2 Samuel 24:1–25; 1 Chronicles 21:1–27

David and Gad


Aegidius Sadeler I after Maerten de Vos

David's Atonement to Avert the Plague, 1580–96, Copper engraving, 202 x 254 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; RP-P-H-H-1233, Image courtesy of Open Access Rijksmuseum

God’s Wrath

Commentary by Arabella Cifani

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The theme of God’s wrath pervades many passages in 2 Samuel. It is a different wrath from that of the pagan gods because it is a face of love: God wants his people to return to him. But he also uses terrible methods to do so.

David sins, at Satan’s instigation as recounted in 1 Chronicles 21:1, and the responsibility is his: he orders a census that he should not have taken. But the consequence of his sin falls on the innocent Israelites who will die from the plague.

The engraving made by Aegidius Sadeler I from a drawing by the Antwerp painter Maerten de Vos was intended to be part of a cycle of Old Testament scenes published by Johann Sadeler. It presents a condensed and didactic, extremely clear form of the narrated episode from 2 Samuel 24:15–25 and 1 Chronicles 21:14–27. The angel is sent by God ‘to destroy Jerusalem’ (1 Chronicles 21:14); he appears above a field strewn with corpses in front of the city in the background. He is also the angel who then orders David, through the prophet Gad, to build an altar of atonement ‘on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite’ (21:18). The prophet stands in the foreground and mediates between the angel and David, who is kneeling before the altar to offer ‘burnt offerings and sacrifices of fellowship’ on the altar (21:26). The angel stands with drawn sword ‘between heaven and earth’, between the punitive God and the suffering man.

De Vos further emphasises this function by equipping the angel not only with a sword, but also with a whip and skull: all elements that are not mentioned in the biblical text, but that were common symbols of death and punishment.

God, however, definitively forgives David, who is sincerely repentant: God is appeased after the sacrifices at the new altar and the scourge of the plague immediately ceases to affect the people. In the engraving, it becomes clear that the smoke of that sacrifice rising to heaven is about to make the scourge cease.

 

References

Bowen, Karen Lee and Dirk Imhof. 2001. ‘Book Illustrations by Maarten de Vos for Jan Moretus I’, Print Quarterly, 18.3: 259–89

Shoaf, Jane V. 1980 ‘A Seventeenth-Century Album of Drawings by Marten de Vos’ Master Drawings, 18.3: 237–52, 295–311


Giorgio Vasari

Plague Befalls the People of Israel, from San Rocco Altarpiece, 1537, Oil painting?, 35 x 75 cm, Museo Diocesiano di Arte Sacra, Arezzo; Scala / Art Resource, NY

A very particular Iconography

Commentary by Arabella Cifani

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Throughout the 16th century in Tuscany, the plague was an endemic disease, with some resurgence in the Arezzo area around 1528/30. As at the time of the Israelites, the disease was believed to be connected to human wrongdoing, but it could be exorcised by commending oneself to God and repenting, exactly as David did for his sins in 2 Samuel 24:11–25. As a reminder of the danger of evil in 1535, the confraternity of San Rocco in Arezzo commissioned Giorgio Vasari to paint a polyptych on this theme. In it, there was a predella in which the painter was asked to deal with a very particular iconography, with three biblical stories that are very rarely found in the history of European art. In the first, the prophet Gad proposes to David the choice of the three divine punishments (2 Samuel 24:11–17); in the second, YHWH sends the pestilence to the people of Israel (v.15); in the third, David buys land to build an altar (vv.18–25). In his letter of 6 July 1537, Vasari explains what he painted:

the Plague, which is full of thunderbolts, with a horn full of poison, blowing infects the air riding on a serpent, which with iron and breath also does the same. We see the angel of the Lord striking the people with thunderbolts, falling on the dead, filling David with compassion, who, praying to the Lord that he and not the people have sinned, asks for vengeance upon himself.

In the scene of the plague, Vasari, steeped in classicist humanism, transforms God into a sort of ancient deity who orders a Diana-like angel to thunderbolt the people while another angel, riding a monster, blows the plague on the prostrate Israelites. There is an obvious reference to Juno’s wrath against Niobe that will lead her to have Diana and Apollo exterminate her 14 children with arrows. The painting is a synthesis of Vasari's Florentine training, with references to Rosso Fiorentino, Andrea del Sarto, Baccio Bandinelli, and Fra Bartolomeo. There is no lack of Roman influences that can be traced back to Michelangelo, Raphael, and Peruzzi. The painter also denotes that he accurately meditated on ancient sarcophagi depicting the massacre of the Niobids in Rome.

 

References

Balzaretti, Claudio. 2020. 12Samuele. Nuova versione, introduzione e commento di Claudio Balzaretti, I libri biblici–Primo Testamento 8 (Milano: Paoline)

Corti, Laura and Margaret Daly Davis (eds). 1981. Principi, letterati e artisti nelle carte di Giorgio Vasari, schede 10 e 11 (Firenze: Edam), pp. 329–31

Milanesi, Gaetano (ed.). 1882. Le opere di Giorgio Vasari, Scritti minori, Le lettere edite e inedite, Tomo 8 (Firenze: Sansoni), pp. 274–77


Pieter de Grebber

King David at Prayer, 1635–40, Oil on canvas, 94 x 85 cm, Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht; Image courtesy of Museum Catharijneconvent

The Desire to Know

Commentary by Arabella Cifani

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At the end of 2 Samuel (24:1–9), David is tempted by the desire to know the exact number of his able-bodied men and orders a census. David’s decision is premature and imprudent, both politically and religiously: he now knows his subjects are fit for war, but he has committed a grave sin of hubris, behaving like a master and not like a father of his people. The concept of kingship in Israel was different. The Israelites did not have a god–king like Egypt but a shepherd–king, protector, and dispenser of justice.

God did not let David’s sin go unpunished. There are three punishments from which he can choose: three years of famine, three months of fleeing before the enemy, or three days of plague in his kingdom. David falls into great distress and chooses the plague as the lesser evil, but in three days seventy thousand people will die.

The interpretation of the scene offered by Pietersz Frans de Grebber is that of a gloomy atmosphere, imbued with all the anguish overflowing from David's heart. The circumstance of David willingly doing penance out of remorse for a sin (a situation that is always desirable at confession) marks the theme as eminently Catholic and Counter-Reformation. De Grebber belongs to that group of Catholic artists who worked in the northern Netherlands during the 17th century. The artist was certainly a champion of Catholic thought in art, even though the Reformed religion had forbidden Catholicism in the Netherlands. Inspired by Rubens (whom he knew personally) and Rembrandt, he became the main exponent of a style known as ‘Haarlem Classicism’. By 1648, he was so highly regarded that Theodorus Schrevelius described him as ‘one of the best painters of our century’. The painter was an extremely pious and religious man. He never married and died in the house he had bought in the beguinage in Haarlem.

In the painting, the figure of the kneeling king stands out, with his attributes (crown and harp) at his feet, contrite and humiliated. The theme of David's choices was often depicted with a scourge or whip for famine, a sword for war, and a skull for pestilence. De Grebber perfected this iconography by replacing the whip or scourge with three thin ears of wheat, one of which is broken.

 

References

Schrevelius, Theodorus 1648. Harlemias ofte ... De eerste stichtinghe der stadt Haerlem, het toenemen en vergrootinge ... belegeringe ... reformatie ... scheuringe in de kerke, keuren (Haarlem: Th. Fonteyn), p. 382

Van Eck, Xander. ‘Pieter de Grebber. Berouwvolle David kiest uit drie plagen’, in Goddelijk Geschilderd. Honderd meesterwerken van Museum Catharijneconvent (Utrecht: Zwolle), pp. 178–80


Aegidius Sadeler I after Maerten de Vos :

David's Atonement to Avert the Plague, 1580–96 , Copper engraving

Giorgio Vasari :

Plague Befalls the People of Israel, from San Rocco Altarpiece, 1537 , Oil painting?

Pieter de Grebber :

King David at Prayer, 1635–40 , Oil on canvas

A King’s Remorse

Comparative commentary by Arabella Cifani

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What can a king’s remorse be? In one of the most mysterious episodes in the Bible, David, at the end of 2 Samuel, is tempted by the desire to know the exact number of his able-bodied men at arms and orders a census. When he knows the data, however, he is overcome with remorse. The Bible does not explain the cause of this regret.

Perhaps it is because, like all humans, instead of trusting in God he decided to trust in weapons and his own certainties. Perhaps because in the ancient world, knowing numbers had magical and mysterious implications: those who knew them could use them for hidden purposes. Moreover, in that gesture of counting there was a strong manifestation of personal domination over things and people. The king was not the owner of his people who could only be God’s. Inherent in David’s census was, therefore, rebellion against God and the assertion of personal will. Relying on one’s own strength alone is a constant thought in humans, and it is a thought fraught with risk; David realises this and asks for forgiveness. But God does not like this attitude and chastises him; indeed he chastises his innocent people.

A prophet and seer named Gad comes to David and brings three choices: seven years of famine, three months of flight before the enemy, or three days of plague in the territories of his kingdom. David chooses the plague and a devastating angel comes upon Israel killing seventy thousand people. At that point, desperate, David offers himself as a scapegoat and asks God to chastise him and not the innocents who died because of him.

God speaks again through Gad, telling David to build an altar in a place that many Jewish traditions identified as that of the Akedah, and that will become sacred because Solomon will build his great temple on it. David refuses to receive as a gift what is necessary for the sacrifice: he will buy oxen and wood out of his own pocket, a strongly symbolic gesture that emphasises that the place where Israel’s sacred temple will stand must be purchased in justice and fairness.

The episode, perhaps because of its complexity, is rarely found in European art: painters found it difficult to provide efficient interpretations of such a controversial story.

Giorgio Vasari, illustrating the scourge of the plague, turns God into an ancient deity who orders an angel resembling Diana to thunder the people while another angel, riding a monster, blows the plague on the prostrate Israelites. There is an obvious reference to Niobe and the wrath of Juno who will have all her 14 children exterminated by Diana and Apollo at the stroke of an arrow.

Another interpretation is offered by Dutch painter Pietersz Frans de Grebber in his King David in Prayer. It is a painting imbued with feelings of contrition and submission to God, where the beautiful figure of the kneeling king in his noble robes is surmounted by an angel who shows him a sword, a scourge, and a skull to remind him of the mortal gifts from which he can choose his punishment. The atmosphere of the painting is livid and lit only by highly choreographic lighting. This is one of his most significant paintings of the ‘Rembrandtian’ period in which the influence of the great master is evident along with echoes of the Caravaggist culture of Utrecht.

The most striking depiction, however, is that offered by an engraving by Johann Sadeler taken from a drawing by Maarten de Vos. In this scene, everything appears clear and precise: David is intent on making the sacrifice, on his knees with his hands clasped and his harp at his feet; above him is the prophet Gad who acts as an intermediary between him and an angel displaying a sword and skull of death. In the background is the torment of the disease that strikes the Israelites. But it is already clear that the smoke rising to heaven is about to bring the scourge to an end.

The story is a great example of divine pedagogy. Through the chastisement of David and his people, God teaches that no earthly authority can put him in his place, and that even the best king, as in David’s case, can be dragged to his death. In the end, the pact with God returns: David praises him, recognises his power, and builds the altar that joins heaven and earth. Salvation history resumes its course.

Next exhibition: 1 Kings 3 Next exhibition: 2 Chronicles 2

2 Samuel 24:1–25; 1 Chronicles 21:1–27

Revised Standard Version

2 Samuel 24

24 Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” 2So the king said to Joʹab and the commanders of the army, who were with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” 3But Joʹab said to the king, “May the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it; but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” 4But the king’s word prevailed against Joʹab and the commanders of the army. So Joʹab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel. 5They crossed the Jordan, and began from Aroʹer, and from the city that is in the middle of the valley, toward Gad and on to Jazer. 6Then they came to Gilead, and to Kadesh in the land of the Hittites; and they came to Dan, and from Dan they went around to Sidon, 7and came to the fortress of Tyre and to all the cities of the Hivites and Canaanites; and they went out to the Negeb of Judah at Beer-sheba. 8So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. 9And Joʹab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were eight hundred thousand valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand.

10 But David’s heart smote him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray thee, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.” 11And when David arose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, 12“Go and say to David, ‘Thus says the Lord, Three things I offer you; choose one of them, that I may do it to you.’ ” 13So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” 14Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.”

15 So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time; and there died of the people from Dan to Beer-sheba seventy thousand men. 16And when the angel stretched forth his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord repented of the evil, and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Arauʹnah the Jebʹusite. 17Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was smiting the people, and said, “Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let thy hand, I pray thee, be against me and against my father’s house.”

18 And Gad came that day to David, and said to him, “Go up, rear an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Arauʹnah the Jebʹusite.” 19So David went up at Gad’s word, as the Lord commanded. 20And when Arauʹnah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming on toward him; and Arauʹnah went forth, and did obeisance to the king with his face to the ground. 21And Arauʹnah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David said, “To buy the threshing floor of you, in order to build an altar to the Lord, that the plague may be averted from the people.” 22Then Arauʹnah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him; here are the oxen for the burnt offering, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. 23All this, O king, Arauʹnah gives to the king.” And Arauʹnah said to the king, “The Lord your God accept you.” 24But the king said to Arauʹnah, “No, but I will buy it of you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. 25And David built there an altar to the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the Lord heeded supplications for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.

1 Chronicles 21

21 Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel. 2So David said to Joʹab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beer-sheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.” 3But Joʹab said, “May the Lord add to his people a hundred times as many as they are! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should he bring guilt upon Israel?” 4But the king’s word prevailed against Joʹab. So Joʹab departed and went throughout all Israel, and came back to Jerusalem. 5And Joʹab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to David. In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and in Judah four hundred and seventy thousand who drew the sword. 6But he did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joʹab.

7 But God was displeased with this thing, and he smote Israel. 8And David said to God, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, I pray thee, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.” 9And the Lord spoke to Gad, David’s seer, saying, 10“Go and say to David, ‘Thus says the Lord, Three things I offer you; choose one of them, that I may do it to you.’ ” 11So Gad came to David and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Take which you will: 12either three years of famine; or three months of devastation by your foes, while the sword of your enemies overtakes you; or else three days of the sword of the Lord, pestilence upon the land, and the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’ Now decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” 13Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.”

14 So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel; and there fell seventy thousand men of Israel. 15And God sent the angel to Jerusalem to destroy it; but when he was about to destroy it, the Lord saw, and he repented of the evil; and he said to the destroying angel, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebʹusite. 16And David lifted his eyes and saw the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces. 17And David said to God, “Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Let thy hand, I pray thee, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father’s house; but let not the plague be upon thy people.”

18 Then the angel of the Lord commanded Gad to say to David that David should go up and rear an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebʹusite. 19So David went up at Gad’s word, which he had spoken in the name of the Lord. 20Now Ornan was threshing wheat; he turned and saw the angel, and his four sons who were with him hid themselves. 21As David came to Ornan, Ornan looked and saw David and went forth from the threshing floor, and did obeisance to David with his face to the ground. 22And David said to Ornan, “Give me the site of the threshing floor that I may build on it an altar to the Lord—give it to me at its full price—that the plague may be averted from the people.” 23Then Ornan said to David, “Take it; and let my lord the king do what seems good to him; see, I give the oxen for burnt offerings, and the threshing sledges for the wood, and the wheat for a cereal offering. I give it all.” 24But King David said to Ornan, “No, but I will buy it for the full price; I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings which cost me nothing.” 25So David paid Ornan six hundred shekels of gold by weight for the site. 26And David built there an altar to the Lord and presented burnt offerings and peace offerings, and called upon the Lord, and he answered him with fire from heaven upon the altar of burnt offering. 27Then the Lord commanded the angel; and he put his sword back into its sheath.