David's Census: God or Satan?

One of the more interesting contradictions in the Old Testament has to do with the events in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21.

The story is about a census David makes of Israel. For whatever reason, this census angers YHWH bringing a plague upon Israel. It's not clear why taking a census is so bad. The speculation is that in taking a census David is expressing proprietorship over the people, treating Israel as his property. That's a usurpation of YHWH's position as the true king of Israel.

All that is interesting in its own right, but the real puzzles are what I'm about to point out.

The first puzzle is why David undertakes the census in the first place, given YHWH's disapproval. Here's what we read in 2 Samuel:
2 Samuel 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.” 
That's curious, no? The anger of the Lord burned against Israel, so he incited David against them by asking David to undertake a census. You'd think YHWH could just act directly against Israel without any excuse or provocation. But YHWH commands David to take a census which YHWH will find offensive and, thus, unleash the plague on Israel.

All that is very, very weird. But it's not really a contradiction. The contradiction comes when we compare this narrative with a retelling of the same story--David taking the census and the subsequent plague--in 1 Chronicles:
1 Chronicles 21.1
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel. 
See the problem? In 2 Samuel "the Lord" incites David to take the census. In 1 Chronicles it's "Satan."

What's going on? Two things might be going on. First, we know that 1 Chronicles is the later document. So, first hypothesis, is that the author of 1 Chronicles is trying to clean up the weirdness of the earlier story. Why would God incite David to do something God would find offensive? By plugging in Satan some of that weirdness goes away.

A second hypothesis is that the author of 1 Chronicles is writing a historical apology for the Davidic dynasty. Consequently, the bias of the author of 1 Chronicles is to portray David in the best light possible. For example, David's sin with Bathsheba isn't recounted in 1 Chronicles. So the theory is that the introduction of Satan in 1 Chronicles 21 is a way to lessen David's culpability in the episode. The devil made him do it.

Then why not eliminate the story like what was done with Bathsheba? Because the story of the census explains why the temple was built at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. (David turns back the destroying angel by offering a sacrifice at the threshing floor of Araunah.) Beyond defending the Davidic dynasty the author of 1 Chronicles is also keen to defend Jerusalem and the temple cult as the cornerstone of Israel's religious identity. Consequently, the story about the origins of the temple has to be included.

So those are two ideas about why "the Lord" in 2 Samuel 24 becomes "Satan" in 1 Chronicles 21.

Regardless, I bring up the issue simply to say that if you believe in "biblical inerrancy" you're going to have to struggle with 2 Samuel 24.1 and 1 Chronicles 21.1.

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30 thoughts on “David's Census: God or Satan?”

  1. I'm slowly leaving the idea of biblical inerrancy in the dust. It scares me somewhat in that I've been taught as a good southern Baptist that not believing that the bible was inerrant was equivalent to not believing in God. I've stumbled on Phyllis Tickle as of late and she seems to suggest that something other than Sola Scriptura will become Christian authority. Do you have any ideas what our authority will be once we enter the arena of biblical errancy?


  2. My faith community says "no problem, satan just means an adversary, and YHWH was David's adversary at this particular point in his life, so where's the contradiction?". You may not find this convincing (I don't, particularly, and prefer your second hypothesis), but I offer it as a third option.

  3. Unless you are willing to say that Satan and God are the same thing I don't see how this can work. If you are then that seems to be more than a third opinion.

  4. Some thoughts. First, a lot of this has to do with the role and function of the bible. If you have a Christological hermanutinc then the bible in consistent in its aim in pointing you to Jesus. In the road to Emmaus story we read about Jesus doing this: "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." Jesus also said this to the Pharisees: "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you
    have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me."

    In short, the bible is "inerrant" not in being wholly "perfect" in content and free from human activity. The bible--as a narrative--is "inerrant" in focus: pointing us to the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

    However, while this may resolve how we view the bible, it doesn't solve the problem of "authority." For my part, I think "authority" is rooted in the "binding and loosing" of the church community. When an interpretive community "binds" something an "authority" is created that regulates the common life of that community. And those communities "bind and loose" based on a few inputs, namely, scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Each having some relative "authority."

  5. The argument goes that 'satan' can be descriptive of any adversary - good or bad - a neighboring king, an angel standing in Balaam's way, a rival in Job's community, or even - on this particular occasion - God.

  6. Thanks, I like the idea of it being inerrant in "focus." This, I can deal with. Scot McKnight seems to be suggesting (if I understand him correctly) that authority my simple be that scripture which I understand to be true in that it changes my behavior to look more like Jesus. I also think all of scripture needs to be interpreted through a Jesus lens.

  7. I can see that, and it sort of fits with Jewish monotheism (see Isaiah 45.7). The trouble with this, as I see it, isn't in how it resolves the surface-level contradiction (it can do that), but how it creates some downstream issues, some theological and some hermeneutical.

  8. I think the real thing to wrestle with is a problem/issue at the root of the Protestant project. Here's the issue:

    1. Protestants claim "the bible alone" as their authority (sola scriptura).

    2. But the bible is too complex and diverse to render a clear verdict a variety of doctrinal issues. From Calvinism vs. Arminianism to women's roles to hell to the charimatic gifts and on and on. There is plenty of biblical material to support these diverse positions.

    (As my friend Mark Love says: "These debates can't be resolved hermeneutically. They can only be resolved theologically.")

    All this creates the splintering of the Protestant churches, with churches clustering into little hermeneutical pockets--from Baptists to Methodists to Presbyterians to Non-denominational community churches.

    Because really, at the end of the day, the real authority in Protostantism is the individual conscience. You are the final and ultimate authority. Because when you descide you disagree with your church you get up and leave and find (or start) a church that agrees with you.

    How to get around this? Well, it's hard. You could convert to Catholicism. There the authority lines are clear. And a lot of evangelicals, thirsting for a firm foundation, have converted to Catholicism. If you want an authority to tell you which reading of the bible is correct Catholicism is one way to go.

    For my part, I better like the idea of the faith community being an egalitarian, covenantal fellowship where we are collectively and mutually doing the messy and open-ended work of binding and loosing. But this takes great spiritual maturity as it demands that we submit to each other in disagreement in a way that Catholics submit to the church when they disagree. It's just for Protestants shifted to the local level.

  9. "Biblical inerrancy" detracts from the poetry and song of God that captured the hearts of its writers. It keeps the Bible in the shackles of dogma rather than allowing it to be, as Peter Gomes expressed it, a "Living context". The Psalmist in speaking to God said, "Your word is like a song to me", in that it moves the soul.

    It is sad that those who listen to preaching with "inerrant" intent, have to switch gears, so to speak, when they put down their hymnals. The living heart takes a nap while the chisel and stone come out. Whereas when the scripture is presented and listened to as a human dramatic song trying to find a place for God; it becomes more of the pain and confusion that we experience ourselves. It remains alive rather than the perfection we must perform for each Sunday's show.

  10. Phyllis Tickle said that the church knew that the world was round in their heads. It was plain to see when a ship sailed over the horizon, but when they went to church, the church told them it was flat. She suggest that people wanted to believe the earth was flat because that many believed if the earth was round the it would be physically possible for them to ascend in a different direction that Jesus ascended. (i hope this is clear) My point being that if the local congregation teaches something as authority, Hell in my case, that I don't believe, can they truly be my authority?

  11. For me, "authority" is more about life than doctrinal propositions. Disagreements about doctrine will abound in any given church. "Authority" is about 1) allowing others into my life as covenant partners and 2) agreeing that the life of Jesus should regulate our life together.

    Crudely and provocatively, authority in the community is giving permission to each other to use the life of Jesus against each other, with the mutual agreement about what that looks like.

    For example, if I'm being an entitled asshole brothers and sisters in my church have authority to point to Jesus and say: You promised us you'd submit to this story, and you're not.

  12. I always learned, as a Lutheran, that "sola scriptura" means not that you reject tradition and theology and have "just the Bible" - we use the creeds in every church service, for example - but that the Bible trumps tradition, and that the Bible contains all that is ultimately necessary for salvation - you don't need to believe in extra-Biblical traditions like Immaculate Conception, the intercession of saints, indulgences and payments to shorten purgatory etc. in order to be saved.

    That hasn't kept some denominations of Lutheranism from being very inerrantist (the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, for example, rejects any historical and literary criticism of the Bible) but it's not quite the same as saying that the Bible has to be read in a vacuum. I don't think anyone can and I don't think anyone should.

    This isn't meant to contradict you, just kind of fill in another perspective (the one that actually coined the phrase in the first place).

  13. Terrific thread so far!

    It's occurring to me that Jesus alludes to some kind of incompleteness of the scriptures when he confronts a group of Pharisees with this dilemma: "It's the Sabbath; your neighbor's ox falls into a big hole." "Waddaya do?"

    To me, this moment that Jesus makes doesn't illuminate some kind of ignorance of the scriptures on the part of the Pharisees. Instead, it illuminates a reliance on a "technical manual" rather than an alive human presence to reality in conducting daily life; an aliveness that Jesus embodied, an aliveness that's capable of a complexity and subtlety that no law (or algorithm) could ever be capable of.

    I don't think this aliveness is solely a product of our biology though. Neither is it solely a product of the evangelical "Four Spiritual Laws" and its recitation into Jesus. How then does this "extra" aliveness come about in the human life?

  14. To add to Richard's helpful remarks, you might also be interested in Anglican theologian N.T. Wright's How Can The Bible Be Authoritative? I like his analogy of "the authority of an unfinished play"—essentially, the Bible, for a Christian, provides narrative grounding and a trajectory to move forward within. It's the "authority" of knowing which story you're in, and what you're moving towards.

    It's a lot more untidy than the black-and-white hermeneutic that leaves no room for uncertainty or ambiguity, but you may find it freeing. I know I have.

    I can relate to your finding it scary. I wish you luck on your journey.

  15. Adversary here is the literal meaning, and can perhaps mean God, some person in the court of David, king of an enemy nation or Satan. It would be useful to know if the concept of Satan existed when Chronicles was written.

    I don't really understand the second hypothesis, I would think that "God made me do it" is a better excuse than "Satan made me do it".

  16. Ladies and Gentlemen, my good friend Dr. Chris Heard. Old Testament Scholar at Pepperdine. If you didn't notice. ;-)

    Thanks Chris! You're awesome.

  17. Chris is right about the translation. It is better to say "adversary," but that does not fully resolve the issue. The story is still told in two quite different ways. Of course YHWH, or at least the angel of YHWH, can be a satan (adversary) as in Numbers 22:22. But why does the writer of Chronicles insert this adversarial figure? Eventually Judaism developed a full-fledged "Satan" character and named him for the adversarial figure in places like I Chronicles 21 and Job 1-2. Is it possible that I Samuel was written at a time when Israelites thought about good and evil coming forma single source, God (e. g. Isaiah 45:7 or YHWH God planting the "tree of life good and evil" in the Garden of Eden)? By the time Chronicles was written the thinking about evil had shifted toward a more dualistic view, even if not completely. What we have is two different ways of thinking and talking about evil from two different time periods - still a problem for a monolithic, fundamentalist reading of the Bible.

  18. For what it’s worth, Mark, I agree with you. The “Chronicler” is clearly inserting either a third party or a circumlocution, almost certainly for theological reasons like the ones you mention. But I don’t think we ever get to Satan as a proper noun in the Tanak. At most we get to it as a job description for a specific member of the divine council—in Job and Zechariah.

  19. Thanks. My problem with all of this, and I'm certainly no scholar, is that such information is irrelevant to a casual reader of the bible. It would then, certainly appear to be a contradiction. If it appears to be a one, does it matter to the lay person? We are stuck with erroneous reasons why the bible is not inerrant.

  20. I think there are those who would do just that. Not sure that I would however. Maybe I a Christ lens? As in Triune-God. It certainly should be interpreted relationally. Paul suggested that marriage was a mystery that explained Christ and His Church.

  21. Completely apart from the inerrancy issue, I find the two accounts of this story fascinating with their dynamic interplay of God, Satan, and David's "actions." I tend more to read these types of varying accounts and try to see how they work together, rather than setting them up as "either/or" scenarios. I so doing, I notice the irony in the temple later being built on the very site that marked of one of David's greatest "mistakes." (His other greatest mistake later resulting in the son who would build the temple.) Can we deduce that God intervenes in our biggest mistakes, using them to lay a foundation for His glorious, gracious presence among us?

  22. You're seriously going to leave this comment without explanation????? Why did he say that Abraham wanted to kill Isaac?

  23. As a lay person, I familiar with the outlines of all of this. That said, such awareness does nothing for me in relation to pulpit and pew. It's easier to try to avoid church and small groups and the like as much as I can and get a fair amount of slack from my wife for that than to participate or even passively listen to dialog or sermon.

  24. One of the funny things I've noticed recently, as I've re-joined conversation with some people who like the word "inerrancy," is that I don't have any really good arguments against it. I don't think of the Bible as inerrant--but I don't think that most example of "errancy" are very convincing. Chronicles is clearly telling the story differently, but (re. Chris's post below) it's basically the same story. So if "inerrancy" is largely a reaction against our modernistic dismissal of any creative tension as an "error," and if I reject that dismissal with all my heart, am I more of an inerrantist than I thought?

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