What follows is the pre-edited version of an article I wrote for Bible Study Magazine a couple years ago.1 As the publication title suggests, the magazine is aimed at the lay person. I usually contribute two pieces to each issue (roughly sixty articles so far). I hope that encourages readers to subscribe — but there’s a lot of other good stuff in each issue. The goal of the magazine is to produce content for the lay person that goes beyond what they’d get in church.

God or Satan?
Who Provoked David to Number the People?

One of the more vexing problems in the Old Testament is how to parse the parallel accounts of 1 Chronicles 21:1-17 and 2 Samuel 24:1-25.

1 Chronicles 21

2 Samuel 24

1 Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.” 1Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people . . .

The two accounts are nearly identical, save for one glaring disparity: the Chronicler’s version has Satan as David’s instigator, while 2 Samuel names Yahweh, the God of Israel, as the provocateur. The Chronicler’s account notes that David’s act “was evil in the sight of God,” but this line is omitted in 2 Samuel. Both accounts have God posing three punishments before David, but David leaves the decision to the Lord. The Angel of Yahweh executes a plague on the land in both versions.

The two accounts as they stand are explicitly contradictory with respect to who provokes David to number the people. The options for resolution are all troubling. If we want the blame to be placed on Satan, we must identify Yahweh as Satan. The reverse strategy requires that we identify Satan with Yahweh. If Satan can somehow be removed from the picture, then we are faced with the fact that Yahweh incited David to do something for which Yahweh punished him. Is there any way out of this mess?

The solution to the identity of the instigator is actually straightforward. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word satan is not a proper personal name.  This is because it is nearly always paired with the definite article in Hebrew (the word “the”). Like English, Hebrew does not permit the definite article to be paired with a proper personal name (I don’t call myself, “the Mike”). The common noun satan paired with the definite article means “the adversary” — not “Satan” as in the proper name of the Devil.  This is why some English Bibles have “the Adversary” in passages like Job 1:6 and not “Satan”.2

There are only a handful of places in the Hebrew Bible where satan is not preceded by the definite article. 1 Chron 21:1 is one of them, and so many interpreters see this is a rare instance of the being known as Satan in the Old Testament. If this is the case, though, we have a blatant contradiction. There is a better solution.

The only other place in the Old Testament where satan lacks the definite article and the term is used of a divine figure is Numbers 22:22, where we read that the Angel of Yahweh stood in the way of Balaam and his donkey “as an adversary (satan).” The Angel was opposing Balaam; he was a divinely-appointed adversary.

This connection between the word satan and the Angel of Yahweh is crucial to understanding the discrepancy between 1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1. In both accounts the Angel is present as the one who dispenses God’s judgment upon David (1 Chron 21:14-15; 2 Sam 24:15-16). Since God and the Angel of the Lord were frequently identified with each other in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 3; Judges 6), the best solution seems to be that we don’t have Satan, God’s cosmic enemy, in the Chronicles passage. Rather, we have two writers both referring to God—one using “Yahweh” and the other referring to Yahweh in human form, the Angel (cp. Joshua 5:13-15) in another adversarial role.

One question looms, despite this solution: Why? Why would Yahweh incite David to do something he would later punish him for? Both accounts begin by saying Yahweh was angry with Israel, not David. Yahweh chose to use David as his instrument of judgment against the nation, much in the same way he had used Pharaoh centuries before. As Pharaoh was still accountable for his actions, so was David. Judgment and its means both belonged to the Lord.

  1. For a scholarly journal article that argues for the angel connection / explanation in the piece, see Paul Evans, “Divine intermediaries in 1 Chronicles 21 an overlooked aspect of the Chronicler’s theology,” Biblica 85:4 (2004): 545-558.
  2. As I have blogged before, by rule of Hebrew grammar, there is no “Satan” personage in the Old Testament, which is not to say the Old Testament knows of no evil arch-enemy of God. That is evident from Genesis 3. Although the Old Testament never makes the connection, later Jewish writings label the enemy of Genesis 3 with the word satan. Consequently, by the time of the New Testament, the identification was secure.