Wednesday of Week 4 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 24:2, 8-17

Today we have our last reading from the Second Book of Samuel, where we are coming to the end of David’s life. The reading comes from the final chapter of 2 Samuel. It seems that the material was originally part of chapter 21, where we are told that there had been three consecutive years of famine.

David gives a command for a military census to be made of the whole country from the far north (Dan) to the very south (Beer-sheba). However, as soon as it was done, David deeply regretted what he had done. The preceding verse (not in our reading) implies that David’s decision was the result of God’s anger against the people and would result in a lot of suffering.

The census does not appear to have been prompted by any external threat. Since he wanted to “know how many there are”, it is evident that his action was motivated either by pride in the size of the empire he had acquired or by reliance for his security on the size of the reserve of manpower he could muster in an emergency or, more likely, both.

The mere taking of a census was hardly sinful (there were precedents in the past), but in this instance it represented an unwarranted glorying in and dependence on human power rather than the Lord (not much different from Israel’s initial desire to have a king for their security, see 1 Sam 8-12). In those days a census was often considered impious because it usurped the prerogative of God to whom alone it belonged to give increase to family and nation. The act in many ways was uncharacteristic of David.

The result of the census found that in Israel (the northern part of the kingdom) there were 800,000 men fit for military service and in Judah (the southern part) there were 500,000. Even by today’s standards for a large country, they would be huge figures, so we can take it they are highly inflated. This, of course, only makes clearer the taking of the census as a kind of hubris.

Almost immediately, David could see the whole exercise as a not so subtle act of arrogance, of pride in the size of his kingdom, and of the material resources he had to deal with any enemies. In other words, it seemed to turn the focus away from the Israelites’ real source of strength and security, namely, the Lord God, and towards themselves. David now begs God’s forgiveness for what he has done.

And indeed God seems to concur with David’s view. The following day, Gad the seer is sent with a message. David is offered a choice of three forms of punishment: three years of famine, to be on the run from his enemies for three months, or endure a pestilence for three days. The three alternative judgments were all included in the curses that Moses said would come on God’s people when they failed to adhere to their covenant obligations (see Deut 28:15-25).

It was a very difficult choice but David chose the last of the three – three days of pestilence and said:

Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great…

David, who knew both God and war, knew that even in his anger God was more merciful than man let loose in the rampages of war (see Ps 30:5).

It may have been only three days, but it coincided with the time of the wheat harvest. The death toll throughout the nation was 70,000 people. But as the plague was about to destroy Jerusalem, God relented and stayed the hand of the avenging angel. He stopped at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. This was located on Mount Moriah, immediately north of David’s city and overlooking it. Later it would become the site of the Temple.

Characteristically, David takes responsibility for the sin that had been committed. The sin was his and not that of the people. It was David’s decision to have the census. They should not have had to suffer:

I alone have sinned, and I, the shepherd, have done evil, but these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house [but not against his people].

The people of Israel were certainly not without guilt; in fact, it was the Lord’s anger against them that led David to order the census for which they would have to pay the price. Even so, David characteristically assumes full blame for his own act and acknowledges his responsibility as king for the well-being of the Lord’s people.

The story reminds us of the subtle arrogance that can rule our lives. We can set so much store by our intellectual or academic abilities, by our professional skills or status, by the material goods we have accumulated. And we forget how really vulnerable we are and how little we can do without God’s help.

There is also our constant tendency to lay the blame on others when things go wrong. We don’t find it easy to follow David’s example. Let us reflect today on where we put our day to day security and where God fits into our lifestyle.

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