Satan and the 2010 Census

By Kristin SwensonAssociate Professor of Religious Studies Virginia Commonwealth University I received my census form last week, filled it out, … Continued

By Kristin Swenson
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
Virginia Commonwealth University

I received my census form last week, filled it out, and returned it. No big deal. Apart from a little soul-searching about why my profile looks like it does, I had no qualms about it. It’s important that you know that before reading on, so you won’t think I believe that Satan is behind Census 2010.

See, the first place in the Bible that we might actually find “Satan” with a capital “S” as a bad guy distinct from and opposed to God is in a peculiar story about a census. The word itself is Hebrew, and Hebrew doesn’t distinguish capital and lower case letters, so translators have to decide for themselves whether a noun is proper or common. In most of the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), the word satan simply describes some kind of adversary (or adversarial activity since it functions as a verb, too) — one who sort of pushes and tests people. A satan can be part of God’s entourage or even a person. For example, an angel from God actually acts as a satan (another odd story, as it involves a talking donkey), and elsewhere good king David is suspected of being a satan. Although the satan in the book of Job is usually represented in English translations as Satan with a capital “S,” it probably shouldn’t be. There, he’s a member of God’s divine council, not (yet) the personification of evil with cohorts of his own.

There are actually two biblical census stories. In one we read, “Satan arose against Israel and incited David to number the people of Israel.” This angers God, and the people suffer through a punishing plague until the repentant David makes amends with God. Satan is here a bad guy that gets the Israelites in trouble with God. That story appears in a book of the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament) commonly called Chronicles. Chronicles was written some time after the biblical book(s) of Samuel, which tells the same story. Scholars agree that among Chronicles’ sources was Samuel, so that the books share this story is not particularly surprising.

(For more about Christian beliefs about the devil and angels visit

What is surprising, and not a little disturbing is that — as Samuel tells it — God is the one who incited David to take the census for which David and the Israelites are subsequently punished. Clearly the authors of Chronicles were as troubled by the implications of this as we are, but by the time of Chronicles’ writing ideas of Satan had developed to the point where Satan could be blamed for the crime of taking a census.

So what was the big deal about a census, anyway? Why does the Bible portray it as so problematic? It’s never explicitly addressed, but when the ancient Israelites clamored to have a king and country like the peoples around them, they were warned that kings do things like tax property and take people to serve in the military. How does one determine taxes or army conscription? By counting everybody and everything first. This is probably at the root of biblical suspicions about census-taking.

Given that, there’s a poignant irony to Census 2010’s Christmas promotional poster that pictures Joseph and the very pregnant Mary trekking to Bethlehem (the site of Joseph’s lineage), because Caesar determined to conduct a census. The poster says, “Joseph and Mary participated in the census. Don’t be afraid.” Now, I don’t want to undermine efforts to get people to fill out and return those forms, but anyone familiar with those biblical texts about census-taking would hardly be convinced that they should be counted like Mary and Joseph were. Mary and Joseph would likely have opted out, given the choice, since their scriptures included those peculiar census stories.

But hey, a lot is different these millennia after the Bible was written. Then again, taxes, war,… oh, never mind. Go ahead. Fill it out that form. Don’t be afraid.

(Read an excerpt from “Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time.)

Kristin Swenson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of “Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time” (Harper, 2010).

Written by

  • shadowmagician

    Related item: from Wikipedia – The “Census of Quirinius”: The “Census of Quirinius” refers to the enrollment of the Roman Provinces of Syria and Iudaea for tax purposes taken in 6/7 C.E. during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria, after the banishment of Herod Archelaus and the imposition of direct Roman rule on what became Iudaea Province (the conglomeration of Samaria, Judea proper, and Idumea). An account of the census was given by the first century historian Josephus, who associated it with the beginning of a resistance movement that he called the Zealots.In Christianity, the Gospel of Luke connects the census with the birth of Jesus, which the Gospel of Matthew places about a decade earlier (c. 4 BCE), during the rule of Herod the Great. Bible scholars have traditionally sought to reconcile these accounts; while most current scholars regard this as an error by the author of the Gospel of Luke.

  • underboss

    religious people are insane

  • Cubby_Michael

    The purpose of the Census is to collect basic information for the purpose of determining how much federal monies a particular district receives over the coming years. To suggest that the Census is of all things, driven by Satan, simply defies any sense or logic. While Ms. Swenson is entitled to believe this and of course, permitted to say it, I just don’t think this sort of thing is at all helpful or of any use to society whatsoever. As it is, enough people are paranoid about sharing the (essentially pretty basic) information the form requests. Suggesting it is spawned by Lucifer is the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard since someone claimed the moon landing was faked. What I find most unfortunate here is the wasted opportunity. Rather than exhorting us to care for one another, as I was taught Christians should do, she instead stoops to what I can only describe as the worse piece of drivel I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading on the Post’s website.

  • Chops2

    Its a census…fill it out and return it…what this has to do with religion is beyond me

  • bpai_99

    It is the biggest joke in human history that the most dangerous agents of evil have come cloaked in the mantle of God.

  • bdunn1

    Scholars of the bible may have too much time on their hands.

  • daniel3715

    How any sentient being can believe the bilge that this person is spouting and still be considered a “professor” is beyond me.A thousand years ago maybe, but not today.

  • markandbeth92

    There is a typo in the title of this artice. It says “Satan and the 2010 census” It should have said “Satan IS the 2010 Census.

  • qrsi

    The lady is in Virginia. Of course she’s spewing garbage. And she “teaches” at a Virginia university, a so-called place of “higher” education.

  • scrivener1

    Is irony simply beyond some of you folks? She’s simply giving us a scriptural history lesson, and an interesting one at that, about the role of the “census”, the meaning of the word “satan”, and the connection between the two.According to many news reports over the last year or so, there are some people out there who actually believe that the U.S. Census is “the work of the devil.” She’s just having a little intellectual fun by pointing out the biblical history behind that (do I really have to say it?) misguided view.There. That wasn’t so hard, now was it?

  • areyousaying

    Jesus, we implore you once again, please protect us from your rabid followers.In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ whose name they have hijacked for their insanity, amen.

  • stantheman1

    Daniel3715, QRSI et al – do you people even READ the article before you post your knee-jerk “this is all liberal garbage” nonsense? What is your point?

  • gdcabezas

    It seems to me that the bigger lesson in this article has nothing to do with the Census per se. But, the development in Christianity of an imaginary being we call Satan, a being, that through time Christian have blamed for their bad choices. What I get from the article is that we have to ponder about the evolution of myth caused by man intervention in the translation or delivery of the word of God.

  • garoth

    Apparently how the census was viewed depended on its purpose. The Book of Numbers is also about a census of the tribes of Israel – no problem with that one, because they were doing what was commanded. The problem was with a viewpoint expressed by a number of the prophets, that held that having a king was a bad thing, that would make Israel like the rest of the nations. The prophets (most of them)s felt that Israel whould be a theocracy with a de-centralized government, as it first was. The other story line, of course, sees some kings – especially David – as a good thing, that saved Israel from its enemies. I guess it depends on who you believe!

  • chatard

    speaking of babble……….

  • wireman65

    “Scholars of the bible may have too much time on their hands.”Bible scholars is clearly an oxymoron.

  • John1263

    This idea that the census is the work of satan goes hand in hand with tea bagging for “their” country, Obama as the antichrist, Obama being Kenyan and all other sorts of nonsense the truely stupid in this country believe because they got it from some email forward or on some bogus internet blog site posing as a news organization. One of my students actually brought ina some tripe about immigration from one of those sites — and apparently thought that necause it had “news” in the site name that it was actually a news site.

  • joe_allen_doty

    The LORD (meaning YHWH) allowed the donkey in Numbers 22 talk in Balaam’s own language. Balaam was not an Israelite; he was a pagan prophet. God was not being Satan when an angel (looked like a normal human being when Balaam finally saw him) blocked the path of the donkey. “HA SATAN” in the Bible means “The Accuser.” The Accuser is 1st mentioned in the Book of Job, and that book is near the middle of the Bible.

  • joe_allen_doty

    Kristin Swenson is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies. She probably never attended a university where they taught here how to interpret the Bible using the principles of Biblical Hermeneutics. She probably doesn’t believe in YHWH Elohim (semi-translated as “LORD God”) in English tests) nor Jesus the Christ either. She is like the expert theologians who think they know everything about Jesus and do not even know Him personally. She reminds me of the (agnostic) “Christian” theologians of the Early and Mid 20th Century who spent too much time looking for the Historical Jesus that they never encountered the Spiritual one. Jesus said that it was better to Believe that He rose from the dead without seeing Him than being one like Thomas’ “Jesus rose from the dead? I’ll believe it when I see Him and proof that he hung on the cross.” The Bible-related TV shows on PBS, Discovery Channel and History Channel have theologians turned atheists as their experts on Bible related history. People who don’t believe in YHWH Elohim or Jesus the Christ have no spirital right to explain either of them.

  • Patriot12

    All the census wants to know is: “are you of Hispanic descent and how many live in your dwelling?” with more Federal funding appropriated if you are.A bit reminiscent of the current Greek status – make illegals wards of the state from birth to death and then try to cut them off from their “God given rights to US Tax paid benefits” (as AZ is trying to do) and they riot in the streets. This year, the census is a PC BS joke with only the WH laughing at the punch line.

  • yjackt

    If the purpose of the article by Professor Swenson was to trivialize Religion, the goal was accomplished. She seems to have graduated from the Bill Maher Institute for bagging on Religion.

  • lufrank1

    Sigh . . . Religious Dogma is the MOST destructive factor to intellectual AND moral advancement. Example: There is NO WAR more horrible than a Religious War.

  • gannon_dick

    As a Jesuit educated Roman Catholic, I’m arguably going to Hell anyway. So that my Census Enumerator Training starts Tuesday is just the flambé on the Crêpes Suzette.The Jesuits did just this sort of Missionary Work for centuries, and for a number of Caesars and I have been searching my memory for clues as to making this as painless as possible …– Be nice. Caesar hired you because you are not a threat to the winners of the Great Recession. You will be paid no matter how big a loser they think you are. Cui Bono ?– Be humble. The next barefoot savage you encounter may well be the one to give you the head thumpin’ you deserve. When Sir Winston Churchill called Gandhi a ‘half-naked fakir’ he not only lived to regret it, but nobody ever forgot it either.– Be a tactful, team player. Render unto Caesar the PR Disasters that are Caesar’s. This is not Court Directed Community Service, only take punishment for pay.I think I’m ready, Satan or satan.

  • ceflynline

    Betcha tain’t so!!The description, “They went to Bethlehem to register because they were of the House and Lineage of David” suggests that, perhaps, They headed off to the clan headquarters because they wanted to maintain their claim of belonging to that lineage. The Books of Kings and Paralipomenon (using the old name) give seventeen generations from David to the returns from the Babylonian Captivity, and them continue the line. Five hundred years, and another fifteen or so generations, and much of the population of Roman Palestine would have claim to being of that lineage. If Joseph had kin in Bethlehem, and expected Mary to deliver on a dependable date, he might have bundled the whole operation of going off to be counted with getting to Bethlehem to be close to Jerusalem for the child’s birth. Of course, with all of Israel by this time having claim to David’s lineage, Bethlehem might just have been far more crowded that Joseph expected. It is a three day journey, so if they had started a few days early, they could have been securely set up in the house of a relative by the time Mary delivered. By the time she unexpectedly went into labor on the way, and they got to town with no convenient place to lodge, they went, naturally, to a warm and secure animal shelter and barn, that being also secluded enough to give them a little privacy.In other words, the census story is an old woman’s humorous retelling of the tale many years after it happened, sort of in that way. They went and did what was to be easy, something happened, and all the signs were the result. Maybe the evangelists didn’t get the point of the joke.

  • ceflynline

    I was a follow up enumerator in the 1980 census, and did in fact have to deal with a person who gave me exactly the reason that David sinned by having a census. I pointed out that, immediately after the plague that followed ended, David was instructed by God to take Census of all israelites of military standing, and David did so. He then answered all the questions, happened to be the long form.People who have nothing to do but cause trouble, (Satan? capitalized or not?) start these nonsensical beliefs do it just to see how much trouble they can cause, and people like my case item accept the nonsense and act on it. Why? Because it makes them feel somehow more cognizant of esoterica than other people. Know more about that esoterica than they do and you can get around them.

  • Martial

    The reason for a census was to adjudge the efficacy of a military assault. God did not enjoy being seen as senescent in such matters; David was punished for a lack of faith in divine wisdom as respects the use of military force. As for God’s being the cause of David’s action, the same theological conundrum exists as respects the Pharoah and Moses.

  • jewishmother

    Even the title of this book is a lie: Close to 2 BILLION Muslims recite from the Qur’an at least 5 times each day, making the Kur’an the most read, most quoted and most “talked about” book in the history of mankind.There are less than 30 million of us Jews in the world, about the population of NY State… most of the state is empty.Here are some biblical gems for you:Numbers 31:17: “Moses commanded them: ‘Kill all the boys, and kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save all the young virgins for your pleasure”.1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse.” JESUS KILLS THOSE WHO VOTED FOR OPPONENT: Luke 19:27: Jesus ordered them, ‘As for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” AND MY PERSONAL FAVORITE: Exodus, 33:23: “And I shalt take away my hand, and thou will see my aarse.”People need to recognize the Bible for what it is: A book written by powerful Jews to control the world. That is why they have the Christian world thinking that Jews are the chosen ones… an obvious fallacy.

  • charliep7

    The Bible is a spiritual book and needs to be read completely to be understood and it is progressive somethings in the old Testament no longer exist in the New Testament just like a modified constitution there is nothing in The new Testament that stops census or says its of Satan. When Jesus fed The four thousand we got to know the number because they were counted. In the new testament it is said Whatever you do that is without faith is sin. The purpose of census primarily is to plan for amenities within the community.

  • ztcb41

    …”Since she really wanted to talk about God, why didn’t she, why bring the U.S. Census into it. Satan’s as real as God, why not talk about him instead of hiding behind the U.S. Census count.In conclusion, people who seek God, find him, those who don’t won’t! Many claim folks who are religious are crazy some are, some take it too far, most are not! As a Lutheran who Prays to the Living God daily I see why we have the problems we have folks don’t take the time to Pray, many don’t believe, and others don’t care.I believe Prayer is our direct link to the Living God who wants us to pray about anything, everything,and constantly. I believe if you too will Pray that the Living God will help America clean up it’s Oil SPill which is the biggest enviromental spill the country has ever had, I believe God will help us, so tomorrow go to Church, talk to God who made us all, tell’em we need him, you need him, and just watch what he’ll do……”Let your hope make you glad.” “Be Patient in times of trouble, “AND NEVER STOP PRAYING.”—Romans 12:12

  • papafritz571

    I hope all the conspiracy idiots fail to turn in their census forms which we have been completing for most of our lives. Those who believe evil is behind the census statistics are probably fruitcakes anyway, so eliminating congressional representatives from their districts will be just fine. Americans today, with all of our schools of higher learning, are as ignorant as toads. Everything they don’t understand is a conspiracy by the government. These people are too dumb to walk the streets. The good professor needs to confer with Michele Bachman (R,Mn), the nutcase from Minnesota. She’s been telling her fellow citizens not to open their doors to census workers and not to send in their “personal” information. Okay by me, but the rest of Minnesota might get peed off when they find out the representatives have been lessened by one or two.

  • crossingubadly

    Is there truly nothing else to discuss? It baffles me that the post would print this drivel. It further baffles me that it was written by an Associate Professor of Religious Studies. JewishMother, you should do some research and at least attempt to understand what you are reading before waxing eloquently on concepts you clearly don’t comprehend. You are proving that the internet is the perfect place for psuedo-education to take place, as you can hide behind the anonymity of screen names uttering sheer nonsense and avoid the embarrassment that would come along with speaking in public. That post and this article for that matter was quite disappointing to read.We are in bad shape as a nation.

  • dolph924

    You say Satan, I say Wily Coyote. Potayto Potahto, whatever. Next topic? “What does Daffy Duck mean to YOUR life?” Some of these posts ring the gullibility bell over and over. Be sure to tip your shaman; he has an inside line to whatever deity causes you to reach for your wallet.

  • Nymous

    The bible can be used to justify whatever crazy ideas people have. When some bush catches fire & talks on CNN, let me know. Until then, I really wish people would stop ranting about magic dead guys.Really, you people have deep issues with accepting the reality you live in. It does not include burning bushes that talk, unless you eat a lot of drugs.We haven’t seen any angels flying around, or demons gobbling anyone up, or any of the manifestations of burning shrubbery that would validate any of this blather.

  • Nymous

    Everyone always wants to talk the smack about the correctness of their religion. Few of them can prove anything at all in the now about their dogma.I could probably predict that Jesus will not return for 500,000 years & base my conclusions on the bible if I tried hard enough, but that wouldn’t make them true. One thing that is true though is that we can count on him not to show up anytime soon.The same with other prophet types. I keep an eye out for the 3 F’s, Floating, Feeding, & Flaming, and well not much of the first or last going on, and regular people are doing the work of the second one. Which is good work, but I blame them for it, not magic dead guys.

  • NYPocho

    I must say that all of this back and forth reminds me of why I avoid true believers from monotheistic religions… who have absolutely no compulsion about enslaving, murdering and butchering the “other.” I’m reminded of Black Elk’s astonishment when he encountered cities — they were all filled with people who were poor — lacked resources and basically no one cared or took care of anyone else — it has only gotten worse.

  • hohandy

    you guys really don’t have anything more important to spend your time on?

  • coprogirl

    Ha ha ha. I always crack up at the “lineage to King David” nonsense. How could jesus be linked to Joseph? He ain’t the babydaddy! Some thumper once told me that Mary was linked to David…it’s just another mythological story, like any other.

  • pjs1965

    From Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason”:”The study of theology as it stands in”Instead then of studying theology, as is now done, out of the Bible and

  • XVA1

    HEY, Census didn’t produce these ads at all. They were produced by separate religious groups without the government’s involvement or endorsement.

  • nada85484

    this is what you do with your life ???how did that “angels of the head of a pin” debate turn out ???got anything like a whole number answer for that ???I would say you should get a life, but I’m not so sure that’s a good idea

  • info53

    The sort of people who would think the census is satanic aren’t the type to be swayed by anything in the Bible, and especially not a scholarly explanation of Biblical history.The Bible is rather an embarrassment to Evangelicals. It’s chock-full of all kinds of things that refute their beliefs, so they prefer to stick to their dogma rather than trotting out the ol’ book.No, best to go with the pointy-bearded guy in the red suit and pitchfork, and leave your lower-case satans to Associate Professors of Religious Studies. Bible-thumpers want none of that brainy nonsense.

  • areyousaying

    “somethings in the old Testament no longer exist in the New Testament” and the Huckabees have appointed themselves to determine which, like Leviticus 18:22, still apply and which, like Leviticus 19:33 are no longer applicable. How convenient.

  • billy8

    This is nuts.

  • Garak

    Go Satan! Miroslav Satan, right wing for the Boston Bruins, had 2 goals and 5 points in 6 games as they beat the Buffalo Sabres in 6 games last month. He’s scored over 300 goals in his NHL career.I’d like Satan on my team!

  • byxnet

    The United States Census is a decennial census mandated by the United States Constitution. The population is enumerated every 10 years and the results are used to allocate Congressional seats (congressional apportionment), electoral votes, and government program funding.Christianity is the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

  • info53

    Counting responses to this article, I get at least eleven who didn’t like it, apparently because they are religious. But all they offer as rebuttal is that “it doesn’t make sense” or “it’s stupid”, so its hard to see their point.I’m pretty sure they just don’t understand the article at all. I encounter a lot of comments from the religious right that just scoff and dismiss as nonsense any position that’s beyond them. Explains a lot about them, the world must be a profoundly puzzling place from their point of view. Hence the need to withdraw into magic and fantasy to explain life.

  • mini2

    The writer, as a professor of the study of religion, has a point in taking on the lunatic fringe, giving examples of the complexities of translating/understanding Biblical Hebrew. I am, however, perplexed by the publication of her commentary in the WPost as it is 1) not really an oped piece nor 2) a bit of news–unless one thinks the writer’s submission of the census form has significance beyond the merely statistical.This kind of puffed up info-gabble can be expected from employees of 3rd-tier colleges and universities. It might more wisely appear as coffee klotch noise.

  • Davidd1

    Thanks BYXNET, you made my day!

  • info53

    “I am, however, perplexed by the publication of her commentary in the WPost”It’s perfectly appropriate and quite similar to other articles published in the “On Faith” column. There’s a lot of content in newspapers that’s not op-ed or hard news, or hadn’t you noticed?The fact that it rather cleverly thumbs the nose at irrational religiosity and puffed-up types who claim the Bible as their holy writ of choice yet know nothing whatever about it, is simply icing on the cake.

  • rexreddy

    Well that got some atheist commie pinko panties in a bunch!It was good for something!

  • rexreddy

    Christianity is the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical treeO.K. What you are reading in the Bible is an account of what stone age people observed then past down by word of mouth until humans learned to write. And then it was bronze age man doing the writing.Today we can make it appear as a shake is talking-(Harry Potter)So there are many ways to make a caveman think he saw something and then he writes it down.

  • Athena4

    Since my husband and I are relying primarily on census records to trace his family’s roots, I would strongly recommend that everyone fill it out – regardless of whether you agree with it or not. Your great-great-great grandchildren will than you later, when they research THEIR roots.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    The MAIN purpose for the census is to draw the districts for the House of Representatives in the Congress. It is written into the Constitution for this purpose. Is it really such a bad thing for crazy people to opt of the census, and therefore, also, loose their representation in Congress?

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    … I meant to say, “opt out of the census …”

  • YEAL9

    Satan, devils, jinn????Nothing more than demons of the demented!!!Next topic!!!!

  • Athena4

    “YHWH Elohim (semi-translated as “LORD God”)”Actually, scholars of ancient Hebrew have noticed that the word “Elohim” is plural. So, does that mean that the ancient Hebrews were… polytheists?