I Chronicles 21 is about King David conducting the census, and God punishing Israel with pestilence as a result. Here are some thoughts.
1. I wrote a post a while back about II Samuel 24, which also tells a story about David’s census. God punished Israel for David’s census by sending pestilence, indicating that God regarded the census as a bad thing. Similarly, in Exodus 30:12-13, God commands that the Israelites are to pay a half shekel as a ransom for their lives when they conduct the census, so that a plague might not come upon them. In this case, the census is still bad, on some level, and yet God commands the Israelites to conduct one while offering a way for them to bypass its negative consequences.
In that post, I referred to scholar E.A. Speiser, who mentioned the fear and caution about censuses in the ancient Near East, as people sought to appease the gods so that nothing bad might happen to them. According to Speiser, this may trace to the fear people had of their names being recorded, since their names could be put to “unpredictable uses” (Speiser’s words), plus the census was often associated with the military draft and all the insecurity that came with that. Speiser speculated that this may have been relevant to the aversion towards censuses in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East. I’m just mentioning this because I think it is important, even if I don’t do anything with this information in the rest of this post.
2. Why did David conduct the census? He may have wanted to know how many people he had so he could formulate military strategy or assess how much revenue he would be receiving from taxes. According to the Jewish commentator Malbim, because many Israelites had followed David’s son Absalom rather than David when Absalom was revolting, David was doubtful that he could rely on getting volunteers for his military, and thus he resorted to the draft. And Malbim contends that David was obsessive-compulsive about this: that David counted, not just those of fighting age, but also the infants, so that David could keep track of who reached fighting age. All of this sounds practical, but there are many religious commentators who hold that this displeased God because David was trusting human means rather than God for the victory and well-being of his nation. David was trusting numbers rather than God; he may have even conducted the census as a means of boasting, so that he could feel good about how many people he was commanding! Even here, his mind was not on God.
Conservative biblical scholar Gleason Archer wrote a book entitled The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. I respect what Archer has to say, even though my own approach is to acknowledge the bumps in the Bible rather than trying to smooth them over so that the Bible looks perfect. Archer addresses some of the troubling details in the stories of David’s census. II Samuel 24:1 says that God incited David to conduct the census because God was angry with Israel. God appears to set David up to sin so that God can punish Israel. I Chronicles 21:1, however, states that Satan was the one who incited David to conduct the census. Why would God incite David to sin, punish David for something that Satan incited him to do, or punish all of Israel for David’s misdeed (David himself asks God the last question in II Samuel 24:17 and I Chronicles 21:17)? According to Archer, David and all of Israel were already becoming proud as a result of their military victories and their power, and so God decided to set up a situation in which that pride would be brought to the surface and dealt with. I wonder if God does that with us: God sees certain tendencies within us, for good or for bad, and God creates a situation in which we could become more aware of ourselves, or pruned so that we bear more fruit.
3. There are contradictions between II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21. Or some conservative Christians would call them apparent contradictions, which means that they only appear to be contradictions on the surface, but they can be harmonized if one digs more deeply. First, there is the contradiction about the choice of punishments that God offered to David. After David sinned with the census, God offered him a choice of punishments: II Samuel 24 says these options were seven years of famine, three months of fleeing from enemies, and three days of pestilence. I Chronicles 21, by contrast, says they were three years of famine, three months of fleeing from enemies, and three days of pestilence. David opts for the pestilence because he thinks it would be better for Israel to fall into the merciful hands of the LORD rather than foreign enemies. But there is still a contradiction about the amount of time of famine God was offering to David as a choice.
Gleason Archer addresses this problem by saying that the prophet Gad approached David two times. Gad approached David a first time and offered seven years of famine as an option. David then wrestled with God in prayer, and God heard David’s plea and then sent Gad to offer the lesser punishment of three years of famine instead.
Another contradiction concerns the amount of money that David paid Ornan for the property on which the Temple would later be constructed, and (on a short-term basis) on which David would build an altar to stave off the plague. II Samuel 24:24 says David paid fifty shekels of silver for Araunah’s threshingfloor and oxen. I Chronicles 21:25, by contrast, states that David paid 600 shekels of gold for Ornan’s place.
A number of scholars say that this is a contradiction and that the Chronicler likes to beef up the numbers in retelling the stories in Samuel-Kings. The Temple is pretty important, after all, so David had to have paid a lot to get the site on which the Temple would later be constructed! Gleason Archer disputes, however, that Chronicler inflates the numbers, for he notes times when the stories in Chronicles actually have a lower number than do the parallel stories in Samuel-Kings.
Archer’s solution to the contradiction on how much David paid is to say that David paid fifty shekels of silver for the threshingfloor, but later David decided that the entire mountain of Moriah would be suitable for religious and governmental purposes, so David paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold for all of Mount Moriah.
Some will be convinced by these harmonizations; some will not. There are even Christians who will find these explanations unconvincing, so it’s not a matter of “Well, these atheists are rejecting my harmonization because their hearts are hard against God and they don’t want to believe” (not that Archer says that). What is interesting to me is that these harmonizations aim to present the Bible as divine in origin and as infallible, but they end up making the Bible look more human in origin. They posit that there are different versions of the same event: that one author records the event and mentions one set of details, while another author records the same event and has another set of details. That’s what humans do: they tell stories differently because they remember different details.