13 So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall three[f] years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” 14 Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” (2 Samuel 24:13-14)
Tara-Leigh says that this is one of her favorite days of the Bible reading plan. If I am being completely honest, I have to confess that it is one of my least favorites. I’m bothered by the apparent contradictions between the 2 Samuel account and the 1 Chronicles account.
My faith tradition holds to the doctrine that the Bible is God’s infallible, inerrant, inspired word of God. That within its pages is truth without any mixture of error. And we don’t entertain the possibility that there are contradictions in the Bible.
So I will be honest. Days like this are a challenge for someone who holds to that doctrine. I almost didn’t write this post, for fear that someone will think it’s inappropriate for a pastor to express this kind of doubt. But I know that people outside the church are asking these questions. And if we pretend that they don’t even bother us, then I think we disrespect the honest skeptic. So I’d rather acknowledge the discrepancies, admit that I don’t know how to reconcile them, and trust that what I don’t understand is because of my own limitations, and not any limitations of God’s Word.
First, there’s the major discrepancy we get to right off the bat about who incited David to order the census in the first place: God or Satan?
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (2 Samuel 24:1) Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1)
Then, there’s the discrepancy between how many people there were:
9 And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000. (2 Samuel 24:9) 5 And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to David. In all Israel there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword, and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword. 6 But he did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king's command was abhorrent to Joab. (1 Chronicles 21:5-6)
David builds an altar to the Lord on someone’s threshing floor. Whose threshing floor was it?
18 And Gad came that day to David and said to him, “Go up, raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” (2 Samuel 24:18) 18 Now the angel of the Lord had commanded Gad to say to David that David should go up and raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. (1 Chronicles 21:18)
How much did David pay for the threshing floor?
So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels[g] of silver. (2 Samuel 24:24) 25 So David paid Ornan 600 shekels[a] of gold by weight for the site. (1 Chronicles 21:25)
I am thankful that none of these discrepancies affect the point of the account. And the point is this: When God got to Jerusalem, He stayed His hand.
16 And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” (2 Samuel 24:16) 14 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel, and 70,000 men of Israel fell. 15 And God sent the angel to Jerusalem to destroy it, but as he was about to destroy it, the Lord saw, and he relented from the calamity. And he said to the angel who was working destruction, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” (1 Chronicles 21:14-16)
This story is not about who owned the threshing floor, or how much David paid for it, or how many people lived in Israel, or even why David felt the need to count them. The point of the story is that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor does he keep His anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sin, nor repay us according to our iniquity (Psalm 103).
B.H. Carroll, the founder of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, put it this way:
When I was a boy I thought I had found a thousand contradictions in the Bible… I do not see them now; they are not there. There are perhaps a half dozen in the Bible that I cannot explain satisfactorily to myself. … Since I have seen nine hundred and ninety-four out of the thousand coalesce and harmonize like two streams mingling, I am disposed to think that if I had more sense I could harmonize the other six.B.H. Carroll (1843-1914), The Inspiration of the Bible
Whatever else I don’t understand or doesn’t add up, the two accounts are in absolute agreement about the mercy of God. And I praise Him for His longsuffering and compassion.