Thursday, July 25, 2013

God's Red Shirts

This makes no sense.

So I'm reading 1 Chronicles 21, you know, like I do, and it's about that one time when King David took a census. But actually, that was a bad move, and God punished him by sending a plague that killed 70,000 people.

What now? God punishes DAVID by killing 70,000 other people who WEREN'T EVEN INVOLVED? Why did they die? Wouldn't it make more sense if David died? But no, those thousands of other people died instead.

Why? Because they're red shirts.

Seriously, that's the only explanation I have.

Image source.

For those unfamiliar with the term "red shirt": On many episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series, a team was sent down to explore whatever planet they were at that week. This team usually had 2 or 3 main characters, as well as 1 or 2 nameless minor characters, usually dressed in red- that's why we call those characters "red shirts". And the red shirts would always die. You know, it's dangerous exploring strange planets. The red shirts always died, and nobody even cared. They were nameless, minor characters. The main characters- Kirk, Spock, McCoy- of course they never died.

So in 1 Chronicles 21, David didn't die, but 70,000 red shirts did. Off-camera. Nameless minor characters. No one cares. Of course David had to pretend to care, just like Captain Kirk used to talk about "the safety of my crew" being the highest priority- but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. No one cares. They're red shirts.

But how can that be? In real life, there are no red shirts. Every person in the world has hopes and dreams and fears. Everyone has people who love them. Everyone is unique and talented and intelligent and VALUABLE. I don't believe in red shirts.

And God should know that better than anyone. Isn't he the one who created all people in his image? Then why did God kill those 70,000 people just because of one guy's sin?

Does God really believe some people are just red shirts?

I've thought of a few possible explanations:

1. This didn't really happen.

Maybe it's not a true story and it was just written to teach us something. Then the red shirt deaths don't matter, just like they didn't matter on Star Trek because it's just a tv show.

OKAY, but I'm highly suspicious of any argument that says let's not believe what the bible says. You can't just say "well I'm not going to believe that part because I don't like it." This explanation is only plausible if we have some reason to think the author did not intend for it to be understood as a literal historical account, and that the original audience also understood that.

But everything in the life of David seems very realistic- I say that because there are no miracles. Seriously- David didn't get any miracles. He didn't literally hear God's voice either- prophets came and told him things. And that incident with Goliath was a one-in-a-million shot, which God had everything to do with, but as it doesn't require any upheavals of natural laws, it's not technically a miracle.

David and Goliath, Matrix style. Image source.

And I actually really like that about David. He's like the average Christian today- he didn't see anyone walk on water or anything, but he interpreted the things that happened in his life as signs of God's work. God protected him in all his battles. God sent a prophet to tell him he would be king, and then many years later that promise came true. Etc.

So I have no reason to think that the stories of David are anything other than historical accounts of things that actually happened.

2. David was the king, so he actually WAS more valuable than those 70,000 people. His actions DO affect them, because he's the king.

The bible gives a lot of guidelines for leadership, and says that it's a very big responsibility because your decisions affect a lot of people. James 3:1 even says, "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." So maybe, as the king, it's only natural that David's actions have very severe consequences for the people he governs.

Maybe, but I don't really buy this. Yes, a leader's mistakes can have very harmful consequences for the citizens they rule, but that's just the logical outcome of having centralized government. It's not because God has ordained that common people SHOULD suffer if someone in charge does something dumb.

So in this case, people suffered and died not because that was the unfortunate outcome of a natural chain of events that David started, but because God was unhappy with David's sin and chose to start a plague. (Or maybe it actually WAS somehow a "natural chain of events" and the writer interpreted it as something God did...? Umm, but how does a census cause a plague?)

Or perhaps because David is the king, his life is more valuable than the 70,000 people who died. Maybe the country would have collapsed into chaos if the king died, and that wasn't part of "God's plan."

(You know, just like the show would have ended if Captain Kirk died. That can't happen because it's not part of Gene Roddenberry's plan.)

David is certainly more valuable politically. But is he more valuable in God's eyes? Does God value some people more than others?

3. David's sin was in taking the census, so the punishment had to be a hit on the population statistics.

When we look at the story from David's point of view, and we want a punishment that fits the crime, it makes sense. David wanted to feel awesome about the size of his country and how many men could be in his army... so to punish him, God reduced those numbers.

But that's FROM DAVID'S POINT OF VIEW! So the people are red shirts and David is the main character. Those people had to die so that someone else's story arc could flow better. Seriously?

4. All the people who died happened to be bad people anyway. 

Surely God is loving and would not kill innocent people, right? So they must not have been innocent- maybe they all happened to be serial killers.

This is baseless speculation. It doesn't say ANYTHING like that in the passage.

But let's speculate. Maybe they were somehow involved in David's sin. Unlikely. The passage seems to indicate that he acted alone. Even Joab, the commander of the army, tried to talk him out of it. God sends a prophet to speak to David- there's no indication that God also spoke to anyone else about their involvement in this sin. And David even laments, as only a captain mourning the death of a red shirt can, "Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? O Lord my God, let your hand fall upon me and my family, but do not let this plague remain on your people."

So the idea that these 70,000 people who died were somehow involved... not likely.

Okay well, aren't ALL people sinners? So God's not killing "innocent people". God is God, he can do whatever he wants, every moment of our lives is an undeserved gift from him...

So their deaths were a punishment for their own sin, as well as David's sin. (It still would have made more sense if David died. Just sayin'.)

Maybe this is true. Maybe this is the answer. But isn't that kind of terrifying, that God could just kill you at any time and he wouldn't have to answer to anyone? And that does happen. Tragedies happen. People die. What does it mean? Is God okay with it?

Is this true? Is this why bad things happen to good people- because at some level, we all deserve to die right now?

No. I believe in a God who comforts those who mourn, who wipes away our tears. I believe in a God who feels our pain. I believe in a Savior who wept.

He doesn't just zap people when he feels like making a point.

Image source.

Okay so where does that leave us? I don't believe in red shirts. Really. Every person has a life and friends and family and a ton of experiences and interests and ambitions. So what's going on in this story, where God kills 70,000 people because David is the only character that matters?

(And what's going on with all the other red shirt deaths in the bible? The Old Testament is full of them. I've written before about all the people who died from the plagues of Egypt.)

As a Christian, I'm required to love God, obey God, commit my whole life to him, and love people. I am not required to LIKE everything I read in the bible.

Let it be noted in the ship's log that I object to this.


  1. Gnostic Christians would say that the god of Israel kills all of those people, and spare David because god is either ignorant or evil. Taking the text as is or juxtaposing god's actions with those of men, I'd contend it's a little bit of both. If a president of a country kills 70,000 people who are completely unrelated to their true "enemy" the world would call for justice on behalf of the victims. There'd be charges of war crimes, trials, law suits, firings, etc. But when god does it, it's OK because "God works in mysterious ways"??? No way. That's a copout, an excuse.

  2. I think you are absolutely correct that "because they're red shirts" is the reason these people died, as far as the story is concerned. The thing about the Bible is, the way the stories are told doesn't necessarily always tell us what God's reasoning was--it's subject to the interpretation of the writer (who, however divinely inspired, was still a human being with some prejudices and free will) and that writer was writing for a thousands-of-years-ago audience who may have understood without having it spelled out for them some things that puzzle us, like why is it evil to take a census? All the information you and I have is in this recounting of the story by a flawed human, who may have exaggerated or left out important explanatory facts. Even for a contemporary event on which we have far more information, we're still only humans trapped in time and can't see the big picture God sees, in which it all makes sense--I don't think that's a cop-out as Steelergirl said; I think the only God worth believing in is one who knows more than we do.

    But I think a key element of this story (which you didn't mention) is that it's really about a conflict between God and Satan, in which David might be unaware of his motivation: The first sentence of the chapter is, "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel." I don't begin to understand what Satan is really about exactly, but whenever Satan shows up in a story, that's a major clue that someone is going to take a sharp bend away from God.

    I don't see what you mean about David being an ordinary guy who never saw any miracles. In this chapter, "David looked up and saw the angel of the Lord standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand extended over Jerusalem." Not a miracle, but hardly your everyday ordinary experience! If the stories are literally true, David experienced God in a far more direct and obvious way than average people today.

    How does a census cause a plague? The census takers are carrying germs to which the people they're enumerating weren't previously exposed. It could happen.

    I understand your objection to this mass murder and kind of share it. However, I believe that one of the most important truths of Christianity is that earthly life is not the only thing and death is not the end of us. Each of us has a role in the Story, and some roles involve shorter earthly lives than others. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to avoid death or to save others from it--God gave us death-resisting instincts for a reason--but it keeps me from viewing "collateral damage" deaths like these as any contradiction to the idea that God loves and has a special plan for every person.

  3. This really doesn't make any sense when you consider that the population of the entire WORLD at that time (not just the middle east) was 50,000,000. So a plague that killed 70,000 would be pretty horrific on a global scale.