Earlier this week, I was asked to write a response to a contradiction that atheist Kenny Wyland lists as the “craziest biblical contradiction ever.” Scott Burgener mentioned this same contradiction as being the “watershed moment” that led to his rejection of Christianity, and it is also included as number 434 in the Skeptics Annotated Bible “List of Contradictions” as well as in Jim Merritt’s “List of Bible Contradictions” on infidels.org. So what is this contradiction which has attracted the attention of so many atheists? It is the very important question of whether it was God or Satan who tempted David to take a census of the nation of Israel.
The text of this contradiction can be found by comparing II Samuel 24:1 with I Chronicles 21:1. Here are the two verses in question:
And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah. (II Samuel 24:1)
And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel. (I Chronicles 21:1)
As you can see, the first passage says that it was God who moved David to take a census, but the second passage claims that this was done by Satan. According to the atheists, this is an airtight case against the divine inspiration of the Bible. Surely, God wouldn’t tell one author to write that He was the one who did this and then tell another author many years later that it was Satan who did it. Such a bold contradiction could only happen if the two books were written by human authors who simply disagreed on who was responsible for David’s action. At least, that’s what the atheists say. In reality, however, these passages aren’t quite the smoking gun that atheists claim they are.
To understand what is happening in these two passages, we need to turn to a similar event which took place when God decided to punish Ahab for the wickedness that he had brought into Israel. This event is recorded for us in I Kings where we read:
I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left. And the LORD said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramothgilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the LORD, and said, I will persuade him. And the LORD said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so. Now therefore, behold, the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the LORD hath spoken evil concerning thee. (I Kings 22:19-23)
As you can see, this passage bears some striking similarities to the two accounts of David being moved to take a census. God desired to punish Ahab for all of the wickedness that he had introduced into Israel, and He sought to carry out this punishment by convincing Ahab to do something to bring his own punishment upon him. But in this account, we are given a little more detail into how God moved the king to do something wrong. He did so by allowing a lying spirit from Satan to speak through Ahab’s false prophets and convince him that he would be victorious in battle.
This gives us a possible solution for the contradiction between II Samuel and I Chronicles in regards to David’s census. It is possible that, when God desired to punish Israel for their wickedness, He asked in the court of Heaven for someone to volunteer to persuade David to take an illegal census of the nation. Satan could have stood up at that time and eagerly volunteered to incite the “apple of God’s eye” in an action that would bring judgment on God’s chosen people. In this scenario, the author of Chronicles could identify Satan as the agent of David’s temptation without contradicting the author of Samuel who wrote of God as being the agent of that temptation. Satan could be viewed as the direct agent while God is viewed as being the indirect agent of the same act.
Of course, there are many possible objections to this interpretation the most important of which is that there is nothing in the text of II Samuel 24 or I Chronicles 21 which indicates that God and Satan shared in the agency of this particular temptation. However, there is an example of this dual agency found in another passage of Scripture. In first chapter of Job, we read of a conversation which took place between God and Satan:
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them. And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD. (Job 1:6-12)
This is an intriguing conversation on many levels, but let’s just focus on verse 11 for now. There we see that Satan asked God to “put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath.” Satan was asking God to be the agent of Job’s calamity, but how did God respond? He told Satan, “all that he hath is in thy power.” This seems to be the very same kind of dual agency that we surmised to have taken place when David was tempted to number the people of Israel. Satan asked God to be the agent, and God responded by giving Satan direct agency over the destruction of Job’s family and possessions.
The same type of conversation is repeated in the second chapter of Job where we read that Satan asked God to “put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh.” And God answered, “Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life.” Once again, this looks like a dual agency. Satan is the one who was directly responsible for the attacks on Job, but God was indirectly responsible in that He is the one who gave Satan both the power and the permission to make those attacks.
Both of these accounts seem to lend credibility to the dual agency view of II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21, but there is a small phrase in the second chapter of Job which makes this possibility nearly certain. In verse three of that chapter, we read the following:
And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause.
Notice the last phrase: “although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause.” This was God Himself claiming to be responsible for the calamity that had been brought against Job, but was God the direct agent of that calamity? No, the direct agent was Satan as we can see in verse seven: “So went Satan forth from the presence of the LORD, and smote Job.” God was not the direct agent of Job’s tribulation, but rather the indirect agent in that Satan had no power to act without God’s express permission.
Thus, the passage in Job proves the possibility which is hinted at in I Kings. It is certain that God sometimes uses Satan to accomplish His will by allowing Satan to be the direct agent of something that God desires to be done. With this possibility open to us, it cannot be said that the two accounts of David’s temptation to number the people are contradictory to each other. It is perfectly consistent with Scripture to conclude that God acted as the indirect agent and Satan as the direct agent to provoke David into conducting the illegal census.
"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)