Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army, who were with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, and take a census of the people, so that I may know how many there are.”
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.” So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from that morning until the appointed time; and seventy thousand of the people died, from Dan to Beer-sheba. But when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented concerning the evil, and said to the angel who was bringing destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. When David saw the angel who was destroying the people, he said to the Lord, “I alone have sinned, and I alone have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house.”
That day Gad came to David and said to him, “Go up and erect an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” Following Gad’s instructions, David went up, as the Lord had commanded. When Araunah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming toward him; and Araunah went out and prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground. Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David said, “To buy the threshing floor from you in order to build an altar to the Lord, so that the plague may be averted from the people.” Then Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him; here are the oxen for the burnt offering, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king.” And Araunah said to the king, “May the Lord your God respond favorably to you.” But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. David built there an altar to the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being. So the Lord answered his supplication for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel. 2 Samuel 24:1-2, 10-25 (NRSV)
Today’s Hebrew Bible reading sets a chronological precedent in the story of “how people deal with God’s will.” Gad the prophet reveals for the first time in the Hebrew Bible that people are offered alternative choices in dealing with the Almighty. Prior to 2 Samuel, the standard operating procedure with God is “God speaks in some way, and the intended recipient either does it or doesn’t do it.” But what we come to discover in this reading is that these choices are really more of a Hobson’s Choice than they are choices of free will.
Granted, these are not attractive choices. In my mind, David’s choices for what to do with Israel run like this: 1) Punish everyone in Israel with three years of famine; 2) David can take the blame himself and be on the lam for three years; or 3) put Israel through three days of pestilence. One thing is clear: At this point, David is not ready to take the blame himself. He chooses “The hand of the Lord” (1 Samuel 5:6 establishes that this is a synonym for “plague”) and, at that point, chooses to save his own hide. Some commentaries call this “David’s strategy;” truthfully, I think that is rather charitable to David. He’s been on the run before; it’s not fun, and frankly, my gut reaction to his choice is that he’s preserving his own skin, but he sort of lessens his guilt by picking three days over three years.
But what we discover, as the story unfolds, is when the angel of destruction appears on the scene, two things happen. First, God essentially says to the angel, “Sit tight a minute; let’s not rush to judgment.” This pregnant pause moment is all David needs to finally come around to his understanding of his own sins and the full meaning of the weight of his authority over the people of Israel. The sight of imminent destruction of innocent people gets David to finally come around to admitting, “I did it, this is MY fault,” and he responds by making the appropriate sacrifices, even paying a fair price for the real estate for his altar, rather than simply having it given to him because of his power differential.
My gut feeling in this story is that it wouldn’t have mattered which option David would have chosen–the outcome would have been the same. Eventually, David would have come around and chosen to accept the responsibility and make the appropriate sacrifices. Only the in-between in this story would have changed. I think about all the times we stress over “making the right decision” in our personal prayer lives, that somehow, we get into this delusion that we have power over God through our choices. We tend to discount the possibility that, no matter what we choose in our decisions over the most worrisome aspects of our lives, that God is perfectly capable of using the Hobson’s Choice option on us–that no matter what we choose, we will eventually choose “taking it” over “leaving it,” because we desire a relationship with God and God desires a relationship with us.
The various David stories in both books of Samuel are reminders that all of us, as God’s anointed, do some really stupid things sometimes–we all sin, and we all have stories in our lives that we wish we could climb into that Back to the Future Delorean and change. But we don’t get that option. We only get the option to move forward from where we are, with God’s help. Today’s story reminds us that even our wrong choices can, eventually lead to the right one.
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepsicatoid