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 Patheos.com)
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.
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).