Shemuel Bet Chapter 24 – Conclusion
This chapter concludes not only Shemuel Bet but the entire Book of Shemuel. For a reason left unexplained in the text, Hashem intends to punish Israel and therefore entices David to initiate a census of the population. His general, Yoav, is resistant to the idea, and attempts to persuade David to abandon the project. However, David insists on having the census conducted, and Yoav oversees the project for a span of nine months and twenty days.
As soon as the numbers are reported back to him, David regrets having ordered the counting of the Jewish people, and confesses his error. The prophet Gad is sent to David with a message from Hashem. David will have to choose one of three punishments: a seven year famine, three months of flight from his enemies, or a three day plague upon the nation. David famously responds that it is better that they fall into the hands of Hashem who is abundantly merciful than to subject themselves to the whims of other human beings, so he chooses the plague (a famine is considered to be “falling into the hands of man” because the resultant economic crisis would force the nation of Israel to depend on other nations for sustenance.)
The plague begins and the destructive angel approaches Jerusalem; at this point, David beseeches Hashem, asking Him to punish him and his family who are the transgressors, not the innocent people who committed no wrong. The prophet instructs David to approach Aravna the Jebusite, who owns a granary on a mountain outside the city, and to build an altar there.
David immediately visits Aravna and is greeted with great deference and respect; Aravna is willing to give him the granary immediately, in addition to some animals for sacrifice. David refuses to accept the gift and insists on paying Aravna for the land as well as the offerings. Once he has completed the sacrificial service, the plague is discontinued and the land once again found favor in the eyes of Hashem. This threshing-floor became the site of the future Holy Temple.
The questions to be asked on this chapter are numerous. First, if Hashem wanted to punish the Jewish people, why did He need to involve David both in a specific sin (counting the population) and in choosing the punishment? Why couldn’t Hashem simply mete out whatever consequences He determined that the nation deserved?
Second, why doesn’t the text tell us what the sin was that Hashem meant to rectify here?
Third, why does David wait so long to pray to Hashem to put a stop to the plague? Shouldn’t he have immediately realized that innocent people would be suffering for his mistake, and protested to the Prophet Gad before the plague began?
Finally, how does the construction of the altar and offering of sacrifices address whatever problem or transgression precipitated this plague?
This chapter is one of the most perplexing and mysterious in the Book of Shemuel. Generally, I rely upon my own literary analysis, some psychological, philosophical and political knowledge, and a sampling of commentaries from various eras to develop my understanding of a chapter and its relationship to the book as a whole. This chapter, however, was one that I did not have a strong intuition about from the beginning, so I consulted with more sources than usual.
Nevertheless, to be honest, diligent research of the classical and modern commentaries left me unsatisfied. Few of the interpreters have addressed these difficulties at all, and those who have dealt with one or two of the issues have provided either incomplete or otherwise unpersuasive resolutions for them. None managed to connect the content of the chapter to broader themes of the book as a whole in any substantive way. Therefore, with your permission, I would like to propose an interpretation of this chapter that is original, and I would greatly appreciate your thoughts and feedback.
I believe we can find allusions in our text to at least three stories from the Torah that are all relevant to its themes and help clarify its message. The first and most fundamental is the story of the Aqedah, or binding of Isaac. Most obviously, both our story and the Aqedah conclude on Mount Moriah with the construction of an altar, offering of sacrifices, and an angel who “stops” a destructive force (there, Abraham about to kill Isaac; here, the plague about to strike Jerusalem). The plague lasts for three days just like Abraham’s journey to the Aqedah. And both stories relate to “numbers” – here, David seeks to clarify the census numbers, and the story of the Aqedah concludes with Hashem’s blessing to Avraham to increase the number of his descendants like the stars in the sky and the sand along the ocean.
This parallelism offers us an insight into the problem that is responsible for the chapter before us. Avraham was blessed with the miraculous gift of a child and is almost immediately called to sacrifice him to God. The Midrashim explain that Avraham, in his excitement over the birth of Yitschaq, neglected the Almighty. Avraham had a party celebrating the weaning of his son and did not offer a single sacrifice to his Creator. He became too engrossed in his “heir” and thoughts of his legacy being passed to the next generation. He lost sight, at least momentarily, of the fact that everything he possessed really belonged to Hashem and had to be dedicated to His service. He started becoming enamored with his son for his own sake and not the sake of Heaven.
The Aqedah was the ultimate test for Avraham because it required that he completely cast aside his own hopes and aspirations and that he break his attachment to the most precious thing he had ever received – his own son. Avraham’s only attachment was to be to the Almighty; no other person, thing or place could have intrinsic significance in his mind apart from Hashem’s plan. Once Avraham is reminded of this fundamental truth, he is promised countless descendants; having a legacy or an heir will no longer be a distraction for Avraham nor will it distort his perspective on the role he must play in the world.
With this in mind, we can understand the episode with David quite well. Like Avraham,David is a pioneer, chosen “out of nowhere” to found not the movement of Judaism (like Avraham) but the monarchy and nation-state of Israel. The hallmark of David’s approach to life and governance was placing Hashem at the center of his focus, and never losing sight of where he came from or the purpose for which he was selected. In our chapter, we see David slipping. He is counting the people in order to enjoy their number, in order to bask in the power and grandeur of his kingdom, for its own sake. They “belong” to him and he is taking “harmless” pleasure in that fact.
However, at the same time, this attitude of David is a two-way street; the people also view David as their patron and protector, as a father-figure to whom they are subjects and to whom they are deeply attached. They are proud of their growth and success and attribute it to their fearless and accomplished king. So the “sin of David” and the punishment to be visited upon the nation are two sides of the same coin – they reflect the spiritually unhealthy relationship between David and the people, a mutual attachment that excludes the Almighty.
This explains why Hashem visits the punishment upon the nation THROUGH an error of David – both sides are responsible for the situation that has developed, and this scenario brings to light the underlying problems. David is in fact punished by the plague, which diminished the very numbers that brought him so much pride. The people likewise suffer for their own overestimation of the significance of their population growth and the greatness of their monarch.
David’s immediate recognition of his mistake, while praiseworthy, is not a complete recovery from this spiritual fog. His choice of punishment is, in and of itself, indicating that some vestiges of the original error still remain. He still sees the people as belonging to him and extensions of his power and therefore considers it appropriate that they suffer for his mistake. It is only when he cries out to Hashem that he and his family should suffer and NOT the citizens of Israel that we see a complete breakthrough being made.
David now recognizes that it is not about him, his kingdom or his legacy. It is about the Jewish people and their mission in the world. He is not supposed to focus on cultivating the loyalty or devotion of the nation towards him, nor is he to take pleasure in his “possession” of them; rather, he is merely a steward appointed by Hashem to lead the nation of Israel toward a deeper relationship with the Almighty.
Avraham had to reframe his relationship with Yitschaq and clarify his own sense of identity through the Aqedah. He went from seeing himself as a parent taking personal pride in his child and living vicariously through his offspring to seeing himself as a servant of Hashem who had the sacred obligation to educate his child for the sake of Heaven. Similarly, David had to reframe his identity through this experience. He went from from viewing himself as the proud ruler of a vast empire that reflected his greatness to viewing himself as a devoted servant of the Almighty with the holy responsibility of shepherding His people.
Offering to suffer instead of his subjects and then purchasing the site of the altar and offering sacrifices as a “substitute” for the suffering of the people is where we see David behaving in a truly Abrahamic fashion. Avraham was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, giving up his own son, and eventually offered a ram in his stead. Simply being relieved and happy that the plague had stopped or that the sacrifice of Isaac had been canceled would be another instance of focus on the self – joy in being excused from a difficult responsibility or having a painful burden alleviated. The translation of that energy into worshiping God here is critical because it means that the lesson has been learned – both Avraham and David, in exactly the same geographical spot, were declaring “my task is to serve the Almighty and not get caught up in the pursuit of my own egotistical glory.”
Indeed, David’s designation of this place as a sacred space and ultimately the location of the Holy Temple is a fulfillment of Avraham’s prophetic statement at the conclusion of the Aqedah that this mountain would be a place where people would appear before and experience the Divine presence. The insistence on paying full price for the granary is likewise reminiscent of Avraham’s insistence that he pay in full for the acquisition of Mearat HaMachpelah, the burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. David is clearly being compared to Avraham throughout the narrative.
Another section in the Torah that has echoes in this chapter is one that we are about to read this Shabbat – Parashat Sheqalim, the beginning of Parashat Ki Tissa. There we are told that when a census of the Jewish people is conducted, it should be by collecting half-sheqel contributions to the sanctuary. A head count of the population invites “negef”, or plague, while the donations provide an atonement to counteract these negative effects. In our story, we observe a “negef” that strikes the nation because of an improperly executed census. Moreover, it is David’s payment of sheqalim, silver coins, to purchase the granary and sacrifices on behalf of the nation that finally brings them relief from the crisis.
Counting the Jewish people as a point of pride or because it builds up their sense of strength in numbers is misguided. In fact, it is can become a source of arrogance, misplaced confidence, irresponsibility and loss of the Divine Presence. The true strength of the Jewish people is only found in and through their dedication to the Creator. What we “measure” is not human capital, military might or economic prosperity but the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to establish a great, populous and holy nation that is devoted to sanctifying His name in the world.
We demonstrate this concept by only counting the Jewish people through their act of participation in the sacred work of consecrating and maintaining the Sanctuary, rising above any preoccupation with physical strength per se and therefore avoiding any calamitous consequences. Clearly, in this respect, David’s actions in this chapter mirror the theme expressed in Parashat Ki Tissa.
One more very instructive thematic and textual parallel to our chapter can be found in Parashat Qorah. After Qorah’s rebellion is put down in a magnificent and dramatic manner – the Earth opens up to swallow the dissenters and the imposters vying for the position of Kohen Gadol are incinerated – the nation complains about the injustice that has been visited on the people of Hashem. This prompts the Almighty to punish them with a plague. Moshe instructs Aharon to bring the Qetoret, or incense, among the people, and to offer it there as an atonement to halt the destruction. This strategy is effective, and the words “va-teatsar ha-magefah” are used there – precisely the words used here, in our story.
One of the lessons of that episode in the Torah is that what defines us as the “nation of Hashem” is not some intrinsic entitlement we have to Divine favor; only when we live in accordance with Hashem’s wisdom and commandments can we claim that title. The people were stricken with a plague because they forgot that the special status conferred upon them was a conditional one – it was granted only as long as they were true to Hashem and His laws. And disputing the authority of His chosen representatives, the leaders He has selected to guide the Jewish people, is clearly a betrayal of Hashem Himself. When Moshe and Aharon intervene and, through their service of Hashem, are able to put a stop to the plague, it underscores not only their dedication to the welfare of the people but their special Divinely appointed status as shepherds of His nation.
One of the significant themes of our story is that David, like Aharon, “enters the breach” to defend and protect his people through supplicating to Hashem and then offering sacrifices to Him. The fact that his entreaties are accepted and the plague ceases is another Divine validation of the “chosen” status of David as monarch of Israel. Moreover, just as the selection of the kohanim was controversial and may have been disputed as a “partisan” choice because Aharon was the brother of Moshe, so too might the selection of Yerushalayim as the home of the Divine Presence be resisted. The description of its consecration by prophetic mandate, and the effectiveness of the worship there in saving the Jews from a crisis, is sufficient evidence to naysayers that the choice of the Temple Mount was not politically motivated – it was decreed from Heaven.
In summary, this chapter represents the final hurdle to be overcome in preparing the Jewish people to construct a permanent home for the Divine Presence and to remain consistently focused on their calling as a light unto the nations. When the people are the beneficiaries of untold prosperity, population growth, military victory and political stability, will they still remain connected to their spiritual mission? Or, as the Torah predicts, will they become self-absorbed, get caught up in their own fantasies, and lose sight of their role in God’s plan, undermining the whole idea of a Holy Temple altogether?
David’s error, the resulting plague and the correction through designating and offering sacrifices at the future sanctuary all address this problem. The solution is to refocus, as Avraham did, on the true purpose for which we have been chosen, to recall the real value of our population growth and success as tools to serve the Creator, and acknowledge that our salvation and security will always be contingent on our fulfillment of His will. At the end of David’s career, he had “made it” – the question was, how would he sustain it? This chapter recounts the experience that helped David himself remain spiritually grounded and the study of which would provide guidance to his successors in future generations as well.
The Book of Shemuel started by describing the Jewish people without any central government and suffering from the oppression of an absolutely corrupt religious establishment in Shilo, lorded over by the sons of Eli. Shemuel the Prophet arose to heal the spiritual ills of the nation and return them to the path of Torah, and was charged with the responsibility of anointing the king who would bring security and stability to the country so that service of Hashem would have a solid base upon which to stand.
The first monarch, Shaul, was a very righteous and admirable man, and the Rabbis emphasize that we should not allow his flaws (magnified for us in the stories with David) to overshadow the outstanding qualities that earned him the kingdom to begin with. Nevertheless, his insufficient devotion to Hashem – manifest in his excessive concern with the opinions and approval of others – left him unable to defer to Torah guidance, defeat Amaleq or take any action to establish a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant. His rule was not a vehicle of Divine service to the extent it was intended to be.
David, by contrast, lives in the presence of Hashem continually. He is totally disinterested in fame, fortune and popularity and singularly preoccupied with seeking and fulfilling the will of his Creator. Therefore, not only does he wage decisive and successful battles against the enemies of Israel, he forms a highly functional government and paves the way for the Holy Temple to be constructed (he would have done so himself, but was forbidden from it!)
The final chapter of the Book of Shemuel is a beautiful “reversal” of its opening chapter – we now have a selfless and devoted leader (unlike the sons of Eli), presiding over a well-ordered and systematically governed society (unlike Shaul), and dedicating himself and his nation to the service of Hashem (unlike either of them). The temporary, corrupt sanctuary and priests of the first chapter of Sefer Shemuel have disappeared, a new and improved generation bustling with educated citizens and guided by sincere leaders has emerged, and the permanent sanctuary – the symbolic “culmination” of the settlement of the Jews in the Holy Land, begun in the Book of Yehoshua – is now ready to be constructed.