Today’s first reading comes from 2 Sam 24 in which the popular understanding is that God punishes the people because of David’s action of taking a census. There is no specific restriction on taking a census in the Old Testaments (although some might argue Exodus 30:12 restricts is to God’s initiative). But then again, does God punish because of David’s action? Note that the Lord’s anger is directed to the people…again. The opening of 2 Sam 24 reads: “The LORD’s anger against Israel flared again, and he* incited David against them: ‘Go, take a census of Israel and Judah.‘” (2 Sam 24:1) In the Hebrew there actually no subject that does the inciting.
So, whoever or whatever is the cause, the phrase “incited David” is interesting. A parallel verse (1 Chronicles 21:1) reads “A satan rose up against Israel, and he incited David to take a census of Israel.” Satan, in Hebrew, means “adversary,” or, especially in a court of law, “accuser.” In later Judaism (cf. Wis 2:24) and in the New Testament, satan, or the “devil” (from diablos, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word), designates an evil spirit who tempts people to do wrong.
But what temptation was brewing in David’s mind? A clue is when David tells Joab to take the census, Joab replied to the king: “May the LORD your God increase the number of people a hundredfold for my lord the king to see it with his own eyes. But why does it please my lord to do a thing of this kind?” 2 Sam 24:3 [emphasis mine] The narrative supposes that since the people belonged to the Lord rather than to the king, only the Lord should know their exact number. Further, since such an exact numbering of the people would make it possible for the king to exercise centralized power, imposing taxation, conscription, and expropriation upon Israel, the story shares the view of monarchy found in 1 Sm 8:4–18. See also Nm 3:44–51, where census taking requires an offering – and no offering was made. One of the most popular “theories” is because David did not rely on God anymore but on his own army’s strength (hence, why he tried to find out the strength of his military power). Another, more personal reason may be because David wanted to take pride in his own army.
Nonetheless and whatever the base reason, “When David saw the angel who was striking the people, he said to the LORD: “It is I who have sinned; it is I, the shepherd, who have done wrong. But these sheep, what have they done? Strike me and my father’s family!”(2 Sam 24:17)
The of Israel’s disobedience and obstinate nature are again the root cause; David’s pride the proximal cause. Still, as a leader, David acknowledges his part is the story and confesses his sin. He was King. He knew better – and the people suffered.