Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
2 Kings (2 Samuel)
Numbering of the People, and Pestilence - 2 Samuel 24
For the purpose of ascertaining the number of the people, and their fitness for war, David ordered Joab, his commander-in-chief, to take a census of Israel and Judah. Joab dissuaded him from such a step; but inasmuch as the king paid no attention to his dissuasion, he carried out the command with the help of the military captains (Sa2 24:1-9). David very speedily saw, however, that he had sinned; whereupon the prophet Gad went to him by the command of Jehovah to announce the coming punishment, and give him the choice of three different judgments which he placed before him (Sa2 24:10-13). As David chose rather to fall into the hand of the Lord than into the hand of men, God sent a pestilence, which carried off seventy thousand men in one day throughout the whole land, and had reached Jerusalem, when the Lord stopped the destroying angel in consequence of the penitential prayer of David (Sa2 24:14-17), and sent Gad to the king to direct him to build an altar to the Lord on the spot where the destroying angel had appeared to him (Sa2 24:18). Accordingly David bought the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite, built an altar upon it, and sacrificed burnt-offerings and thank-offerings, after which the plague was stayed (Sa2 24:19-25).
This occurrence, which is introduced in the parallel history in 1 Chron 21 between David's wars and his arrangements for a more complete organization of the affairs of the nation, belongs undoubtedly to the closing years of David's reign. The mere taking of a census, as a measure that would facilitate the general organization of the kingdom, could not in itself be a sinful act, by which David brought guilt upon himself, or upon the nation, before God. Nevertheless it is not only represented in Sa2 24:1 as a manifestation of the wrath of God against Israel, but in Sa2 24:3 Joab seeks to dissuade the king from it as being a wrong thing; and in Sa2 24:10 David himself admits that it was a grievous sin against God, and as a sin it is punished by the Lord (Sa2 24:12.). In what, then, did David's sin consist? Certainly not in the fact that, when taking the census, "he neglected to demand the atonement money, which was to be raised, according to Exo 30:12., from all who were numbered, because the numbering of the people was regarded in itself as an undertaking by which the anger of God might easily be excited," as Josephus and Bertheau maintain; for the Mosaic instructions concerning the atonement money had reference to the incorporation of the people into the army of Jehovah (see at Exo 30:13-14), and therefore did not come into consideration at all in connection with the census appointed by David as a purely political measure. Nor can we imagine that David's sin consisted merely in the fact that he "entered upon the whole affair from pride and vain boasting," or that "he commanded the census from vanity, inasmuch as he wanted to have it distinctly set before his own eyes how strong and mighty he was" (Buddeus, Hengstenberg, and others); for although pride and vanity had something to do with it, as the words of Joab especially seem to indicate, David was far too great a man to allow us to attribute to him a childish delight in the mere number of souls in his kingdom. The census had certainly a higher purpose than this. It is very evident from Ch1 27:23-24, where it is mentioned again that it was connected with the military organization of the people, and probably was to be the completion of it. David wanted to know the number of his subjects, not that he might be able to boast of their multitude, nor that he might be able to impose all kinds of taxes upon every town and village according to their houses and inhabitants, as Ewald maintains; but that he might be fully acquainted with its defensive power, though we can neither attribute to him the definite purpose "of transforming the theocratic sacred state into a conquering world-state" (Kurtz), nor assume that through this numbering the whole nation was to be enrolled for military service, and that thirst for conquest was the motive for the undertaking. The true kernel of David's sin was to be found, no doubt, in self-exaltation, inasmuch as he sought for the strength and glory of his kingdom in the number of the people and their readiness for war. This sin was punished. "Because David was about to boast proudly and to glory in the number of his people, God determined to punish him by reducing their number either by famine, war, or pestilence" (Seb. Schmidt). At the same time, the people themselves had sinned grievously against God and their king, through the two rebellions headed by Absalom and Sheba.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 24:1
"Again the anger of Jehovah was kindled against Israel; and He moved David against them, saying, Go, number Israel and Judah." לחרות ... ויּסף points back to the manifestation of the wrath of God, which Israel had experienced in the three years' famine (2 Samuel 21). Just as that plague had burst upon the land on account of the guilt which rested upon the people, so the kindling of the wrath of God against Israel a second time also presupposes guilt on the part of the nation; and as this is not expressly pointed out, we may seek for it generally in the rebellions of Absalom and Sheba against the divinely established government of David. The subject to "moved" is Jehovah, and the words "against them" point back to Israel. Jehovah instigated David against Israel to the performance of an act which brought down a severe judgment upon the nation. With regard to the idea that God instigates to sin, see the remarks on Sa1 26:19. In the parallel text of the Chronicles, Satan is mentioned as the tempter to evil, through whom Jehovah had David to number the people.
David entrusted the task to his commander-in-chief Joab. אתּו אשׁר, "who was with him:" the meaning is, "when he was with him" (David). We are not warranted in attempting any emendations of the text, either by the expression אתּו אשׁר, or by the reading in the Chronicles, העם ועל־שׂרי ("and to the rulers of the people"); for whilst the latter reading may easily be seen to be a simplification founded upon Sa2 24:4, it is impossible to show how אתּו אשׁר שׂר־החיל, which is supported by all the ancient versions (with the sole exception of the Arabic), could have originated in העם ואל־שׂרי. "Go now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba (see at Jdg 20:1), and muster the people." פּקד, to muster or number, as in Num 1:44. The change from the singular שׁוּט to the plural פּקדוּ may be explained very simply, from the fact that, as a matter of course, Joab was not expected to take the census by himself, but with the help of several assistants.
Joab discountenanced the thing: "Jehovah thy God add to the nation, as it is, a hundredfold as many, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why doth my lord the king delight in this thing?" The ו before יוסף stands at the commencement, when what is said contains a sequel to something that has gone before (vid., Ges. 255, 1, a.). The thought to which Joab's words are appended as a sequel, is implied in what David said, "that I may know the number of the people;" and if expressed fully, his words would read somewhat as follows: "If thou hast delight in the greatness of the number of the people, may Jehovah," etc. Joab evidently saw through the king's intention, and perceived that the numbering of the people could not be of any essential advantage to David's government, and might produce dissatisfaction among the people, and therefore endeavoured to dissuade the king from his purpose. וכהם כּהם, "as they (the Israelites) just are," i.e., in this connection, "just as many as there are of them." From a grammatical point of view, כּהם is to be taken as the object to יוסף, as in the parallel passages, Deu 1:11; Sa2 12:8. Not only did he desire that God would multiply the nation a hundredfold, but that He would do it during the lifetime of David, so that his eyes might be delighted with the immense numbers.
But as the king's word prevailed against Joab and against the captains of the army, they (Joab and the other captains) went out to number Israel. יחנוּ, they encamped, i.e., they fixed their headquarters in the open field, because great crowds assembled together. This is only mentioned here in connection with the place where the numbering commenced; but it is to be understood as applying to the other places as well (Thenius). In order to distinguish Aroer from the place of the same name in the Arnon, in the tribe of Reuben (Jos 12:2; Num 32:34, etc.), it is defined more precisely as "the town in the brook-valley of Gad," i.e., Aroer of Gad before Rabbah (Jos 13:25; Jdg 11:33), in the Wady Nahr Ammn, to the north-east of Ammn (see at Jos 13:25). ועל־יעזר (and to Jazer): this is a second place of encampment, and the preposition אל is to be explained on the supposition that יבאוּ (they came), which follows, was already in the writer's thoughts. Jazer is probably to be found in the ruins of es Szir, at the source of the Nahr Szir (see at Num 21:32).
"And they came to Gilead," i.e., the mountainous district on the two sides of the Jabbok (see at Deu 3:10). The words which follow, viz., "into the land חדשׁי תּחתּים" are quite obscure, and were unintelligible even to the earlier translators. The Septuagint has γῆν Ἐθαὼν Ἀδασαί, or γῆν Θαβασών (also γῆν χεττιείμ) ἥ ἐστιν Ἀδασαί. Symmachus has τὴν κατωτέραν ὁδόν; Jonathan לחדשׁי דרומא לארעא ("into the southland Chodshi"); and the Vulgate in terram inferiorem. The singular form תּחתּים, and the fact that we never read of a land called Chodshi, render the conjecture a very probable one that the text is corrupt. But it is no longer possible to discover the correct reading. Ewald imagines that we should read Hermon instead of the unintelligible Chodshi; but this is not very probable. Bttcher supposes תחתים to be a mistake in writing for ים תּחת, "below the lake," namely the lake of Gennesareth, which might have been called Chodshi (the new-moon-like), since it had very much the appearance of a crescent when seen from the northern heights. This is ingenious, but incredible. The order of the places named points to the eastern side of the sea of Galilee; for they went thence to Dan-jaan, i.e., the Dan in northern Peraea, mentioned in Gen 14:14, to the south-west of Damascus, at that time probably the extreme north-eastern boundary of the kingdom of David, in the direction towards Syria (see at Gen 14:14): "and round to Sidon," the extreme north-western boundary of the kingdom.
Thence southwards to the fortress of Zor, i.e., Tyre (see at Jos 19:29), and "into all the towns of the Hivites and Canaanites," i.e., the towns in the tribes of Naphtali, Zebulun, and Issachar, or the (subsequent) province of Galilee, in which the Canaanites had not been exterminated by the Israelites, but had only been made tributary.
When they had traversed the whole land, they came back to Jerusalem, at the end of nine months and twenty days, and handed over to the king the number of the people mustered: viz., 800,000 men of Israel fit for military service, drawing the sword, and 500,000 men of Judah. According to the Chronicles (Ch1 21:5), there were 1,100,000 Israelites and 470,000 Judaeans. The numbers are not given by thousands, and therefore are only approximative statements in round numbers; and the difference in the two texts arose chiefly from the fact, that the statements were merely founded upon oral tradition, since, according to Ch1 27:4, the result of the census was not inserted in the annals of the kingdom. There is no ground, however, for regarding the numbers as exaggerated, if we only bear in mind that the entire population of a land amounts to about four times the number of those who are fit for military service, and therefore 1,300,000, or even a million and a half, would only represent a total population of five or six millions, - a number which could undoubtedly have been sustained in Palestine, according to thoroughly reliable testimony as to its unusual fertility (see the discussion of this subject at Num 1-4, Pentateuch, pp. 651-57). Still less can we adduce as a proof of exaggeration the fact, that according to Ch1 27:1-15, David had only an army of 288,000; for it is a well-known fact, that in all lands the army, or number of men in actual service, is, as a rule, much smaller than the total number of those who are capable of bearing arms. According to Ch1 21:6, the tribes of Levi and Benjamin were not numbered, because, as the chronicler adds, giving his own subjective view, "the word of the king was an abomination to Joab," or, as it is affirmed in Ch1 27:4, according to the objective facts, "because the numbering was not completed." It is evident from this, that in consequence of Joab's repugnance to the numbering of the people, he had not hurried with the fulfilment of the kings' command; so that when David saw his own error, he revoked the command before the census was complete, and so the tribe of Benjamin was not numbered at all, the tribe of Levi being of course eo ipso exempt from a census that was taken for the sake of ascertaining the number of men who were capable of bearing arms.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 24:10
David's heart, i.e., his conscience, smote him, after he had numbered the people, or had given orders for the census to be taken. Having now come to a knowledge of his sin, he prayed to the Lord for forgiveness, because he had acted foolishly. The sin consisted chiefly in the self-exaltation which had led to this step (see the introductory remarks).
When he rose up in the morning, after he had calmly reflected upon the matter during the night upon his bed, and had been brought to see the folly of his determination, the prophet Gad came to him by the command of God, pointed out to him his fault, and foretold the punishment that would come from God. "Shall seven years of famine come upon thy land, or three months of flight before thine oppressors that they may pursue thee, or shall there be three days of pestilence in thy land? Now mark and see what answer I shall bring to Him that sendeth me." These three verses form one period, in which גד ויּבא (Sa2 24:13) answers as the consequent to וגו דּוד ויּקם in Sa2 24:11, and the words from יהוה וּדבר (Sa2 24:11) to ואעשׂה־לּך) (Sa2 24:12) form a circumstantial clause inserted between. וגו יהוה וּדבר י: "and the word of the Lord had taken place (gone forth) to Gad, David's seer, saying, Go ... thus saith Jehovah, I lay upon thee three (things or evils); choose thee one of them that I may do it to thee." Instead of על נטל, to lay upon, we find נטה in the Chronicles, "to turn upon thee." The three things are mentioned first of all in connection with the execution of Gad's commission to the king. Instead of seven years of famine, we find three years in the Chronicles; the Septuagint has also the number three in the passage before us, and apparently it is more in harmony with the connection, viz., three evils to choose from, and each lasting through three divisions of time. But this agreement favours the seven rather than the three, which is open to the suspicion of being intentionally made to conform to the rest. נסך is an infinitive: "thy fleeing," for that thou fliest before thine enemies. In the Chronicles the last two evils are described more fully, but the thought is not altered in consequence.
David replied, "I am in great trouble. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of men." Thus David chose the third judgment, since pestilence comes directly from God. On the other hand, in flight from the enemy, he would have fallen into the hands of men. It is not easy to see, however, how far this could apply to famine; probably inasmuch as it tends more or less to create dependence upon those who are still in possession of the means of life.
God then gave (sent) a pestilence into (upon) Israel, "from the morning till the time of the assembly;" and there died of the people in the whole land (from Dan to Beersheba) seventy thousand men. "From the morning:" on which Gad had foretold the punishment. The meaning of מועד ועד־עת is doubtful. The rendering "to the time appointed," i.e., "till the expiration of the three days," in support of which the Vulgate (ad tempus constitutum) is wrongly appealed to, is precluded not only by the circumstance that, according to Sa2 24:16, the plague was stayed earlier because God repented Him of the evil, so that it did not last so long as was at first appointed, but also by the grammatical difficulty that מועד עת has no article, and can only be rendered "for an (not for the) appointed time." We meet with two different explanations in the ancient versions: one in the Septuagint, ἕως ὥρας ἀρίστου, "till the hour of breakfast," i.e., till the sixth hour of the day, which is the rendering also adopted by the Syriac and Arabic as well as by Kimchi and several of the Rabbins; the other in the Chaldee (Jonathan), "from the time at which the sacrifice is commonly slain until it is consumed." Accordingly Bochart explains מועד את as signifying "the time at which the people came together for evening prayers, about the ninth hour of the day, i.e., the third hour in the afternoon" (vid., Act 3:1). The same view also lies at the foundation of the Vulgate rendering, according to the express statement of Jerome (traditt. Hebr. in 2 libr. Regum): "He calls that the time appointed, in which the evening sacrifice was offered." It is true that this meaning of מועד cannot be established by precisely analogous passages, but it may be very easily deduced from the frequent employment of the word to denote the meetings and festivals connected with the worship of God, when it generally stands without an article, as for example in the perfectly analogous מועד יום (Hos 9:5; Lam 2:7, Lam 2:22); whereas it is always written with the article when it is sued in the general sense of a fixed time, and some definite period is referred to.
(Note: The objections brought against this have no force in them, viz., that, according to this view, the section must have been written a long time after the captivity (Clericus and Thenius), and that "the perfectly general expression 'the time of meeting' could not stand for the time of the afternoon or evening meeting" (Thenius): for the former rests upon the assumption that the daily sacrifice was introduced after the captivity, - an assumption quite at variance with the historical facts; and the latter is overthrown by the simple remark, that the indefinite expression derived its more precise meaning from the legal appointment of the morning and evening sacrifice as times of meeting for the worship of God, inasmuch as the evening meeting was the only one that could be placed in contrast with the morning.)
We must therefore decide in favour of the latter. But if the pestilence did not last a whole day, the number of persons carried off by it (70,000 men) exceeded very considerably the number destroyed by the most violent pestilential epidemics on record, although they have not unfrequently swept off hundreds of thousands in a very brief space of time. But the pestilence burst upon the people in this instance with supernatural strength and violence, that it might be seen at once to be a direct judgment from God.
The general statement as to the divine judgment and its terrible effects is followed by a more minute description of the judgment itself, and the arrest of the plague. "When the destroying angel ('the angel' is defined immediately afterwards as 'the angel that destroyed the people') stretched out his hand towards Jerusalem to destroy it, Jehovah repented of the evil (for this expression, see Exo 32:14; Jer 26:13, Jer 26:19, etc.; and for the repentance of God, the remarks on Gen 6:6), and He commanded the angel, Enough! stay now thine hand." This implies that the progress of the pestilence was stayed before Jerusalem, and therefore that Jerusalem itself was spared. "And the angel of Jehovah was at the threshing-floor of Aravnah the Jebusite." These words affirm most distinctly that the destroying angel was visible. According to Sa2 24:17, David saw him there. The visible appearance of the angel was to exclude every thought of a natural land plague. The appearance of the angel is described more minutely in the Chronicles: David saw him standing by the threshing-floor of Aravnah between heaven and earth with a drawn sword in his hand, stretched out over Jerusalem. The drawn sword was a symbolical representation of the purpose of his coming (see at Num 22:23 and Jos 5:13). The threshing-floor of Aravnah was situated, like all other threshing-floors, outside the city, and upon an eminence, or, according to the more precise statement which follows, to the north-east of Zion, upon Mount Moriah (see at Sa2 24:25). According to the Chethib of Sa2 24:16, the name of the owner of the floor was האורנה, of Sa2 24:18 ארניה, and of Sa2 24:20 (twice) ארונה. This last form also occurs in Sa2 24:22, Sa2 24:23, and Sa2 24:24, and has been substituted by the Masoretes as the Keri in Sa2 24:16 and Sa2 24:18. In the Chronicles, on the other hand, the name is always written ארנן (Ornan), and hence in the Septuagint we find Ὄρνα in both texts. "The form ארונה (Aravnah) has not a Hebrew stamp, whereas Orna and Ornan are true Hebrew formations. But for this very reason Aravnah appears to be derived from an ancient tradition" (Bertheau).
When David saw the angel, he prayed to the Lord (he and the elders being clothed in mourning costume: Chron.): "Behold, I have sinned, and I have acted perversely; but these, the flock, what have they done? Let Thy hand come upon me and my house." The meaning is: I the shepherd of Thy people have sinned and transgressed, but the nation is innocent; i.e., not indeed free from every kind of blame, but only from the sin which God was punishing by the pestilence. It belongs to the very nature of truly penitential prayer, that the person praying takes all the blame upon himself, acknowledges before God that he alone is deserving of punishment, and does not dwell upon the complicity of others for the sake of palliating his own sin in the sight of God. We must not infer, therefore, from this confession on the part of David, that the people, whilst innocent themselves, had had to atone only for an act of transgression on the part of their king.
David's prayer was heard. The prophet Gad came and said to him by command of Jehovah, "Go up, and erect an altar to the Lord upon the floor of Aravnah the Jebusite." This is all that is communicated here of the word of Jehovah which Gad was to convey to the king; the rest is given afterwards, as is frequently the case, in the course of the subsequent account of the fulfilment of the divine command (Sa2 24:21). David was to build the altar and offer burnt-offerings and supplicatory-offerings upon it, to appease the wrath of Jehovah. The plague would then be averted from Israel.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 24:19
David went up to Aravnah according to the command of God.
When Aravnah saw the king coming up to him with his servants (ויּשׁקף, "he looked out," viz., from the enclosure of the threshing-floor), he came out, bowed low even to the earth, and asked the king what was the occasion of his coming; whereupon David replied, "To buy the floor from thee, to build an altar to the Lord, that the plague may be turned away from the people."
Aravnah replied, "Let my lord the king take and offer up what seemeth good unto him: behold (i.e., there thou hast) the ox for the burnt-offering, and the threshing-machine, and the harness of the ox for wood" (i.e., for fuel). הבּקר, the pair of oxen yoked together in front of the threshing-machine. הבּקר כּלי, the wooden yokes. "All this giveth Aravnah, O king, to the king." המּלך is a vocative, and is simply omitted by the lxx, Vulgate, Syriac, and Arabic, because the translators regarded it as a nominative, which is quite unsuitable, as Aravnah was not a king. When Thenius, on the other hand, objects to this, for the purpose of throwing suspicion upon the passage, that the sentence is thus stamped as part of Aravnah's address to the king, and that in that case the words that follow, "and Aravnah said," would be altogether superfluous; the former remark is correct enough, for the words "all this giveth Aravnah ... to the king" must form part of what Aravnah said, inasmuch as the remark, "all this gave Aravnah to the king," if taken as the historian's own words, would be in most glaring contradiction to what follows, where the king is said to have bought the floor and the oxen from Aravnah. And the words that follow ("and Aravnah said") are not superfluous on that account, but simply indicate that Aravnah did not proceed to say the rest in the same breath, but added it after a short pause, as a word which did not directly bear upon the question put by the king. ויּאמר (and he said) is often repeated, where the same person continues speaking (see for example Sa2 15:4, Sa2 15:25, Sa2 15:27). "Jehovah thy God accept thee graciously," i.e., fulfil the request thou presentest to Him with sacrifice and prayer.
The king did not accept the offer, however, but said, "No; but I will buy it of thee at a price, and will not offer burnt-offerings to the Lord my God without paying for them." Thus David bought the threshing-floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. Instead of this, the Chronicles give "shekels of gold, in weight six hundred." This difference cannot be reconciled by assuming that David paid his fifty shekels in gold coin, which would have been worth as much as six hundred shekels of silver, since gold was worth twelve times as much as silver. For there is nothing about gold shekels in our text; and the words of the Chronicles cannot be interpreted as meaning that the shekels of gold were worth six hundred shekels of silver. No other course is left, therefore, than to assume that the number must be corrupt in one of the texts. Apparently the statement in the Chronicles is the more correct of the two: for if we consider that Abraham paid four hundred shekels of silver for the site of a family burial-place, at a time when the land was very thinly populated, and therefore land must certainly have been much cheaper than it was in David's time, the small sum of fifty shekels of silver (about 6) appears much too low a price; and David would certainly pay at least fifty shekels of gold. But we are not warranted in any case in speaking of the statement in the Chronicles, as Thenius does, as "intentionally exaggerated." This style of criticism, which carries two kinds of weights and measure in its bag, explaining the high numbers in the books of Samuel and Kings as corruptions of the text, and those in the Chronicles as intentional exaggerations on the part of the chronicler, is sufficiently dealt with by the remark of Bertheau, that "this (i.e., the charge of exaggeration) could only be sustained if it were perfectly certain that the chronicler had our present text of the books of Samuel before him at the time."
After acquiring the threshing-floor by purchase, David built an altar to the Lord there, and offered burnt-offerings and supplicatory-offerings (shelamim: as in Jdg 20:26; Jdg 21:4; Sa1 13:9) upon it to the Lord. "So Jehovah was entreated, and the plague was turned away from Israel."
This remark brings to a close not only the account of this particular occurrence, but also the book itself; whereas in the Chronicles it is still further stated that Jehovah answered David with fire from heaven, which fell upon the burnt-offering; and that after his prayer had been answered thus, David not only continued to offer sacrifice upon the floor of Aravnah, but also fixed upon it as the site for the temple which was afterwards to be built (Ch1 21:27; Ch1 22:1); and to this there is appended, in Sa2 22:2., an account of the preparations which David made for the building of the temple. It is not affirmed in the Chronicles, however, that David fixed upon this place as the site for the future temple in consequence of a revelation from God, but simply that he did this, because he saw that the Lord had answered him there, and because he could not go to Gibeon, where the tabernacle was standing, to seek the Lord there, on account of the sword of the angel, i.e., on account of the pestilence. The command of God build an altar upon the threshing-floor of Aravnah, and offer expiatory sacrifices upon it, when connected with His answering his prayer by turning away the plague, could not fail to be taken as a distinct intimation to David, that the site of this altar was the place where the Lord would henceforth make known His gracious presence to His people; and this hint was quite sufficient to determine the site for the temple which his son Solomon was to build.