The Old Testament reading for Holy Communion today, 2 Samuel 24, is a complex one [made more so by the Lectionary leaving several verses out] but this ‘appendix’ to the life of David offers a fascinating insight into the covenant relationship between him and Yahweh.
The account begins with Yahweh’s anger being kindled against Israel. No reason is given, but his anger is generally kindled against ‘the nations’ due to their extreme and sustained injustice; and against his own people, Israel, for the closely-related but more technical sin of unfaithfulness to the covenant that existed between them. Yahweh is slow to anger, but nonetheless settled in his determination to resist wickedness (see Exodus 34:6-7, in the context of Exodus 33:12-34:8). We see this played-out in the book of Judges—the ‘historical backdrop’ to David’s own time—with the repeated cycle of oppression at the hands of neighbouring peoples, dramatic deliverance, a turning away from the God who had rescued them, repeat.
Yahweh then incites David to take a census of the people. His military commander, Joab, questions this action, but on David’s insistence carries the census out. Yahweh’s action here is reminiscent of both the occasion when, having decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah in judgement for their wickedness, he brings Abraham into his plan (Genesis 18) and the occasion where he tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22). In the former, Abraham intercedes for others; in the later, he obeys (and Isaac lives).
Despite being given the opportunity by Joab, David does not push-back at Yahweh, does not negotiate. The census takes place. Such a census can only have two purposes: to be the preliminary to a military draft, amassing might; and to facilitate taxation, amassing riches. Such are the temptations common to rulers in the ancient (and not-so-ancient) world. At this point, David comes to the realisation that he has been tested by Yahweh—and has failed the test.
Striken to the heart, David repents—expresses a change of mind—and asks Yahweh to remove his guilt. Yahweh responds by setting him another test, a test of his repentance. David must choose three years of famine, three months of sustained attack and defeat at the hands of surrounding nations, or three days of pestilence. In any scenario, many people will die. This would be entirely disproportionate were it primarily the consequence of David’s census; but it is not. It is primarily the consequence of the unfaithfulness by which the people have angered Yahweh. In a secondary sense, David not choosing—as Abraham had chosen—to intercede on their behalf may have a bearing; but nonetheless we see that Yahweh will not stand by indifferent to wickedness, and (yet) that he sets limits on his judgement (it is not open-ended).
David rules out three months of fleeing from before his foes. A more cynical reading would see this as looking out for his own skin. A more generous reading would recognise that, as king, ‘David’ is intimately entwined with both the people, ‘Israel,’ and their god, ‘Yahweh.’ David does not want judgement to be at the hands of the nations, in order that neither the honour of the people nor the honour or reputation of Yahweh be brought into disgrace. Beyond that, David has nothing to say, returning the final choice to Yahweh.
Yahweh chooses three days of pestilence, a short-sharp-shock in which seventy thousand people die at the hand of an angel of death. But when the angel comes to destroy Jerusalem, Yahweh declares, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” This is not merely a limit to justice—a calling time on punishment—but an extension of mercy.
David can only bear witness to Yahweh’s judgement and mercy. And the two come together on a threshing floor. A threshing floor Jewish tradition identifies as both the site on which Abraham laid Isaac on the altar, and where Yahweh provided a ram to take his place; and the site on which David’s son Solomon would build the temple as a resting-place for Yahweh on earth. And there, on that spot, David declares that if there is more judgement to be done, let Yahweh’s hand be not against the people but against David and his father’s house.
But Yahweh and David are covenant partners. For Yahweh to accept David’s proposal—as opposed to negotiating the terms of [a different] agreement—then, should David be unable to fulfil his promise, Yahweh would have to uphold the obligation. But what would that even look like?
Essentially, that remains a moot point, until the exile to Babylon, or at least the encroaching shadow of its likelihood/inevitability. In that context, some fourteen generations later, the prophet Isaiah would take up the challenge of answering that question in the theological imagination experiment known as the suffering servant songs. Fourteen generations later again, Jesus—but, we jump ahead of ourselves.
For some, a god who is truly free, free to act in judgement, and free to act in mercy; a god who insists on testing the character of people, who tests their motives, even tests their repentance; a god who is inscrutable and dangerous and close and involved—for some, such a god is monstrous. But for some of us, any lesser god is not worthy of the stories by which we come to know ourselves, and to be known.