Yahweh and Satan in Samuel and Chronicles

Posted By on November 15, 2013

What follows is the pre-edited version of an article I wrote for Bible Study Magazine a couple years ago.1 As the publication title suggests, the magazine is aimed at the lay person. I usually contribute two pieces to each issue (roughly sixty articles so far). I hope that encourages readers to subscribe — but there’s a lot of other good stuff in each issue. The goal of the magazine is to produce content for the lay person that goes beyond what they’d get in church.

God or Satan?
Who Provoked David to Number the People?

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.

1 Chronicles 21

2 Samuel 24

1 Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So 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.” 1Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” So 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 as they stand are explicitly contradictory with respect to who provokes David to number the people. The options for resolution are all troubling. If we want the blame to be placed on Satan, we must identify Yahweh as Satan. The reverse strategy requires that we identify Satan with Yahweh. If Satan can somehow be removed from the picture, then we are faced with the fact that Yahweh incited David to do something for which Yahweh punished him. Is there any way out of this mess?

The solution to the identity of the instigator is actually straightforward. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word satan is not a proper personal name.  This is because it is nearly always paired with the definite article in Hebrew (the word “the”). Like English, Hebrew does not permit the definite article to be paired with a proper personal name (I don’t call myself, “the Mike”). The common noun satan paired with the definite article means “the adversary” — not “Satan” as in the proper name of the Devil.  This is why some English Bibles have “the Adversary” in passages like Job 1:6 and not “Satan”.2

There are only a handful of places in the Hebrew Bible where satan is not preceded by the definite article. 1 Chron 21:1 is one of them, and so many interpreters see this is a rare instance of the being known as Satan in the Old Testament. If this is the case, though, we have a blatant contradiction. There is a better solution.

The only other place in the Old Testament where satan lacks the definite article and the term is used of a divine figure is Numbers 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.

This connection between the word satan and the Angel of Yahweh is crucial to understanding the discrepancy between 1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1. In both accounts the Angel is present as the one who dispenses God’s judgment upon David (1 Chron 21:14-15; 2 Sam 24:15-16). Since God and the Angel of the Lord were frequently identified with each other in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 3; Judges 6), the best solution seems to be that we don’t have Satan, God’s cosmic enemy, in the Chronicles passage. Rather, we have two writers both referring to God—one using “Yahweh” and the other referring to Yahweh in human form, the Angel (cp. Joshua 5:13-15) in another adversarial role.

One question looms, despite this solution: Why? Why would Yahweh incite David to do something he would later punish him for? 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, much in the same way he had used Pharaoh centuries before. As Pharaoh was still accountable for his actions, so was David. Judgment and its means both belonged to the Lord.

  1. For a scholarly journal article that argues for the angel connection / explanation in the piece, see Paul Evans, “Divine intermediaries in 1 Chronicles 21 an overlooked aspect of the Chronicler’s theology,” Biblica 85:4 (2004): 545-558.
  2. As I have blogged before, by rule of Hebrew grammar, there is no “Satan” personage in the Old Testament, which is not to say the Old Testament knows of no evil arch-enemy of God. That is evident from Genesis 3. Although the Old Testament never makes the connection, later Jewish writings label the enemy of Genesis 3 with the word satan. Consequently, by the time of the New Testament, the identification was secure.

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24 Responses to “Yahweh and Satan in Samuel and Chronicles”

  1. Nobunaga says:

    Relating this to your most recent interview, it would seem we have here, the Lord as the direct/predestined cause of a specific event. For me this conclusively proves we are ignorant of the causes that effect our choices, David choose freely to number the people. Both predestination and free human will were at play in this incident.

    Consciousness of Liberty cannot be distinguished from ignorance of determinism.

    Little Tommy age four has a tantrum and stomps his foot and yells because..he wants what he wants ! Little Tommy knows he is free because he performs his tantrum most energetically. But if his Mother is wise, she knows little Tommy is acting up because he hasn’t had his nap.

    Tommy is Ignorant of what causes effect him ! so too are most adults and it seems that included King David in this case.

  2. blop2008 says:

    Have you already dealt with the triangulation of Gen. 3.1-5 / Is. 14.12 ff / Ez. 28.11 ff on this blog before? If not, maybe you can do it here, too. It would show people the raw materials of the Shining One in the OT before it is identified with the personal name “Satan” in the Intertestamental literature.

  3. Dante Aligheri says:

    If that is the case (and everything I have read corroborates what you have said), is there any image of a cosmic enemy at all like in Genesis 2 and Genesis 6?

    If so, then it seems that the true enemy in the Bible might be better labeled Semihazah or Azazel in accordance with the both Adamic Fall of Genesis 2 and Enochic Fall of the Watchers in Genesis 6. That begs the question: Why is the cosmic enemy given the name “Satan” in the NT so prominently and never called the other two names which might make more congruence with the OT? Certainly, they are also “adversaries” in a general sense, but their names are never mentioned.


    • Dante Aligheri says:

      Oops. My bad. I didn’t read to the bottom of the article. That should “Genesis 3,” too. It’s been a long day.

    • MSH says:

      The enemy idea arises from the interference and resulting ruination of Eden / God’s goal for his human imagers in Gen 3. Gen 6 is never actually linked to Gen 3 in the OT, and so the interference / adversarial relationship there is different.

      The application of the noun satan to the Gen 3 figure arises from the meaning of the noun: “adversary”. The magnitude of the Gen 3 event naturally led to viewing that adversary as “ultimate” (the cause for the human condition).

  4. Mihai says:

    But, why was counting the people so bad ?! (today we count every day people … )

    • MSH says:

      It has to do with mustering an army / warfare (note that Job did the counting – David’s general).

    • Dante Aligheri says:

      Shimon Bakon in the Jewish Biblical Quarterly 27, no. 1 (Jan.-March 1999) once suggested “counting the people” was preliminary a larger system of corvee – i.e., a kind of reinstitution of slavery akin to that of Pharaoh and hot in the mind of the Israelites, which Solomon will carry out and prompt, along with other things, a rebellion by Sheba, son of Bichri.

      This will be one of the contributing causes of the division of Israel at least in Bakon’s view, the North being led by Jeroboam who was perceived in Northern traditions as being a kind of Moses liberating the North from a new “Pharaoh.” (Zakovitch, Yair. From God to Gods. “How A Savior Became a Villain: Jeroboam and the Exodus.” p. 213)

  5. Patrick says:

    So you see this along the lines of “Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart”?

    I often have wondered about that. I tended to see it as a natural result of Pharaoh’s negative volition towards Yahweh as opposed to Yahweh actively doing it to Pharaoh w/o Pharaoh’s own volition being involved.

    Do you see it this way with these 2 examples?

    • MSH says:

      Pharaoh did indeed harden his heart, after which God hardened it as well. The context for the David episode is post-Bathsheba (clearer in the flow of Samuel’s version), and so it appears to be related to the fallout judgment of that as well.

      I see similarities, but not necessarily a complete overlap.

  6. Emil says:

    Truly, I enjoy your site you have here MSH, I love scriptural research and discussing these as we let the spirit guide us to the answers.

    In my opinion, the “Satan” being spoken about here is not Yahoveh at all, but it is a NATION that stood up to David, which caused him to panic, and then out of his fear David numbered Israel to make sure his army was “strong” enough to stand up against this NATION/Satan, which was his adversary. See the preceding chapter of 1 Chronicles 21, to understand Israel had been at war. See other examples of this here: (2 Samuel 19:22; 1 Kings 11:14; 1 Kings 11:23).

    What made Yahoveh angry was that instead of David relying on his God, he was relying on the strength of his army, he was putting his trust in flesh (Jeremiah 17:5). David forgot about God’s powerful right arm and the works He did with Gideon and his 200 men and similar powerful works of his God, and this displeased Yahoveh.

    • Michael Bugg says:

      I’m with Emil on this one. The immediate context of 1Ch. 21 is chapter 20, in which the brothers of Goliath come looking for revenge and nearly kill David. It seems to me that the Lord did indeed test David–by raising an adversary (nation) against him that made him nervous enough to disregard the Lord’s command about censuses, thereby putting his trust in men (“How many soldiers do I have?”) instead of God.


  7. Steve Driediger says:

    The whole “satan-with-the-definite-article” thing has been rolling around in the back of my mind lately. My question is why we make an issue of the definite article being used with ‘satan’ but not of the definite article being used with ‘elohim.’ If ‘hasatan’ rightly means ‘the adversary’ then why shouldn’t ‘haelohim’ mean ‘the gods’?

    • MSH says:

      The answer is “the phenomena of the text” – meaning that (1) elohim and ha-elohim is often coupled with the (singular) divine name YHWH, showing that the word was clearly used as a proper personal noun in the biblical period, and (2) subject-verb agreement (elohim / ha-elohim with singular verb form) also indicates a singular deity, whose identity was known to the writers (YHWH / the God of Israel). We don’t have ha-satan usage that approximates that. For instance, IF satan were a term applied (in the OT) to the nachash of Gen 3, we might be able to make that connection. But it never happens. The kind of transition we see *in the OT* for elohim does occur in the Second Temple Period and NT.

  8. Arklen says:

    I’ve been going over your theory (which I see to be fact) on “The Satan” of the old testament; at first glance because of “one’s” doctrinal presupposition it strikes an un-nerveing cord, that “it cannot be” or “the man is declaring there is no Satan!”.
    Well yes, it can be, and no your not saying that.

    It will; if I am understanding correctly lead to reveal more about the “Satan” we commonly know as The Devil; that will take time though.

    Putting the “divine personas” in the their proper place, roles, and function will no doubt at first be uncomfortable to many but will reveal with further work to answer the many questions about “who is who” “or what, when etc” that still are apparent here and now. It’s my understanding that “The Divine Council” is starting this process. It is in my opinion like pieces of a puzzle.

    Thanks for the Article Dr. Heiser


    • MSH says:

      you’re welcome – thank you as well for having patience to read and think about what’s being said and NOT said. That often doesn’t happen!

  9. Hanan says:

    >Yahweh chose to use David as his instrument of judgment against the nation, much in the same way he had used Pharaoh centuries before. As Pharaoh was still accountable for his actions, so was David. Judgment and its means both belonged to the Lord.

    But it still begs the question does it not? How could David be guilty if he was just a “puppet” being pushed along?

    • MSH says:

      The point is that God used the instrument to judge the nation via its king. Perhaps the analogy of Samson might help. Samson insisted on marrying a non-Israelite in Judges 14:1-4…

      Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw one of the daughters of the Philistines. 2 Then he came up and told his father and mother, “I saw one of the daughters of the Philistines at Timnah. Now get her for me as my wife.” 3 But his father and mother said to him, “Is there not a woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes.”
      4 His father and mother did not know that it was from the LORD, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines ruled over Israel.

      Note verse 4 “it was from the Lord, for he [the Lord] was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines.” God apparently prompted this flawed decision in Samson to use it to punish Israel’s oppressor, the Philistines. Samson, as you’ll recall from the story of his life, also suffers as a result of this whole episode.

      Personally, given the chronology of events in David’s life (the Samuel account shows us this episode — after the capture of Rabbah — falls after David’s sin with Bathsheba). While God spared his life, David suffered in many ways as a result of his sin. I think this is one such episode. There are literary connections between this instance and David’s sin with Bathsheba and Nathan’s exposure of that sin (the verbs for sin, doing evil, and — in my view significant — how David refers to the innocent people as “sheep” — note Nathan’s contrived story to expose David in that regard). Anyway, I think the point of the episode is that the Angel / God incites David to take the census (unknown of course to David) which was wrong. The purpose was to have David feel the grief of his own earlier deed via innocent suffering that resulted.

      • Dante Aligheri says:

        What I find so fascinating is that a man as repugnant in some ways and politically unsuccessful in the long run as David actually ended up being enshrined as the Messiah archetype. From a political angle, he reminds me of Suleiman the Magnificent – someone who was personally pious and militarily successful but through his own faults and foibles sows the seeds for the downfall of his kingdom. Yet for some reason David became the epicenter of Jewish hopes.

        • MSH says:

          There are some pretty good articles on just this issue. I use them whenever I teach history of Israel. If you want a couple, email me.

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