Plague prayers of Mursilis II (2 Samuel 24)

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The story recounted in 2 Samuel 24 is usually on several accounts. First, God is said to have been angry with Israel and to have incited David to sin in order that the Lord might thereby punish the nation (24:1). Second, the nature of the sin itself – conducting a census – has always been difficult to explain, although many regard it as a sign of pride or of dependence upon wealth and power rather than upon God. Third, it is unusual that the plague stopped specifically at “the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (22:16).

The prayers for deliverance from the plague (24:14, 17) are not difficult to understand and have analogies from ancient literature. The act of addressing God in prayer in such a situation (which included confessing sins, seeking an explanation for the diving anger and asking for relief from the plague) was by no means unique to Israel.

  • The best known plague of ancient history struck Athens during the years 430-427 B.C. and was described in detail by the Greek historian Thucydides in Book 2 of his history of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides described how supplications were lifted up and rites of divination carried out in an effort to placate the gods and halt the plague.
  • A closer analogy to the 2 Samuel 24 story appears in tablets recording the prayers of the Hittite king Mursilis II (r.c. 1321-1298 B.C.). The Hittites had been struck by a widespread, devastating plague. The population of the kingdom had been severely decimated; even Mursilis’ predecessors, his father Suppiluliumas I and his brother Arnuwanda II, had succumbed in his prayers Mursilis pleaded with the Hittite gods for relief, confessed his sins and even reminded the gods that it was not in their best interest to strike down all the people who served them.

It is perhaps significant, however, that the Bible variously attributes such events both to divine sovereignty and to human sin (24:1). Even the fact that this particular plague ceased abruptly at a specific place and time is remarkable (24:16). Perhaps most significant, however, was David’s willingness in this case to suffer in the place of his people (24:17). Whereas Mursilis of the Hittites stopped at offering to make restitution to the gods if such was needed, David offered himself to the Lord on his people’s behalf.


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