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Who incited David to count the fighting men of Israel? (2 Samuel 24:1 vs 1 Chronicles 21:1)



This is a very common argument that skeptics try to lob at Christians, but it’s really just another example of how the most popular Bible versions contain poor translations choices. The argument claims that 2 Samuel 24:1 says that God incited David to count the fighting men of Israel, whereas 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that Satan incited David. Here are the verses as they read in the King James Version:


“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 KJV


“And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.” – 1 Chronicles 21:1 KJV


So who persuaded David to take the census? Was it God or was it Satan?


It’s interesting to note how other translations have chosen to render the verse in 2 Samuel. For example, the Rotherham translation of 1902 reads “And again was the anger of Yahweh kindled against Israel,—so that he suffered David to be moved against them, saying, Go, count Israel and Judah.” The term suffered back then meant to “let” or “allow”, as in “Yahweh allowed David to be moved against them”. God didn’t cause it, but rather allowed it. Rotherham isn’t alone in his translation choices. Here are some others worth noting…


‘And the anger of YHWH adds to burn against Israel, and [an adversary] moves David about them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”’ - Literal Standard Version


“And the anger of Jehovah addeth to burn against Israel, and an adversary moveth David about them, saying, 'Go, number Israel and Judah.'” - Young's Literal Translation


“And the Lord caused his anger to burn forth again in Israel, and Satan stirred up David against them, saying, Go, number Israel and Juda.” - Brenton Septuagint Translation


‘The anger of Jehovah again blazed against Israel when one incited David against them, saying: “Go, take a count of Israel and Judah.”’ – New World Translation (2013)


Why did these translators render 2 Samuel 24:1 in a way that makes it clear that God was not the one inciting David to take the count? While we could get into a very detailed discussion about how to best translate this account from ancient Hebrew into modern English, a consideration of the context itself will be much easier for the average person to understand and appreciate. So let’s go with that approach and analyze the context.


Analyzing the Context


David issues the order to Joab to take the census, but Joab tries to persuade David against the idea. In verse 3 Joab argues “May Jehovah your God multiply the people 100 times, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it, but why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?” Joab’s point is that the number of fighting men is irrelevant if he would simply rely on Jehovah, who could provide him with more fighting men if needed. If David was actually listening to Jehovah though, now would have been the time to let Joab know that the order came from God. But that is not what happens. Why? Could David have been being incited by someone else?


Verse 10 helps us answer that question. It reads ‘But David’s heart was struck with remorse after he had numbered the people. David then said to Jehovah: “I have sinned greatly by doing this.”’ David here expresses regret and confesses that he has sinned. Sinned against who? Against God. Does it make sense that God would persuade David to take the count, and then David would obey, and then feel the need to apologize for obeying? Of course not! Suppose that were the case, now would be a perfect time for Jehovah to tell David it all good and that he was only obediently doing what he incited him to do. But that is not what happens. Rather, Jehovah expresses his disappointment and punishes David in the following verses.


Based on that context, which makes more sense as a translation choice?


  1. “Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them” – NIV
  2. “The anger of Jehovah again blazed against Israel when one incited David against them” - NWT


The New World Translation published by Jehovah’s Witnesses is clearly the superior translation when you consider the context. And in fact, the writer of 1 Chronicles (Ezra) agrees with the rendering of the New World Translation when it says in chapter 21, verse 1, “Then Satan stood up against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” The word “Satan” here could also be rendered “a resister”, meaning the “one” moving David to make this choice was perhaps a bad human counselor.


It also worth noting that 2 Samuel was written by the prophets Gad and Nathan in 1040 BCE. If verse 1 actually conflicted with the rest of the chapter's context, it would have been discussed, addresses, or fixed a long time ago. 1 Chronicles, on the other hand, was written by Ezra in 460 BCE, some 600 years later. Ezra likely referred to the book of 2 Samuel when he was compiling Chronicles. So, when Ezra read the books of Samuel in his own language of ancient Hebrew, he did not see the passage as saying God was the one who did the inciting.


No Contradictions


In conclusion, both passages refer to someone else inciting David to count the fighting men of Israel, not God himself. This is clear when using a quality translation, such as the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Both accounts are harmonious, indicating that Satan or some bad human counselor incited David. So, in reality, there is no contradiction.




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