What Went Wrong?
The final chapter of Sefer Shemuel (and its parallel in 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 consequences?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, all other censuses in Tanakh also do not speak of half shekel donations, 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
- "וַיֹּסֶף אַף י"י לַחֲרוֹת בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל" – In the account in Sefer Shemuel, the story opens by telling the reader that Hashem continued to be angry with Israel. About what was Hashem wrathful and how does this relate to the events described in the rest of the chapter?
- "וַיָּסֶת אֶת דָּוִיד לִמְנוֹת" – Who incited David to count the nation? In Sefer Shemuel, Hashem appears to be the subject of the verb "וַיָּסֶת", while in the version in Divrei HaYamim, it is the Satan. Either way, if the counting was not David's fault, why is he held accountable?
- Yoav's reluctance to count – Yoav's reluctance to count the people suggests that he recognized that the action was problematic. What about it troubled him, and why did he nonetheless proceed to fulfill the command?
- "וְאֵלֶּה הַצֹּאן מֶה עָשׂוּ" – If David was the one to sin, why is it that he personally is spared while masses of Israelites are killed? How is such vicarious punishment justified?3
- Choose your own punishment – Why does the prophet allow David to pick his own punishment? Nowhere else in Tanakh is there a similar phenomenon. Is the choice indicative of greater or lesser guilt?
- Inconsistent tallies – There is a discrepancy between the accounts of Shemuel and Divrei HaYamim regarding the total number of people counted.4 How can the different tallies be reconciled?