II Samuel 24: Security in Religion, Debt, Faith, Works, Etc.

My weekly quiet time this week was on II Samuel 24, in which David takes a census of the people of Israel, leading God to punish him by sending a pestilence upon the nation.  Here are a couple of points:

1.  One quote that stood out to me was by E.A. Speiser, which appears in P. Kyle McCarter’s Anchor Bible commentary on II Samuel (pp. 512-513).  Speiser refers to Exodus 30:12-13, which states (NRSV): When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the LORD, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD.  When the Israelites were numbered, they were supposed to pay money as a ransom for their lives, so that no plague would come upon them. 

According to Speiser, the “Middle Bronze Age city of Mari in northwestern Mesopotamia” also had ritual purification whenever it conducted a census.  Why?  For Speiser, it had to do with feelings of insecurity that came upon people when they were enrolled for the military draft (a big purpose behind the census).  With these sentiments, people felt a need to appease the gods to receive protection.  As Speiser states:

There must have been a time when the Near Easterner shrank from the thought of having his name recorded in lists that might be put to unpredictable uses.  Military conscription was an ominous process because it might place the life of the enrolled in jeopardy.  The connection between the cosmic “books” of life and death might have been much too close for one’s peace of mind.  It would be natural in these circumstances to propitiate unknown powers, or seek expiation as a general precaution.

A big role of religion for many people is to give them a sense of security.  It’s always been that way.  It’s that way for me.  I may not understand why bad things happen, but I try to trust that God has a purpose.  And, even if things don’t turn out well in this life, I have the hope of an afterlife.  As Paul affirms, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

2.  There are many tensions in this chapter (sorry for using that word, BryanL!).  God incites David to conduct the census because God’s mad at Israel and wants an excuse to afflict her (II Samuel 24:1); yet, if Israel is guilty of something, David obviously doesn’t know anything about it, for he asks God to spare Israel and punish him and his house instead because he’s the sinner, whereas the Israelites are innocent (II Samuel 24:17).

I’ve been reading ex-fundamentalist Ken Pulliam’s critiques of penal substitution, the doctrine that Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sins.  One of his posts that I read today was Penal Substitutionary Atonement Eliminates True Forgiveness.  According to Pulliam (who has a Ph.D. from Bob Jones University and was a fundamentalist intellectual for years, before he became an agnostic), penal substitution is not compatible with forgiveness, for, in the former, Jesus pays the debt of our sins; in the latter, God cancels the debt so nobody has to pay it.

When I was at DePauw, I met with the Intervarsity leader on the campus, and he was really big on penal substitution.  He believed that we owed a debt to God because of our sins, and God couldn’t just remove that debt without the price being paid.  When I asked him “Why not?,” he replied: “Suppose someone destroyed your car with a sledgehammer and then said he was sorry.  Would you let him off?”  I said “no,” for I’d want him or somebody else to pay for my car.  His point was made: sin is so evil and destructive, that God would be trivializing it were he to simply let sinners off.  A debt needs to be paid, and, for him, that’s what Jesus Christ did on the cross.

Even Ken Pulliam is sensitive to this, for he states in the comments under his post, Controversy over PST in the UK Evangelical AllianceI think the biblical picture is this: Retribution (payment) has to take place first before there can be restoration of relationship. To try to restore the relationship before retribution or payment is made is impossible as I understand the Bible.  When we do something against God or somebody else, it’s not enough for us to simply say we’re sorry.  There’s a “debt” in the relationship, and it needs to be paid through some form of restitution.   

In II Samuel 24, we clearly see a debt.  David sins against the LORD when he conducts a census, and the results were most likely damaging.  According to some scholars, David (through the census) was basically broadcasting to the people of Israel and the surrounding nations that he did not trust God: that he had to make sure Israel had a lot of people for her army, indicating that he trusted in numbers rather than God for victory and security.  This, even though I Samuel 14:6 says God can deliver by many or by few.  Numbers don’t matter to God!  But David was saying that God was not enough for his nation’s security, and he didn’t even acknowledge his nation’s dependence on God by paying the money that was supposed to accompany the census (Exodus 30:12-13). 

It would be one thing if David were an average Israelite and didn’t trust God, but he was the leader of Israel, so his words and deeds carried weight!  When Israelites saw that he was conducting a census, perhaps they’d conclude that they could trust their nation’s military might rather than God, since their leader was doing so.  And what about the surrounding nations?  They were probably thinking: “David was always blowing off about how great his God is, but it doesn’t look to us like he’s trusting his God!  He may talk about God, but, when the rubber hits the road, he trusts his military might.  So maybe his God’s not so powerful, after all!”  So David’s act had damaging results.

And David was convicted of sin right after the census.  II Samuel 24:10 says: 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.”  God is often moved by the repentant, but he didn’t feel that he could simply let David off.  The damage was too great, and the debt was too high.  And so God punished Israel with a pestilence, upholding his reputation as the all-powerful God. 

But we see a co-existence between the polarities of God’s justice and mercy: God punishes David and Israel, yet, when God offers David a choice of punishment, David chooses the penalty of pestilence over falling into the hands of his enemies, for God is the one who will conduct the pestilence (through an angel).  David realizes that God, unlike human beings, is merciful.  There is a debt, but God’s mercy exists in his collecting.

Another tension in the chapter is between grace through faith and works.  David’s sin is that he relies on his own military strength (his works) rather than God’s strength.  When David wants to conduct the census, his commander Joab is skeptical, saying (II Samuel 24:3): “May the LORD your God increase the number of the people a hundredfold, while the eyes of my lord the king can still see it! But why does my lord the king want to do this?”  Joab is exhorting David that God will take care of him and his nation.  God will give it the big numbers!  Why does David need to see how many people his nation has?  He should simply trust in God, rather than worrying about those kinds of details!

Yet, when David’s seer, Gad, tells David to build an altar on the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite and offer animals on it so as to supplicate the LORD, and Araunah offers David the floor and some animals for free, David refuses, saying (II Samuel 24:24): “No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.”  David wants to participate in his own salvation and that of Israel.  He doesn’t want grace to be free.  He has an attitude similar to James McGrath when he criticized penal substitution, in his post What Do You Say That I Did?:

For Paul, the key meaning of Jesus’ death is summed up well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “one died for all, and therefore all died”. That’s almost the exact opposite of the popular Evangelical message, “one died instead of all, so that they might not have to die”. Even if we conclude that Paul’s language of “dying with Christ” is just another way of talking metaphorically about denying ourselves and self-sacrifice, it nevertheless makes clear that the Christian view of “salvation” expressed here is not about Jesus doing something instead of us, but of something that involves us and happens to us and in us. Ironically, while some feel they are glorifying God by making atonement something that involves no action or effort on our part, they’ve also radically departed from a central component of early Christian belief.

Or he’s like the Susan Sarandon character (Sister Helen Prejean) in Dead Man Walking.  A murderer (played by Sean Penn) said that, after his execution, he’d go to heaven, say he believed in Jesus, and immediately enter the pearly gates, no questions asked!  But Sister  “>Prejean told him that Christianity is not a free-pass to heaven, for he had to participate in his own salvation through repentance.  Similarly, David realized that God was offering salvation to his nation, but he felt the need to participate in it, meaning there had to be some cost on his part.  Otherwise, the salvation would be cheap.  And sin is too serious a matter for salvation to be cheap!

Debt.  Justice.  Mercy.  Forgiveness.  Sparing people at the last minute.  Trusting in God rather than self, yet participating in one’s own salvation and that of one’s people.  There is tension in this chapter, and there are non-Christians (like Ken Pulliam in Can one be “saved” by just reading the Bible?) who believe that tension in the Bible is a reason to reject it.  I disagree, for many of these concepts in tension with one another look like they have value, that they’re inherently righteous, that they’re making an important point about who God is and what he is like, and who we are in relationship to him.     

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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