Census in the Bible, a blessing or a curse?

Hi. Having read in the Bible about census, I found it out repeatedly and I remember sometimes being mentioned as a sin. Why would it be so?

Census in the Bible is basically counting heads of people, men, for different purposes:

  • knowing the number size of each tribe or clan (Numbers 1:2),
  • having the numbers of all who serviced for the Lord at the temple (1 Chronicles 23:24);
  • taxing those of a certain age (Exodus 30:12)
  • making aware of military force, men of war able or missing (Numbers 26:2; 31:49; 2 Chronicles 25:5);
  • strangers living in the people of Israel (2 Chronicles 2:17);
  • Jews living in Israel, subject to Roman forces (Luke 2:1-5; Acts 5:37).

A census would be ordered by God, or by kings, (see Roman ruler in Luke 2:1-5), and observed to fulfillment by the military (1 Chronicles 21:6), or religious leaders (Numbers 7:2).

The first census was ordered by God (Exodus 30:12), and each was to pay a ransom for himself. It was a proof that God knew each and everyone of them, as they were being covered, protected by Him. However, the tribe of Levi was not to be counted along with the others (Numbers 1:49), but separate (Numbers 3:39), counted against the first-borns of every family (Numbers 3:40-51).

One census event stands out in the Bible (2 Samuel 24). King David was the one ordering it, and commander of special forces Joab was to arrange it. The king said he wanted to “be made aware of the total number” (24:2). The results of the census included 1,100,000 men who drew the sword in Israel, and 470,000 in Judah (21:5), without counting Levi and Benjamin as “what the king had commanded was unethical to Joab” (21:6).

“Unethical to Joab”? We all know how ruthless was Joab himself – killing Abner by deceit (2 Samuel 3:27), covering David in killing Uriah (2 Samuel 11:6).

What seems to us normal, even strategically for any war commander, it was in fact an act of unfaithfulness, defiant to God’s providence. If we read the same story from Chronicles, it is clear that “Satan attacked Israel by inciting David to enumerate a census” (1 Chronicles 21:1).

Where was the problem?

Counting and evaluating the results would most probably lead to one of the two dangerous paths:

  • having great numbers, the kings would boast about it, weighing human powers and leaving God outside of the picture; the same for any tribe that might pretend supremacy, or for any leader, political, religious, tempted by numbers and multitudes.
  • on the other hand, having low numbers would mean that God had not been providing for them as promised – “the Lord had said he would make Israel as numerous as the stars of heaven” (1 Chronicles 27:23).

As David was wrong, yet a sincere man, soon after that “David’s conscience troubled him after he had taken a census” (24:10), acknowledging he had been “very foolish”, and had “sinned greatly”; or “acted wickedly” (1 Chronicles 21:17).

Aware of this situation, and the two dangerous paths, we should be mindful that God counts each one of our very hairs (Matthew 10:29-31), as a sign of powerful and all-covering protection. As for the seen human forces, they are always outnumbered by the unseen, heavenly sent ones, as we read in 2 Kings 6:14-17:

“Therefore sent he thither horses, and chariots, and a great host: and they came by night, and compassed the city about. And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?

And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them. And Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.”

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