Michael S. Heiser
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.
First Chronicles 21 (ESV) Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. 2So 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.”
Second Samuel 24 (ESV) Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” 2So 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 are contradictory. The options for resolution are all somewhat disconcerting. If we want to blame Satan, we must identify Yahweh as Satan. The reverse strategy requires that we identify Satan with the sovereign Yahweh. If Satan can somehow be removed from the picture, then we are faced with the fact that Yahweh incited David to do something, and then punished him for doing so. Is there any way out of this mess?
The solution is surprisingly straightforward. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word satan (שׂטן) is not a proper personal name. This is because the definite article in Hebrew (the word “the”) is nearly always attached to it. Like English, Hebrew does not permit its definite article to be paired with a proper personal name (I don’t call myself, “the Mike”). The noun satan, paired with the definite article, simply means “the adversary.”
There are only a handful of places in the Hebrew Bible where satan is not preceded by the definite article. First Chronicles 21:1 is one of them, and thus many interpreters see this as a rare instance of the being known as Satan appearing in the Old Testament. If this is the case, though, we have a blatant contradiction. There is a better explanation.
The only other place in the Old Testament where satan lacks the definite article and the term is used of a divine figure is Num 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, like the satan in 1 Chr 21.
This connection between the word satan and the Angel of Yahweh is crucial to understanding the discrepancy between 1 Chr 21:1 and 2 Sam 24:1. In both accounts, the Angel dispenses God’s judgment upon David (1 Chr 21:14–15; 2 Sam 24:15–16). God and the Angel of the Lord were frequently identified with each other in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 3 [compare Josh 5:13–15]; Judg 6). Thus, it seems that we don’t have Satan (God’s cosmic enemy) in the Chronicles passage. Instead, the writer is referring to the Angel, who is Yahweh in human form. This means that both the writers of Chronicles and 2 Samuel have Yahweh initiating the census and there is no contradiction.
One question looms, despite this solution: Why? Why would Yahweh incite David to do something for which He would later punish him? 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, similar to the way He would use Nebuchadnezzar centuries later. As the Babylonian king was still accountable for His actions, so was David. Judgment (and its means) both belong to the Lord, but human agents are still accountable.