Was it God or Satan who incited David to take a census?

Q. In 2 Samuel, the author says that God incited David to take a census of the people because He was angry with Israel. But in 1 Chronicles, the writer says that Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census. I am inclined to blame David himself, since as king, he would bear blame for all royal decisions. The author of 2 Samuel, who is usually truthful, might have felt he needed to avoid blaming the king. But later, in both accounts, David admits his sin. Who was truly responsible for David’s taking a census: God, Satan, or David?

Joab brings David the census report

The question you’re asking about is precisely the issue I mentioned when I was asked some years ago what problem in the Bible bothered me the most. In my biblical teaching, I’ve always used a “good question” format. For example, in one of the churches I served as a pastor, for our adult Sunday School curriculum one semester I just told the people, “Write down all the questions you have about the Bible and we’ll work through them together.” I always served churches near colleges and universities, and when my wife and I would have groups of students over for dinner, after the meal she would say to them, “Does anyone have any questions about the Bible? Chris loves to answer those!” At one of these gatherings a student once said to me, “All right, you’ve answered our questions, now what bothers you about the Bible?” And I mentioned this issue—how the Bible attributes the same action in one place to God but in another place to Satan. How much more of a contradiction could you find?

But here’s how I  finally came to terms with the issue. I recognized that as the biblical authors tell the story, they often share their perspectives on why things happened. These perspectives are “inspired” in a sense that I’ll describe shortly, since these are, after all, biblical authors. But the case we’re considering shows that they can’t be “inspired” in the sense of always infallibly correct through divine intervention in the ordinary process of storytelling and composition, because if they were, the Bible simply wouldn’t be able to attribute the same action both to the ultimate holy agent (God) and the ultimate evil agent (Satan) at the same time.

So what’s going on here? As I said, the biblical authors comment on the story as they tell it. (The title of Günther Bornkamm‘s classic volume Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew helped crystallize this insight for me: The biblical authors are entrusted with passing on the tradition of the stories of God’s work in the world, but they also share their own interpretations of it.) For example, in 2 Kings, the author is describing how, right after the long and godly reign of Josiah, the kingdom of Judah was plundered by foreign invaders and ultimately destroyed. The author comments, “Surely these things happened … because of the sins of Manasseh,” Josiah’s grandfather, “and all he had done, including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive.”

The author uses a term in Hebrew, translated “surely” here, that means “this has to be” or “this can only be …” For example, in 1 Kings, the Arameans are fighting against King Ahab of Israel, who has enlisted King Jehoshaphat of Judah to help him. Somehow Ahab persuades Jehoshaphat to wear his royal robes into the battle while he goes in disguise himself. When the Arameans see Jehoshaphat in his robes, they say, using this same term, “This has to be the king of Israel.” But when Jehoshaphat cries out to the Lord for help, they realize he can’t be Ahab (who was known to worship Baal), so they leave him alone and go looking for Ahab instead.

So the term is a “particle of assurance or emphasis,” as William Holladay says in his Hebrew lexicon. But why would a biblical author need to use such an expression at all (“this must have been because …”) if they were writing under a kind of divine inspiration that guaranteed that they knew all the reasons for things? Examples like this not only illustrate that this isn’t the way in which the Bible is inspired, they also show that the biblical authors themselves aren’t aware that they are writing Scripture. Another clear example is when Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else” besides Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas. I have no trouble believing that God helped Paul provide the right names, without any omissions, of the people he baptized in Corinth. But if God was doing that, Paul didn’t realize it! Instead, he admitted, “I don’t remember.” So Scriptural inspiration does not involve overriding the ordinary limitations on human memory and perspective.

I don’t find that at all disappointing, however. I actually find it quite exciting that God, in effect, allowed and even invited the biblical authors to contribute their own perspectives as they told the story. As readers, we are then invited to put these perspectives into conversation with one another, if they seem to differ, and we are also invited to join in conversation with them ourselves. This is precisely what you’re doing when you suggest that the author of 2 Samuel might not have wanted to blame David, but you’re inclined to blame him yourself. Excellent!

We can certainly observe that in any situation, God has a plan, and Satan has a plan, to work with the free choices of human moral agents to advance their own larger purposes. In our day-to-day walk with the Lord, we need to be very discerning about the situations we face: We need to ask ourselves, “How can I recognize and cooperate with God’s plan for this situation, and how can I recognize and avoid furthering Satan’s plan?” It seems to me that the author of 1 Chronicles recognized that Satan would try to use any opportunity to damage and destroy David’s kingdom, while the author of 2 Samuel recognized that God was already aware of the pride and confidence in human power that the census expressed and that God was displeased with these things. These two authors bring out these complementary perspectives. And you have added your own perspective, well supported by the text: David’s own pride, which led him to persist in taking the census even after Joab told him the Lord was Israel’s protector, rather than the army, was also responsible. David confessed afterwards that he had sinned.

So what we have ultimately is a conversation within the text, and between the reader and the text, about why particular things happen in the story. And as I see it, that is the level on which inspiration resides. What we are given in the Bible is an inspired conversation that we are invited to join. We can be confident that the answer to our question is in that conversation, although we may discover, as we talk things out with the biblical authors, that we actually have a deeper question than we may have realized at first. Maybe the issue isn’t really, “Which one of these three was responsible for the census: God, Satan, or David?” Maybe the issue is actually, “In a moral universe in which forces of good and evil try to work through the free choices of human moral agents to advance their own purposes, how can I make choices that will not further the purposes of evil, but rather help further God’s purposes and enable me to join in with them?”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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