Saturday, June 21, 2008

What the Fuck? Part 4: Yet Another Census Crisis: 2 Samuel 24

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Continuing our tour of the absurd appendices of 2 Samuel, we come to the story of David's last census, which strangely comes after David's last words.

Just like he was in the good old days, for no apparent reason God is "burning" with anger against Israel. As a result, he orders David to go and take a census. The king delegates Joab and the army to handle the census. Joab thinks it's a bad idea but he's unwilling to disobey orders from the king. Ever the faithful general.

This census superstition has come up before. I'm not really sure what the significance was, but perhaps it had to do with the idea that one shouldn't be counting one's resources. If the true strength of Israel's armies lies in divine power, then it shouldn't matter how many men you have with you - and therefore to count them is a demonstration of a lack of faith. I guess.

Anyways, David finishes the census and is then overcome with guilt, confessing that he has "sinned greatly" against God. He begs forgiveness. Eh? What happened to God ordering David to do this? Jumping ahead a bit (I know I shouldn't do this), it might be worth pointing out that the 1 Chronicles version of this story actually says it's Satan who rose up and spoke to David. Come on, Bible. Which is it? God or Satan?

Whatever the case, God appears to be angry too and actually offers David his choice of punishments for the census: he can have three years of famine, three months of war, or three days of plague. David thinks it's better to "fall into the hands of the Lord" than to "fall into the hands of men," so he chooses the plague.

Of course, because David is a king rather than a human being, you won't be surprised to know that he's not actually the one who's going to suffer, despite the fact that he was the one who sinned. (This is another example of God punishing the wrong people.) God sends an angel to spread a plague in Israel, and 70 000 people promptly drop dead. The angel is so efficient at his work that God actually recants haflway through and tells the angel to hold off for a moment.

David is upset too, and tries to reason with God, one elite to another. The people of Israel, he says, are "just sheep." He's the one who sinned - therefore he's the one who should suffer. Aside from the ridiculous elitism, I have to agree with this sentiment, and respect David for expressing it. For whatever reason, of course, God has no intention of punishing David.

So, David takes advantage of the respite to hurry over to a farmer and build an altar in his barn. (Why he had to go find a barn for this purpose is unclear, but he did have the support of his chief prophet Gad in doing so.) The new altar prepared, David starts making sacrifices and keeps going until God lifts the plague.

This story is so convoluted it's hard to tell what the point is. Why does God tempt David into sin? Why does he then offer David a choice of punishments - certainly something he's never done before? Why do none of those punishments actually affect David? How many tens of thousands of subjects is God willing to kill in order to prove a point with the king?

This latter question is particularly disturbing because, as you may recall, the last time something similar happened, God was killing Egyptians in order to make his point with the Pharaoh. Now, apparently, he's just as happy to kill Israelites as he was then to kill Egyptians. The lesson for average non-noble folk like myself is that when God gets on intimate terms with the elites, it's time to head for the hills, because he clearly doesn't give a fuck about us.