Multiple-Choice Retribution

“Go and tell David, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’ “ (2 Samuel 24:12)

King David screws up—again. He counts the men in his army, which is a major faux pas as far as the deity is concerned. (The fact that it was God who provoked David to do it in the first place smacks of entrapment, but then nobody asked me.) Yet though David is a repeat offender, God is willing to be reasonable about this latest installment of Davidic indiscretion (a little divine guilt here?). God’s job description demands that he bring some justice to the situation, but at least he’s going to be flexible about it. So God sends his guy Gad who offers David a multiple-choice reprisal package: “Shall there come upon 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 should answer the one who sent me.”

Think it over? David is freaked. Seriously, how do you process that one? Do you make up a chart with plusses on the right and negatives on the left and list the relative benefits and downsides of each option? “Hmm. Famine. Upsides: Universal experience. Nobody can trace this to my stupid action. And we might be able to order out Egyptian to keep everybody from rioting. Downsides: Three freaking years! And I hate Egyptian food—too spicy. Forget this option. Let’s see. Fleeing from enemies. Upsides: Shorter time frame. Soldiers are in the dying business already, plus we have extras of them. That’s about it. Downsides: We look like total losers and we’ll never live it down. After three months they’ll still be bragging about how they stomped us. Not only that, I’ll have to give that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech a million times. Nope. This option sucks too. Okay, three days of plague. Upsides: Only three days. That’s good. But that’s about it. Downsides: Everybody knows plague is God’s way of slapping you down, so it’ll be common knowledge that somebody messed up bad. Odds are they’ll guess me. Not good. Besides, plague is icky and there’s no telling who’s going to catch it. At least with war and famine I can cover my own keister. Oy veh, this is some mishegas I’ve gotten myself into.”

So David calls back Gad. “Look. I’m knee deep in bupkes here.” He shrugs. “Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great and maybe he’ll get bored by the end of the first day and change his mind—but there’s no way I’m going to kiss some goy’s backside.” Three days later—bidda bing, bidda bang—David is down seventy thousand adoring fans. He himself is spared (that Goliath thing still pays off big dividends) but at least David feels like a shmendrik about it and finally does have the chutzpah to push God’s off button at the end of the three days. Still, those seventy thousand shlimazels probably don’t find much comfort in that rather belated act of bravado.

In retrospect David probably wonders whether he made the right call. Three years of famine may have killed off seventy thousand as well, but spread out over three years that averages out to under 64 people dead a day, a hardly noticeable blip in an age of already high mortality rates. And if he’d gone with the three months at the mercy of his enemies that would be 777 dead a day—a little dicey, for sure, but at least the soldiers might have been able to kick a little uncircumcised butt before they got themselves slaughtered. The one advantage of the plaguey blitzkrieg is that it’s over fast and you can get on with the business saving your political career.

Moral of the story: If God offers you a “choice” of penalty, don’t be fooled. All roads lead to the same woodshed. Einstein was right: God does not play dice.

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