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Who moved King David to number Israel?

Written between 960 BC and 425 BC, the Old Testament books of Samuel and Chronicles have a lot in common. From genealogies, to Kings, to history, both books largely record the same information. Some have wondered what the purpose of this is. Why repeat information already recorded? Well, some of the accounts actually provide us with additional details. This helps give us the complete picture of what happened, much like two or more eyewitnesses in a murder investigation. Not all of the details may be as important, but it’s still helpful to know everything that transpired before reaching a verdict. And it’s no different with the Biblical record of events.

One such event recorded in both Samuel and Chronicles is King David’s numbering of Israel. This has become the subject of contention because, when taken out of context, the verses seem to be in conflict:
 
“And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.”
2 Samuel 24:1
 
“And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.”
1 Chronicles 21:1
 
Many skeptics leap off their chairs and proclaim this is the proof text that shows the Bible is in error. But as we will see, a full reading of the context reveals that both events happened and both passages are true. In fact, most of the alleged biblical "contradictions" can be immediately resolved when you examine the context. Others may require a bit more digging; supporting archaeological discoveries for example often come in handy (see British Museum decree of Gaius Vibius Maximus, prefect of Egypt (104 AD), Tel Dan inscription, Cyrus Cylinder) etc.. But if you simply apply these principles we are about to explore to Scripture, you will realise the Bible does not have any contradictions, whatsoever. The case of King David and the numbering of Israel is just one such example. And as we examine its history, the full context and its authorship, this will become clear. 

Firstly, the authors of Chronicles (writing between 450 and 425 BC), both had access to, and had read the earlier account recorded in 2 Samuel (960 BC). They even state this explicitly in chapter 29:
 
“Now the acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the Chronicles of Samuel the seer”
1 Chronicles 29:29
 
They would have used the 2 Samuel 24 passage when writing their account, so this blows the chance contradiction theory out of the water. No scribe is going to copy details of an existing historical account without reading it first. The Chronicles of Samuel passage would have been open in front of them, so they did not make some random mistake. That, we can firmly establish from the get go. Careful and meticulous detail went into writing the Hebrew Scriptures. It was also commonplace for Jewish scribes to commit the entire Torah (Old Testament) to memory.

Saying something was from God or Satan is little hard to confuse. They are polar opposites. Can skeptics really expect us to believe the authors of Chronicles somehow misread this in Samuel's account? That is clearly ridiculous. 

Then there’s the claim the authors of Chronicles deliberately contradicted 2 Samuel 24:1. But what God fearing Jews are going to do such a thing when writing part of the Bible? Under Jewish law, they would have been stoned to death immediately upon such a discovery. It’s just not plausible.
 
Secondly, the full context of both passages reveal they are talking about the same event from two different angles:

 
King David is provoked to number Israel and commands his captain, Joab to carry this out. Recognising his transgression, Joab objects to the King's order but is eventually overruled. The people are then numbered with the exception of the tribes of Levi and Benjamin because of Joab’s disdain for the command. God’s anger is kindled against Israel and he brings judgement through an angel because of David's sin. The repentant David then confesses and offers sacrifice in atonement to God, who in turn, relents from destroying Jerusalem.
 
One of the major keys to understanding how both passages fit together is God's anger. Specifically, why was the anger of the Lord kindled against Israel? If you read 2 Samuel 24:1 in its context, there is absolutely nothing before David's sin to suggest why God was angry. The only time we’re explicitly told why is in the Chronicles account:
 
 “And God was displeased with this thing (numbering the people in the context); therefore he smote Israel.”
1 Chronicles 21:7
 
Therefore we have to read both passages in that light.

Ultimately, 2 Samuel 24 reveals that God’s decision to “move” David to number the people was actually a response to what David had already determined to do in his heart.

This is made clear in verse 2:
 
“1 And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah. 2 For the king said to Joab the captain of the host, which was with him, Go now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, and number ye the people, that I may know the number of the people.”
2 Samuel 24:1-2
 
Whenever you see a "for the" in the Bible you can read that as a "because." In other words, God did this “because” David did this. God “moved” David to number Israel (v1) "because" David said to number the people (v2). So the first two verses of 2 Samuel are not chronological because God's anger (1 Chronicles 21:7, 2 Samuel 24:1-2) is in response to David’s transgression. The literary style here is perhaps what confuses people.
 
What is absolutely clear from the two passages is that Satan “provoked” David first. It's also very probable that he had tempted him multiple times. David decided to give in, so God doesn't stand in his way. The sin was already in his heart, so essentially God is saying, “Go ahead.”

In the New Testament, the book of Romans illustrates what happens when people deliberately and repeatedly reject God’s truth, even in their thoughts:
 
“Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affection."

"And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient"

Romans 1:25-26, 28

Essentially, God is saying, “Go ahead.” 

 
If skeptics want to disagree with this they have a lot to explain. Saying something was from God or Satan is little hard to confuse. The Bible writers obviously had a purpose when they decided to mention Satan’s involvement in Chronicles. To suggest otherwise makes no sense. Again, no Jewish scribe is going to make a "mistake" like that when they have the Samuel account open in front of them.

Moreover, don’t the skeptics also claim the Bible has been “changed” or “edited” throughout history. The ancient Hebrew writers knew what their Torah said. If they thought this was a glaring contradiction, why didn’t they change it? Obviously, they saw no conflict here. Ironically, by claiming this is a contradiction, the skeptics are really contradicting themselves. So even if you disagree with the interpretation presented above, you still have to recognise the authors of Chronicles obviously had a purpose in mind. There’s just no escaping it.
 
To sum it up, the purpose of both passages is to reveal a paradox. While God is not responsible for the evil desires people have in their heart, he is sovereign. So when someone does not like to retain his truth in their knowledge, God gives them over to their sin. That is precisely what we see when David gives into Satan's temptation. Samuel's account shows God's sovereignty over the situation because the devil cannot do anything without His permission. So God also moved David in that he gave permission to Satan to provoke him, probably to test his heart. Chronicles leaves that detail out and only shows Satan's direct action of provoking David. As a result of his failure, the entire nation is judged because, like any leader, King David represents them all (see also Achan's sin in Joshua 7). Taken together, that’s what both passages are talking about and that’s why they’re both true.

Recommended Resource: Why was God so angry at David for taking the census? - Got Questions

Adam Brennan is a Digital Producer at Premier

Brian Clark is pastor at Crossroads Baptist Church, Bromley

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