1 Chronicles 21, upon reflection, focuses our attention on the issue of belonging – that is, who or what belongs to whom.
The narrative begins with an opponent inciting David to take a census of Israel, which everyone involved seems to know is wrong. Why? One argument is that counting anything, in this case people, is an assertion that they are “yours,” that whatever it is belongs to you. So David is overstepping his authority, encroaching on God’s territory, since Israel is God’s people, not David’s.
God communicates to David that there will be consequences for this; and gives David a choice. Rabbinic interpretation of David’s choice emphasizes that David chooses the most egalitarian option; David himself would have been protected from death by warfare; the rich and well-to-do could probably have survived a famine – the victims would have been disproportionately the poor; in the case of the plague, David’s chosen option, anyone might be stricken. That’s aside from the issue of David throwing himself on God’s mercy.
David gets the word that he can go to the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite – which seems to be related to the ending of the plague. There’s Ornan with his oxen, threshing wheat. Ornan offers the site, the oxen, and the threshing sledges to David – why? Presumably because David is the king of Israel, and could commandeer them at his pleasure, because in some sense everything in the territory “belongs” to him. But David by now knows that’s a mistake, and he insists on paying full price for the land and the material, making the famously pious statement “I will not take for the Holy One what is yours, not offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:24)
So David pays Ornan 600 shekels – possibly, money that has been collected from the twelve tribes, at least according to Rashi, which would mean all Israel is participating in this sacrifice, that the sacrifice “belongs” to all Israel – and makes this burnt offering. This action takes place on the site that is traditionally associated with Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac – another story that pushes the limits of who belongs to whom, and so, who may do what to whom, and who may ask what of whom. The underlying point of that story seems to be that God can legitimately ask anything; Isaac came from God in the first place, after all; he doesn’t “belong” to Abraham, ultimately. But then, the same could be said of the oxen David buys from Ornan. The same could be said of the land on which David’s sacrifice is performed, and on which numberless sacrifices will be performed in future.
And the same has been said of all of it, actually, possibly sometime before the Chronicler ever even put pen to parchment. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.” (Psalm 50:12-14)
If, when people get right down to it, the world and all that is in it is God’s, sacrifice seems pointless, and no attitude other than acceptance, whatever the circumstance, seems justified. It’s not as if anything actually belongs to us. Even us.