Counting and Censuses in the Hebrew Bible (2 Sam 24) by Song-Mi Suzie Park

Though we now regard censuses and counting as unremarkable, they were considered sacred and dangerous in the Hebrew Bible.

When and why were censuses conducted?

The counting of people or groups—that is, a census—occurs throughout the biblical text and serves a variety of purposes. There were counts of the entire population (2Sam 24; 1Chr 21), of only the priestly groups (Num 4:1-3, Num 4:21-23), and of males eligible for the military (Num 1:2-46). Censuses were used for general assessment of the population, such as to count the number of Jacob’s family members who went to Egypt (Gen 46:26-27; Exod 1:1-7), of the Israelites who left Egypt (Num 1:2), and of the exiles who returned to Judea (Ezra 2:1-67). Censuses were also utilized for military and labor conscription (Num 1:3-462Sam 24:9; 1Chr 21:1-6), cultic purposes (Num 3:15, Num 4:29-30), taxation (Exod 30:13-16; Exod 38:24-26), and property distribution (Num 26:3-56).

What did counting symbolize, and why did David’s census lead to a plague in 2Sam 24?  

Censuses were, at times, ordered by God and largely benign (Num 1:2-46; Num 4:1-3, Num 4:21-23, Num 26:2-4). However, 2Sam 24 describes an instance in which a census, initiated by God and undertaken by David, leads to a divinely induced plague. The occurrence of a plague in response to David’s census is therefore usually explained as punishment for an unstated misdeed on the part of the monarch. However, the act of counting people may simply have been seen as magical and dangerous. Thus Num 1:49 commands Moses not to number the Levites, and Exod 30:12 states that every Israelite counted provide a ransom in order to prevent a plague. Indeed, the mysterious connection between plagues and censuses (Num 26:1-2; Exod 30:12) suggests that counting had larger symbolic resonance.

According to Abraham Seidenberg, censuses likely originated in cultic settings and religious ceremonies as a way to call participants onto the scene. It might have been utilized in rituals that celebrated and mimicked God’s creation and ordering of the world. Counting people, moreover, was linked not just to creation and the beginning of existence, but also to the end of existence or death. Therefore, counting people was viewed as ominous and dangerous.  

Since it was associated with creation, life, and death, counting symbolized God’s mastery, power, and sovereignty over the created universe (Isa 40:26; Ps 147:4, Ps 147:15-20). Counting therefore was seen as the unique purview of God. This symbolism might explain why God, who is said to be angry before the census (1Sam 24:1), incites David to do the very thing for which he is punished. Likely, God is already angry over something else that, like counting, infringes upon his royal position, such as Israel’s demand for a human king (1Sam 8). God therefore entices David to violate God’s royal prerogatives again by conducting a census so that God can punish David and the people with a plague. In so doing, God can reassert his identity as the ultimate counter and true sovereign of Israel.

Song-Mi Suzie Park, "Counting and Censuses in the Hebrew Bible (2 Sam 24)", n.p. [cited 20 Sep 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/counting-and-censuses-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

park-suzie

Song-Mi Suzie Park
Associate Professor of Old , Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Suzie Park is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

related to a system of religious worship

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

A sovereign head of state, usually a king or queen.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

2Sam 24

David's Census of Israel and Judah
1Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of ... View more

1Chr 21

The Census and Plague
1Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.2So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go ... View more

Num 4:1-3

4 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 2 Take a census of the Kohathites separate from the other Levites, by their clans and their ancestral houses, 3 fro ... View more

Num 4:21-23

21 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 22 Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral houses and by their clans; 23 from thirty years old up to ... View more

Num 1:2-46

2 Take a census of the whole congregation of Israelites, in their clans, by ancestral houses, according to the number of names, every male individually; 3 from ... View more

Gen 46:26-27

26 All the persons belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt, who were his own offspring, not including the wives of his sons, were sixty-six persons in all. 27 Th ... View more

Exod 1:1-7

1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and B ... View more

Num 1:2

2Take a census of the whole congregation of Israelites, in their clans, by ancestral houses, according to the number of names, every male individually;

Ezra 2:1-67

2 Now these were the people of the province who came from those captive exiles whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia; they return ... View more

Num 1:3-46

3 from twenty years old and upward, everyone in Israel able to go to war. You and Aaron shall enroll them, company by company. 4 A man from each tribe shall be ... View more

2Sam 24:9

9 Joab reported to the king the number of those who had been recorded: in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of ... View more

1Chr 21:1-6

21 Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. 2 So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, f ... View more

Num 3:15

15 Enroll the Levites by ancestral houses and by clans. You shall enroll every male from a month old and upward.

Num 4:29-30

29 As for the Merarites, you shall enroll them by their clans and their ancestral houses; 30 from thirty years old up to fifty years old you shall enroll them, ... View more

Exod 30:13-16

13 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 ... View more

Exod 38:24-26

24 All the gold that was used for the work, in all the construction of the sanctuary, the gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents and seven hundred thir ... View more

Num 26:3-56

3 Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, 4 “Take a census of the people,[a] from twenty year ... View more

2Sam 24

David's Census of Israel and Judah
1Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of ... View more

Num 1:2-46

2 Take a census of the whole congregation of Israelites, in their clans, by ancestral houses, according to the number of names, every male individually; 3 from ... View more

Num 4:1-3

4 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 2 Take a census of the Kohathites separate from the other Levites, by their clans and their ancestral houses, 3 fro ... View more

Num 4:21-23

21 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 22 Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral houses and by their clans; 23 from thirty years old up to ... View more

Num 26:2-4

2 “Take a census of the whole congregation of the Israelites, from twenty years old and upward, by their ancestral houses, everyone in Israel able to go to war. ... View more

2Sam 24

David's Census of Israel and Judah
1Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of ... View more

Num 1:49

49 Only the tribe of Levi you shall not enroll, and you shall not take a census of them with the other Israelites.

Exod 30:12

12When 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 ... View more

Num 26:1-2

26 After the plague the Lord said to Moses and to Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, 2 “Take a census of the whole congregation of the Israelites, from twenty yea ... View more

Exod 30:12

12When 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 ... View more

Isa 40:26

26Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength ... View more

Ps 147:4

4He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

Ps 147:15-20

He sends out his command to the earth;
    his word runs swiftly.
16 He gives snow like wool;
    he scatters frost like ashes.
17 He hurls down hail like crumb ... View more

1Sam 24:1

24 When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “David is in the wilderness of En-gedi.”

1Sam 8

Israel Demands a King
1When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.2The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; ... View more

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