The Book of II Shmuel
Rav Amnon Bazak
Lecture 107 Chapter 24 (Part I)
The sin involving the census
I. "ANd he moved David Against them"
Our chapter is the last appendix to the book of Shmuel. It opens
with David's sin of conducting a census of the people of Israel.
And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel,
and He moved David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (2)
And the king said to Yoav the captain of the host that was with him, “Go now to
and fro through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan even to Be'er-Sheva, and
number you the people, that I may know the sum of the people.”
The story opens in a surprising manner. We are told that the cause of
David's sin was God's anger, because of which David was moved to count the
people of Israel. In other words, on his own, David would not have sinned – and
therefore he would also not have been punished – had God not moved him to sin,
in the wake of which he was also punished.
This is an exceedingly exceptional story in Scripture. The most similar
account is perhaps that of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart when Israel was
enslaved in Egypt, but even there the sin was that of Pharaoh, and God merely
caused him to stick fast to his sin and prevented him from fixing his ways
before paying the price for his evil actions. Here, on the other hand, we are
told about a sin which was entirely a consequence of God's moving David to sin.
How are we to understand this phenomenon?
Rashi notes in his characteristic honesty: "I do not know for what,"
and the Radak adds: "Perhaps there were those in Israel who sinned in secret…
for had they sinned openly, David would not have tolerated them." The Ralbag, on
the other hand, refuses to accept the possibility that God moved David to sin,
because, among other reasons, this would negate the justification for punishing
David for the sin, and so he raises two possibilities. Either this is a general
statement that God rules the entire world, and so whatever happens in this world
conforms with His will,
or else the verse is defective, and it means: "And [David's heart] moved David,"
so that God was not at all involved in the sin.
According to the plain sense of the text, it would seem that indeed it
was God who moved David to sin, and thus to pay the price. Why did He do this?
The answer to this question may be found in the previous verse – the verse that
concludes the list of David's warriors in chapter 23: "Uriya the Chitite.
Thirty and seven in all." Scripture seems to have intentionally juxtaposed the
mention of Uriya the Chitite to God's anger in order to imply that here too
God's anger was connected to the incident involving Bat-Sheva. Indeed, there are
various connections between our chapter and the earlier story:
The phrase "charon
af" (anger) appear in both stories: "And David's anger was greatly kindled
against the man" (12:5); "And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against
In both stories,
David sins, and in both of them he admits his sin using similar formulations:
"And David said to Natan, I have sinned against the Lord" (12:13); "I have
sinned greatly in what I have done" (24:10).
In both stories, we
find the expression: "ha'avarat chet," the putting away of sin: "The Lord
also has put away your sin; you shall not die" (12:13); "But now, O Lord, put
away, I ask You, the iniquity of Your servant."
In the story
involving Bat-Sheva, it says: "But the thing that David had done displeased the
Lord" (11:27). And in the passage in Divrei ha-Yamim that is parallel to
our chapter it says: "And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord"
(I Divrei ha-Yamim 21:7).
then, that the story involving the census relates back to the story involving
Bat-Sheva. Something about David's sin was still not repaired, and an additional
blow was needed to complete his process of repentance.
II. "that I may know the sum of the
The problem with counting the people of Israel is, of course, connected
to what is stated at the beginning of Parashat Ki-Tisa:
take 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 you number them;
that there be no plague among them, when you number them. This
they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a
shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary - the shekel is twenty geras - half a
shekel for an offering to the Lord. (Shemot 30:12-13)
The Torah does not forbid taking a census of the people of Israel, but it
notes that the count is liable to bring plague, and there is a mitzva for
each person to give a ransom for his soul in order to prevent this.
The Torah does not explain why counting the people of Israel raises
concern about a plague. But the matter seems clear, especially in light of our
chapter: Why did David wish to count them? The Ralbag writes: "Now the sin was …
for this shows that David put his trust in the great number of the people, when
he should have put his trust exclusively in God, blessed be His name." David
wanted to count the people, in the way that a person counts his money. The
census was meant to provide a feeling of confidence, and to a certain degree,
even pride. And it was precisely for this reason that the Torah prohibited
counting the people of Israel for no reason and commanded about the giving of a
half-shekel, which expresses the fact that the people of Israel belong to God,
and therefore their count necessitates the payment of a ransom. When a person is
counted, he becomes liable, as it were, for the death penalty, but he can save
himself from this punishment by paying the ransom of a half-shekel.
This understanding is supported by what is stated later that the census
was limited to David's soldiers – "valiant men that drew the sword" (v. 9). A
count of his troops gives a king a sense of power, something that stands in
contrast to what David himself said many years earlier: "That all this assembly
may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the
Lord's" (I Shmuel 17:47).
This seems to be the way that we should understand the words of Yoav, who
tries to dissuade David from carrying out his plan:
And Yoav said to the king, “Now the Lord your God add unto the people, how
many ever they may be, a hundredfold,
and may the eyes of my lord the king see it; but why does my lord the king
delight in this thing?”
In Yoav's words and
in his attempt to persuade David that there is no reason to take a census, we
can feel his concern about the expected plague. David, however, stands firm in
Notwithstanding, the king's word prevailed against Yoav and against the captains
of the host. And Yoav and the captains of the host went out from the presence of
the king, to number the people of Israel.
III. The Census
And they passed over the Jordan, and pitched in Aro'er, on the right side of the
city that is in the middle of the valley of Gad, and unto Yazer; (6) then
they came to Gil'ad, and to the land of Tachtim-Chodshi; and they came to
Dan-Ya'an, and round about to Tzidon, (7) and they came to the stronghold
of Tzor, and to all the cities of the Chivites, and of the Canaanites; and they
went out to the south of Judah, at Be'er-Sheva. (8) So when they had gone
to and fro through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine
months and twenty days. (9) And Yoav gave up the sum of the numbering of
the people unto the king; and there were in Israel eight hundred thousand
valiant men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand
The census began on the east bank of the Jordan, where the census-takers
went from the south-eastern corner of the kingdom to the north-eastern corner;
from the north-eastern corner (Dan) they continued to the north-west (Tzidon and
Tzor), and from there southward to Be'er-Sheva.
It is interesting that in the parallel account in Divrei Ha-yamim,
mention is made of a certain detail to which there is not even a hint in our
chapter: "But Levi and Binyamin he did not number among them; for the king's
word was abominable to Yoav" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 21:6). Yoav refused to
execute David's order to the end, and refrained from counting the tribes of Levi
and Binyamin, which for him was a red line that he was not prepared to cross.
Why specifically these tribes?
As for Levi, the answer is simple: The Torah itself established that the
tribe of Levi should not be counted together with the rest of the tribes of
Israel: "But the tribe of Levi you shall not number, neither shall you take the
sum of them among the children of Israel" (Bamidbar
1:49; and see ibid. 26:62). But why didn't Yoav count the tribe of Binyamin?
According to the commentary attributed to Rashi on the book of Divrei
Ha-yamim, Yoav was concerned about what the expected plague was liable to do
to the tribe of Binyamin, which had already been smitten in the wake of the
incident involving the concubine in Giv'a; if they are smitten once again now,
what would be left of them?
Another possible answer is that Yoav refrained from counting the tribe of
Binyamin owing to its proximity to Jerusalem and because its territory was the
territory of the Shekhina,
something that will be explicitly stated in the continuation of the story. If
this proposal is correct, it turns out that Yoav refused to count these two
tribes, Levi and Binyamin, because of their elevated level of sanctity.
IV. The repentance
After the results came in, something happened to David that is most
characteristic of him the entire length of the book of Shmuel –
recognition of his sin and seeking its repair.
And David's heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And
David said to the Lord, I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, O
Lord, put away, I beseech You, the iniquity of Your servant; for I have done
encountered this phenomenon
in the days of Shaul: Immediately after David tore the corner of Shaul's skirt,
we find the same wording as in our chapter: "It came to pass afterward, that
David's heart smote him, because he had cut off Shaul's skirt" (I Shmuel
24:5). In the next chapter, David tried to kill Naval and his entire
household, but after the persuasive words of Avigayil, he admitted: "And blessed
be your discretion, and blessed be you, that have kept me this day from
bloodguilt, and from finding redress for myself with my own hand" (ibid. 25:33).
Following the mistakes that were made during the first attempt to move the ark,
David understood that something was wrong: "And David was afraid of the Lord
that day; and he said, ‘How shall the ark of the Lord come to me?’" (II
Shmuel 6:9). And above all else, the words of David here, "I have sinned
greatly in what I have done," bring to mind what he said following the parable
of the poor person's lamb offered by Natan the prophet – "I have sinned to God"
(ibid. 12:13). Here too David does not hesitate to fix the mistake. He
recognizes his sin and does not try to justify his actions after the fact.
This trait of David is especially striking when we compare him to Shaul,
who, as may be recalled, had particular difficulty in this area. Even in our
verse, there is a hint to Shaul's difficulty, David concluded on his own, "for I
have done very foolishly," whereas Shaul was forced to hear this from Shmuel the
prophet, together with the announcement that he would be replaced: "And Shmuel
said to Shaul, ‘You have done foolishly; you have not kept the
commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you; for now would the Lord
have established your kingdom upon Israel for ever. But your kingdom shall not
continue; the Lord has sought him a man after His own heart, and the Lord has
appointed him to be prince over His people, because you have not kept that which
the Lord commanded you" (I Shmuel 13:13-14).
Indeed, more than anyone else, David is worthy of what Chazal have
said about him:
R. Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: What
is the meaning of the verse: "The saying of David the son of Yishai, and the
saying of the man raised on high" (II Shmuel 22:1) - the saying of David
the son of Yishai, the man who elevated the yoke of repentance.
(Translated by David