Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Answering a Skeptic

Not all college friendships last a lifetime, but one guy I went to school with has kept in touch for over 30 years. He maintained an attitude of genial bemusement about my Christian faith right up until his own daughter became a teenager, when he abruptly decided that a purely secular worldview was not what he wanted for her after all.

So I can relate to the plight of the writer of A Skeptic’s Journey Through the Bible, an anonymous blogger who says this about himself:

“Growing up a believer, I left my faith in my teens. Now that I’m at the age of starting a family of my own, I need to know in which direction to guide them.”

Fair point. Let’s help if we can.

The Burning Questions

Our skeptical friend has a very long list of questions, and I can’t answer them all. But maybe I can deal with one or two, like these related queries about the time King David numbered the fighting men of Israel, an account found in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21:

What’s so wrong with taking a census anyway? And why would a compassionate God kill 70,000 innocent people simply because David took a census of them? If taking a census really is that evil, why wouldn’t God just punish David (who ordered the census) and not kill so many otherwise innocent people?”

Three pretty good questions. Let’s see what we can dig up.

1/ What’s Wrong with a Census?

Precisely nothing, in and of itself. Solomon took a census of resident aliens in Israel and what happened? Absolutely nothing.

That said, under the Law of Moses, it was definitely a problem to conduct a census without making atonement for the people being counted. The rules for atonement are spelled out in Exodus 30, where God tells Moses that taking a census of Israel without paying a ransom (in Hebrew, kopher) for atonement (kaphar, essentially the same word) for each man counted would be guaranteed to result in a plague.

But Why?

Why, you ask? Come on, folks. You know how much I love to speculate. Not. The fact is, God required atonement be made when a census was conducted.

He didn’t say why. Personally, I’m totally fine with that.

What he did say was that the tax was half a sanctuary shekel per person, to be given to the service of the tabernacle. (Some folks calculate that half shekel was worth $557.16 in today’s dollars, a figure just a wee bit too precise for me. Others calculate it as “two day’s wages”, which is probably in the same ball park. Either way, it was a manageable amount, but not one that the average citizen would be enthusiastic to pony up simply so that some civic authority could calculate the size of Israel’s army.)

We may not fully comprehend God’s reasons for a census tax, just as we may not fully understand why God would put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, but most would agree it is certainly God’s prerogative, when coming to dwell with a people on earth and bless them in a way that he blessed no other nation in the history of the world, to set the terms of such arrangements.

This was one of those terms, and Israel had agreed to it.

Did David pay the atonement money? Did he tax the men he numbered or pay the census tax for them himself out of the royal treasury? Once again, we’re simply not told, but I suspect he did not, because the plague that resulted did not come to an end until David finally made atonement for the people of Israel on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

Motives, Motives

Some folks speculate about David’s motives. They say, like I do, that there’s nothing wrong with a census per se, but add that the problem was in David’s motive for taking the census. That’s fair game too, though we have no way of being sure what motivated David to number the fighting men of Israel.

Still, Christians will take a swing at it. GotQuestions says:

“As to why God was angry at David, in those times, a man only had the right to count or number what belonged to him. Israel did not belong to David; Israel belonged to God.”

The implication is that David had an inappropriate sense of personal ownership where God’s people were concerned, and he acted accordingly. Maybe, I guess. I don’t really know what a man had a right to number in those days as I’m not a historian, but this seems not an unreasonable proposition.

The Bible Study website has another idea:

“David seems to have been prompted by a feeling of pride and ambitious curiosity. Because he did this to determine HIS power and to trust in it, it offended God. Of itself, taking a census is not unlawful.”

Pride and ambitious curiosity. Not impossible, surely.

Ultimately, we don’t know what prompted David. What we DO know is that David knew in his heart that numbering the people the way he did was a sin against God. Whatever series of rationalizations started him down the wrong road, in the end they didn’t hold up. Not only did David’s general Joab tell him he was in the wrong, but David realized he was wrong even before he was punished for his sin.

In short, nothing’s wrong with a census. But a census conducted in violation of the Law of Moses and in violation of one’s conscience is a bad deal twice over.

2/ The 70,000 “Innocent” People

So why would a compassionate God kill 70,000 innocent people simply because David took a census of them?

Short answer: He didn’t.

If we must play cause and effect, what really happened is that David unwisely took a census of 1.3 million guilty people because they had already offended God with their behavior. Because of that census, conducted in knowing violation of the law, a very small percentage of their number died before God had compassion on them.

How do we know this: Simple: it’s in the very first clause of the very first verse of 2 Samuel 24:

“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel …”

It was not the first time, and it was not primarily about David. God was first and foremost angry with Israel.

Follow the Loser

Again, why? Well, take your pick: disobedience, ungratefulness, flirtation with foreign gods … the usual starting points. But try this on for size: God indulges Israel, who had rejected God as ruler over their nation and begged for a king, by giving them Saul. Saul was the quintessential alpha male: handsome, taller than the average Israelite by a head, self-confident, decisive and violent.

Does Israel rebel against Saul when he rejects God and demonstrates nothing but self-will? Not a chance. And Saul’s reign is a giant flop. He shows himself incapable of discerning or following the revealed will of God and dies by his own hand in a losing battle to the Philistines.

What Do We Do With Men After God’s Heart?

So God gives Israel David, a man after his own heart, who brings them the most glorious series of victories over their enemies since God first brought them into Canaan.

How does Israel respond? It rebels against David, not once but twice.

God preserved David’s kingdom, but why on earth would we expect him to be happy with Israel’s betrayal of the king he had enthroned? Why would we expect there to be no consequences for the people’s lack of discernment, disloyalty and outright wickedness?

“Innocent people” my foot. We get what we deserve. No point trying to fob it off on the politicians. Times change, people don’t. Much.

Israel was given another man after God’s own heart, and they crucified him.

70,000 is not a small number, but compared to six million Israelites, I’d say God was pretty merciful. The plague he sent on Israel came with about 400 years worth of advance notice, after all, and plenty of extra warnings beside.

3/ Why Wouldn’t God Just Punish David?

God wouldn’t “just” punish David. How could he? Israel as a nation was guiltier than David was.

David didn’t quite grasp this. He was a sensitive though imperfect man. He loved God and he loved his people. Consequently, he was full of guilt when he saw the practical results of his census meted out to a very deserving nation.

So he cried out to God:

“Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father’s house.”

David was right about having done wickedly, but overly sympathetic to the “sheep”. After all, the Judge of all the Earth always does right. As much as David was a true shepherd, his own nation rejected and betrayed him. They often failed to appreciate the leadership God had given them. God knew his own people better than David did. If David was a good shepherd, God was a far greater shepherd.

As the writer to the Hebrews plainly states, “God is not unjust”. He gives to each what each deserves.

“Land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”

The plague that resulted from David’s imprudent census was a mechanism by which the sovereign God punished an ungrateful and unruly people. It was not some kind of horrible injustice perpetrated on an innocent nation because of David’s sin, but a measured and loving response to rejection designed to draw the people back to himself. Atonement was made. The Lord responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel. It could have been a lot worse.

Does that help any, anonymous skeptic?

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