Come to your Census

With it being Christmas and all, I thought  it would be good to get some background on censuses to better understand why Joseph and Mary had to go down to Bethlehem- however I didn’t want to spend my morning  reading about Roman tax law, so I found some good background on censuses in ancient Israel instead  (I will happily admit I thought of the title before the content of this post),

I strongly doubt in those days that there were any wags who thought it would be funny to put “Jedi” down as their religion ( either that or it’s a slow burning gag if they have any descendants who go on Who Do You Think You Are who will be mortified to discover their great great great grandad was a Star Wars fan who probably loved banter and a cheeky Nando’s). 

The Jews were not best fond of censuses (I am unsure what the plural is so I will stick with this for now), even when not imposed by an occupying force. Exodus 30:12ff requires everyone numbered in a census to pay an offering to the Lord “as a ransom for their life … That there be no plague among them when you number them”, kind of like an early poll tax. The money was to go to the upkeep of the sanctuary-at that time, the tent of meeting, but later the temple. It is this tax that Jesus and Peter pay in Matthew 17 after Jesus instructs Peter to find a coin in a fish’s mouth. 

A few censuses are counted in the book of numbers, but the ,most infamous case is the one recorded in 2 Samuel 24, where David, incited by  God (God is angry with Israel and is using David as an agent to punish them- in the Chronicles version, he is incited by Satan), takes a census of the people, despite his commander Joab’s doubts. 

After the census is taken, David becomes aware that he has sinned greatly. It’s not immediately apparent from the text what the sin here is, but it’s probably David’s pride in measuring the size of the kingdom in a time of relative peace (1 chronicles 21 adds a bit more light, Joab asking “are they not all my lord’s servants”, suggesting that David wasn’t entirely confident Israel was on his side). 

David is offered a choice of judgement- three years of famine, three months of fleeing from enemies, or three days of plague. He doesn’t really choose, except for ruling out option 2, so  God sends a plague on Israel for three days, at the cost of 70000 lives.

David ultimately begs for the judgement to fall on himself and his family, thus preventing further national disaster, for now. 

Later, his son Solomon would take censuses and force harsh tax regimes on the people, an action that would ultimately lead to Israel’s breakup.

 Perhaps understandable, then, that the whole process in Palestine was not as efficient as it could have been. 

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