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SBL e-journal

Shira Golani





Is There a Consensus That a Census Causes a Plague?





APA e-journal

Shira Golani





Is There a Consensus That a Census Causes a Plague?








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Is There a Consensus That a Census Causes a Plague?

Census is a necessary and standard procedure for governing. Indeed, the Bible contains numerous stories of censuses that are mundane and unproblematic. Only two texts suggest otherwise: Exodus 30, and 2 Samuel 24, a census by King David.


Is There a Consensus That a Census Causes a Plague?

A Snapshot of the State of Israel’s population census website

The Rules of the Census

Parashat Ki Tisa opens with a law concerning census taking, which requires the payment of half a shekel for each man counted (Exodus 30:11-16).[1] Despite the explicit statement that the census silver goes to support the Tabernacle, this is not the reason given for this payment. The half shekel is designated as a kofer nefesh, a ransom for each individual’s life. Its purpose is to prevent a plague (נגף) from hurting the people of Israel. The need for this “expiation for the life” is emphasized by the four-fold repetition of the root k-p-r (bolded below), “to atone,” in this short, six-verses long, pericope:

* Each Israelite being counted must pay a ransom/expiation for his נ-פ-ש.

ל:יא וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ל:יב כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפשׁ֛וֹ לַי-הֹוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם
30:11 Yhwh spoke to Moses, saying:30:12 When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay Yhwh a ransom/expiation for himself on being enrolled,

* Without the payment, plague will follow.

וְלֹא־ יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם:
that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.

* The payment is half a shekel (=20 gerahs).

ל:יג זֶ֣ה׀ יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽי-הֹוָֽה:
30:13 This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to Yhwh.

* Only males over 20 years of age are counted.

ל:יד כֹּ֗ל הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מִבֶּ֛ן עֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וָמָ֑עְלָה יִתֵּ֖ן תְּרוּמַ֥ת יְ-הֹוָֽה:
30:14 Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give Yhwh’s offering:

* The sum is fixed with no adjustment for wealth or poverty.[2]

ל:טו הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט מִֽמַּחֲצִ֖ית הַשָּׁ֑קֶל לָתֵת֙ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְ-הֹוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־ נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם:
30:15 the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving Yhwh’s offering for your persons.

* These sums are designated for the service of Ohel Moed/ Tabernacle.[3]

ל:טז וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ אֶת־כֶּ֣סֶף הַכִּפֻּרִ֗ים מֵאֵת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְנָתַתָּ֣ אֹת֔וֹ עַל־עֲבֹדַ֖ת אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד
30:16 You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting;

* The expiation payment is a reminder to God.

וְהָיָה֩ לִבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל לְזִכָּרוֹן֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְ-הֹוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם:
it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before Yhwh, as expiation for your persons (NJPS).

Plague as Natural Consequence of Census Taking?

This passage does not appear in a context where Israel is about to be punished, and thus the expiation is not for something they had already done. Instead, Exodus 30:12 presents the census as inherently dangerous; the census is expected to bring about a plague. The ransom is meant to block the danger from harming Israel.

David’s Census and the Plague It Brought

The notion that counting the population will evoke a plague occurs in one more biblical text: the story of the census conducted by King David (2 Samuel 24; retold with some significant differences in 1 Chronicle 21):

כד:א וַיֹּ֙סֶף֙ אַף יְ-הֹוָ֔ה לַחֲר֖וֹת בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיָּ֨סֶת אֶת דָּוִ֤ד בָּהֶם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֵ֛ךְ מְנֵ֥ה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְאֶת יְהוּדָֽה: כד:ב וַיֹּ֨אמֶר הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ אֶל יוֹאָ֣ב׀ שַׂר הַחַ֣יִל אֲשֶׁר אִתּ֗וֹ שֽׁוּט נָ֞א בְּכָל שִׁבְטֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִדָּן֙ וְעַד בְּאֵ֣ר שֶׁ֔בַע וּפִקְד֖וּ אֶת הָעָ֑ם וְיָ֣דַעְתִּ֔י אֵ֖ת מִסְפַּ֥ר הָעָֽם: כד:ג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹאָ֜ב אֶל הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ וְיוֹסֵ֣ף יְ-הֹוָה֩ אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ אֶל הָעָ֜ם כָּהֵ֤ם׀ וְכָהֵם֙ מֵאָ֣ה פְעָמִ֔ים וְעֵינֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ רֹא֑וֹת וַאדֹנִ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ לָ֥מָּה חָפֵ֖ץ בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה:
24:1 The anger of Yhwh again flared up against Israel; and He incited David against them, saying, “Go and number Israel and Judah.” 24:2 The king said to Joab, his army commander, “Make the rounds of all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, and take a census of the people, so that I may know the size of the population.” 24:3 Joab answered the king, “May Yhwh your God increase the number of the people a hundredfold, while your own eyes see it! But why should my lord king want this?”

From this opening, it is clear that the author assumes that the danger of census-taking is obvious and well-known. Joab seems frightened by the idea and firmly wishes to dissuade David. Moreover, it appears that the only explanation the author can think of for why David would engage in such an obviously foolish and dangerous action is that God incited him into doing so, since God wanted to punish Israel for something. The census here provides background for why David would engage in a census: it offers an opportunity for the divine anger to be vented against Israel. (According to 1 Chronicles 21:1, Satan, not God is responsible.)

As the story continues, David ignores Joab’s warning and Joab conducts the census. Once the census is over, David somehow realizes that he has made a serious error:

כד:י וַיַּ֤ךְ לֵב דָּוִד֙ אֹת֔וֹ אַחֲרֵי כֵ֖ן סָפַ֣ר אֶת הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֨אמֶר דָּוִ֜ד אֶל יְ-הֹוָ֗ה חָטָ֤אתִי מְאֹד֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשִׂ֔יתִי וְעַתָּ֣ה יְ-הֹוָ֔ה הַֽעֲבֶר נָא֙ אֶת־עֲוֹ֣ן עַבְדְּךָ֔ כִּ֥י נִסְכַּ֖לְתִּי מְאֹֽד:
24:10 But afterward David reproached himself for having numbered the people. And David said to Yhwh, “I have sinned grievously in what I have done. Please, O Yhwh, remit the guilt of Your servant, for I have acted foolishly.”

God refuses to forgive David, and sends the prophet Gad with a message, offering David an option of three different punishments. The third option, which David chooses, is a plague.[4]Like Exodus 30, a census can evoke a plague. Unlike Exodus 30, the plague here is presented as one of several possible punishments for taking a census, rather than the natural result of census-taking.

A Different Perception of Census-Taking

The Bible contains numerous anecdotes of other censuses, and in all of these, other than the two noted above, it is viewed as mundane and unproblematic. These include the three censuses conducted in the wilderness, some by explicit divine command: in the book of Numbers 1-2, 26, and 31. These are joined by nearly a dozen cases of censuses and of counting that are attributed to, e.g., Joshua (Joshua 8:10), King Saul (1 Samuel 11:8, 13:15, 15:4), and even King David (2 Samuel 18:1).

In none of these cases does the census raise either human opposition or divine sanction, and it certainly does not carry any threat of plague. The uniqueness of Exodus 30 and the story in 2 Samuel 24 is accentuated by the other biblical evidence.

Interpreting David in Light of Exodus

Modern scholars are not the first to realize this variety of attitudes toward censuses in the Bible. It is likely that the Chronicler, who retells the story of 2 Samuel 24 in 1 Chronicles 21, realized (1) the contradiction between the assumption in the David story, that a census is per se sinful, and Exodus, that a census is dangerous but can be done safely with proper procedure and (2) that other censuses in the Bible seem to be acceptable.

Counting People Under 20

This accounts for the language that the Chronicler uses to explain a census in 1 Chronicles 27:23-24):

כז:כג וְלֹא נָשָׂ֤א דָוִיד֙ מִסְפָּרָ֔ם לְמִבֶּ֛ן עֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וּלְמָ֑טָּה כִּ֚י אָמַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֔ק לְהַרְבּ֥וֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל כְּכוֹכְבֵ֥י הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:כז:כד יוֹאָ֨ב בֶּן צְרוּיָ֜ה הֵחֵ֤ל לִמְנוֹת֙ וְלֹ֣א כִלָּ֔ה וַיְהִ֥י בָזֹ֛את קֶ֖צֶף עַל יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א עָלָה֙ הַמִּסְפָּ֔ר בְּמִסְפַּ֥ר דִּבְרֵֽי הַיָּמִ֖ים לַמֶּ֥לֶךְ דָּוִֽיד:
27:23 David did not take a census of those under twenty years of age, for Yhwh had promised to make Israel as numerous as the stars of heaven. 27:24 Joab son of Zeruiah did begin to count them, but he did not finish; wrath struck Israel on account of this, and the census was not entered into the account of the chronicles of King David.

Here the Chronicler implies that a census per se is not a problem, only a census conducted differently than the one specified in Exodus. This suggests that the evil of David’s census was not absolute, but rather, a breach of the law that forbids counting those younger than twenty years old. This anecdote accuses Joab, David’s army chief, of breaking the census law and ignoring David’s instructions, while clearing the king from blame; this fits with the Chronicler’s exclusively positive attitude toward David.[5]

Not Using the Half-Shekel Expiation Payment

Josephus suggests a different one: David did not pay a ransom, as mandated in Exodus 30. Jewish Antiquities, book 7, 318; Begg trans.) suggests:

Now King David, wishing to know how many ten thousands there were among his people, ignored the commandments of Moyses, who had previously prescribed that, if the crowd were counted, a half-shekel per head was to be paid to God.

This interpretation is also and found in Rashi’s and Ramban’s commentaries on Exodus 30:11.[6] Rather than choosing this option, the Chronicler likely chose the age stipulation since that stipulation appeared in several other census texts as well (Numbers 1:3, 26:2).

Conducting a Census without God’s Mandate

Another medieval explanation of why David was punished suggests that David counted his troops unnecessarily, without a direct command from God. He thus erred in trusting in human strength, rather than putting full faith in God as Israel’s defender.[7] This interpretation as well seems forced and apologetic; after all, in other places David counts his troops, with no divine command, and without any dire consequences.

Why is Census-taking Sinful?

The way in which the Chronicler and various medieval commentators try to reconcile Exodus, Samuel, and Chronicles highlights the problems of Exodus 30: Why is the census in Exodus 30:11-16 and 2 Samuel 24 viewed as dangerous? A number of solutions, contemporary and medieval, have been offered to tackle this question; none is to my mind fully compelling:

  • A census reflected subjugation to the civil authorities and was part of a system requiring payment of taxes, participation in forced-labor projects, and being subject to the military drafts.[8] Thus, the census was rejected for populist reasons.
  • The fear of ‘Ayin haRa‘, the “Evil Eye,” i.e. the danger of “seeing” the number of the people. Although precursors of this explanation can be found in Rabbinic writings (e.g., b. Yoma 22b), its first explicit occurrence, as an evil presence lurking within the census, is in the Middle-Ages, in Rashi’s commentary of Exodus 30:11:
שהמנין שולט בו עין הרע והדֶבֶר בא עליהם כמו שמצינו בימי דוד.
“…the counting is controlled by ‘Ayin haRa‘ and the plague came to them, as we found in the days of David.”[9]
  • Following evidence from Mari (second millennium BCE Mesopotamia) and Rome that the terms used for ‘census’ were semantically related to ‘purity’, it has been suggested that censuses may have been seen as creating a “ritual impurity”.[10]
  • Only YHWH may count Israel. Only Yhwh knows the number of the stars and their names (Psalms 147:4); thus, only he can count Israel, in order to “to make Israel as numerous as the stars of heaven.” (1 Chronicles 27:23). People may not appropriate this divine prerogative.

None of the possibilities is fully compelling—the source and meaning of the prohibition in our parasha remains uncertain. Nevertheless, the מדה כנגד מדה, “measure for measure”[11]expressed at the beginning of Exodus 30 is very striking: improper counting brings about a plague, which causes mass death. This alters the number of people, making the census’ results meaningless, and thus, the number of Israelites remains unknown.


February 21, 2016


Last Updated

March 23, 2023


View Footnotes

Dr. Shira Golani teaches at the Department of Biblical Studies at Gordon Academic College (Haifa) and is a visiting researcher at the Hebrew University Bible Project (Jerusalem). Her Ph.D. is from the Hebrew University. Among her articles are “Three Oppressors and Four Saviors – The Three-Four Pattern and the List of Saviors in I Sam 12,9-11,” ZAW 127 (2015), 294-303, and “Swords that are Ploughshares: Another Case of (Bilingual) Wordplay in Biblical Prophecy?,” Biblica 98.3 (2017), 425-434.