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Is Taking a Census a Sin?

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This morning I was reading 2 Samuel 24, and I got confused. Why was it a sin to take a census of the population? And what was the significance of God letting David choose his own punishment after taking the census? At the beginning of the chapter it says that God caused David to “harm them by taking a census.” So why did God punish David later for this if He wanted it to happen?


Steve Answers:

Sometimes it’s difficult to understand something when we look at it through our own experience instead of through the culture in which it happened. For example, what would you think if you saw some people coming out of a meeting, and then you overheard them talking about eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a dead person? And what if they spoke about this ceremony as a privilege rather than a repulsive exercise they had to endure? You’d think that was gross, right?

Well, that’s how the early Christians talked about their Communion services in which they symbolically “ate the flesh and drank the blood of Jesus.” Now, that’s not so gross, is it?So how can we better understand a culture that’s foreign to us, particularly one in the Bible? Some ideas are to read background on it or talk to somebody who understands it. I usually refer to a Bible commentary.

When I looked up 2 Samuel 24, here’s what I found. In the first verse of the chapter it sounds as if God started the problem. But if you read the same story in 1 Chronicles 21:1, you’ll discover that Satan is identified as the one who instigated the census.Now, counting people doesn’t seem to be a sin. In the United States we take a census every 10 years. One of the results is that representatives and districts are reevaluated and updated to reflect the census. But God doesn’t strike us dead for doing this. So what was going on in David’s time?

A reference back to Exodus 30:11, 12 and Numbers 1:1-3 shows that the main reason for taking a census in David’s time was to recruit an army for war. David asked Joab, his military commander, to do the census.But Joab urged David to enjoy the blessings God had already provided. He didn’t see any need for David to flex his military muscles (2 Samuel 24:3). But David wouldn’t be dissuaded from this prideful goal.By verse 10, though, David realized that he’d done wrong. He then begged God for forgiveness. Through the prophet Gad, God gave David options for his “punishment”—and I don’t know why.But I do know that the power of choice is important to God. And ultimately what’s revealed in this story is that David perceived God as merciful during his punishment (see verse 17).The other interesting part of the story is that after David’s confession, the prophet Gad told him to go purchase a piece of land and offer a sacrifice on it (verse 18). That doesn’t seem significant until you discover that on that piece of land Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice—and God intervened. Solomon later built the Temple there, so many sacrifices were made. And that’s where Jesus presented Himself to many who were searching for the Messiah.

In summary, savor these lessons from 2 Samuel 24: pride brings pain and punishment—terrible things; but sacrifice brings acts of service and salvation—terrific things!

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