David's Counting of the Nation


This topic has not yet undergone editorial review

What Went Wrong?

The final chapter of Sefer Shemuel (equivalent to Divrei HaYamim I 21) tells of David's decision to count the nation and the consequent plague that killed 70,000 people.  Though the narrative implies that the census was the cause of the catastrophe, it is not clear what sin was transgressed that led to such a severe punishment.  How was David's census different from the many others in Tanakh which were conducted without disastrous after effects?1

Censuses and Half Shekels

Before the first census of Tanakh (Shemot 30), Hashem commands Moshe that when he counts the people he must take from them a half shekel in order to prevent plague:

(יב) כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַי"י בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם. (יג) זֶה יִתְּנוּ כׇּל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לַי"י.
(12) 'When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. (13) This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary — the shekel is twenty gerahs — half a shekel for an offering to the Lord.

No such collection is mentioned in the description of David's census, leading to the possible conclusion that the omission must have been the reason for the punishment.  However, no other census in Tanakh speaks of half shekel donations either, and they all proceed peacefully.  Moreover, it is not even clear if the directive in Shemot applied to all future generations, or if it was specific to the first year in the Wilderness.2

Additional Questions