We are studying portions of 1 Chronicles 17 and 1 Chronicles 21 for Sunday, December 15. This is the account of David’s plan to build a temple as a permanent home for the Ark of God, God’s response (“thanks, but no thanks”), and then the final episode in the saga of David’s ill-conceived census that ends with identifying the location of the future temple. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some [minimal] notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Chapter 17 is the next episode in the narrative we’ve been following for the past couple of weeks (David’s bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, and David’s installation of the Ark in its new site). It makes sense, or we can imagine how it would, that once the sacred object is in place in the city, “down the street” from David’s palace, so to speak, David would begin to think about setting up a permanent structure for it.
Once God has announced God’s alternative building project, however, the narrative turns action-oriented, and the next three chapters deal with military matters. Then, chapter 21 is the Chronicler’s account of “the census.” This is one of the places where the Chronicler gives a different version of events than the alternative Deuteronomistic historian (2 Samuel 24).
In either version, it’s difficult for contemporary American readers, who are used to a constitutionally-mandated census every 10 years, to understand what the problem with the census even is. Especially since Biblical leaders had counted people before (see Numbers 1:1-16, Numbers 26:1-4). One key difference between Numbers and Chronicles (although not 2 Samuel) is that in Numbers (and 2 Samuel) God gives the order to count the people; in Chronicles it sounds like it’s David’s idea, once it’s put into his head by the Accuser (Satan). One suggestion for why the census is such a problem is that David’s act of numbering the people implies that they are David’s to count, that they “belong to David.” Another suggestion is that “some ritual taboo” is broken in undertaking the census. Another, to me the most persuasive explanation, is that David’s act of counting the potential troops reflects a lack of trust in God, and a corresponding excessive concern to assess the human resources he can count on.
[On the other hand, let’s not read this story as an invitation to pretend that imprudence or indifference to reality, as manifested in a refusal to collect basic data, is automatically a sign of faith. When it comes to the conduct of our own affairs, imprudence or indifference to reality may simply be signs of … imprudence or indifference to reality. As usual, context is everything, and only truth is truth.]
CLOSER READING: We’re focusing on the first verses of chapter 17 (God’s answer to David’s plan), and the closing verses of chapter 21 (the end of episode of the census).
The text calls attention to dwelling, houses, and building by repetition. In verse 1 David is dwelling in Jerusalem when he notices that the Ark is not enjoying the same luxury. God’s answer emphasizes that God hasn’t asked for a dwelling, and hasn’t had a dwelling before now, but later says God will give Israel a place to dwell (v9).
Similarly, the action of building a house, which is also a play on words – since a “house” can be a place to live, or a line of descendants to live in that place – becomes the topic of the speech (verses 4, 6, 11, 12). God hasn’t asked for a house; David is not to build a house for God, God will build a house for David; then David’s son can build a house for God. The Father-Son relationship is mentioned in connection with this, too, and augmented – David is God’s “servant” (verses 4, 7), but David’s son will be God’s son. [In other words, God’s building of the relational house will come first, and the fruit of the relational house will be architectural house, in effect, a monument to the relationship.]
Verse 9 is an elaborate promise to Israel: Israel will be planted, will dwell and will not move, and will not be oppressed by enemies. This promise is set in the past, so it seems to refer to the nomadic time in the wilderness and perhaps to the dislocations of the time of the judges. We should probably hear it, however, with the ears of people who have recently been through the experience of exile: as a longed-for assurance of place, stability and security. Then, we can hear it as an ancient promise that contemporary refugees long to see fulfilled.
At the end of chapter 21, David responds to an instruction from God via an angel via Gad the seer to build an altar on the threshing floor of “Ornan the Jebusite.” Everything about this episode is curious and feels significant: that the place belongs to an outsider, not an Israelite (why?); that Ornan keeps on threshing wheat in full view of the angel of death (verse 20) – whatever character trait that represents, it seems like something to meditate on, and possibly one to cultivate; that David’s status as king is pointed out in the text – specifically in the course of his act of purchasing, rather than commandeering, the place for the altar; the purchase price is enormous (12 times the price recorded in 2 Samuel; maybe adjusted for inflaction, but more likely reflecting the great value of this special site); that God affirms the sacrifice with fire from heaven, also God’s response to the inauguration of the altar in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 9), and Elijah’s altar in the competition with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) – aside from the times fire from heaven represents judgment and punishment.
The next chapter of Chronicles informs us that this auspicious location will be the site of the Temple.