Volume 48 - Issue 1

Failure to Atone: Rethinking David’s Census in Light of Exodus 30

By Paul A. Himes


Various interpretations have been offered on how David sinned in taking the census of 2 Samuel 24, but too few have seriously grappled with the implications of Exodus 30:11–16 or the structure of 2 Samuel 21–24. Taking Exodus 30:11–16 as the starting point, this article argues that David was supposed to take the census, and that, as with the situation with the Gibeonites in 2 Samuel 21, David’s role was meant to be that of one who atones for the nation’s sins, turning away God’s wrath. The final section answers potential objections such as the role of Joab.

The “wrongness” of David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 is generally assumed, and the question then becomes one of theodicy or the general incomprehensibility of God’s ways.1 Yet such a perspective, that the census itself was wrong and that God incited David to perform an immoral action, virtually ignores what the Torah has to say about taking a census and raises two difficult theological issues in the process. First, would God incite somebody to sin with whom he has a personal, intimate relationship (as contrasted with Pharaoh)? Would not this create a view of God as a capricious “agent provocateur,” for whom “the end justifies the means,” luring an innocent victim to punishment by tempting him to commit an evil act?2 Indeed, from the perspective of biblical theology, a being who tempts David to sin as an excuse to punish Israel does not sound like the God of 1–2 Samuel who “is compassionate … [who] is seen as a God of compassion who cares for the people who are oppressed and in a lamentable state.”3 One is left wondering whether or not James 1:13 possesses any relevance at all, if God did indeed incite David to commit an immoral act.

Second, why would God incite David to sin as an excuse to punish Israel for her sin? Why not simply cut out the middle-man and punish Israel directly? The problem is compounded when we see David’s clear intermediary role in the story. It is difficult to understand why it was necessary for Yhwh to incite somebody to sin in order that they may play an intermediary role so that Yhwh could punish Israel, with whom he was already angry.4 As will be noted, this point becomes more significant when compared to the episode of the Gibeonites (2 Sam 21).

Interpreters have long noted the difficulty of this passage, and its parallel in 1 Chronicles 21.5 The supposed sinfulness of David’s census is explained in a variety of ways, and scholars often hold to multiple explanations simultaneously.6 Many also focus on the general unease or perceived danger that surrounded a census within ANE culture.7

While such explanations may be helpful, and may indeed have played a role in David’s failure, they have not adequately grappled with why God incited David to sin when it was Israel he was angry with. Yet since David clearly does play an intermediary role for his people, perhaps that was the point all along. By inciting David to take a census, Yhwh intended David to fulfill the role of intermediary by initiating the atonement via the half-shekel tax, thus turning aside the anger of the Lord. Sadly, David’s failure to take the half-shekel resulted in the very plague that the atonement tax was supposed to avoid, the very punishment the Torah promised would happen. The problem was not that David’s sin caused God’s wrath; rather, David’s sin lay in the fact that he intensified God’s wrath by failing to turn it away from his sheep as intended.

A few scholars have granted the significance of the Torah here in 2 Samuel 24.8 Yet to my knowledge, almost nobody has suggested that David “failed to atone,” a key exception being Adrian Schenker.9 This paper will contribute to the discussion by (1) defending the census of Exodus 30 as a recurring event, (2) making the case for a strong link between Exodus 30:11–16 and 2 Samuel 24 while paying special attention to the theme of atonement, and (3) attempting to deal with anomalies in the 2 Samuel account and possible counter-arguments to this thesis.

1. The Census in Exodus 30:11–16

The Torah clearly mandates a census, links it to atonement, and warns of a plague if instructions for that census are not followed. Whether or not this census was meant to be recurring, however, is very controversial and will be addressed below.

1.1. Atonement and Plague

The significance of the Torah for David’s census has, in this writer’s opinion, been neglected, especially in light of the fact that all of Israel’s kings were to gain intimate awareness of the Torah via writing out their own copy (Deut 17:18–20). Surely, at a minimum, this would suggest that any failure in a future king of Israel should be analyzed first with the Torah in mind, especially if the punishment that results is the exact punishment warned about (the fact that three choices were offered to David will be discussed below).

In Exodus 30:12, the Lord speaks to Moses specifically about when Moses “lifts up the heads of the sons of Israel to number them.” The generic term for “to number,” פָקַד, appears in a variety of passages (though not always with that meaning), including 2 Samuel 24:2 and 1 Chronicles 21:6.10 Immediately after this statement in Exodus, the Lord declares that “each man will give an “atonement [כֹּפֶר] of his life to Yhwh when he numbers them.” Failure to do so would result in a plague (נֶגֶף), and the final clause of Exodus 30:16 reiterates that the half-shekel tax is “in order to atone for their lives” (לְכַפֵּר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם).11

Clearly “atonement” terminology plays a central role in this passage.12 Furthermore, the “expiatory function” of the half-shekel tax links this passage with the preceding context.13 The function of atonement is, ultimately, the “repairing and restoring” of “the relationship between the sinner and the Lord…. [It] leads to peace,” and is initiated by Yhwh himself.14

This aspect of “peace” as a restored relationship must not be missed. As Schenker has noted in his extensive study of the noun כֹּפֶר, “atonement” is essentially “an accommodation between two parties in a dispute, the guilty and the wronged.”15 Thus the injured party (God) offers Israel the opportunity to make peace with him and avoid judgement; he does so because he prefers reconciliation over conflict.16

That the need for atonement (and the danger of a plague) is directly linked to the counting of the people seems necessitated by Exodus 30:12.17 The reason behind this is unclear, though many see a primarily military purpose behind a census.18 This would seem to be implied by the age limit (20 years and younger).19 Such a focus on military preparation may have resulted in a temptation to sin that otherwise would not have existed. Victor P. Hamilton, while noting that a census would occasionally be “legitimately required,” focuses on how it could be “the occasion for boasting in one’s numbers rather than in one’s Lord, an occasion for advancing military power as one’s asset rather than divine power.”20 P. Kyle McCarter discusses the link between the census and purity laws.21 Thomas B. Dozeman suggests, “The danger in a census is that it turns the focus from faith in God as the resource of the people in war to the inherent strength of a nation.”22 Douglas K. Stuart sees a casual census, without divine permission, as the abrogation of God’s divine right to initiate holy war; thus the census, rather than functioning as a “bribe” or “penalty,” ultimately “recognized two important facts: (1) God owns the lives of his people, and (2) although he would have the right to require his people to lose their lives in battle, he generously gave them back their lives so they could enjoy the abundant life he had for them within his covenant protection.”23

The main point here is that all Israelites belonged to God, and to neglect the half-shekel tax would essentially put the Israelites under a curse. As Stuart states,

Something that rightfully belongs to God (e.g., firstborn animal, firstborn son) may be given back to its owner (e.g., one’s life) rather than taken by God as long as his rightful claim to it is recognized by the payment of the appropriate ransom/redemption/atonement fee in substitution for the thing itself. Thus if the Israelites were not capable of being ransomed, it would mean that they were in fact destined for death in war, or the principle enunciated in Lev 27:29, “No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; he must be put to death.”24

Consequently, both taking and neglecting to take the half-shekel tax for atonement manifests one’s attitude towards God’s kingship. Either the Israelites belong to God, or they do not.25 Either their lives depend on God, or they do not. To fail to take the half-shekel tax declares, in essence, that Israelite lives do not matter, that they are “on their own,” so to speak, and not bound to God.

Thus, atonement in Exodus 30:11–16 is preventative.26 It could also, however, function to repair the breach that exists between God and his people via the latter’s inherent sinfulness, an opportunity to “clear the air,” so to speak, much like the atonement of the high priest (Exod 30:10; cf. Job 1:5). Atonement could simultaneously prevent an outbreak of the plague while also functioning to remind Israelites of their close relationship with God, repairing any breach in fellowship at the same time. The census itself functions as a call to secure Israel’s relationship with God. To fail to offer the half-shekel tax not only invites catastrophe, but may exacerbate an already broken relationship with Yhwh, a relationship that would have been repaired if the atonement tax had been assessed.

1.2. Were the Census and the Tax Meant to Be Recurring?

Whether or not the command in Exodus 30:11–16 was meant to be recurring must be explored. If it was not, then David cannot be faulted for failure to take a half-shekel tax, and one must look elsewhere for a solution to the problem.

Scholars are divided on the issue. Kyle R. Greenwood, for example, argues, “The kōper received in Exodus 30 was a direct result of a poll-tax intended for the construction of the tabernacle (Exod. 38:24–26). It had a specific function in a specific milieu.”27 Furthermore, because Exodus 30 differs significantly even from Numbers 31:48–50, “A more detailed analysis would reveal that the difference between these two texts are such that one must conclude that the half-shekel kōper collected in Exodus 30 cannot be seen as a permanently binding institution, particularly one whose failure to collect would result in a national plague.”28

Yet the similarities between Numbers 31:48–54 and Exodus 30 more than outweigh their differences: a census is taken (they “lifted up the heads” [נָשְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ] in v. 49, the exact same terminology of Exod 30:12); they “atoned” [לְכַפֵּר] for their “souls/lives” [נֶפֶשׁ] (v. 50; once again, the exact same terminology as Exod 30:12); and the result was material for the tabernacle for “a memorial” (v. 54, זִכָּרוֹן, the exact same term that occurs in Exod 30:16). Numbers 31 must be giving a specific instance of the general command in Exodus 30, because otherwise why would the soldiers have assumed the offering was “to atone” (v. 50) and why else would Aaron and Eleazar have used the money for tabernacle (v. 54)?29

In further defense of the census as a recurring event, the following points are worth considering. First, the money from the census was not for the building of the tabernacle, but rather its service (עֲבֹדָה in Exodus 30:16). Since “service” is an ongoing event, this raises the question: If the census tax itself was only a one-time event, what would happen when the money ran out?

This leads to the second point, the fact that it was to be “for a memorial on behalf of the sons of Israel” (Exod 30:16, לִבְנֵייִשְׂרָאֵל לְזִכָּרוֹן), an expression which must be given due weight, since “for a memorial” (specifically the preposition lamed prefixed to זִכָּרוֹן) only occurs seven other times in Scripture (ignoring passages like Exod 39:7 and Num 38:54 where the noun occurs without the preposition): Exod 12:14, 13:9, 28:12, 28:29; Num 10:10; Josh 4:7; and Zech 6:14. In every instance, one of two things is true. Either a one-time activity was meant to have enduring, visible effects (e.g., the stones of Josh 4:7), or the activity itself was a recurrent event (e.g., Num 10:10). If the census were a one-time event, yet the money was meant to be for “service,” it is difficult to see how the first and only census could be “for a memorial” once the money ran out. Conversely, if the census were taken periodically, then the money for the upkeep would continue as a memorial, even when the tabernacle was replaced by the temple. Durham well notes the theological significance of the term “memorial” as an ongoing status:

Thus even so pragmatic and routine a necessity as the financial support of the Tabernacle and its ministry of worship is turned into an expression of the central confession of Israel’s faith. An existing procedure of counting and taxation was apparently turned from a census with an element of fear … to a passing into the ranks of those who would be remembered, each one equally, in the place where Yahweh came by promise. Here, then, as elsewhere, atonement comes to mean blessing, the blessing of being in Yahweh’s Presence, rather than escape, a flight from that same Presence. By the payment of the atonement money, Israel is to be remembered, not forgotten.30

Third, a neglected text, 2 Kings 12:5–7 [vv. 4–6 in English], demonstrates that the tax taken during a census was a natural way to help repair the temple. In this passage, Jehoash determines to repair the temple and institutes three different types of funding for that purpose. One of those means of funding is clearly a census tax (v. 5 [6]).31 The parallel account in 2 Chronicles 24 clearly equates this with something commanded by Moses (v. 6 [7], אֶת־מַשְׂאַת מֹשֶׁה, “the collection of Moses”).32 In other words, there can be no doubt in light of these passages that at least Jehoash saw the census tax as a recurring event (whether or not other kings did, or even cared). Significantly, Josephus agrees, even going so far as to state that the amount Jehoash taxed was a silver half-shekel (ἡμίσικλον ἀργύρου in Jewish Antiquities 9.161).

Fourth, although the temporal כִּי followed by an imperfect does not necessarily refer to a recurring event (it can, in fact, introduce the protasis of a one-time event, e.g., Exod 3:21), nonetheless within Exodus such a construction is the natural way to provide the protasis to a generic command, “if/when you do something” or “if/when something happens, then do this …” (e.g., Exod 21:2, 7, 14, 7, 14; 22:1, 5, 7; 23:4; etc.).33 When dealing the text of Exodus itself, the balance of evidence favors an event that is likely to happen more than once.

Finally, the immediate context of Exodus 30:11–16 favors viewing this as a recurring event. The preceding passage (vv. 1–10), though it begins with describing the building of the tabernacle, finishes with a discussion of consistent, ongoing cultic practice; indeed, v. 10 states clearly that the high priest would be consistently atoning, every year, for multiple generations (לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם). The subsequent context (vv. 17–21) once again begins with the construction of key elements of the tabernacle, but then ends with consistent, recurrent cultic activities (see especially v. 21, לְדֹרֹתָם “for their generations”). While the census was not necessarily meant to be a yearly matter (pace later interpretation), the contextual evidence does indicate it would happen more than once.34 Since both the tabernacle and the future temple would require funds for maintenance, it makes sense to have a means established in the Torah of providing those funds.

In light of this, David cannot be faulted for taking the census per se, nor does this raise a problem for theodicy if God persuaded him to do so—i.e., it was not necessarily a sin. Dillard well notes that other kings such as Jehoshaphat also had “military enrollments …, but without the dire consequences of David’s census”; indeed, Chronicles even has a positive view of “raising great armies.”35 The census itself is not the problem, and surely it seems easier to suppose that the Lord himself had a more positive reason for inciting David to take the census than to entrap David to sin as an inexplicably necessary precursor to the Lord’s punishment of Israel.

1.3. External Evidence for a Recurring Tax—DSS 4Q159 and Josephus

Two pieces of extra-biblical evidence demonstrate that at least some Second Temple Jews assumed a recurring census. First, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q159 Frag. 1 Col. 2, 6–7 states, “Concerning [the Ransom]: the money of the valuation which a man gives as ransom for his life shall be half [a shekel in accordance with the shekel of the sanctuary.] He shall give it only o[nce] in his life.” This text is paralleled by 11Q19 Col. 39, 8, which calls the half-shekel tax an “eternal law.”36

To be sure, debate existed during the Second Temple period as to how often the census should be taken. Yet the issue does not seem to revolve around whether or not it was a one-time event, but whether or not it was an annual event with an annual obligation for every man, versus a once-in-a-lifetime obligation. 4Q159, at least, favors the latter. As Jodi Magness notes, “In 4Q159 the pentateuchal regulation of the half-sheqel is understood as referring to an offering made only once in a lifetime by those included in the census.”37 This requirement that every man would pay the half-shekel, but only once in his life, seems to have been in opposition to the rabbinic tradition of an annual offering.38 Again, so far as this writer can tell, the debate within Second Temple literature was not whether the temple tax was recurring. Rather, the debate was over whether one had an obligation to pay it every year, or only once in one’s lifetime.39 Regardless, it was assumed that the census in Exodus was not a unique historical event.

Second, in Jewish Antiquities 7.318, Josephus portrays David as “completely forgetting Moses’s commands” (τῶν Μωυσέος ἐντολῶν ἐκλαθόμενος) when he desired to number the people. Josephus further clarifies here that this was Moses’s command concerning the half-shekel poll tax. Thus, so far as Josephus was concerned, Moses’s census was clearly recurrent; otherwise, Josephus’s observations about the correct way to take such a census (with a half-shekel, ἡμίσικλον) would be inexplicable.

The significance of Josephus’s discussion does not lie with its accuracy or lack thereof. Nor should one deny that Josephus sets his own “spin” on the character of David, in light of the social-political circumstances of the day.40 The neglected point, however, is that a first century Jewish author, well-versed in Jewish history, when offering a reason behind the plague that harmed Israel, naturally gravitated to the Torah.

The point of this section has not been to argue that Israel kept the census tax at every stage of her history (J. Liver, for one, points out the absence of such a tax in 2 Chronicles 31).41 The point, rather, is that the natural way to understand Exodus 30:11–16 is in reference to a tax that was expected to occur multiple times in the future, and two key pieces of Second Temple literature support this, even though debate existed in that era about the frequency of the census.

2. David’s Census in 2 Samuel 24

Having established the background of the census in the Torah, we can now turn to 2 Samuel 24 itself. We will focus on the terminology, syntax, and structure of this passage.

2.1. Key Points within 2 Samuel’s Account of the Census

Having established that the census in Exodus 30 was most likely recurring, and noting once again that all of Israel’s kings were supposed to know the Torah intimately (David being the king par excellence), we can now examine some key points of David’s census.

First, 2 Samuel 24 begins with the statement, “Then the anger of Yhwh was again kindled against Israel.” The sentence begins with a wayyiqtol (or waw-consecutive) form of יָסַף (“it was added”) combined with the infinitive of חָרָה (“it was kindled”). Since the wayyiqtol form generally deals with “schematic continuity,”42 one should naturally ask how the verb exhibits this in 24:1. In addition, the wayyiqtol of יָסַף in particular indicates the repetition of an activity that had occurred previously (e.g., Gen 4:2, 8:10; Judg 3:12, 4:1; 1 Sam 3:6; 2 Sam 5:22; etc.).43 In light of that, the key phrase here is “at/against Israel” (בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל), and the last time we see God angry at Israel is 2 Samuel 21, due to Saul’s treatment of the Gibeonites. When this point is combined with the fact of the chiasm from chs. 21–24 (the existence of which is almost universally acknowledged by scholarship—more on this below), one can reasonably conclude that a link exists between 24:1 and the famine story in ch. 21.44

With that in mind, I stress once again that the Lord is angry with Israel, not David. The problem begins at the corporate level (God is angry with Israel) and continues at the corporate level (God ultimately punishes Israel with a plague).45 The “flock” of Israel has indeed transgressed, and it was David’s job to figure out how. In other words, the language of 2 Samuel 24:1 seems to indicate the people of Israel, collectively, had sinned, rather than David, personally, being guilty through his specific actions. Whether or not David personally sinned vis-a-vis how he dealt with Absalom, for example, is beside the point.

Second, it has been generally assumed within scholarship that “incite” (סוּת) within this context necessarily refers to the act of causing an inclination within somebody to do something immoral.46 While this matter will be dealt with later (including the significance of סוּת when paired with בְּ), for now one should note that the verb by itself does not necessarily possess negative connotations. For example, in Joshua 15:18, Caleb’s daughter is clearly not inciting her father to sin (cf. the parallel passage in Judg 1:14). Similarly, in Job 36:16 the word is also used in a positive manner, in that God “allured [Job] out of distress into a broad place” (ESV). This is not to deny that the word can have negative connotations, with one party wishing the other party to do something wrong or harmful (e.g., Deut 13:6); the point is simply that the word itself hardly necessitates that meaning, and thus the use of סוּת cannot be the determining factor in deciding whether or not God incited David to commit a sinful or harmful act.

Third, the fact that whatever was wrong resulted in a corporate plague (where David himself remains untouched) must not be overlooked. Second Samuel 24 uses two specific words to denote the tragic consequences (not including general terms such as רָעָה in v. 16): דֶּבֶר (vv. 13, 15) and מַגֵּפָה (v. 25).47 Both words can clearly signify a form of illness or physical malady (e.g., Exod 9:3; Deut 28:21; 1 Kgs 8:37 for the former; Num 14:37; 17:13; 1 Sam 6:4 for the latter, though cf. 1Sam 4:17 for a more generic sense). More importantly, the latter מַגֵּפָה is a cognate for נֶגֶף, the word which occurs in Exod 30:12.48 Since נֶגֶף, though a rare word, generally seems to refer to “plague,” with Num 16:46 being the clearest instance of this (note the link to atonement in that passage), one can safely suggest that whatever the consequences of the sin in 2 Samuel 24, it is broadly the same as the consequences of improperly carrying out a census in Exodus 30.

The significance of this point must not be downplayed. If the plague was the promised result of not carrying out the half-shekel tax for atonement during a census, and if Israel suffered a plague after David carried out a census, would it not be natural to infer that David had not carried out the half-shekel tax for atonement?49 If one overhears a neighbor telling his son that the failure of the latter to cut the grass would result in his bike being confiscated, and if the next day the boy is loudly bemoaning his bike having been confiscated, then one is certainly justified in assuming that the grass was not cut!

This does not necessarily mean that David was not guilty of other sins as well; he may, for example, have decided to use the census as an excuse to raise up a corvée labor force, as some argue.50 Yet the link between “census” and “plague” is too strong to brush aside (why the Lord offered David three choices will be discussed below).51

Another aspect of the narrative also indirectly links to Exodus 30. David solves the problem of God’s judgment by purchasing land designated for cultic usage and building an altar (2 Sam 24:24–25). Then, and only then, is the plague averted. While it is too late for judgment to be averted by the Israelites themselves contributing to the upkeep of the place of worship, David is personally able to pay a price that creates a new place of worship, the site of the new temple.52 Indeed, “Though the temple was built by Solomon, the author is keen to stress that the origin of the Jerusalem cult goes back to David the ideal king of Israel.”53

One more point must be considered. Second Samuel 24 (and thus the entire book) ends with the statement, “Yhwh was entreated for the land, then the plague was restrained from all of Israel” (v. 25b). The verb עָתַר (“to be entreated”) in connection with the Lord is often used in contexts where somebody acts as an intermediary between God and somebody else (e.g., Isaac petitioning God on behalf of his wife in Gen 25:21; Pharaoh begging Moses to intercede for him with the Lord in Exod 8:8, 28; 9:28; 10:17). The fact that an almost identical expression occurs in 2 Samuel 21:14 is significant and will be discussed below.

2.2. The Chiasm of 2 Samuel 21–24

That 1 Samuel 21–24 form a chiasm has not, to my knowledge, been seriously questioned.54 While a variety of chiastic outlines have been proposed, based on each individual scholar’s theological or literary interests, the common denominators seem to be as follows:

A. Narrative: The Lord is angry at Israel, but David appeases divine wrath (21:1–14)

B. Chronicle: David’s mighty men (21:15–22)

C. Poetry: David’s psalm (22:1–51, very similar to Psalm 18)

C’. Poetry: David’s last words (23:1–7)

B’. Chronicle: David’s mighty men (23:8–39)

A’. Narrative: The Lord is angry at Israel, but David appeases divine wrath (24:1–25)

In light of this, the census account is closely linked to the need to appease God’s wrath concerning Saul’s mistreatment of the Gibeonites. The significance of the parallelism of these two events begs to be explored further.

First, working backwards, in both cases David serves as the intermediary. The expression וַיֵּעָתֵר אֱלֹהִשׁםלָעָרֶץ אַחֲרֵי־כֵן (“then, after these things, God was entreated for the land”) in 2 Samuel 21:14c is paralleled by the וַיֵּעָתֵר לָאָרֶץיְהוָה of 24:25 (“then Yhwh was entreated for the land”).55 Whatever David’s original fault might have been, he does eventually intercede for Israel. Significantly, in 21:3, David seeks to make atonement (וּבַמָּה אֲכַפֵּר), an atonement that will return Yhwh’s blessing on Israel. Although not every element in a chiasm must equal its counterpart, it seems natural to read the same role for David in the census account of ch. 24. David’s role is to once again heal the breach between the Lord and Israel.

Second, in light of וַיֹּסֶף אַף־יְהוָה לַחֲרוֹת בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל in 24:1 (“then, again, the anger of Yhwh was kindled against Israel”), I note once again that in both incidents God is angry with Israel, not David, and in such cases Israel is in danger unless God’s anger is turned away and peace is restored. In the Gibeonite episode, David handled the famine correctly by enquiring of the Lord and seeking a way to atone for the sin that God had attributed to Israel because of Saul.56 The fact that the Lord was angry at Israel again in 24:1 (on the basis of the wayyiqtol use of יָסַף, discussed earlier) would seem to indicate that the problem that incited the Lord to anger existed before the census. David may, of course, have been involved in the initial problem. Nonetheless, in both cases (chs. 21 and 24) divine wrath exists before David enters the story, and in both cases David eventually succeeds in becoming the instrument of turning away that wrath.

This fact, however, brings up a key difference between the Gibeonite episode and the census episode. In the former, David correctly saw the problem (albeit rather belatedly, after three years) and inquired of the Lord. This allowed him to atone and thus appease the Gibeonites (and God). In the latter episode, David does not seek divine guidance.57 David does follow the divine impulse implanted within him to take a census, and according to Exodus 30:11–16, the half-shekel tax associated with it would have functioned as a means of atonement, if David had taken it. David’s fault lies in failing to examine his reasons for taking a census and subsequently failing to enquire of the Lord like he did in ch. 21. As Schenke points out, by not taking the half-shekel tax, David essentially fails to recognize God’s authority and thus acts without his prerogative.58 What should have been a joint endeavor in taking the census, with David recognizing both divine sovereignty and divine initiative in atonement, results in a failure to atone and the blood of the people on David’s hands.

Yet the census episode (and hence the book) ends on a positive note. Just as with the Gibeonite episode, David eventually turns away divine wrath. Since taking a census without the temple tax is a violation of the Torah, David now has his own sin to atone for as well, which he does.59 Indeed, once David purchased the threshing floor, “There he committed himself to worship, through sacrifice that made atonement, and shared with the community.”60 Finally David functions as the intermediary he was supposed to be.

3. Anomalies and Potential Objections

No matter what position one takes on the nature of David’s census, certain anomalies remain. First amongst these is the role of Joab. His recalcitrance at taking the census seems justified in light of 2 Samuel 24:10. Yet one is forced to ask, does the narrator truly wish us to view Joab as the voice of reason? After all, Joab’s role a few chapters earlier (2 Sam 20:9–10) is hardly that of the ideal, morally upright man.

The answer to that question will of necessity depend on how one views Joab throughout the whole story of David. Michael A. Eschelbach has done well to focus on Joab’s role as a literary foil throughout 2 Samuel, though this writer is skeptical of Eschelbach’s overly positive approach towards Joab.61 At the very least Eschelbach demonstrates that Joab’s literary role brings tension to what otherwise would have been a straightforward activity.

Consequently, to ask whether Joab is right or wrong in 2 Samuel 24 is to ask the wrong question. Indeed, one cannot even tell what Joab’s motives are in objecting to the census. The most one should assert is that Joab has a sense of general unease.62 As a result, the reader also should feel that unease, a sense that something is out of place with David’s census.

The ideal audience of 2 Samuel, however, should possess knowledge of the Torah, knowledge that both Joab and the king seem to lack. That the Law of God is completely absent from both David’s and Joab’s speeches should point to their general cluelessness. David follows the divine impulse to take the census, but does so completely oblivious of the proper reason or method. He does the right thing, but in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. Joab senses David’s wrong motives and rightly questions him, but fails to realize that the impulse to take the census comes from God himself. Neither knows the Torah like they should. Of course, this is not the first time the narrator has portrayed David as neglecting the Torah (cf. 2 Sam 11:4).

Second, the fact that David is offered a choice between three punishments, instead of simply being hit with a plague, must be discussed at both the literary and theological level. At the literary level, R. A. Carlson may be correct when he notes, “In 24:13, David is given a qělālāh choice which shows in retrospect that the triple misfortune of flight, famine and pestilence which comes upon him in 2 Sam..… The first two alternatives put before David by Gad the seer evidently allude to what has passed.”63

At the theological level, one may suggest that Yhwh’s choice of three punishments also challenges David to see if he knows the proper punishment mandated by the Torah for an improper census. In other words, David is being challenged to search the Torah. David may, in fact, have actually chosen correctly (rather than allowing the Lord to decide between two), since David’s expression “by the hand of the Lord” may have indicated that he was choosing the plague.64 The translator of the LXX certainly thought so.65 In addition, one could argue that of the three options only the plague could truly be said to function “purely at Yhwh’s pleasure” since in famine “the wealthy inevitably eat at the expense of the poor.”66

Next, one could object at this point that in the expression וַיָּסֶת אֶת־דּוִד בָּהֶם (“and [the Lord] incited David against them”) in 2 Samuel 24:1, the combination of this verb plus the beth preposition must portray the Lord moving David in a way that is meant to harm Israel. I offer here a couple points in response. First, neither סוּת nor the beth preposition by themselves necessitate the idea that God was trying to get David to do something harmful against Israel. For the former, we note again Joshua 15:18 and Job 36:16. For the latter, the preposition could, in theory, be causal, i.e., God moved David to act in a particular way because of Israel.67 That a beth causa can take a group of people as its object is clear from the dialogue between Abraham and God in Genesis 18:28–31, where we have multiple instances of a verb immediately followed by a beth causa with, as its object, a number representing a group of people.68

The combination of סוּת (“to incite”) with בְּ allows for an event with negative connotations. Yet the construction is very rare (only 5 times in the entire Hebrew Bible; the verb occurs a total of 18 times).69 Out of those 4 other occurrences, one of them clearly does not fit the pattern of “A inciting B to harm C,” specifically Job 36:18, where the beth is probably instrumental.70 Consequently, the possibility exists of taking the construction in 2 Samuel 24:1 as involving a beth causa. Regardless, this rare two-word construction is neither clear enough nor consistent enough to definitively determine what is going on in the story.

In other words, a two-word construction that only occurs five times in the entire Hebrew Bible, when one of those constructions clearly has a different sense than the other four, can hardly be determinative for understanding this passage.

Finally, space does not permit this paper to reconcile the differences between Samuel and Chronicles.71 A couple points are in order, however. First, understanding שָׂטָן (satan) in 1 Chronicles 21:1 as a human military adversary (the means by which God urges David to take a census) would fit well with this paper’s view of 2 Samuel 24, and this writer is skeptical that 1 Chronicles 24:1 would be the only place in the entire Hebrew Bible where an anarthrous שָׂטָן is meant to be taken as a proper name.72 Nonetheless, the contrary perspective would not challenge my thesis; after all, God and “the Adversary” may have both had different motives for persuading David to take the census, the former for the benefit of Israel, the latter against it.

In addition, William Johnstone has demonstrated how David’s census in 1 Chronicles 21 can also be viewed through the lens of David’s failure to follow the Torah.73 Both the Chronicler and the Deuteronomist may be making similar points. Second Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 can be theologically reconciled, though the precise details of that must await further discussion.

4. Conclusion

Linking 2 Samuel 24 to Exodus 30 helps one better understand the significance of David’s sin. God was angry with Israel, not David, and God naturally sought for a means of renewing peace between his people and himself. David was to be the intermediary but initially failed in that role by not following the Torah’s instructions for the atonement tax. The result is precisely what the Torah warned against and precisely what tends to befall the Israelites when God’s anger is not appeased—a plague.

A satisfactory analysis of David’s census in Samuel via Exod 30:11–16 has hitherto been lacking in most scholarly treatments. By viewing the census in 2 Samuel 24 through the lens of the Torah, one can satisfactorily answer the issue of the purpose of the census without raising unnecessary questions of theodicy. This approach also opens up new avenues of biblical theological interpretation of 2 Samuel, including a more comprehensive “theology of census and numbering,” as well as further study on the theme of atonement and David’s role as intercessor. Such studies of David’s role as an intermediary (no matter how imperfect), can naturally point the way towards David’s perfect Son.74

[1] For example, Paul Borgman states, “The text insists on the sinfulness of the act, but does not explain exactly what is so wrong about it…. God incites David to commit a sin—so that God can punish Israel!” (David, Saul, and God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008], 212). Gnana Robinson declares, “We have here a primitive understanding of the moral nature of God—that God incites people to sin. (Let Us Be Like the Nations: A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel, International Theological Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 283). One of the most recent treatments of the topic even acknowledges that its thesis “does not resolve the theological issue that results from the characterization of God as a petty, jealous, callous ruler who willingly punishes his people for an act he himself incites” (Song-Mi Suzie Park, “Census and Censure: Sacred Threshing Floors and Counting Taboos in 2 Samuel 24,” HBT 35 [2013]: 41 n. 89). Cf. also Antony F. Campbell 2 Samuel, FOTL 8 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 207; Joshua J. Adler, “David’s Census: Additional Reflections,” JBQ 24 (1996): 255–57; Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1973), 351.

[2] Adrian Schenker, Der Mächtige im Schmelzofen des Mitleids: Eine Interpretation von 2 Sam 24, OBO 24 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1982), 19–20.

[3] John A. Martin, “Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, Part 4: The theology of Samuel,” BibSac 141 (1984): 303–13, esp. 307.

[4] As Elizabeth Robar argues, the wayyiqtol “has to do with schematic continuity”; “it functions as a consecutive tense” (The Verb and the Paragraph in Biblical Hebrew: A Cognitive Linguistic Approach, SSLL 78 [Leiden: Brill, 2015], 77, 102). If the wayyiqtol forms of 1 Samuel 24:1 are meant to indicate sequence, then clearly the Lord is angry with Israel before he pushes David towards taking a census.

[5] David G. Firth calls it “one of the most perplexing narratives in Samuel, if not the OT as a whole” (1 & 2 Samuel, ApOTC [Nottingham: Apollos, 2009], 548).

[6] For a variety of perspectives, sometimes by the same author, see Joshua J. Adler, “David’s Last Sin: Was it the Census?”, JBQ 23 (1995): 91–95, and Adler, “Additional Reflections,” 255–57; Bill T. Arnold, 1 and 2 Samuel, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 643; Shimon Bakon, “David’s Sin: Counting the People,” JBQ 41 (2013): 53–54; Robert Barron, 2 Samuel, Brazos Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), 200; Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 351; Tony W. Cartledge, 1 and 2 Samuel, SHBC (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 698–700; Raymond B. Dillard, “David’s Census: Perspectives on II Samuel and I Chronicles 21,” in Through Christ’s Word: A Festschrift for Dr. Philip E. Hughes, eds. W. Robert Godfrey and Jesse L. Boyd III (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1985), 94–107, esp. 106; Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, ECC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 48; Firth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 541, 545; Kyle R. Greenwood, “Labor Pains: The Relationship between David’s Census and Corvée Labor,” BBR 20 (2010): 467–77; Grace Ko, “2 Samuel 21–24: A Theological Reflection on Israel’s Kingship,” OTE 31 (2018): 114–31, esp. 121–22; Peter J. Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 and 2 Samuel (Moscow, ID: Canon, 288); Park, “Census and Censure,” 21–41.

[7] E.g., P. Kyle McCarter, II Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 9 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), 512–13; Frank Michaeli, Le Livre de L’Exode, CAT 2 (Paris: Delachaux & Niestlé, 1974), 264; Gerhard von Rad, Theologie des alten Testaments (München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1957), 1:316 n. 17 (where he discusses the work of Livius). For a comprehensive comparison of the census in the Old Testament with ancient Mari texts, see E. A. Speiser, “Census and Ritual Expiation in Mari and Israel,” BASOR 149 (1958): 17–25.

[8] E.g., Cartledge, 1 and 2 Samuel, 700; Ko, “2 Samuel 21–24,” 114–31, esp. 121; McCarter, II Samuel, 513–14; Park, “Census and Censure,” 27.

[9] Schenker, “Der Mächtige im Schmelzofen des Mitleids,” 18.

[10] All word searches and syntactical searches conducted utilizing Accordance 11.2 (OakTree Software, 2016). All translations are this writer’s own, unless otherwise noted. Also, see the discussion in William Johnstone, 1 and 2 Chronicles, JSOTSup 253 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 1:228, for a comparison of the פקד root in 1 Chron 23–26 with Exodus 30:11–16).

[11] Regarding the theological significance of how concrete “value” is often linked to atonement, see the excellent discussion in Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 245–47.

[12] T. Desmond Alexander, Exodus, ApOTC (London: Apollos, 2017), 603.

[13] Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: JPS, 1991), 195; similarly, Alexander, Exodus, 602.

[14] Jay Sklar, “Sin and Atonement: Lessons from the Pentateuch,” BBR 22 (2012): 467–91, esp. 468 and 470.

[15] Adrien Schenker, “Kōper et expeation,” Biblica 63 (1982): 32–46, quote from p. 45 (my translation). Schenker points out how the use of כפר in Exodus 21:30 constitutes an alternative that avoids capital punishment, if the aggrieved party so desires (p. 33).

[16] Schenker, “Kōper et expeation,” 45–46. Schenker aptly writes that God “loves to be reconciled; he does not wish to hold a grudge” (my translation).

[17] William H. C. Propp, Exodus 19–40: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 2B (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 535.

[18] Dozeman, Exodus, 666; Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 511; McCarter, II Samuel, 514; Speiser, “Census and Ritual Expiation,” 17–25, esp. 17; and Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, NAC 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 636.

[19] See the discussion in Stuart, Exodus, 638, and McCarter, II Samuel, 514, in light of Numbers 1:2–3, etc. This is not, of course, an “either-or” situation. The census probably involved both military and cultic matters. Cartledge states that in Exodus 30 “the expected ransom price also gives a cultic meaning to the institution of the census, one that was apparently ignored in 2 Samuel 24” (1 and 2 Samuel, 700).

[20] Hamilton, Exodus, 511.

[21] McCarter, II Samuel, 514 (in the context of Exod 30); cf. Propp, Exodus 19–40, 535.

[22] Dozeman, Exodus, 666 (Dozeman specifically mentions David’s census in this context).

[23] Stuart, Exodus, 636–37. Cf. Park, “Census and Censure,” 32.

[24] Stuart, Exodus, 637. Stuart, almost unique among commentators, sees significance in this for both New Testament theology and Christology (pp. 637–39).

[25] As R. Alan Cole states, “All Israel collectively was God’s first-born (Ex. 4:22),” and thus Exodus 30:11–16 “is an extension of the same principle of ‘redemption’” (Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC 2 [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973], 206).

[26] Schenker, Der Mächtige im Schmelzofen des Mitleids, 17 (“Der Sühnpreis ist hier nicht heilend nach eingetretener Wunde, sondern vorbeugend, …”). See also Propp, Exodus 19–40, 536; and Johnstone, 1 and 2 Chronicles, 1:228–29.

[27] Greenwood, “Labor Pains,” 467–77, esp. 469.

[28] Greenwood, “Labor Pains,” 467–77, esp. 469. In agreement with Greenwood, see Alexander, Exodus, 603; Sarna, Exodus, 195; Hamilton, Exodus, 510. For representatives of the positive view (that the census is recurrent), see Propp, Exodus 19–40, 537, and Stuart, Exodus, 636. Also, some scholars see a future form of this census in Matthew 17:24–27 (Propp, Exodus, 537; Hamilton, Exodus, 537; Cole, Exodus, 206). Cole goes one step further by seeing the census in Nehemiah 10:32 as “its collection in the post-exilic period. In days of economic stress, Nehemiah had to rest satisfied with one third of a shekel” (p. 206).

[29] Granted, in Numbers 26 the same terminology for initiating a census is used in v. 2, but without the accompanying “memorial” and “atonement” terminology elsewhere in the chapter. Interestingly, this census actually occurs after a plague, and a key emphasis on the chapter is on their future inheritance in the promised land. Absence of those terms in the description does not necessarily imply that a tax was not taken.

[30] John I. Durham, Exodus, WBC 3 (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 403.

[31] Significantly, the word for “passing over” (עָבַר) in 2 Kings 12:5, within the context of a monetary value for one’s “soul/life” (נֶפֶשׁ) also occurs in Exodus 30:12–13. On this point, and the link between this passage and Exodus 30:11–16, see C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. James Martin, reprint ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989), 3:366–67.

[32] However, J. Liver suggests that this is actually a reference to the collection of Exodus 25 (“The Half-Shekel Offering in Biblical and Post-Biblical Literature,” HTR 56 [1963]: 173–98, esp. 178). Yet in Exodus 25:2 there is no numbering of the people like we see in 2 Kings 12:5 [4]. To be fair, though, both Exodus 25:2 and 2 Kings 12:5 [4] seem to combine elements of taxation with free-will offering.

[33] For a discussion of כִּי as a temporal conjunction, see Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 161–62.

[34] Propp, Exodus 19–40, 537.

[35] Dillard, “David’s Census,” 104.

[36] Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr., and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007), 231, 611. I am grateful to Martin Abegg for pointing me to DSS 11Q19 as well (in a personal e-mail).

[37] Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scroll (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 190; note also 193.

[38] See the discussion in Liver, “The Half-Shekel Offering,” 173–98, esp. 195.

[39] I am grateful to Martin Abegg and Edward M. Cook for their e-mail correspondence and assistance in understanding 4Q159. Any mistakes are the sole responsibility of this writer.

[40] See the insightful treatment by Louis H. Feldman, “Josephus’ Portrait of David,” HUCA 60 (1989): 129–74 (Feldman discusses Josephus’s perspective of David’s census on p. 160).

[41] Liver, “The Half-Shekel Offering,” 173–98, esp. 181.

[42] Robar, Verb and the Paragraph in Biblical Hebrew, 77.

[43] I could find no exceptions, though occasionally the sense seems to be an intensifying of an action/attitude that was already there (e.g., the hatred of Gen 37:5, 8 or the fear of 1 Sam 18:29).

[44] As argued by, e.g., S. R. Driver, Notes on the Hebrew Text of Samuel, reprint ed. (Winona Lake, IN: Alpha, 1984), 372; McCarter, II Samuel, 509.

[45] Graeme Auld well notes, “Although David and his actions and his responses bulk very large in this extended narrative, it is important to note that the final word of the very different introductory clauses of 2 Sam 24:1 and 1 Chron 21:1 is the same. The prior prepositions may be different, but the name is the same. The story is about ‘Israel’: it is the people that is in focus” (1 & II Samuel, OTL [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011], 605).

[46] See footnote 1.

[47] Τhe terminology of 2 Samuel is mirrored in 1 Chronicles 21:12, 14, and 17. Within the Septuagint, 2 Samuel 24:13–15 and 1 Chronicles 21:12, 14 both use θάνατος (occasionally used to refer to a physical malady, e.g., Exod 10:17). Second Samuel 24:25, however, uses θραῦσις, (a rare word, though it clearly refers to a plague in Num 16:47–50) while 1 Chronicles 21:17 uses the more generic ἀπώλεια. Exodus 30:12 uses the rare πτῶσις, which generally refers to either a literal or metaphorical “fall” (thus, “destruction”). Josephus generally prefers λοιμός (Jewish Antiquities 7.321, 324, 329, though in 7.324 he calls it τὴν νόσον (cf. LXX Deut 7:15; 2 Chron 21:15; etc.). Each of these words, including θάνατος in some contexts, can indicate physical illness.

[48] Both words are often treated together, e.g., Leonard J. Coppes, “נָגַף,” in TWOT 2:552 (entries 1294a and 1294b).

[49] Speiser, “Census and Ritual Expiation,” 17–25, esp. 22.

[50] E.g., Cartledge, 1 and 2 Samuel, 700; Greenwood, “Labor Pains,” 467–77; Bakon, “David’s Sin,” 53–54.

[51] Peter J. Leithart argues for viewing 2 Samuel 24 in light of another passage in Exodus, the Passover story (A Son to Me, 288–89). There may indeed be some intertextual links here, but Leithart surely goes too far when he states, “David suffered plagues as Pharaoh did, and this suggests that he committed a sin analogous to Pharaoh’s” (p. 289). The problem is that David did not suffer from the plagues himself; in fact, he was fully aware of the incongruity of his people suffering while he did not (24:17)! The people, not David, suffered via a plague. Whereas Pharaoh suffered alongside his people, David did not. This amplifies the fact that the problem begins with the people, not David, as 24:1 indicates.

[52] See the insightful discussion in Johnstone, 1 and 2 Chronicles, 1:235. Also, as David Toshio Tsumura notes, with this pericope “The books of Samuel thus end anticipating the building that David himself had desired but had not been allowed to accomplish” (The Second Book of Samuel, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), 339.

[53] Robinson, Let Us Be Like the Nations, 282; cf. Arnold, 1 and 2 Samuel, 646.

[54] For a discussion of the chiasm, the reader should especially note Arnold, 1 and 2 Samuel, 615–16, 648; Borgman, David, Saul, and God, 177; Antony F. Campbell, “2 Samuel 21–24: The Enigma Factor,” in For and Against David: Story and History in the Books of Samuel, eds. A. Graeme Auld and Erik Eynikel, BETL (Leuven: Peeters, 2010), 347–58, esp. 348; Firth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 502; and Leithart, A Son to Me, 268. In what is probably the most recent scholarly treatment, Ko insightfully suggests, “The core of the chiasmus of these chapters emphasizes the divine election of David, and the requirement of kingship in Israel: that the king should rule under the guidance and governance of the One True King, Yahweh” (“2 Samuel 21–24,” 114–31, esp. 133).

[55] As Leithart notes, “Τhere is a clear parallel in the final cause of each story” (A Son to Me, 287). Bruce K. Waltke and Charles Yu further amplify this point (drawing on the work of Ronald Youngblood)—“The framing prayers of David [vis-à-vis the chiasm] while Israel is under God’s wrath present an important dimension of the ideal king’s relationship to God…. Both stories present David in extreme circumstances praying effective intercessory prayers, and both show that God’s grace is greater than God’s wrath” (An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical and Thematic Approach [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007], 674).

[56] Firth is certainly correct to note how the sin of the monarch can cause guilt to be attributed to the nation as a whole (1 and 2 Samuel, 502). Yet I believe he goes too far in stating, “As before, David must find the mechanism for ameliorating Yhwh’s anger, but the crucial difference is that this time the sin is his own” (p. 541). To the contrary, the Lord was already angry at Israel, before the census happened. The sin that David is supposed to atone for is Israel’s sin, but he exacerbates the problem by not functioning as intermediary like he is supposed to, at least not initially. Having said that, I do appreciate Firth’s later discussion of David seeking “atonement” for both himself and Israel (p. 548).

[57] One could even go so far as to say that, since David does not seek direction as to why God is angry at Israel, the reader also never learns why God is angry at Israel, in contrast to the Gibeonite episode.

[58] Schenke, Der Mächtige im Schmelzofen des Mitleids, 16–18. This article’s thesis is compatible with traditional interpretations that David was prideful. The point, however, is that there is much more to the story.

[59] Firth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 549.

[60] Firth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 549.

[61] Michael A. Eschelbach, Has Joab Foiled David? A Literary Study of the Importance of Joab’s Character in Relation to David, StBibLit 76 (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), esp. 7, 72–76. For a general critique of the moral character of Joab, see Caleb Henry, “Joab: A Biblical Critique of Machiavellian Tactics,” WTJ 69 (2007): 327–43.

[62] Robert P. Gordon writes, “Joab voices what was probably a popular distrust of censuses” (1 and 2 Samuel: A Commentary [Exeter: Paternoster, 1986], 317; emphasis original). For various other suggestions, see Adler, “David’s Last Sin,” 91–5, esp. 91–2; A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Second Book of Samuel with Notes and Introduction, Cambridge Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1919), 224; Hans-Peter Mathys, “Der unbekannte Joab,” BZ 64 (2020): 32–38; and Henry Preserved Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, ICC (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1904), 389.

[63] R. A. Carlson, David the Chosen King: A Traditio-Historical Approach to the Second Book of Samuel, trans. Eric J. Sharpe and Stanley Rudman (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1964), 204.

[64] See Eveline van Staalduine-Sulman, The Targum of Samuel, Studies in the Aramaic Interpretation of Scripture (Leidon: Brill, 2002), 695; McCarter Jr. II Samuel, 511; J. J. M. Roberts, “The Hand of Yahweh,” VT 21 (1971): 244–51, esp. 248–49.

[65] While Peter R. Ackroyd suggests that “both famine and pestilence would qualify for David’s choice,” he does helpfully note that the LXX clearly has David choosing the plague (The Second Book of Samuel, CBC [London: Cambridge University Press, 1977], 232). The LXX unambiguously states, Καὶ ἐξελέξατο ἑαυτῷ Δαυιδ τὸν θάνατον (“and David chose for himself the death [i.e., plague]”).

[66] Cartledge, 1 and 2 Samuel, 705; cf. Leithart, who notes that a famine would “force [David] to rely on other men” by “buying food from other countries” (A Son to Me, 291 n. 24).

[67] For discussion of the causative use of beth, see Arnold and Choi, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 119; Christo H. J. van der Merwe, Jackie A. Naudé, and Jan H. Kroeze, A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar (London: T&T Clark, 2002), 282.

[68] I am indebted for this particular example to Ronald J. Williams, Williams’ Hebrew Syntax, 3rd ed., rev. and exp. by John C. Beckman (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 99.

[69] The four occurrences of סות followed by בְּ (other than 2 Sam 24:1) are 1 Samuel 26:19; Jeremiah 43:3; Job 2:3; and 36:18.

[70] Regarding the instrumental use of beth, see Arnold and Choi, Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 118. Regarding the difficulties of Job 36:18, see John E. Hartley, The Book of Job, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 474.

[71] These differences are capably discussed in Eugene H. Merrill, “The Chronicler: What Kind of Historian Was He Anyway?” BibSac 165 (2008): 397–412, esp. 407–11.

[72] For a defense of שׂטן as referring to a foreign, human military adversary, see John H. Sailhamer, “1 Chronicles 21:1—A Study in Inter-Biblical Interpretation,” TrinJ 10 (1989): 33–48, esp. 41–43.

[73] See William Johnstone, 1 and 2 Chronicles, especially 1:225, 227–29, and 231.

[74] This article is a direct result of having taught Hebrew History every Fall for the past eight years, and I am grateful to my students for their interaction and encouragement and occasionally pointing me to a specific resource. I am grateful to the suggestions of the anonymous peer reviewers of this and past versions of this paper, and to the original audience of this paper at a regional ETS meeting at Moody Bible Institute. Some of the thoughts regarding Joab and his character were cultivated through my interaction with participants at this ETS meeting. Finally, I am grateful to my research assistant, Devon Swanson, for assistance in proofreading and improving on clarity. Any mistakes or faulty reasoning are the sole responsibility of this writer.

Paul A. Himes

Paul A. Himes is professor of Bible and ancient languages at Baptist College of Ministry in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

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