Today I would like to reflect on what I think can only be described as a strange story from the Old Testament, that hopefully might help us to reflect more deeply on the nature of the Bible.
The passage is from 2 Samuel 24:1-7.
The first interesting thing to note is that God plants the idea within David to take a census.
When David actually begins to take the census, God tells him that he has sinned by taking a census and then proceeds to give David a few potential punishments. David chooses the third option of a plague, in which 70 000 people in Israel die.
It is a strange story. Why, we might ask ourselves would God prompt David to do something and then turn around and punish him for it?
Maybe another question we might ask ourselves is how might a story like this have come about in the first place?
If I had to speculate, I imagine that the following kind of scenario might have taken place.
David decided to take a census. Somehow at the same time or just following the census, a plague broke out within Israel. When something bad happens the natural tendency is for human beings to ask the question: How did this disaster come about? Who is to blame? Why has this happened?
The answer which is given: the only thing that has been different in recent times is that King David has taken a census. We are not sure why? But God must be punishing David and the people of Israel for taking the census.
But in the ancient Hebrew world-view, the dominant belief was that God was all-powerful and therefore God is ultimately responsible for everything that happened. And therefore, while the teller of the story had come to the conclusion that it was David who had sinned by calling a census and thus bringing a plague upon the people of Israel, because God is the ultimate power in the universe and ultimately God is in control of everything, God must have caused David to take the census in the first place.
What makes this whole story in 2 Sam 24 even more interesting is when you compare it to the retelling of the same story in 1 Chronicles 21. The 1 Chronicles is a much later re-telling of the story – possibly even by a hundred or more years. What is most significant is that 1 Chronicles 21 was written/edited after the exile of the Jews in Babylon.
During the exile, Jewish people were exposed to a new culture and different religious ideas. In Babylon, they were exposed most especially to the religion of Zoroastrianism in which the spiritual world was seen to be dominated by two opposing spiritual beings: Azhura Mazda, the Supreme Being who was all wise and all good, and his counterpart Angra Mainyu, who was responsible for evil, chaos and destruction in the world.
And thus in exile, the idea of a second spiritual reality comes into the Jewish understanding of the world. The idea of Satan, as a spiritual being opposed to God first begins to take hold in the mind of Jewish religious thinkers.
And so when we begin to compare the stories between 2 Sam 24 and 1 Chron 21, we see this interesting change. In verse 1 of the Chronicles story, instead of God being the cause of David taking a census, there is a new, explanation that helps to resolve the underlying injustice of the 1 Sam 24 rendition of the story. Instead of God planting the idea in David’s mind, the writer of Chronicles suggests that it was in fact Satan, the enemy of God who made David take a census.
And thus the strange anomaly of the previous telling of the story is now resolved. If God prompted David to take the census in the first place, is it really fair that God should punish David and the people of Israel?
But if the story is retold and Satan, the arch enemy of God is now the instigator, then it makes more sense that God should have been able to punish David.
What this story does is that it helps us to see that the Bible is a more complex book than Biblical literalism would suggest. Biblical literalism asserts that every verse in the Bible is God inspired and without error or contradiction. But here we have two renditions of the same story, one that says Satan made David do it, and the other that says that it was God who made David do it. A second significant change in the story is the numbers in the census are also different. 1 Sam 24 gives one set of figures, but 1 Chronicles 21 gives a very different account of the number of able-bodied men in Israel and Judah. In 2 Samuel 24 it is 800 thousand able bodied man in Israel and 500 thousand in Judah. But in 1 Chronicles 21 there were 1 million one hundred thousand in Israel while only 470 thousand in Judah.
When you actually begin to look at the details of some of the Biblical stories, you begin to see that arguments for Biblical literalism begin to break-down. The Bible is in fact not that kind of book.
It also shows that in the Bible, there is a theological development. Between these two stories, there has been a development in thinking. The first story teller has no strong idea of Satan as the enemy of God who is causing all this trouble. But in the second story, the character of Satan emerges as a new way of trying to explain the evil in the world.
The story also reflects another aspect of the Israelite culture of the day: The culture was one dominated by a group ideology. If one member of the group sinned, the whole group was punished. David’s sin leads to the punishment of the whole of Israel. You see this in other places.
Later in the development of other Biblical writers, you can see a shift towards individual responsibility. In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet sees a great injustice in people being punished for the sins of others, especially children being punished for the sins of their parents. He writes that if a father sins, the father will be punished. If the son sins, the son should be punished. But for most of the early Hebrew writing group ideology dominated their thinking. One persons sin (in this case David), could lead to the punishment of the whole nation of Israel. In our passage, even David sees an injustice happening that the people of Israel should be punished for his sin.
But western culture as a whole has generally moved in a completely opposite extreme to a radical individualism. On the surface it might seem that it is progress. But in actual fact, it is just another extreme. What Western culture is beginning to realise is that the truth lies somewhere in between. We’re beginning to realise that there is in fact no-self-made man. All of us are inter-connected. Its an insight that some Westerners are learning from quantum physics. Somehow inexplicably it was discovered that when twin photons are separated geographically, when scientists caused one two spin in one direction, the other automatically began to spin in the same way. At a sub-atomic level, the world is deeply interconnected. Another source for learning of our interconnectedness has been Buddhism. It was one of the insights of the Buddha that life is interconnected. The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of inter-being. We live interdependent lives.
Another source for our learning this principle of interconnectedness is in fact ecology and the ecological crisis. The more we become aware that a damaged ecology will affect human beings, the more we come to see that extreme individualism is a delusion. None of us can actually live without everyone else.
In African culture in South Africa there is still a strong sense of group culture. Which has it’s downsides as in the story of David. But there is a phrase that is used in African culture than can help us Westerners find a better balance between the collective and the individual. In a concept called Ubuntu they have a saying that goes - “I am because we are”. No-one is an island. Even if we seclude ourselves and live in our home as a hermit, only coming out to buy food from the shops, we would still be reliant on a whole network of other people for our food, our electricity, our water, government service. I am because we are. No-one is an island.
Although I would struggle with the Biblical writers interpretation of this story of David’s sin bringing punishment on the whole of Israel, it does convey the idea that one persons sin can and does affect other people. Very few people would take seriously the notion that God punishes a group for an individuals sin. But it is possible to see that one persons sin, or one persons negative or destructive behaviour can often have consequences on a whole community.
In the New Testament, Jesus teaching on the Greatest Commandment is in its own way an expression of our interconnectedness. If I am because we are, then it begins to make sense that loving my neighbour is another way of loving myself.
Paul’s use of the image of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 is another Biblical image that emphasizes the interconnectedness of life. He uses it specifically as an image for the church community. But the image has wider application and could very easily be used as an image to describe society as a whole. The more globalised the world becomes, the more we realise how interconnected we are. The world is like a body of interconnected parts. When one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.
And so, as we reflect on these passages today in this way, it perhaps comes as an invitation for us to ask ourselves: How does my behaviour and maybe even my private life impact on others, in my family, in my community, in this country and even in the world? Is the impact of my life on the world ultimately a positive one or is it perhaps a negative one? When one thinks for example how the life of Jesus has reverberated across the world for over 2000 years, what is the impact that your life and my life is having on others and the world. Amen.