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(This is not a duplicate of halacha - Why was King David Punished for Sending Others to Conduct a Census? - Mi Yodeya.)

1 Chronicles 21, and 2 Samuel 24 relate how King David took it upon himself to number the people of Israel.

.י הָאֱלֹהִים, עַל-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה; וַיַּךְ, אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And God was displeased with this thing; therefore He smote Israel.

This was obviously not a good thing, but why?

Taking a census can be a preparation for war and/or taxation. I've heard that David's sin was in this demonstration that Israel wasn't relying on the Lord for peace and prosperity, but I heard the explanation from a Christian source.

Is that an appropriate interpretation?

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    Does this answer your question? David's census issue – DonielF Feb 23 '20 at 1:22
  • @DanielF It indirectly answers it. I.e. no one has offered a Jewish source that includes the idea that David's action showed that he didn't need the Lord's protection. So the answer is "no". But there isn't an "accept" answer. – Ray Butterworth Feb 23 '20 at 1:55
  • Let me rephrase that: Do you ask fundamentally the same question as that one, regardless of the answers there? – DonielF Feb 23 '20 at 2:14
  • @DonielF, no. My fundamental question was whether the interpretation from Christian sources is considered a possibly valid interpretation by Judaism. So it's not a duplicate. But the lack of confirmation is an implicit answer in itself. – Ray Butterworth Feb 23 '20 at 2:42
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The problem was not the census itself, but that David counted the people directly, instead of using something else to count them (Saul used shards of pottery to count the people. Each one gave a shard and then he counted the shards).

See Yuma 22B.

Read all about it here, and some reasons given here.

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David decides to take a census

II Samuel, chapter 24, records one of the most puzzling stories in the Bible. II Samuel 24:9 tells us that King David took a census that resulted in a plague that killed seventy thousand Israelites. But counting or taking a census in the Bible could be done in order to determine the availability for war, for the division of land, and for tax purposes. But what did David do wrong and why were innocent people, indeed seventy thousand of them, killed by a plague?

In the story, David orders his commanding general Joab to assemble the soldiers to tally people. The procedure ends after nine months and twenty days, when Joab returns with the count of eight hundred thousand men, along with an additional five hundred thousand from Judah as reserves which could be mobilized in a time of war. When David heard this report he immediately began to regret ever having taken the census. For the count has been made public.

What did Maimonides think

In his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48, Maimonides explains that whenever the Bible says that G-d did something, it is not that G-d actually did it but what occurred was the result of the laws of nature. Since G-d created the laws of nature, the Bible attributes the event to G-d, since G-d is the ultimate cause. If we understand the text in this way, we can posit that G-d did not really become angry (Rambam felt that G-d does not have emotions).

Why did David take the census?

David probably undertook the census to gauge how many men or to procure potential soldiers that he could muster for an anticipated battle since David engaged in many wars. For the census, David dispatched his senior officers to determine who was fit for military service. However, the census was done publicly which came to the attention of Israel’s enemies, the very nations that David was assembling forces to fight. When the enemies learned of the census they took preventative measures and mapped out the area of drafting disseminated along Israel's boarder, resulting in an ambush of David’s forces.

Natural consequences

After the census, David lamented it was too late. There was nothing he could do but face the consequences. The world functions according to the laws of nature, and one of those laws is that every act has a consequence. Thus, the prophet Gad had three possibilities for David’s negligent behavior. David could have fought the enemy or famine might arise as what happened to Saul. The plague was the result of a great slaughter [decomposing corpses]. Alternatively, the seventy thousand men were killed in battle, a “plague.” This number would have been much smaller had the census not been publicized. After the plague, Gad told David to set an altar where the plague has stopped, as a remembrance for David not to make the same mistake twice. The phrase “David’s Heart Smote Him” is a metaphor for David’s regret since the ancients considered the heart to be the seat of wisdom.

Summary

The last chapter of the biblical book of Samuel, if taken literally describes an angry G-d pushing David, resulting in deaths of tens of thousands. This is theologically problematic. But if we read according to Maimonides’ teaching in Guide 2:48, it can be explained in a more rational manner. David was punished due to natural consequences. When David dispatched a military contingent to take a census over a nine-month period which was mistakenly publicized. We can surmise that the enemy discovered the secret, fought or ambushed David’s army, resulting in the deaths of seventy thousand men, followed by a three-day plague.

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