Looking at 1 Chronicles 21, in light of material in Sara Japhet, The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and Its Place in Biblical Thought (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009).
This chapter contains the story of David’s ordering a census of Israel, which is depicted as a sin, the ensuing plague, and the steps taken to avert the plague; David purchases the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite, builds an altar, and conducts a sacrifice; later this becomes the site of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Japhet points out that the Chronicler describes the incitement to the sin of conducting the census not as God’s doing, as in 2 Samuel 24:1, but as more human – she reads the term “satan” in 1 Chronicles 21:1 as “an adversary.” In the context of Chronicles, this makes the sin David’s – even though the Chronicler does not typically catalog David’s sins – and the plague God’s punishment for it, consistent with the Chronicler’s outlook and method. It leaves the Chronicler with a problem, which is not explicitly resolved in chapter 21: why do people other than David end up dying in this plague? That problem is resolved, albeit in a different way, in 2 Samuel, by implying that the Israelites’ own sins had angered God, making David’s sin a vehicle for a divine punishment that had already been planned (Japhet, 117).
The story unfolds in a very peculiar way. Here is a quick set of questions for the text:
Why is the census a sin? (This is particularly unclear to people like us who are used to keeping all kinds of state records and to participating in a constitutionally-mandated census every 10 years, and for whom “census data” is a real boon.)
Gad? Does he show up anywhere else in Scripture?
Why does God give David a choice of punishments? (or, alternatively, what’s the function of the choice of punishments in the story? For one thing, it allows David to say he would rather fall into the merciful hand of God than into human hands. Is this the only reason? And how typical is it to be able to choose one’s punishment? Of course, some might argue, people do typically choose their punishments, or at least their consequences …)
Why does Gad need to go back with David’s answer to “the one who sent me”? (v. 12)
What is going on with the intermediaries in this story? Can we tell? Gad is one, and the “angel” with a sword, who shows up at Jerusalem, and then more specifically at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite, is another. The angel isn’t unprecedented, but this angel seems to be unusual. It’s visible to various people: David, and also Ornan and Ornan’s four sons.
Why does Ornan keep threshing wheat when he sees the angel? Isn’t this remarkable? Who would do this? Why? (it turns out to be convenient, however … the oxen for the burnt offering being right on site like that)
Why the complicated serial set of instructions – from God (presumably) to the angel to Gad to David, and then David to Ornan, about the purchase of this threshing floor and the erection of an altar? (v. 18) Again with the communication problem.
Maybe the most significant part of the text, or the most relevant for people today, is David’s insistence on paying the full price for the property: “I will not take for YHWH what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (v. 24) Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is my typical attitude.
Here’s an explanation for the siting of the future Temple: “when David saw that YHWH had answered him at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite …” (v. 28) But God has answered David before … hasn’t he? So is this more of a specific memorial to this particular event?
Why after the end of the plague does David continue to fear “the sword of the angel of YHWH”? (v. 30) Reportedly, this is after the angel “put his sword back into its sheath” in v. 27. So what would be the peril of making the trip to Gibeon, which we’re told he “cannot make,” at that later date? (Further investigation of Gibeon, once again … also a suspicion that David in this episode, and also the episode in ch. 13, ends up looking … uninformed, really, about how God operates. That seems peculiar. Although maybe it is just a reflection of David’s piety, that he is afraid on more than one occasion, reflecting his recognition that God – certainly in his experience, and certainly by this point – is dangerous, even though “his mercy is very great.”)