King David, God, the Plague, and Donald Trump

In the Bible—as you know—King David commands a census be taken, to ascertain the number of military men available. There are two versions in Holy Writ.

In the Second Book of Samuel, Chapter 24, God orders David to conduct the census. In First Chronicles Chapter 21 Satan tells him to do it. (This is what we call a “clear contradiction.”)

However, biblical commentators—including some extremely creative and imaginative people—cite Job 1:6-12 to deny this. (The gist of that passage is that whatever Satan does ultimately has God’s permission. You get it? Satan would have had to get God’s permission before recommending the survey. So that resolves, thank God, at least for some, that logical issue.)

Never mind that Job is a poetic novel composed in the 4th century BCE, a reminder that “Holy Writ” attributed to divine inspiration of scribes possessed of the Holy Spirit includes all manner of random material.

But there is still the naked contradiction between positing either fictional character (Yahweh or Satan) as the historical agent causing the plague. The Book of Samuel is thought to date from the 6th century BCE. The Book of Chronicles was probably composed in the 4th century BCE. The first version has the king receiving valuable data about the military conscript base; he’s told 800,000 valiant sword-bearers were available. In the second he’s told the higher figure of 1,100,000.

Anyway, God is displeased in both versions. He sends a pandemic disease to punish David and the people of Israel and Judah. Why he would do something so stupid and cruel is not my business. Anyway in Samuel 2 he tells David he’s going to punish him for taking the census. (Why? readers have wondered for two and a half millennia. Didn’t God just order the dude to do it and now He’s pissed? What the hell? This is why people get down on the Old Testament god and seek alternatives.)

God —via David’s “seer” (shaman) named Gad—tells him he can choose between three punishments: “Shall there come on you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land? Now then, think it over and decide how I [Gad] should answer the one [God] who sent me.”

In the 1 Chronicles version this same Gad offers the following options: “three years of famine, three months of being swept away before your enemies, with their swords overtaking you, or three days of the sword of the Lord—days of plague in the land, with the angel of the Lord ravaging every part of Israel.’

So what would you do? David chose plague, probably thinking he could personally sit it out through social distancing. But in both versions, “seventy thousand men of Israel fell dead.” Usually figures from sources in this period numbers are hyperbolic. But if that were the case, it would compare with the current Brazilian total death cases from COVID-19. Let us assume that some thousands died and the memory gave rise to religious explanatory narratives.

In the first version at least, David must have felt, “It’s not my fault!”

The modern Biblical historian finds here—in which is surely not “history” so much as legend and myth—perhaps some criticism of state authority, specifically the power to conscript soldiers. The Book of Samuel (1:8) problematizes the very institution of kingship as a rebellion against God (as represented by his prophets, such as Samuel himself). The recruitment of soldiers appears in a bad light. For whatever reason, God inflicted a plague killing 70,000.

I should point out here that the very historicity of King David is disputed, with none more skeptical than the Israeli archeologists who actually study this stuff. But Donald Trump—-as you know a deeply religious man committed to daily Bible study and reflection—must surely feel like King David in this troubled time.

To be sure, God knows, Trump had his Bathshebas. He’s a sinner. But Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. have forgiven him. He’s stated specifically that he’s “never asked for forgiveness” from God but when he goes to church “and I drink a little wine, and eat my little cracker” he’s sort of doing it. You can tell he speaks from the heart, always.

Trump has shown awareness that there are two testaments in the Christian Bible, which showing his intimate engagement with Pauline theology. H likes them equally. He can recite at least two great bible verses from memory: “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24) and the “Two Corinthians” verse about “liberty” which he once told evangelical students at Liberty University is “the whole ballgame.”

Like King David, Trump is a 100% supporter of Israel, and of God. Just like he’s a 100% supporter of the Bible! He has deliberately cultivated God’s people, the Evangelicals especially, urged the faith-based re-opening of churches, protected Christians who won’t bake cakes for gay marriages, made it possible to say Merry Christmas again!

But goddammit! Trump must think. “Why, why oh God? Why did you sic this plague on me? Just when I was presiding—in the most presidential way you could ever imagine—over the best economy in the history of the world, you throw this shit down at me!

“Jesus, God, don’t you see it’s CHINA that did this? They’re not your people, for god’s sake, they’re Communists. Why did you send it from them to ME? It’s not my fault! If I didn’t do anything it’s because other people never brought the virus up.

“You could have prevented all this shit by stopping the Chinese virus. You are almighty after all, why don’t you act like it? I don’t have time for this; I said in February the virus would disappear. Why didn’t you help me then? Damn! So you killed 70,000 of your Jewish supporters in Bible days from a pandemic. I’m dealing with three times that much, God dammit.”

The moron president might then ask: “God: So which is it? Did you make David take the census, or did Satan? And now— because I am more than King David!—I need to know:

“Did YOU—whose little wine I drink sometimes, and eat your little cracker—MAKE me allow the COVID-19 virus to spread? Or was it Satan who blinded me to the fact that tens of thousands of people were being infected while I sat on my ass?”

Trump can take comfort when he opens his well-thumped Psalms in the lines attributed to the mythical Saul’s mythical lyre-player David in Psalm 43, just slightly adopted below:

Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation falling under the control of Marxist agitators.
O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man, the anarchist, the lowlife, the haters in Black Lives Matter.
For you are the God of my strength: why do you cast me off when the looters and Antifada are attacking me?
For you are the God of my strength: why do you cast me off? why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy and their Fake News?
O send out your light and your truth: let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill, and to your tabernacles. and the eternally united Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
Then will I go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy: I will wave the Bible in the face of my foes after I clear them from the streets.
yes, on the harp will I praise you, O God my God, and play Lee Greenwood at every campaign rally.

Why are you cast down, O my soul? and why are you disquieted within me? Are
you that concerned about reelection and prosecution after defeat?

Hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.

(Actually, no, I don’t see Trump ever getting to this point in the psalm. But he’s probably so angry at his grim fate by now that if he has any religious sentiments at all he is railing against the Creator for messing with him so bad. A sad mental case. But the whole country is in bad mental shape. And the church-hat ladies of the Democratic Party rallying around bland blank-page Biden with the expectation that he’s a savior are not necessarily an improvement over the “Proud to be an American” idiots behind Trump.)

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: