For some reason, I’ve always felt a very keen sense of Place. I’m moved by being in places where important things happened; I recall the power of the moment when, on a lunch break from work at the CVS on Tremont Street in Boston, I walked down Tremont to State Street and, just around the corner, found a simple bronze plaque on the wall of State Street Bank, right next to the drive-through lane. I remember its wording to this day: “D. L. Moody, Christian evangelist, friend of man, founder of the Northfield Schools, was converted to God in a shoe store on this site.”
I’m similarly moved by going back to places where significant things happened to me—places where I lived, went to school, traveled, camped, experienced unusual spiritual growth. And my favorite place in the world, though one I can rarely get to, incites powerful memories and emotions.
In consequence, I find it interesting that even though God is infinite—unbound by space—and existed before there was even such a thing as “location,” he seems to see Place as significant. He tells his people more than once to mark significant places with memorial altars (e.g. Ge 35.1; Jos 4.3). The biblical narrative is rife with place names, and often the narrative seems to be telling us more than just where that town got its name; it’s more than just what critics deride as an “etiological tale.”
An example of this divine focus that I find particularly interesting is a biblical site that was known by the Canaanites as the threshing floor of Araunah (or Ornan) the Jebusite. Multiple threads of the biblical narrative weave themselves around this otherwise unremarkable place.
I’d like to take a few posts to tell that story.
I’m not going to start where the Bible first mentions the place—I’ll get back to that later—but at an incident in the life of King David, toward the end of his life. We find two accounts of the event, in 2Samuel 24 and 1Chronicles 21.
There we read that David ordered a census of his army. Right away we notice two things that seem odd.
First, the Samuel account says that God moved David to order the census, while the one in Chronicles says that Satan did. Critics have made much of this supposed contradiction, but the many thinkers who have responded to them have demonstrated that the allegation of error is not well founded; since God is sovereign, there is a sense in which, by allowing others to act, and especially by using even evil acts to accomplish his purposes—for he is never frustrated—he can be said to “do” anything that happens (cf Gen 50.20; Am 3.6). (And of course he is not the author of sin, but precisely how that all works is beyond me, and it’s beyond you too; if you think you understand the infinite with a brain the size of a small cantaloupe, then you most certainly don’t.)
The second odd thing is that while David’s general Joab, David himself, and God all agreed that the census was sinful, the passage never tells us why—and frankly, it doesn’t seem like all that big a deal to us, especially since God himself had commanded earlier censuses (censi?) (Nu 1.1-2; 26.1-2). Several possibilities have been suggested; the two most common are that it was an act of pride by David, betraying confidence in his armies rather than in God, and that he may have failed to pay the temple tax historically connected to censuses (Ex 30.13; suggested by Josephus).
At any rate, the act is viewed unanimously as sinful. The prophet Gad brings David a message from God, offering a choice of three punishments: famine, war, or plague (which were, incidentally, the promised curses for disobeying the covenant [Dt 28.20ff]). In a cry of deep faith, David commits himself to the hands of God, choosing plague (1Ch 21.13).
What happens next is remarkably counterintuitive.
More on that next time.