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David’s Numbering Of The People–The Politics Of The Situation
by [?]

It seems to me highly probable that the offence of David in numbering the people, which ultimately was the occasion of fixing the site for the Temple of Jerusalem, pointed to this remarkable military position of the Jewish people–a position forbidding all fixed military institutions, and which yet David was probably contemplating in that very census. Simply to number the people could not have been a crime, nor could it be any desideratum for David; because we are too often told of the muster rolls for the whole nation, and for each particular tribe, to feel any room for doubt that the reports on this point were constantly corrected, brought under review of the governing elders, councils, judges, princes, or king, according to the historical circumstances, so that the need and the criminality of such a census would vanish at the same moment. But this was not the census ordered by David. He wanted a more specific return, probably of the particular wealth and nature of the employment pursued by each individual family, so that upon this return he might ground a permanent military organization for the people; and such an organization would have thoroughly revolutionized the character of the population, as well as drawn them into foreign wars and alliances.

It is painful to think that many amiable and really candid minds in search of truth are laid hold of by some plausible argument, as in this case the young physician, by a topic of political economy, when a local examination of the argument would altogether change its bearing. This argument, popularly enforced, seemed to imply the impossibility of supporting a large force when there were no public funds but such as ran towards the support of the Levites and the majestic service of the altar. But the confusion arises from the double sense of the word ‘army,’ as a machine ordinarily disposable for all foreign objects indifferently, and one which in Judaea exclusively could be applied only to such a service as must in its own nature be sudden, brief, and always tending to a decisive catastrophe.

And that this was the true form of the crime, not only circumstances lead me to suspect, but especially the remarkable demur of Joab, who in his respectful remonstrance said in effect that, when the whole strength of the nation was known in sum–meaning from the ordinary state returns–what need was there to search more inquisitively into the special details? Where all were ready to fight cheerfully, why seek for separate minutiae as to each particular class? Those general returns had regard only to the ordinary causa belli–a hostile invasion. And, then, all nations alike, rude or refined, have gone upon the same general outline of computation–that, subtracting the females from the males, this, in a gross general way, would always bisect the total return of the population. And, then, to make a second bisection of the male half would subtract one quarter from the entire people as too young or too old, or otherwise as too infirm for warlike labours, leaving precisely one quarter of the nation–every fourth head–as available for war. This process for David’s case would have yielded perhaps about 1,100,000 fighting men throughout Palestine. But this unwieldy pospolite was far from meeting David’s secret anxieties. He had remarked the fickle and insurrectionary state of the people. Even against himself how easy had it been found to organize a sudden rebellion, and to conceal it so prosperously that he and his whole court saved themselves from capture only by a few hours’ start of the enemy, and through the enemy’s want of cavalry. This danger meantime having vanished, it might be possible that for David personally no other great conspiracy should disturb his seat upon the throne. None of David’s sons approached to Absalom in popularity; and yet the subsequent attempt of Adonijah showed that the revolutionary temper was still awake in that quarter. But what David feared, in a further-looking spirit, was the tenure by which his immediate descendants would maintain their title. The danger was this: over and above the want of any principle for regulating the succession, and this want operating in a state of things far less determined than amongst monogamous nations–one son pleading his priority of birth; another, perhaps, his mother’s higher rank, a third pleading his very juniority, inasmuch as this brought him within the description of porphyrogeniture, or royal birth, which is often felt as transcendent as primogeniture–even the people, apart from the several pretenders to the throne, would create separate interests as grounds for insurrection or for intestine feuds. There seems good reason to think that already the ten tribes, Israel as opposed to Judah, looked upon the more favoured and royal tribe of Judah, with their supplementary section of Benjamin, as unduly favoured in the national economy. Secretly there is little doubt that they murmured even against God for ranking this powerful tribe as the prerogative tribe. The jealousy had evidently risen to a great height; it was suppressed by the vigilant and strong government of Solomon; but at the outset of his son’s reign it exploded at once, and the Scriptural account of the case shows that it proceeded upon old grievances. The boyish rashness of Rehoboam might exasperate the leaders, and precipitate the issue; but very clearly all had been prepared for a revolt. And I would remark that by the ‘young men’ of Rehoboam are undoubtedly meant the soldiers–the body-guards whom the Jewish kings now retained as an element of royal pomp. This is the invariable use of the term in the East. Even in Josephus the term for the military by profession is generally ‘the young men’; whilst ‘the elders’ mean the councilors of state. David saw enough of the popular spirit to be satisfied that there was no political reliance on the permanence of the dynasty; and even at home there was an internal source of weakness. The tribe of Benjamin were mortified and incensed at the deposition of Saul’s family and the bloody proscription of that family adopted by David. One only, a grandson of Saul, he had spared out of love to his friend Jonathan. This was Mephibo-sheth; but he was incapacitated for the throne by lameness. And how deep the resentment was amongst the Benjamites is evident from the insulting advantage taken of his despondency in the day of distress by Shimei. For Shimei had no motive for the act of coming to the roadside and cursing the king beyond his attachment to the house of Saul. Humanly speaking, David’s prospect of propagating his own dynasty was but small. On the other hand, God had promised him His support. And hence it was that his crime arose, viz., upon his infidelity, in seeking to secure the throne by a mere human arrangement in the first place; secondly, by such an arrangement as must disorganize the existing theocratic system of the Jewish people. Upon this crime followed his chastisement in a sudden pestilence. And it is remarkable in how significant a manner God manifested the nature of the trespass, and the particular course through which He had meant originally, and did still mean, to counteract the worst issue of David’s apprehensions. It happened that the angel of the pestilence halted at the threshing-floor of Araunah; and precisely that spot did God by dreams to David indicate as the site of the glorious Temple. Thus it seemed as though in so many words God had declared: ‘Now that all is over, your crime and its punishment, understand that your fears were vain. I will continue the throne in your house longer than your anxieties can personally pursue its descent. And with regard to the terrors from Israel, although this event of a great schism is inevitable and essential to My councils, yet I will not allow it to operate for the extinction of your house. And that very Temple, in that very place where My angel was commissioned to pause, shall be one great means and one great pledge to you of My decree in favour of your posterity. For t
his house, as a common sanctuary to all Jewish blood, shall create a perpetual interest in behalf of Judah amongst the other tribes, even when making war upon Jerusalem.’ Witness if it were but that one case where 200,000 captives of Judah were restored without ransom, were clothed completely, were fed, by the very men who had just massacred their fighting relatives.


[1] Even in Rome, where the purple (whatever colour that might have been) is usually imagined to be the symbol of regal state–and afterwards their improved arts of dyeing, and improved materials, became so splendid that it was made so–white had always been the colour of a monarchy. [‘A white linen band was the simple badge of Oriental royalty’ (Merivale’s ‘History of Rome,’ ii., p. 468).–ED.]

[2] This was the case even with the Homeric Greeks. Mr. Gladstone makes a point of this (see ‘Juventus Mundi,’ p. 429): ‘The privates of the army are called by the names of laos, the people; demos, the community; and pleth[=u]s, the multitude. But no notice is taken throughout the poem of the exploits of any soldier below the rank of an officer. Still, all attend the Assemblies. On the whole, the Greek host is not so much an army, as a community in arms.’ Even the common people, not only in cities but in camps, assembled to hear the deliberations of the chiefs.–ED.