The Evil Behind David’s Census Reveals the Evil of the State

David’s census can teach us a lot about the nature of the State. It is going to be hard to understand why God immediately killed 70,000 Israelites after the taking of David’s census without having a libertarian view of the government. After all, killing 70,000 people over taking a census does seem overly harsh to us. In fact, many of us look at the census and wonder why it was even sinful in the first place. Most modern commentators tell us that the reason for God’s judgment was that David was proud and his census demonstrated an over-reliance on earthly strength instead of faith in God. This is certainly true. But when the issue is evaluated merely in terms of motive and not in terms of the action itself, it makes it seem as if God did what he did because David hadn’t spent enough time in “The Mortification of Sin” that week and learned to properly deal with his pride problems. It makes it seem as if this act by David would have been fine if only done with a pure motive. However, it is my opinion that God didn’t kill 70,000 people because David hadn’t checked his heart yet. Reading through Gary North’s “Sanctions and Dominion,” I stumbled across some very helpful context to help us understand what is going on here. This article will quote heavily from that book.

One of the initially confusing aspects of David’s counting is that it was not the first one. There had been previous musterings/countings in Israel’s history. Why was there such a serious response to this one? North notes that there was a specific purpose to those previous countings/musterings:

It was not a normal event. It was done only prior to holy warfare, except for the instance of the mustering in Exodus 38, which may have been a retroactive atonement for the golden calf.  Such mustering was not lawful apart from the threat of war and a payment to the Levites…When God was angry with the people of Israel, He caused David to muster the nation, so that He could bring judgment against them. “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah. (II Sam, 24: 1). This mustering was illegal, as Joab understood: For the king said to Joab the captain of the host, which was with him, Go now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan even to Beersheba, and number ye the people, that I may know the number of the people. And Joab said unto the king, ‘Now the LORD thy God add unto the people, how many soever they be, an hundredfold, and that the eyes of my lord the king may see it: but why doth my lord the king delight in this thing?’ Notwithstanding the king’s word prevailed against Joab, and against the captains of the host. And Joab and the captains of the host went out from the presence of the king, to number the people of Israel” (II Sam. 24:2-4). God did this to David, and through his representative covenantal leadership, to Israel, by way of Satan, who acts as an intermediary in such matters.

“And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel. And David said to Joab and to the rulers of the people, Go, number Israel from Beer-sheba even to Dan; and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it. And Joab answered, The LORD make his people an hundred times so many more as they be: but, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? why then doth my lord require this thing? Why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel? Nevertheless the king’s word prevailed against Joab. Wherefore Joab departed, and went throughout all Israel, and came to Jerusalem” (I Chron. 21:1-4). I have reproduced both passages in full so there can be no doubt: they describe the same incident. Joab falsified his report by refusing to number the tribes of Benjamin and Levi (1 Chron. 21:5-6). No military agent of the nation was ever allowed to number Levi (Num. 1:49). By refusing to muster Benjamin, Saul’s tribe, the smallest tribe in Israel (I Sam. 9:21), Joab made certain that the mustering was not of the entire nation. By not mustering all of the non-priestly tribes, Joab silently declared that this was not a holy war, for the priesthood had not authorized it by blowing the twin trumpets, nor had the entire nation been mustered.

Immediately upon receiving Joab’s report, David knew he had done a sinful thing. “And David said unto God, I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing: but now, I beseech thee, do away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly” (I Chron. 21:8). God then gave David three terrible choices (v. 12). David told God to decide (v. 13); so, God brought a plague against the people, killing 70,000 of them (v. 14). This was consistent with the law of mustering. “When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them” (Ex. 30: 12). Plague came because David mustered the people without collecting the mandatory atonement money for the priests. This mustering invited God into their midst as the sanctions-bringer, but they made no payment. They thereby became profane. Why did Joab know that the mustering was wrong? Because no priest had consented to it. No blood money had been paid to the priesthood. The act was dearly sacrilegious: a profane act because it violated a sacred boundary. But what could that boundary have been? It had something to do with the nonpayment of blood money. It had something to do with the priesthood. Mustering was to precede a holy war. David was not facing a holy war, yet he mustered Israel’s fighting men. This was an assertion of a priestly authority that he possessed only as the national military leader in a time of war. David was the senior military commander, the one under whom blood would be shed. He was the senior priest of the military, under the authority of the high priest. He did not possess this mustering authority as senior civil magistrate. This authority was priestly, not kingly. Thus, it was illegal for the civil government to conduct this census. It was an assertion of priestly authority that was legitimate only prior to a holy war. Joab told the king: “Now the LORD thy God add unto the people, how many soever they be, an hundredfold, and that the eyes of my lord the king may see it.” It would be a blessing for God to multiply the military might of the nation, he said, so that David could see this. Spoken like a true soldier. The cost of supporting an army a hundred times larger, however, would have to be borne by someone. In a war, a large army is a clear blessing; in peacetime, it isn’t. Joab’s point was that David should not be counting the nation on his own authority. To experience an increase in the army large enough for its commander to see is a fine goal in, wartime, but to muster the nation apart from a looming battle was wrong.

As North notes, it was not even the civil magistrate that had the ultimate authority to issue the mustering/census. The authority was a priestly one. Further, the New Testament has abolished the priesthood. The very rare circumstances under which a census was to be taken in the OT do not even apply to us at any point. When a modern State uses force and aggression to collect data, it implies ownership of the individuals that it is collecting data from. If this was not normative and moral for OT Israel, it certainly will not apply to modern States:

Wherever the State asserts authority which is not warranted by the Bible, it imitates David’s illegal mustering. It asserts for itself power that God has not delegated to it. Such an unlawful arrogation of power is the mark of a Pharaonic State. It claims ownership – legal control – over the allocation of assets not lawfully under its sphere of legitimate authority. One of the marks of State control is its census-taking activity. Whenever the State numbers things not lawfully under its legitimate authority, it becomes Pharaonic. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Joseph had travelled there to be enrolled in a census conducted by Augustus Caesar (Luke 2: 1-5). This was not a tax, as the King James Version misleadingly says; it was a census. Augustus was following the lead of Julius Caesar, who had compiled a detailed statistical record of the empire, the descriptio orbis. Augustus had sent 20 trained agents throughout the empire to compile a similar work, which he wrote in his own hand, Breviarium totius imperii.  To manage a centrally planned empire, the emperor needed statistical data.

The history of the world is the history of the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of Satan. Satan loves to use earthly kingdoms under his command to control and dominate the people of God. He knows that predicable covenant judgments/sanctions fall on those nations who do not govern according to God’s very limited design (in the NT it is punishing aggression against person or property). But managing a geographical region with large populations requires large amounts of data and knowledge of the lives of its subjects. The Austro-libertarian understands that such knowledge is impossible to attain. Interventionists and socialists have tried desperately to gather as much statistical data as they could to manage their empires throughout history, but the results have always been embarrassingly negative. Even with a mixed economy like ours, the government has failed time and time again. Something as simple as a national post office can’t even be operated without incurring a significant loss year after year.

Not only are government statistics constantly revised, but there is an obvious motive by these central planners to always be changing how and what statistics are gathered in order to confirm whatever agenda the government has. Furthermore, we need to consider the nature of statistics. They are simply measures of past events. They cannot predict the future because future events, at least the kind an economist might be interested in, are all constantly changing based on constantly changing variables. North summarizes all of this well:

Government statistics are used by economic planners, including the central bank, to regulate the national economy. Not that these statistics are accurate or even useful. Older data are constantly being revised. But they create the illusion that government planners are capable of making effective representative decisions for consumers on the basis of an overall economic plan. The planners supposedly are capable of devising comprehensive, scientific, economic input-output grids, inserting the latest data, and presto: an accurate picture of the economy emerges. This picture then supposedly enables them to forecast the future effects of their official decisions. This is a politically convenient myth. Academic studies of government forecasting repeatedly conclude that flipping a coin would be as accurate (perhaps more accurate) as the forecasts of government economists; so would making the simple assumption that this year will be pretty much the same as last year… Statistics pour into the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service, and many other agencies: federal, state, and local. Some of these statistics are sold to the public on computer disks or in printed government reports. But only rarely are they used by businesses for strategic planning, especially small businesses. They are rarely delivered in a useful form. They do not tell most businesses what business managers need to know. In any case, they are old; they are at best snapshots of past behavior. Nonexistent is the firm that goes bankrupt or sustains a major loss because of its heavy reliance on faulty government statistics. This is because no business management team would be so foolish as to rely on government statistics for making major decisions. They hire specialized market testing organizations that seek out and analyze the highly specific and narrow information needed by business managers. Each year in the United States, the government releases a 1000-page book, Statistical Abstract of the United States. It is jointly produced by the Department of Commerce, the Bureau of the Census, and the Economics and Statistics Administration. It is a convenient government subsidy to such professional groups as historians, economists looking for factual support for almost any theory, editorial writers, and students writing term papers. Politicians’ assistants use it to ghostwrite speeches and reports.

Statistics are records of the past that have been summarized in the form of numbers. Economist Ludwig von Mises writes: “Statistics provides numerical information about historical facts, that is, about events that happened at a definite period of time to definite people in a definite era. It deals with the past and not with the future. Like any other past experience, it can occasionally render important services in planning for the future, but it does not say anything directly valid about the future.” Furthermore, “what the statistics of human action really show is not regularity but irregularity. The number of crimes, suicides, and acts of forgetfulness…varies from year to year.” The biologist, writes sociologist-historian Robert Nisbet, can predict future changes in some environmentally controlled population, but “It is very different with studies of change in human society. Here the Random Event, the Maniac, the Prophet, and the Genius have to be reckoned with. We have absolutely no way of escaping them. The future-predicters don’t suggest that we can avoid or escape them – or ever be able to predict or forecast them. What the future-predicters, the change-analysts, and trend-tenders say in effect is that with the aid of institute resources, computers, linear programming, etc. they will deal with the kinds of change that are not the consequence of the Random Event, the Genius, the Maniac, and the Prophet. To which I can only say: there really aren’t any; not any worth looking at anyhow.”

This (the economic calculation problem) is the ultimate reason why interventionism and socialism can’t work. No matter how many statistics are gathered, it is nowhere near enough. Only the many, individual actors in the free market have the “on the ground” knowledge to make the numerous decisions about what is best for their individual welfare or their business. Not only that, but the idea that a government even thinks it has the right to make such decisions for us is terribly authoritarian. It implies ownership of us. This is why David’s census and modern State data-grabs are so evil. Modern commentators are right to point out that David’s census was wrong because it put faith in his military might instead of God. (They are just wrong that this should ever be done in other circumstances). David didn’t want to just trust and obey. He had the same issue we all face when dealing with the trials and uncertainties of life: lack of knowledge:

Man is not God. No numerical census will ever equal God’s omniscience. No substitute for omniscience will ever approach God’s omniscience as a statistical limit. No expenditure of economic resources in data-gathering will ever replace reliance on God’s covenantal sanctions in history. The creature will remain a creature. The quest for omniscience is therefore an unholy quest. Omniscience is an illegitimate goal. This is one reason why God placed strict limits on mustering… The quest for ever more detailed, accurate, and recent statistical data is an aspect of man’s attempt to become God. The messianic State, if it is to bring its promised healing, must imitate God. It must pursue -omniscience, which in turn becomes the supposed basis of its representative (statistically significant) omnipresence and, ultimately, its omnipotence.

As I mentioned, this quest to obtain God-like knowledge is impossible, but that hasn’t kept people from trying to obtain it all throughout history. This is the ultimate struggle in our individual, spiritual lives, as well.  Sanctifying us to greater levels of trust is a primary mission of God, because he is most glorified when we trust in Him despite not having all the facts.  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Of course, the reason David’s desire for knowledge he couldn’t obtain was judged so harshly was due to him bringing the government into the mix. When you and I sin on an individual level by failing to trust and obey, we don’t violate the rights of hundreds of thousands of people in the process. David did. Faith in the power of a State to centrally plan an economy is an act of unbelief. It is telling God that we don’t trust Him to bless us when we obey and to judge those nations who disobey. It is putting your faith in another Messiah (hence, North’s word choice of “Messianic State”). Despite God’s spelling out of positive and negative sanctions for those nations who obey or violate his Word, nations continue to put their faith in another god. They demand a king “like the other nations” to put their hope in (1 Samuel 8). Well, OT Israel got what they asked for. The United States is currently getting what they asked for as well.

As with all nations throughout history, the entire regulatory state in the modern US is made possible by statistics. This is not an over-statement. The State would be very limited without the (supposed) vision it receives by its data-gathering. It uses this data to sell to the public the idea that it has the ability to centrally plan an economy:

One of the great evils of an income tax is that it mandates reporting to the State of a family’s income, capital, and financial dealings. The State assembles huge, detailed dossiers on individuals, families, and businesses, which only tax officials are allowed to inspect for accuracy. The income tax has been the great engine of statistics-gathering by the modern State. The census is the other. Both are compulsory in the United States. A resident can be fined for refusing to cooperate with the census-taker.

Faith in the power of statistics to convey relevant economic information to government planners is visible in a statement by Eugene Rostow. He assumes that it is an altruistic civil government, not the profit-seeking decisions of consumers and producers in a free market, which is truly rational. Government planners alone can see the big picture and rationally guide the overall economy for the benefit of others, or so we are told. “The policy of maintaining high levels of employment therefore implies a policy of seeking to make the current output of the economy a maximum – that is, to obtain as valuable a yield as possible from the intelligent current use of the nation’s capital resources, and its inheritance of capital, organization, skill, and habit. This goal is the first economic problem of any responsible government.”  This faith lodges initiatory and final economic sovereignty in the State, and in those who are ordained by the State to conduct its planning activities. In contrast to the god of socialism, this god of the mixed economy is not an earthly version of Calvin’s predestinating God, but it is surely an immanent Arminian kind of god. It does not predestinate, but it makes incentives available to those who conform to its laws. It nudges history along its orderly path. But a blind god is not much of a god (Deut. 4:28), so this immanent god must be said to be able to see clearly. He must be given eyes.

Samuel Ruggles, the American delegate to the International Statistical Congress of 1863, was an early prophet of the statistical millennium: “Statistics are the very eyes of the statesman, enabling him to survey and scan with clear and comprehensive vision the whole structure and economy of the body politic.” Such confident rhetoric is not so evident today, but the underlying faith is still widespread. Rostow asserts that “the development of the statistical series which provide rough tools of accounting for the current economic performance of the economy has improved our opportunities for studying the behavior of the economy, and for making both private and public policy decisions more rational and effective.” He was a professor of law, not an economist, but his faith in the planned economy was very great. Freedom through State compulsion: here is the twentieth-century liberal’s number-one official economic goal. (His number-one goal, unofficially, is the quest for power: a very ancient goal.) Apart from coercively collected, tax-funded statistics, the government planning priesthood and their academic allies could not easily maintain the myth of their ability to predict the economic future and then create incentives through tax policy and monetary policy to overcome the supposed inefficiency of voluntary economic exchange, i.e., the free market social order. Rothbard is correct: “If the government received no railroad statistics, for example, how in the world could it even start to regulate railroad rates, finances, and other affairs? How could the government impose price controls if it didn’t even know what goods have been sold on the market, and what prices were prevailing? Statistics, to repeat, are the eyes and ears of the interventionists; of the intellectual reformer, the politician, and the government bureaucrat. Cut off those eyes and ears, destroy those crucial guidelines to knowledge, and the whole threat of government intervention is almost completely eliminated.”

In a 1960 article, Rothbard surveyed the history of economists’ opinions on the collection of government statistics since the mid-nineteenth century. In case after case, the economists who praised such statistical work had as a motive the creation of a planned economy. The Fabian socialists in England in the late nineteenth century are the models. Richard Ely, one of the founders of the American Economic Association, and Lester Frank Ward – sociologist, government bureaucrat, and the first major apologist for central planning in the U.S. – both defended the collection of such data. Wesley C. Mitchell, one of the pioneers in statistical inquiry in economics in the early twentieth century, said that “the type of social invention most needed today is one that offers definite techniques through which the social system can be controlled and operated to the optimum advantage of its members.,, His wife wrote of his work at mid-century that “he envisaged the great contribution that government could make to the understanding of economic and social problems if the statistical data gathered independently by various Federal agencies were systematized and planned so that the interrelationships among them could be studied. The idea of developing social statistics, not merely as a record but as a basis for planning, emerged early in his own work., The Bureau of the Budget in 1954 announced: “National growth and prosperity demanded an enlightened conduct of public affairs with the aid of factual information. The ultimate responsibility of the Federal Government for underwriting the health of the national economy has always been implicit in the American system. . . .” The accelerating growth of U.S. government data collection came, the Bureau said, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, as a means for the government to combat the Great Depression.

It is not just that statistics require constant tinkering, both theoretically and in terms of their proper collection. It is also that they establish the indispensable theoretical foundation for coercive government intervention into the economy. The Bible is unalterably opposed to such coercive intervention. It is therefore opposed to the collection of statistics that are not part of its war-making authority, including the war against crime. Rothbard noted in 1960 that the collection of statistics by the government leads to greater intervention: “… the growth of statistics, often developed originally for its own sake, ends by multiplying the avenues of government intervention and planning.” Furthermore, when pragmatic social reformers go looking for problems to solve by government action, they use statistics. “The pragmatist looks for areas where the economy and society fall short of the Garden of Eden, and these, of course, abound.”

People don’t want to put their faith in God to bless their obedience, so they put their faith in the State and its ability to use statistics to centrally manage an economy. It really is that simple. As Rothbard demonstrated, the entire modern data-gathering state was built on the premise of faith in the “Messianic State.” As I hope you can now see, the evil behind David’s census was due to the evil nature of the State. It was not merely due to David’s improper motives, although those motives were obviously what gave way to his action. The income tax itself implies that the government owns us, and it is made possible by government data-gathering. And the income tax is hardly the only over-reach by the State into our lives. The aggression and theft made possible by this ownership is a great evil that can only be understood by looking at government through a libertarian lens (where the actions of the State don’t escape moral scrutiny).

God is no longer in the business of killing 70,000 people every time the State oversteps its boundaries in like manner. The plague that came upon the 70,000 was a specific judgment due to a violation of the Mosaic Covenant: “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them.” (Exodus 30:12) The OT priesthood is no longer with us, and God is no longer in the business of making such immediate, dramatic examples out of violations of his law. However, the moral principles behind the positive laws in the Mosaic Covenant carry over to us today. The NT church is now a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) We still carry the responsibilities contained in the eternal, moral law of God. The aggression, force, and theft that is necessary to supplant ownership of private property is still condemned today. North notes:

The issue was ecclesiastical: atonement money and the shedding of blood. Under the New Covenant, the Mosaic priesthood is gone forever, as the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches. Numbering prior to a war is no longer mandatory. The question is this: Is such numbering (counting) legitimate? Taking a careful accounting of one’s assets is legitimate for an individual, and was compared by Jesus with taking a military census…Has God given the State lawful authority over planning except with respect to…the legitimate imposition of God’s physical sanctions against covenant-breakers who have violated the law? There is no biblical warrant for such indiscriminate data collection…the State is not given the authority to conduct prying investigations into the lives of law-abiding private citizens…Because Mosaic Israel was founded on a public repudiation of Egypt’s messianic State, its legal order made impossible the civil government’s collecting of statistics that were unrelated to the defense of the nation against covenant-breakers. There is nothing in the New Covenant that altered the Old Covenant’s view of the messianic State. Thus, there is no reason to believe that government data gathering is legitimate.

The OT priests had a responsibility to make sure the countings/musterings were only initiated when they needed to be, and now NT believers (the royal priesthood) have the same sort of responsibilities to the governments they live under. Failure to limit government aggression to its only appropriate realm (as a response of justice against a previous act of aggression) will still result in God’s judging of a nation. Remember, the killing of the 70,000 by God was due to a census. David had not even gotten around to introducing a tax yet. If God views the State’s claim of ownership on its citizens in such a negative manner, how much more do you think he hates it when the State actually starts using this claim to steal from (tax) its subjects? This should tell us something about how God views the many acts of aggression and force of the State. I deal with taxation more here.

As we look around at the vast bureaucracy, the vast swath of life that is under the government’s control, and the progressive increase of taxation we have had to endure, it should not be too hard to see at least one way we have been judged. God judges statism with more statism. One hundred years after the implementation of the first, permanent income tax and huge swaths of our nation are now advocating for full on socialism (basically). All degrees of statism comes with its own built-in judgment.  The many over-reaches of our modern State make our lives harder and more difficult in ways that this article is not able to get into. The census incident reveals to us what God thinks about State activity. It is only his mercy which sustains nations through increasing degrees of statism, but God’s mercy has its limits. He still judges nations for violations of His moral law.

If you are looking for a defense of the idea that God still judges nations in predictable ways based on their statism and violations of the covenant, I would recommend Gary North’s book “Sanctions and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Numbers.” As a libertarian, I would obviously disagree with those rare sections where Reconstructionism is defended, but the book has usefulness in helping us think through the types of political issues not typically discussed by evangelicals.

For Further Reading

Economic Analysis and the Limits of Empirical Data