Project Genesis

Jewish Texts

The Prophets and Writings

Counting People and King David

Question: In Chronicles 21:1-17 David conducts a census (against the will of G-d) G-d gives David three choices and sends a plague that kills 70,000 Israelites. Did G-d sentence the 70,000 to die because David failed? If counting was prohibited, who counted the 70,000 dead?

Answer: King David himself argued the same point in verse 17, “And David said to God, Was it not I who commanded the people to be counted? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly; but as for these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray you, O Lord my God, be against me, and against my father’s house; but let not the plague be upon your people.”

The prohibition against counting the Jewish People is described in Exodus 30:12: “When you take the count of the Children of Israel to determine their numbers, each man shall give an atonement pledge for his soul to G-d, when you count them. Thus there will be no plague among them when you count them.” G-d warns that the natural result of counting them will be a plague, unless they give the atonement pledge of a half-shekel. This prohibition is only for counting those who are alive. So the question is – How can G-d bring a plague when the people are counted if they are not guilty of the death penalty?

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (14th century, Spain) answers this with the following: When we associate with the goals of the community and assist their cause, G-d judges us as essential to the community. This increases the likelihood that G-d will keep us alive. If we are judged as individuals, without considering our value to the community, our personal shortcomings are brought to light. When we are counted, each person is his own number – each left to his own merits. Such scrutiny is likely to produce horrific results. If there are sins that are severe enough to deserve the death penalty, it will be meted out. As Ecclesiastes 7:20 testifies, “For there is not a just man upon earth, that does good, and does not sin.” You’ve probably heard people say, “We’ve all made mistakes at some point in our lives.” It is everyone’s wish that no one focus on those mistakes.

Best Wishes,
Rabbi Mordechai Dixler

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