Apparent Discrepancies in 2 Samuel 23 & 1 Chronicles 21

A young man on Facebook said this in a conversation about the above two passages, which deal with the account of King David’s census of the men of Israel, which he used as “evidence” that the Bible itself cannot be trusted:

First, we already agreed we weren’t interpreting outside the context of the whole. So, in context of the bigger picture, God stirring David was because God already knew the outcome of the situation and was leading David toward a result he already wanted to happen. For some reason God wanted David to disobey, to meet an end of his. This is further evidenced by Romans 9. God makes arbitrary decisions on our fates regardless of what choices we make. We could be absolutely righteous, but if God wanted something else to happen, he would make it so regardless of our choices in life, for he has already decided everything. With that in mind, what purpose could he have for killing people (who I argue had no involvement with the census, other than being forced to do it by their king), many innocent people who did no other wrong than being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
And since you brought it up, you can argue the semantics of the first couple sentences and twist the words around so that it fits what you want it to say, but you can’t argue that the numbers given (in these accounts which you agree are the same) are completely different. In this supposedly divinely inspired book, two people give different numbers in accounts of the same event. Why the mistake? And if there’s this one mistake which we have direct evidence of, how many are there where we don’t have a second account to compare?

My response follows:

First: I’m not interested in an argument. Most people aren’t open-minded – not really – because the worldview propositions we hold consciously or subconsciously taint and color everything else we think, observe, say and do in life. What we believe in our heart affects our mind: not vice-versa (Romans 10:10). And because of that it is truly difficult to keep an open mind, especially if our goal is to prove that what we already believe is the correct and true position, and the other person’s is wrong. That isn’t the basis of my approach and I hope it isn’t yours. My interest is in knowing the truth, whether it is scientific, philosophical, or biblical. I try my best to keep an open mind myself, and not be threatened or dismissive of questions by others, and to give the best account I can of why I have faith in Christ. So understand that I am not interested in “being right” or attacking you personally or your viewpoints: I don’t have an ax to grind here. Just respectful dialogue. And I’m not writing a research paper citing 10 scientific peer-reviewed journals or publications – I’m not interested in doing the work that other people should do for themselves. An atheist friend of mine once told me that my logic moved like a glacier: it’s big and slow and takes forever to arrive at its destination, and most of its foundation is under the surface. So what I’ll attempt to do is drop the tip of the iceberg: a summary of my basic thinking about your assertions. From there I’ll assume that you know how to use Google and can look for yourself into any issues or questions I raise.

Atheists and agnostics have tried for centuries now to prove their own viewpoints, searching high and low for a silver bullet that will disprove the Bible once and for all. When you consider our technological and scientific advances, our diggings into the earth and searchings of the skies, as we write and read here at the tail of end of 2016 I think it’s remarkable that nothing in the Bible has ever been indisputably disproven. There are theories that argue against the Bible, but they remain merely that: theories. Not a single shred of empirical evidence has ever surfaced that can scientifically or circumstantially disprove any scriptural narrative; in fact, quite the opposite. The archaeological objects that have been removed from the earth and the geological record have thus far only confirmed the history of the Bible, not disputed it. And as far as the text itself goes, time would fail us if we discussed everything about the scrupulous, fanatical devotion to accuracy the Jewish scribes displayed when copying the original scrolls of the Old Testament, or that the veracity of the New Testament’s sources are far more thoroughly documented and evidenced than any other ancient source like, say, Homer’s writings. While direct evidence may be a problem, there is strong circumstantial evidence to support the idea that the Bible is an accurate record, and that its text has been dutifully and carefully preserved.

So, on to your assertions. For purposes of clarity, I’d like to summarize your viewpoints as I’ve heard them here. That way if I’m wrong, you’ll be able to tell whether I’ve missed the mark. What I hear you saying is that the Bible is contradictory, and that the God of the Bible is basically a malevolent sadist who disregards human life. In your answer to Wesley above, you forwarded one of the most black-and-white pseudo-calvinist approaches I have ever seen, where things like repentance, prayer and other human responses have no affect on the whims of the Great Iron-Fisted Dictator. These are the assertions I’ll try to address.

First I want to note that your ideas concerning the “contradictions” in the biblical record originate with a long history of attempts by non-believers to call the accuracy and reliability of the Bible into question. The roots of this argument ignore the actual teachings of the Bible – which have arguably influenced the world for the better for millenia and given hope to billions of people – in favor of trying to dismiss the whole entire thing on a technicality. I don’t think it’s a very good approach because it creates a void without filling it with something better. After all, religion in some form has existed in every time and place in all of recorded history: it must meet some human need or desire. Even in places where ideas of God and religion have been purposefully squashed by a state or government, they have nonetheless persisted.

I want to get something out of the way quickly and admit that there ARE passages of Scripture that seem contradictory, and there are many more that are troublesome or difficult for us to understand. Anyone reading the Bible – but especially an intelligent, cerebral person – is forced to grapple with two inconveniences. The first is that God purposefully chose to reveal truth primarily by way of stories and examples. If you think about it, this isn’t the way any modern teacher would express his propositions or arguments. The second is that God chose specific spans of time to reveal these things, through people we now consider “ancient history,” folks with cultural, societal, occupational, sexual, religious and linguistic differences that seem so foreign and fantastic to us now as to almost be regarded as alien.

If you look at the Bible as a whole book, instead of trying to cherrypick a narrative that seems to support the viewpoint you’ve already decided upon (as so many Christians do with Scripture), you will see that sin does, in fact, affect “innocent” people. Consequences have long legs. The curse of sin fell on “the ground” first of all: on the creation itself. Haven’t you ever been hurt by other people’s depravity or mistakes, through no fault of your own? Then perhaps you can understand that dynamic, the “ripple effects” of wickedness. That principle certainly comes into play in the two texts we’re examining.

Take the Old Testament examples of Sodom & Gomorrah, the people of Noah’s flood, and the Canaanites whom Joshua displaced: the Bible describes a level of wickedness in these groups of such an intensity that there was NOTHING good about them. They were killing and raping their own, they laughed at blood and violence, they didn’t have typical human feelings of love and care. “Normal” regards for family, children and the good of society aren’t common in these depictions. Imagine the plight of an “innocent” child or animal in such an environment, where the degree of evil was at such a high level of brutality and depravity that they were actually beyond capabilities of repentance. This must have been an atmosphere even greater than the crimes committed by the Nazis or Pol Pot in the Killing Fields.

Hypothetically, is God doing “innocent people” a favor by letting those tortuous conditions continue forever without end, and without remedy? When they are so hard and calloused, and continue hurting themselves and their offspring in a sadistic manner beyond anything we see in the news of our child molesters of today? Is it possible He acts mercifully by bringing an end to the cycle which they cannot escape because they have ignored Him – and basic goodness – for so long? This notion is expressed several times in the both the Old and New Testaments – the idea that there is point of no return in some extreme cases of human wickedness, for people or cultures who disregard God through a long descent away from Him.

Another notion – and maybe one of the greatest themes of the Old Testament – is the holiness of God. Over and over again, the Old Testament points out that God is holy and human beings are not. God wants to live with people, but He will do it on His terms, not theirs. The people of Israel make idols for themselves that make for a more comfortable and “convenient religion,” but God’s ways and His standards are NOT convenient. In fact, they are impossible to keep. He makes His standards clear, but they are totally unyielding and unbending in the slightest degree. He is just impossible to please by any human standards. The conflict of God’s holiness and mankind’s sin is a major theme of the Old Testament. These overarching themes are pertinent to any evaluation of what’s going on in any biblical story, especially as one moves into the New Testament with the idea of a person’s entering into the death and life of Jesus Christ as the ONLY way to meet and please God, to live with Him while satisfying the conditions of His unchanging holiness.

We might argue that God shouldn’t have these expectations or meddle in our affairs at all. But if I observe my children playing with Play-Doh or constructing a structure with Legos, would it be reasonable for me to assume they are wrong in doing whatever they want with their things, on their own terms and conditions? Suppose they possessed a god-like capability to actually make the Play-Doh or Legos – the building blocks of their own imaginations – from nothing. Would it be reasonable for me, an outside entity, to assume wrongdoing or criticize their work? What if I was in fact their Lego-Man creation, living in a body and a Play-Doh world I didn’t create? If that were true, would I have any real concept of the process they used to fashion me, or their intention for doing so? Would I have a leg to stand on if I said they should have made me with fingers, or gills or wings, or a whistling belly button? They would know me thoroughly, but I could barely comprehend them or their reasons for doing things, if at all.

When you were a young boy, would you say you fully understood the world of adults? Did you give it much thought?

I live in the deep south, where we have fire ants in our lawns. When a fire ant spies me riding past on my lawn mower, he gets angry and wants to lash out at me, but do you suppose he has any concept of what my life is like, what I am thinking, or what purpose I am engaged in at that present moment?

In similar fashion we attempt to understand God, and sometimes we criticize Him, but we are totally out of our leagues. The real mystery is why God would consider us at all, any more than I consider the ant. But He does. He even allows us to question or hate Him, but given the real-world examples I’ve mentioned it is within the realm of very real possibility that we are actually incapable of fully understanding Him or His plans. We might not possess the faculties right now. Therefore we should keep an open mind as we did when we were children, with the hope that we might grow into that understanding as we did into our comprehension of what it means to be an adult.

With all this in mind, let’s look at the specific “contradictory” texts you’ve brought to the table. Yes, there are differences in the two accounts, but the question is, do these differences equate to contradiction?

If you and I sat down in a lecture and took notes, our notes would not contain ALL the information the lecturer gave, nor would they be exactly the same, because we are two different people with different perspectives and ways of functioning and remembering. Most of our information would probably be very similar, but I would mention details you missed and you would get things that slipped past me. It is a comparable situation with the synoptic Gospels and many other parallel passages of Scripture, including for purposes of our discussion several events in Samuel, Kings & Chronicles (these were each whole books and not divided into two parts when originally recorded). Taking into account the different purposes and individuality of each writer, and the fact that one mentions X while another omits X and instead mentions Y, why would our first conclusion be that either of them is lying? They’ve just recorded the facts differently, emphasizing different points. When a convenience store gets robbed and the police do interviews, one witness may remark that the perpetrator was tall and muscular. Another witness might say he wore a red ball cap and a faded neon pink fanny pack, but he doesn’t mention the criminal’s physique at all. Is it fair to say that we KNOW either of them is being intentionally deceptive? Of course not. Their individual comments are given in good faith that help sketch a larger picture.

On to the specifics of our passages: One says “satan” hatched this scheme, and another says the idea originated with God. This is easily explained when one looks at other passages in the Bible that have to do with satanic influence, because in the overall scope of the Bible, satan is an agent or a tool at God’s disposal for His purposes. God being all-powerful, He could easily dispense with satan, but beginning with the Garden story and throughout the narrative, satan is used to accomplish and further the will of God. (Probably much to his frustration.) Though satan is opposed to God’s purpose, he is nevertheless bound to it: he is under God’s control and only has what authority or influence God allows. Other examples that come to mind: Job before his sufferings, King Saul after his disobedience, King Ahab before a pivotal national battle & defeat, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” In all of these cases, God allows or even directs satanic influence to bring about a correction, a test, a refinement, or a consequence. Neither of our passages contradicts this biblical principle.

If we wished to summarize both accounts, we could say, “God was angry with Israel, and used satan to plant the idea in David’s heart to conduct a census of the fighting men.” But even as they are stated individually they do not contradict each other when measured against the rest of scriptural revelation.

Another apparent contradiction is the actual number of the counts. This is not as easily reckoned, but there are possible explanations. One thing we are not told is how the accounting process worked, but the texts seem to imply different processes of categorization of the men. Samuel mentions 800,000 “valiant men” in Israel, and 500,000 men in Judah (not noted as “valiant men”), while the Chronicles account does not mention “valiant men” or how they might be different from ordinary soldiers. Is it possible that they counted men who were experienced in battle differently, and that there were perhaps 300,000 men who were untested, for example? Chronicles seems to mention more of a total list of all the possible warriors: 1,100,000 in Israel and 470,000 in Judah, omitting the number of Judah’s “home defense force” in the final tally.

A possible explanation from the Bible Knowledge Commentary:

“The figures in 1 Chronicles are 1,100,000 men in Israel and 470,000 in Judah, but the chronicler wrote that the Levites and Benjamites were not included (1 Chron. 21:5-6). The reconciliation of the data may lie in the possibility that 1,100,000 describes the grand total for Israel including the standing army which consisted of 12 units of 24,000 men each (288,000, 1 Chron. 27:1-15) plus 12,000 especially attached to Jerusalem and the chariot cities (2 Chron. 1:14). These 300,000 subtracted from 1,100,000 would yield the 800,000 figure in 2 Samuel 24:9. Also the chronicler may not have included the 30,000-man standing army of Judah (6:1) whereas they were included in chapter 24. This would raise the 470,000 total of Chronicles to the 500,000 of Samuel. This is only one solution, but with so little information available as to how the sums were obtained nothing further can be said with certainty.”

One could argue that the numbers could have been omitted completely and nothing about the story would be changed in terms of its substance, because the point is that what David did was out of line. Obsession with the numbers is a kind of grasping at straws to make an issue out of something that wouldn’t necessarily even be an issue in a court of law today, because there are some things that just aren’t known and will never be discovered by direct investigation. We aren’t told what the process of accounting was during this period, but we DO know that the people conducting the count weren’t happy about it, and were even rebellious against the king’s command, and we know that the census was not conducted the way God had said it should be done in the book of Exodus.

The larger point of the story is that Israel has disobeyed God on some point, which is also unclear, but it throws the “innocent” label out the window. We know they have a long history of rebellion and idolatry and shirking God’s commands and treating Him badly. David had Joab – one of the worst characters in Scripture – up in his grill telling him not to conduct the census, and Samuel mentions the commanders of the army were opposed to it, too. David had people in his face warning him, telling him he was out of line. Any one of them could have refused, and any and all of the men of Israel could and SHOULD have refused. If your government ordered you to do something immoral, would you do it? Did “I was just following orders” hold up as an excuse in the Nuremberg trials, for example?

The Bible does not contain ALL information. It contains all NECESSARY information. But when we approach difficult passages of Scripture, we must interpret them in light of other revealed truths. That is what I believe you are failing to do both in your attitude of accusation against God and in your dismissal of the Bible based on a few questions you haven’t found satisfactory answers to as yet. I hope you will keep researching, and keep an open, questioning heart.


Author: Steve Hobbs

I live and write near the beaches of Brunswick County, NC. I entered this fallen reality in 1975. My wife Sikki and I were married in 1997. We have five children. I am a follower of Jesus and a seeker of truth.

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