Census and Censure: Sacred Threshing Floors and Counting Taboos in 2 Samuel 24

in Horizons in Biblical Theology
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Focusing on the mythological features in the story of David’s census and the plague at the threshing floor of Araunah in 2 Samuel 24, this paper argues that David, by conducting a census, transgressed the power of God by mimicking God’s creator/counter role. By examining the mythological aspects of the story, such as cosmogony, threshing floors, counting taboos, sacrifice and temple building, this paper argues that the narrative disparages David’s kingly status in order to assert God’s position as the ultimate king, creator and counter. Moreover, the story points towards the future function of Araunah’s threshing floor as the site of Solomon’s Temple, a place that would symbolize the continual presence, power and rule of the Israelite deity.

Census and Censure: Sacred Threshing Floors and Counting Taboos in 2 Samuel 24

in Horizons in Biblical Theology
  • 2)

    Robert B. Chrisholm Jr.“Does God Deceive?” BSac 155 (1998) 11-28esp. 21-22. Chrisholm explains the many theological problems in the narrative by blending the Deuteronomistic and Chronistic accounts of this story: “In this line of reasoning 2 Samuel 24:1 indicates that God because He was angered by Israel’s sin merely allowed Satan to tempt David and that Satan not God was the deceiver and instigator” (Chrisholm “Does God Deceive?” 22).

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  • 3)

    A.A. Anderson2 Samuel (WBC 11; Nashville: Thomas Nelson1989) 284; A. Graeme Auld I & II Samuel: A Commentary (TOTL; Louisville: John Knox Press 2011) 609; Joshua Adler “David’s Census: Additional Reflection” JBQ 23 (1995) 256; Tony W. Cartledge 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary 7; Macon Georgia: Smyth & Helwys 2001) 700; David G. Firth 1 & 2 Samuel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 2009) 541; Daniel L. Gard “The Chronicler’s David: Saint and Sinner” CBQ 70 (2006) 233-252; Umberto Cassuto A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (trans. Israel Abrahams; Jerusalem: Magnes Press 1987) 393; Mary Evans 1 and 2 Samuel (NIBCOT 6; Peabody: Henrickson 2000) 245; John Mauchline 1 and 2 Samuel (NCB; London: Marshall Morgan & Scott 1971) 322.

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  • 4)

    Daniel L. Gard“The Chronicler’s David: Saint and Sinner,” CBQ 70 (2006) 245.

  • 5)

    Hans Wilhelm HertzbergI & II Samuel: A Commentary (TOTL; Philadelphia: Westminster Press1964) 412.

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    Joshua Adler“David’s Last Sin: Was it the Census,” JBQ 23 (1995) 91-95.

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    Greenwood“Labor Pains” 477.

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  • 16)

    P. Kyle McCarterII Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction Notes and Commentary (AB 9; New York: Doubleday1984) 512; Anderson 2 Samuel 287; Herzberg I & II Samuel 414-415; Sean McDonough “ ‘And David was Old Advanced in Years’: 2 Samuel XXIV 18-25 1 Kings I 1 and Genesis XXIII-XXIV” VT 49 (1999) 128.

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  • 17)

    McDonough“ ‘And David was Old’” 129.

  • 19)

    Victor Hurowitz“Census,” ODJRJ, 163; J. Liver, “The Half-Shekel Offering in Biblical and Post-Biblical Literature,” HTR 56 (1963): 173-198esp. 174-175; McCarter II Samuel 513; James A. Sanders “Census” IDB 1.547; E. A. Speiser “Census and Ritual Expiation in Mari and Israel” BASOR 149 (1958) 17-25.

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  • 20)

    Speiser“Census and Ritual Expiation” 24.

  • 22)

    K. Luke“Light from Mari on David’s Census,” IJT 32 (1983) 70-89; Ernest Neufeld “The Sins of the Census” Judaism 43 (1994) 196-204. Cited 27 February 2011. Online: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/ 1G1-15524317.html; Speiser “Census and Ritual Expiation” 25. Neufeld even combines the euhemeristic explanation of the counting taboo with other socio-economic reasons in his interpretation of 2 Sam 24: The census which would have been unpopular in the first place as it was a “threat to the autonomy of the tribes and a prelude to forced labor and new taxes. . . . coupled with current notions associating sin or evil effects with a head count combined to damn the census.” The plague which he notes was caused by a series of outbreaks of disease accompanying the army as it traveled throughout the country would then have been seen as caused by God’s anger against the census (n.p.). Oddly he seems to argue both that a census taboo already existed because of occurrences of plagues and also that this taboo arose in 2 Samuel 24 precisely because plagues occurred during David’s census.

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  • 23)

    Greenwood“Census” 153-154; Liver “Half-Shekel Offering” 175 n. 5; Sanders “Census” 547 T. P. Wiseman “The Census in First Century B.C.” JRS 59 (1969) 59-75.

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  • 25)

    Hurowitz“Census” 163.

  • 27)

    Liver“Half-Shekel Offering” 173-198. Interestingly Num 31:48-51 also states that soldiers gave the Lord an offering in thanks for sparing the lives of all the soldiers. The offering in this case seems to be voluntary however and there is no mention of a plague.

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  • 28)

    Greenwood“Census” 153.

  • 30)

    McCarterII Samuel512-514.

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  • 32)

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    Sammy Githuku“Taboos on Counting,” in Interpreting the Old Testament in Africa (eds. Mary Getui, Knut Holter and Victor Zinkuative; New York: Peter Lang2001) 113-117. See also: Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant “Numbers” in The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (trans. John Buchanan-Brown; New York: Penguin 1996) 707; Ad de Vries “Counting” in Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery (Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers 1984) 113; Claudia Zaslavsky Africa Counts: Number and Pattern in African Culture (3rd ed; Chicago: Chicago Review Press 1999) esp. 52-57.

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  • 34)

    Rebecca Elisabeth ConnorWomen Accounting and Narrative: Keeping Books in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Routledge2004) 106.

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  • 35)

    Hurowitz“Census” 163.

  • 37)

    Graham Flegg“Tracing the Origins of ‘One, Two, Three, . . . ,” New Scientist 23/30 (1976): 745-749.

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  • 39)

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  • 40)

    Seidenberg“Ritual Origin of Counting” 10.

  • 42)

    Seidenberg“Ritual Origin of Counting” 32.

  • 43)

    J.E. Cirlot“Numbers,” in A Dictionary of Symbols (trans. Jack Sage; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul1962) 220-227; J. M. Cooper “Numbers” in An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbol (Lonon: Thames & Hudson 1978) 113; Jack Tresidder “Numbers” The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols (London: Duncan Baird Publishers 1997) 146.

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  • 44)

    R. Abba“Name” IDB3.501.

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    Frank Moore CrossCanaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press1973) 44-75.

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  • 47)

    Jon LevensonCreation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton: Princeton University Press1988) 17 22; Susan Niditch Chaos to Cosmos: Studies in Biblical Patterns of Creation (Atlanta: Scholars Press 1985) 11-24.

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    Bernhard W. AndersonFrom Creation to New Creation (OTP; Minneapolis: Fortress Press1994) 207-245. Levenson offers a more nuanced argument that the forces of chaos which has been temporarily defeated are overcome and indeed controlled through cultic structures: “Among the many messages of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is this: it is through the cult that we are enabled to cope with evil for it is the cult that builds and maintains order transforms chaos to creation ennobles humankind and realizes the kingship of God who has ordained the cult and commanded it be guarded and practiced” (Levenson Creation 127).

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  • 50)

    Bernard F. BattoMythmaking in the Biblical Tradition: Slaying the Dragon (Louisville: John Knox Press1992) 102ff; Levenson Creation 26-50.

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  • 51)

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  • 52)

    De Vries“Counting” 113.

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    CassutoCommentary on the Book of Exodus96; Brevard S. Childs The Book of Exodus: A Critical Theological Commentary (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1974) 169; Martin Noth Exodus: A Commentary (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1962) 67. Some have argued that the plagues in particular are meant to show the impotence of Egypt’s gods who were viewed as in control of the various facets of nature: Ziony Zevit “Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues” BR 6 no. 3 (1990) 16-23 42. Cited 24 July 2012. Online: http://www.basarchive.org.

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    John E. Currid“Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?,” BR 9 no. 6 (1993) 46-51.

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  • 76)

    Rivka GonenContested Holiness: Jewish Muslim and Christian Perspective on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (Jersey City: KTAV Publishing2003) 42; Philip King and Lawrence Stager Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville: John Knox Press 2001) 89.

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  • 77)

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    LundquistTemple of Jerusalem7.

  • 87)

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  • 88)

    SchnusenbergMythological Traditions139. Furthermore Lundquist states that the origins of Greek theater stem from threshing floors placed nearby or within Temples in Egypt and ancient Greece (Temple of Jerusalem 7).

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