Plagues are disastrous but even terrible calamities can lead to positive outcomes. A plague can result in unprecedented closeness between the Almighty and his people. In a recent conversation with my colleagues, we concluded, “when you are in the midst of the plague, you are in the hands of God.” In the biblical worldview, plagues are often necessary expressions of divine anger, judgment, and justice. Whether we humans understand their purpose or not, we can trust in God and his mercy.

In 2 Samuel 24 (cf. 1 Chronicles 21), we read how King David held a census to ascertain the number of his subjects. After he numbered the people, he knew that he had sinned by choosing to trust statistics rather than God. Gad came to David and informed him that because of this the Almighty will send one of three possible punishments: (1) famine for seven years, (2) David’s enemies chasing him for three months, or (3) a plague of pestilence against Israel. David chooses the third punishment because he prefers such punishment from a merciful God, rather than from the hands of humanity. Because the census did not include a redemption (cf. Exodus 30:12) the LORD struck down seventy thousand people in the land of Israel.

When the angel came to punish the inhabitants of Jerusalem after the census, the LORD stayed his wrath for a short time (2 Sam 24:15-16). David saw God’s angel at the top of the threshing floor, which was just up the hill from his palace. He received a word from the Lord and hurried there to build an altar and to reach out to God (2 Sam 24:18). David quickly purchased the threshing floor and some cattle from a Jebusite. He built an altar and worshiped God through burnt-offering and supplications for his land and his people (2 Sam 24:24-25). The LORD was moved to compassion and stopped the plague. Something unexpected and unprecedented was about to occur in the aftermath of this calamity.

The very spot where God paused and David built his altar became the location that God later chose for his permanent dwelling place in Israel. The Tent of Meeting (מִשְׁכָּן; mishkan) was stationed at Shiloh, but the Jerusalem Temple (בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ‎; beit hamikdash) was built on top of that very hill–the place called “Moriah” (מֹרִיָּה; see 2 Chron 3:1). God setting his presence in the midst of Jerusalem was a very unexpected outcome of a plague that took the lives of so many in ancient Israel. Since the days of David and Solomon, the hearts of countless worshipers have been turned to Jerusalem, to that holy hill. For Israel, God’s dwelling place became a permanent beacon of payer and worship. Yet it all began with David’s lack of faith and a terrible plague against the people of Israel. Being in God’s hands during the plague is better than turning away from the LORD. Divine indignation precedes God’s mercy and restoration that, as we see in the establishment of the Temple, lead to instances of closeness to the LORD.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. David was very very selfish when he chose a plague of pestilence against Israel instead of being chased by his enemies for 3 months… He chose innocent people to die because of him.

    • It is easy for us to judge David 🙂 By the way, God is a just judge. I am of the opinion he does not typically punish the innocent. At least that much I can deduce from his character.

  2. Thank you for timely word. It is so refreshing and a great reminder that God is with us even at this time of pandemic. God bless you richly!

  3. I noticed in this article everything has a name other than God the LORD. it doesn’t seem fair God wouldn’t have a name. in Jewish history does he have a name?

    • God has chosen to reveal himself by many names which all point to various aspects of who he is. He does not have a single personal name as you and I. If he did that would limit him and define him into a narrow window, I guess. His four-letter covenant name resembles a personal name but is not used as a personal name, though it also reflects his being.

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  4. My husband and I have been reading through the Bible every morning during lockdown and came to this passage a few days ago. We both had questions but not answers.
    It is good to read a discussion of this topic.Thankyou.

  5. The reasons you give for God giving or allowing suffering (plagues) are true but I have more thoughts on the subject. I believe that suffering is a tool (maybe there is a better word than this) to wake us up from looking at the world, and directing our eyes back to HIM. (Colossians 3:1-3). Also that He is always working on conforming us into the image of His Son, Jesus, therefore putting us through the fire to purify us (Romans 8:29).

  6. Are there any theories as to why the LORD commanded that a monetary ransom be paid whenever the people were counted in a census?

    • Yes, we have some ideas… Hashem wanted the rulers to trust in him and not in numbers. Numbering people gives you clarity of how much taxes you can raise, how many worries you can enlist and etc. But God wanted Israel to win bottles not via favorable numbers but in his strength. This is why a census is treated as a sin in the Torah, an act that requires restitution.

  7. What a beautiful expression of our loving Abba, who wants only the best for us; even when we are too hard-headed to see it. This is what 2Chron.7:13-14 is about; when we are in the midst of this calamity, we must turn back to the holy God of heaven. If we do this in sincerity, & not just for this time we are in; He is more than able to work all things out for our good!

  8. It’s also possibly the location where Abraham offered up Isaac (a picture of Christ).
    Hallelujah! What a Savior!

    • Read the Exodus passage… Census is to be accompanied by the offering to the Lord wich protected the lives of people from God’s punishment. Apparently a sensus was not seen as something good by God, and payment was required.

  9. Hi Professor
    Great article, though I don’t fully understand the sin regarding the taking of a census, yes, people are more than a statistic, but why is it such a great sin and were Moshe and the Israelites punished for the two cencus of the tribes in the book of numbers

    • Now, I will not presume to explain the mind of God on this issue. In my mind counting people is not bad. But in God’s mind, counting the population of Israel was somehow not good and sinful. Why I do not fully understand. Though I have theories, they are just that. God does not explain why exactly numbering Israel’s population is something he does not condone. But it is clear that this is some sort of a transgression.

  10. Hi. Men lead the world, so men are responsible for this disaster, not God. God has control over the lives that have been given to him by his will, but not of those who walk with their backs to him. God has nothing to do with this disorder. On the other hand, if this Covid-19 was made in any laboratory (as it is presumed), then it does not come from the hand of God, but from Men. Furthermore, if the virus was formed in markets where animal confinement malpractices are practiced, where animals of different species are kept together, where sanitary norms are not observed, etc. Does God have responsibility for human malpractices?

  11. Thank you for this powerful insight Prof Pinchas Shir. I am glad i joined the courses you offer and I am enjoying them so much. I suppose we should trust God to deliver us from Covid-19 calamity and to continue praying rather than complaining.

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The First Commandment: Deuteronomy in the Gospels or . You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  12. Thank you sir!This is so enlightening and inspiring knowing that we go through calamities as a divine anger,judgement or punishment.Now that the whole world is hit by the pandemic,what must be done immediately to straightened ourselves before GOD? Thank you and GOD BLESS THE LAND OF ISRAEL!!!

  13. Further to this discussion – there was a census during the time of the birth of Jesus. If it was God’s plan for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, then how was the cenus a ‘bad’ thing?

    • Answer the question “which ruler initiated a the census and for what reason?” and you will be able to figure that out.

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