2 Samuel 24:1 “Now again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (NASB)
1 Chronicles 21:1 “Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.” (NASB)
Introduction: When we consider the biblical account of David’s numbering of the armies of Israel, we are presented at first glance with two seemingly insurmountable set of interpretive challenges. First, we see a harmonization challenge. The parallel texts of both 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles present God “inciting” David and then, in a seemingly contradictory way, Satan is the primary agent compelling David to conduct his census. Secondly, we see a theological challenge. The relationship between God’s Sovereignty, human responsibility and the problem of evil tops the list. In today’s post we will aim to work through each one of these areas in an attempt to better understand these two texts. The goal will be to show that there is no contradiction, but rather a rich presentation of how God Sovereignly accomplishes His purposes with relatively free moral agents (like David) and even evil agents (like Satan). Furthermore, the aim will be to equip Christian readers, Bible teachers and pastors with some observations that can hopefully aid in studying and communicating God’s Holy, inspired and inerrant word.
Harmonizing the account of David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 Harmonizing parallel texts in the Bible first begins with how each text is translated from the original language into English. We will note three major English translations, and then attempt to offer a brief commentary on the Hebrew text and Greek Old Testament text behind each verse as a way of arriving at an appropriate harmonization of these two texts.
How major English translations handle these texts To begin, we will note each passage in the NLT, NIV & ESV translations, which represent the latest translations ranging from the more readable to the more literal.
2 Samuel 24:1 in NLT, NIV & ESV “Once again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he caused David to harm them by taking a census. “Go and count the people of Israel and Judah,” the Lord told him.” (NLT)
“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.” (NIV)
“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (ESV)
1 Chronicles 21:1 in NLT, NIV & ESV
“Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” (NLT)
“Satan rose up against Israel and caused David to take a census of the people of Israel.” (NIV)
“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” (ESV) When we look at how each of the above major translations handle both texts (we could include the NASB which was the opening version for this post), we discover that the NLT alone decides to give the most accurate rendering of the Hebrew text by stating that God simply “caused” David to do the census in 2 Samuel 24:1.
Meanwhile in examining 1 Chronicles 21:1, both the NIV and NASB render the verb translated “incited” in the other translations with more causal language (“caused” NIV; “moved” NASB”). The idea of “causation” is the best choice in both passages, since the richness of the particular Hebrew stem behind such translations can aid us in arriving a proper harmony of both passages.
Note to reader: if the reader chooses to skip these next two parts on the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament texts, they can go to part that deals with harmonizing the two texts, followed by a final section on closing thoughts and suggestions for communicating these two texts.
Examining both texts in the Hebrew Both passages in the Hebrew text use the same verb and Hebrew causal verbal root that describes God causing David (2 Samuel 24:1) and Satan causing David (1 Chronicles 21:1):
2 Samuel 24:1 וַיֹּ֨סֶף֙ אַף־יְהוָ֔ה לַחֲרֹ֖ות בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיָּ֨סֶת אֶת־דָּוִ֤ד בָּהֶם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֵ֛ךְ מְנֵ֥ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְאֶת־יְהוּדָֽה׃
1 Chronicles 21:1 וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֥ד שָׂטָ֖ן עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיָּ֨סֶת֙ אֶת־דָּוִ֔יד לִמְנֹ֖ות אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
The bold-faced word in both texts is identical. The verbal root in the Hebrew is what is termed the “Hiphil”, and describes a primary agent causing a secondary agent to do an action. As we dig a little further, we discover that the “hiphil” causal root can denote the idea of the primary subject or agent “permitting” a secondary or ‘under-subject’ to do an action. Waltke and O’Connor on page 445 of their “Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax”, notes that the hiphil can denote the idea of “permission”. God is depicted in the scripture is not being the primary or direct cause of sin or evil actions. (Numbers 23:19; Habakkuk 1:13; James 1:13; Titus 1:2) Scripture often includes the category of “permission” or “inclusion” or “toleration” in God’s will (Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23-24; 14:15-17; James 4:3) as the means by which He accomplishes the good and greater purposes of His ultimate will. (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28). Thus in the first text, we could include in the translation “caused” the nuanced rendering “God tolerated” or “God willed to permit”.
The second text of 1 Chronicles 21:1 has the identical same verbal root and the same causative hiphil stem. In the hiphil, the idea of two agents is the focus, with the first agent or “primary subject” influencing or causing a lesser “subject” to perform a given act. In consulting Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi’s “A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax”, page 52, we read the following: “Waltke and O’Connor (the grammar quoted above) observe a number of other uses of the Hiphil similar to the permissive, in which the relationship between the principle subject and the secondary subject requires a variety of modals (actions that express a wish or desire) in translation: ‘compulsion, solicitude, toleration, bestowal.”
We know from reading other scripture in regards to Satan, that he undoubtedly tempts and compels people to do evil. For example we see that Satan had compelled and tempted Adam and his wife in the garden of Eden in Genesis 3. In Matthew 4, Satan is tempting Jesus, which of course leads to failure on Satan’s part. In the 1 Chronicles 21:1 text, the richness of the Hiphil verb וַיָּ֨סֶת֙ (wa-ya-seth) could be rendered “Satan compelled David” or “Satan caused David to follow through”.
Seeing how the Greek Septuagint handles these texts
The Septuagint, or Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, is the oldest and first translation every produced from the Hebrew text. Studying the Greek Old Testament can aid in gleaning further insights into the wording of the author. The Septuagint renders both 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 accordingly: 2 Samuel 24:1 Καὶ προσέθετο ὀργὴ κυρίου ἐκκαῆναι ἐν Ισραηλ, καὶ ἐπέσεισεν τὸν Δαυιδ ἐν αὐτοῖς λέγων Βάδιζε ἀρίθμησον τὸν Ισραηλ καὶ τὸν Ιουδα. (Blogger’s Translation) “Now the Lord’s wrath flared up in Israel, and He (won over, compare same verb in Acts 14:19) David to go among them saying: take a walking census of Israel and Judah.”
1 Chronicles 21:1 Καὶ ἔστη διάβολος ἐν τῷ Ισραηλ καὶ ἐπέσεισεν τὸν Δαυιδ τοῦ ἀριθμῆσαι τὸν Ισραηλ. (Blogger’s Translation) “Now Satan stood against Israel and urged (won over) David to take a census of Israel.”
The verb in bold print is in the Greek “aorist” tense, which means that the focus is on a simple event, without describing in detail the internal nature of the event. Like the Hebrew, the Greek O.T uses the same verb. The context of the verb in question in the Greek still carries with it the force of a greater subject urging or prevailing their will upon a lesser subject.
Harmonizing both texts from the above observations
We have seen both texts in major English translations and have attempted to work through the Hebrew text and corresponding Greek Septuagint texts of each passage. The goal now is to take these observations and offer a harmony of what exactly is going on in these texts.
1. God is the primary agent in 2 Samuel 24:1. 2. Satan would function as a secondary agent in 1 Chronicles 21:1 3. David would end up being a third, or teritary agent in light of both texts 4. God’s ultimate will permitted satan to directly act upon David to do the census of the armies of Israel.
The James/Fausset Brown commentary notes the following observations on 2 Samuel 24:1-9: “(A)gain the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah—”Again” carries us back to the former tokens of His wrath in the three years’ famine [2Sa 21:1]. God, though He cannot tempt any man (Jas 1:13), is frequently described in Scripture as doing what He merely permits to be done; and so, in this case, He permitted Satan to tempt David.
Satan was the active mover, while God only withdrew His supporting grace, and the great tempter prevailed against the king. (See Ex 7:13; 1Sa 26:19; 2Sa 16:10; Ps 105:25; Isa 7:17, &c.). The order was given to Joab, who, though not generally restrained by religious scruples, did not fail to present, in strong terms (see on 1Ch 21:3), the sin and danger of this measure. He used every argument to dissuade the king from his purpose. The sacred history has not mentioned the objections which he and other distinguished officers urged against it in the council of David. But it expressly states that they were all overruled by the inflexible resolution of the king.”
Closing thoughts and suggestions for communicating these two texts: The whole point of both accounts led to David purchasing the site that would stave off the resulting plague brought about by his actions, and more importantly, purchasing the ground where the future temple would be built and where Christ, his “seed” according to the flesh, would be crucified 1,000 years later. If communicating this passage, a suggestion would be to emphasize God’s will of permission in ordaining satan to actively tempt David. The preacher or teacher could say something like: “God tests, but satan tempts.” Emphasize passages like 1 Corinthians 10:13; James 1:3-4 and 1 Peter 1:5-7 that extol God’s faithfulness to Christians who are undergoing severe testings and times of temptation. God’s testing aims to advance the Christian in their walk. Satan’s temptations, though aimed at destroying or damaging faith, can be avoided or overcome by fixing oneself on God’s faithfulness and Christ’s finished work. My hope is that these notes have proven useful to Christian readers, leader and pastors who make it their point to study and communicate God’s Holy, inspired and inerrant word.