Among the many hotly disputed issues in the United States today, people are ready to debate about the census. Historically, the American government counts the population every ten years. The White House and the Republican Party want to count only citizens, while the Democratic Party wants every person to be counted, regardless of citizenship. There are well-thought-out arguments on both sides, and they are defended with equal passion.
This made me think about the various censuses taken during biblical times. One of the best-known censuses was the one that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. The Gospel of Luke has these words: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was the governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.” (Luke 2:1-3)
When Israel comes out of Egypt, we are told in Exodus 12:37 that there were about 600,000 men who could bear arms, plus women and children. In Exodus 30:12, we read, “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.”
There is another census with a very different introduction. King David took this census, and it says in 2 Samuel 24:1 that “again, the anger of the Lord burned against Israel and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”’ In 1 Chronicles 21, it even says that “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.”
Regardless of who did the inciting, David’s military commander Joab argued they should not take a census because it would bring disaster to the people of Israel. Nevertheless, David was king and Joab submitted to his decisions. The census took close to 10 months. When it was completed, the report stated that Israel had 800,000 fighting men and Judah had 500,000 who could handle the sword. David was guilt stricken and prayed for God’s forgiveness. God gave him three options for a punishment. David chose pestilence, which took the lives of 70,000 people in one day.
The simple explanation of this difficult passage is that David desired to find out how strong the Israelites were. Like Nebuchadnezzar, he wanted to boast about the nation he had built. Joab felt that his intent was completely wrong and tried to stop David from doing it.
Secondly, we have to grapple with the inciting. Did the Lord incite David or did the Devil? Many commentators suggest that the Lord used the Devil for the job. If this seems shocking, one has to remember the passage in the New Testament that says, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Holy Spirit in the desert where for forty days he was tempted by the Devil” (Luke 4:1-2).
In his mercy, God stops the calamity in Israel and does not wipe out the entire country after David recognizes his sinfulness, asks for forgiveness, and brings a sacrifice. There’s a connection between this situation, and Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, David purchasing the land from Araunah the Jebusite to bring a sacrifice, and Jesus being crucified on a hill called Golgotha. Each one involves recognition of sin, a sacrifice, and forgiveness. Most commentators argue that these happen at the same place—the place where God grants forgiveness for all of our mistakes.
One way or another, a census will be taken in 2020. Some people will be pleased and some will be upset. Honesty, duplicity, good will, and disappointment will likely all be part of this governmental action. There will be a great need to ask forgiveness from the Lord and from each other.