Near the end of his legendary life, Israel’s King David stumbles into the folly of subjecting united and victorious Israel to a census.
David’s commander in chief and his counseling prophets immediately sense the outrage of the thing. Alas, it is more clear to them than to us just why this should have been such a bad idea. Likely it represented a lurch in the direction of conventional models of monarchy, with their inflated royal egos, bulging palace pantries, and rapacious demand for enough young women and men to keep them in well-protected luxury even when this denuded farms and villages of needed muscles and fertile home-makers.
This kind of hierarchical social arrangement is seen in the king-wary literature of Israel to be a failure to rely upon YHWH’s immediate presence when crisis loomed. Biblical reservations about monarchy are of course broader than just this, but it would be a mistake to overlook this decidedly theological argument in favor of a ‘flat society’.
So perhaps a poetic shape to the David’s remorse is to be seen in his remarkable choice of a particular poison cup out of the three that are set before him. That his—and Israel’s—punishment constitutes a formal rhyme to the king’s misstep should not be overlooked.
Joab, David’s commander-in-chief, reluctantly implements his king’s catastrophic decision to number Israel and duly reports back to the palace:
Joab reported to the king the number of those who had been recorded: in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of Judah were five hundred thousand.
Without explanatory comment—but let us remember, there are brave-hearted Yahwistic prophets prowling David’s courts—the king is reported to have seen the grief-making error of his ways.
But afterward, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people. David said to the LORD, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.’ When David rose in the morning, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, ‘Go and say to David: Thus says the LORD: Three things I offer you; choose one of them, and I will do it to you.’ So Gad came to David and told him; he asked him, ‘Shall three years of famine come to you on your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to the one who sent me.’ Then David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.’
A census signified at high volume a reliance upon human hands. Within the reflective matrix of Old Testament narrative, this was easily seen as a rejection of confidence in YHWH’s own immediate presence. YHWH himself being a capable ‘man of war’, the need for a standing army was seen by many in Israel who considered themselves the guardians of Israel’s earliest, simplest convictions as relativized if not eradicated .
David, with all the clarity of repentance, opts for the very formal opposite of what his error had implied. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, the king responds with daring anthropomorphizing liberty, for his mercy is great.
But let me not fall into human hands, David says in explaining the logic which guides him to this audacious, painful decision. ‘Like the hands I have just had counted’, he might have added if a more prosaic historian were narrating to us the census-story with its reference to those in Israel who use their hands to draw the sword.
But this historian is no pedant and his anticipated readers perhaps considered more discerning than all that.
David wants immediate mercy.
YHWH is its habitual practitioner.
Let us not fall into human hands, then, for they move, wound, kill in obedience to a different logic. Yahweh’s hand—uncountable but immediately present—does mercy.