A famous contradiction concerning who provoked David to number Israel is found between 2 Sam. 24:1 and 1 Chron. 21:1.

2 Samuel 24, David counts his army.

In the earlier account we read that God was behind what happened, inciting David to number the army, and then punishing Israel because David had done so:

24: 1 Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” 2 So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enrol the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.” 3 But Joab replied to the king, “May the Lord your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?” 4 The king’s word, however, overruled Joab and the army commanders; so they left the presence of the king to enrol the fighting men of Israel. 5 After crossing the Jordan, they camped near Aroer, south of the town in the gorge, and then went through Gad and on to Jazer. 6 They went to Gilead and the region of Tahtim Hodshi, and on to Dan Jaan and around toward Sidon. 7 Then they went toward the fortress of Tyre and all the towns of the Hivites and Canaanites. Finally, they went on to Beersheba in the Negev of Judah. 8 After they had gone through the entire land, they came back to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. 9 Joab reported the number of the fighting men to the king: In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand. 10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.” 11 Before David got up the next morning, the word of the Lord had come to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: 12 “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.’” 13 So Gad went to David and said to him, “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 should answer the one who sent me.” 14 David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands.” 15 So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. 16 When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 17 When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the Lord, “I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall on me and my family.” (2 Samuel 24: 1-17 NIV)

Obviously this incident is difficult enough in itself, without the added complication of Satan being involved. It helps to understand that the ‘numbering’ is not simply counting existing standing troops, but enrolling, conscripting and funding military expansion. The anger here is not because of David doing a census, but because of David relying on increasing his numbers, not relying on God. David’s approach here is the exact opposite of the trusting in God and reducing military numbers approach that worked for Gideon in Judges 7.


The later account in 1 Chronicles 21

1 Chron. 21: 1: “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” (NIV)

Pretty much every Bible translation there is has “Satan” here as a specific character, not simply ‘an accuser’ which is what the Hebrew and Greek Septuagint texts have here. In both the definite article is lacking, so just a satan in Hebrew, a diabolos in Greek, not Ha-Satan “the Adversary” or ho-Diabolos “the Accuser”. This is different from Job 1 and Zechariah 3, the two places in the Old Testament where “The Satan” appears as a specific character.

There is still something strange here though, that the priestly editors of 1 Chronicles were evidently aware that they were making a major change to the 2 Samuel record. And it would not be a change that readers familiar with the earlier history would not notice. Naturally there are many events in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings that are reinterpreted by the priestly authors of Chronicles in preparing a new history of the kingdom period for the Jews returning from exile. But there are few departures from the earlier books as significant and blatant as this. So by placing “an enemy” in the text here, the authors of Chronicles are not identifying God as a “satan” of David, but pointing to some human enemy, as is the case where the Hebrew noun satan (an enemy) occures without the “the Satan” characterisation found only in Job 2 and Zechariah 3. Typically also “a satan” refers to a human traitor within the camp, not a straightforward enemy army.

We don’t know. But it was something other than the fallen-angel ‘devil’ of medieval Christianity. It should also be remembered that ‘the Devil’ was effectively unknown to Jews outside two symbolic appearances in the prologue to a poetic drama (Job 1) and a allegory of Zechariah condemning corruption in the priestly descendants of Jeshua (Zechariah 3), until the accounts of Matthew 4 and Luke 4 were written, several hundred years later. Whatever 1 Chron. 21:1 is, it is not anticipating Job and Zechariah’s Satan, nor Jesus’ diabolos in the wilderness.


The angel stops at the threshing floor of the Jebusite

Although this does not answer our questions, (a.) why did God incite David?, and (b.) who was this “enemy” God used?, there is something in the context related to the temple here. It is important that the whole ugly incident of the numbering and the plague ends with the angel stopping at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24, spelled Ornan in 1 Chron 21.). This floor was then purchased by David and became the new location of the Tabernacle. The book of Chronicles further tells us that the location of Araunah’s threshing floor is on “Mount Moriah”, and that the Temple of Solomon was built over Araunah’s threshing floor.

Genesis 22:2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

2 Chronicles 3:1 Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.

Quite what the connection is between the anger of the LORD in 2 Samuel 24, and the angel stopping at the exact spot where according to 2 Chronicles 3:1 an angel had stayed the hand of Abraham from offering Isaac is not explained by the authors of Chronicles. What follows is supposition.

But some have suggested that the plague was God’s punishment for David being more concerned about increasing his army than with providing a permanent site for the Tabernacle to become the Temple, so God arranged an enemy that forced David’s hand – military expenditure or raising money for the temple – and David made the wrong choice. He could and should have trusted God to defeat the enemy with a small army, but David preferred to trust in conscription and arming his forces rather than put the temple first. If so this then would give a completely new insight to the very famous verses below:

1 Chronicles 17:4 “Go and tell My servant David that this is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build Me a house in which to dwell.

1 Chronicles 22:8 but this word of the LORD came to me: ‘You have shed much blood and waged great wars. You are not to build a house for My Name because you have shed so much blood on the ground before Me.  

1 Chronicles 28: …2Then King David rose to his feet and said, “Listen to me, my brothers and my people. It was in my heart to build a house as a resting place for the ark of the covenant of the LORD and as a footstool for our God. I had made preparations to build it, 3 but God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for My Name, because you are a man of war who has spilled blood.’ 4 Yet the LORD, the God of Israel, chose me out of all my father’s house to be king over Israel forever. For He chose Judah as leader, and from the house of Judah He chose my father’s household, and from my father’s sons He was pleased to make me king over all Israel.… 

and Solomon’s comment:

1 Kings 5:3 “As you are well aware, due to the wars waged on all sides against my father David, he could not build a house for the Name of the LORD his God until the LORD had put his enemies under his feet. 

Putting these verses together with the incident leading to the investment in the land for the Temple, suggests maybe, that if David had not sought to fund military expansion, and simply prioritised the purchase of land for the Temple, then he could have had more part in laying the foundations for the Temple built by Solomon.

Seen in this way God did not incite David, but tested him, and David failed. The ultimate enemy in the incident was David himself.



Appendix: from ‘The Devil the Great Deceiver”

The following excerpt is from Peter Watkin’s book:

Sometimes the translators have left the word satan untranslated, as for example in the first two chapters of Job, and in Zechariah 3. They have had a reason for letting the original word stand in these passages: satan is preceded by the definite article. It is not an adversary, but the adversary. The word is a distinctive title given to a special adversary. Of course the translators could have shown the distinction by putting “the adversary”, instead of “an adversary” and it might have avoided confusion if they had done so. But because the word is used as a title or name, we cannot say that they were wrong in leaving it untranslated.

There are two other passages where the A.V. translators have really misled us: 

1 Chron. 21: 1: “And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.”

Psa. 109: 6: “Set them a wicked man over him; and let Satan stand at his right hand.”

Without justification, they have treated satan as a name in these Scriptures. In the Hebrew of each, the article is omitted, and the translation should have been “an adversary”.

By presuming to identify the adversary of 1 Chron. 21: 1 the translators have created a contradiction. Believing in a personal devil, they have supposed the adversary to be this devil and have called him “Satan”. Translated thus, the passage does not agree with that in the parallel account in 2 Sam. 24: 1 where we read: “And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them.”* A lot of explaining is called for if that which is attributed to the Lord in one record is attributed to His arch-enemy in another. But if the Chronicles account had read, “An adversary stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel”, there would have been no prob­lem. All would have understood that the Lord—or His angel—was the adversary.

With regard to Psa. 109: 6, the A.V. translators have given a sinister significance to the Scripture that was not intended. It would have been better if they had rendered it “… let an adversary stand at his right hand”, as the R.V. has done.

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