could communicate with the mortals.

Then in 2 Samuel 24:10, David is stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people. He acknowledges his sins, and God responds by letting David choose from three punishments which will afflict Israel as atonement.

David chooses the briefest one, a pestilence which is free of military obstacles; in 2 Samuel 24:14, David remarks, let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.

15 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from that morning until the appointed time; and seventy thousand of the people died, from Dan to Beer-sheba. 16 But when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented concerning the evil, and said to the angel who was bringing destruction among the people, "It is enough; now stay your hand." The angel of the Lord was then by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 17 When David saw the angel who was destroying the people, he said to the Lord, "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."

Right as the angel is about to release the pestilence upon Jerusalem, God asks the angel to not continue.

Eliade would use the term hierophany to categorize what happened. This early event marked this city as different from the rest of Israel. The prophet then relays to David that the threshing floor, the spot where the hierophany occurred, is where David should build an altar. David arrives there and purchases the land and also sacrificial animals from Araunah.

He promptly builds the altar and gives offerings to God. This depicts David as initiating Solomon's Temple, by building an altar and offering sacrifice at the eventual location where the temple will be built. David has fulfilled the military and religious functions of an ancient near eastern king, and his Biblical story is thus complete. Solomon comes next.

The passage vividly captures a range of hierophanies.

The hierophianies are manifested via the different senses: the conversations with God heard by David's prophet, and the angel seen by David as it casts a negative, destructive pestilence felt across Israel. The layout of the territory is well captured, mostly summarily with respect to the census and the pestilence, until mention of Jerusalem: this city is to be spared; it is the home of God.

2 Samuel 24 is laden with manifestations of God, culminating in a lethal plague that rages until God calls it to an end at the gates of the Holy City where his temple stands.