1 Chronicles 21:1-22:1 – David’s Census


1 Chronicles 21:1-22:1


David forces Joab to take a census of the people for military purposes, displeasing God and resulting in severe plagues. David’s repentance leads to the purchase of Ornan’s threshing floor, which God designates as the site for the temple.


Of the several questions that arise in this unusual episode, we will look at two:

1. Who is “Satan” and why does he incite David (v. 1)? The Hebrew word satan usually means a human enemy or adversary in the Old Testament (Numbers 22:22, 32; 1 Samuel 29:4; 2 Samuel 19:23; 1 Kings 5:18; 11:14, 23, 25; Psalm 109:6b). Two other passages (Job 1-2; Zechariah 3:1-2) do speak of “the satan” in contexts where one would expect a (semi)divine being, though not the “devil” of later Judaism and then the New Testament, a dualistic concept foreign to the Hebrew Bible. It seems best to interpret David’s nemesis in 1 Chronicles 21:1 as “a (human) adversary,” perhaps a military threat, but not the personification of Evil or the Satan of the New Testament, despite the NRSV and other major translations.

Of greater interest is the alteration of 2 Samuel 24:1, “Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah,'” where “the anger of the LORD” incites David rather than an adversary. The Chronicler is usually thought to have altered his source to avoid attributing evil to God. Since the Chronicler modified his source to attribute Saul’s death to God in no uncertain terms (1 Chronicles 10:14b), this seems somewhat forced. A better explanation might take seriously the “Again” in the Samuel text that links this story of divine wrath back to a similar episode in 2 Samuel 21. Since the Chronicler has omitted that earlier episode, both occurrences of the divine wrath lose their significance and a general adversary serves his purpose.

2. Why does the Chronicler, who has taken great pains to present an ideal David devoid of the flaws familiar from 2 Samuel, include this story of David’s sin and even increase his guilt? Or, what’s so wrong with counting the people, anyway? Two answers usually appear in the literature:

  • The census was not wrong in and of itself (see Exodus 30:12; Numbers 1:2), but reapportioning Israel for taxation and military conscription was a drastic change from long-held beliefs in Israel’s tradition.
  • David’s numbering of the people arose from prideful assumptions about military might, and these led him away from trust in God.

Interesting possibilities, but the Chronicler simply does not tell us what was wrong, only that it was. In fact he modifies his text in ways that increase David’s guilt over Samuel’s account:

  • Joab’s calling him a cause of guilt for Israel (1 Chronicles 21:3, not in Samuel)
  • Joab’s abhorrence of the king’s command (v. 6, also lacking in Samuel)
  • David’s confession of guilt, considerably more emphatic in the Hebrew text of Chronicles than in Samuel (vv. 8, 17).

Obviously, the text functions very differently for the Chronicler. The presence of David’s payment of 600 gold shekels for “the site” (1 Chronicles 21:25) instead of 50 silver shekels (2 Samuel 24:24) and God’s confirming sign of “fire from heaven” (1 Chronicles 21:26; see also 2 Chronicles 7:1; Judges 6:21; 1 Kings 18:38) suggest an emphasis on David’s repentance and God’s forgiveness, the theme of 1 Chronicles 21:15-27, rather than David’s sin and God’s punishment, the theme of 21:1-14. Then, the Chronicler’s new ending to the story (21:26b-22:1) that claims this place of repentance and forgiveness as the site of the future temple, reveals that this designation of the temple site is what the Chronicler has had in mind all along.