Entering the mind of an ancient interpreter

Two of the most difficult texts for some modern thinkers to reconcile in the entire Old Testament are:

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.””

1 Chronicles 21:1 – “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.”

Apparently the two books differ on who incited David to take a particular census.  But, ancient interpreters sought ways to reconcile texts like this.  So, try to enter into their mindset.  Can you think of ways in which both of these verses can be true at the same time?  Feel free to consult external sources if you’d like.


About Jeremy

I work at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Hammond, LA. I teach part-time classes from time to time, through Loyola University in New Orleans, Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and St. Joseph's Abbey and Seminary College. I also just finished a doctoral degree in Biblical languages through the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.
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22 Responses to Entering the mind of an ancient interpreter

  1. Sarah Saladino says:

    I can see where ancient interpreters would have had difficulty in discerning these those passages. In 2 Samuel 24:1, God incited David to take a census of the people of Judea and Israel, and in 1 Chronicles 21:1, the Devil incited David to take the census.
    However, the only explanation I have to offer as to why these two are contradictory is that it probably had something to do with the original translations of the two books. Depending on what language they were being interpreted from, the ancient interpreters could have been unfamiliar with a word used for God, which was close to a word they were familiar that meant Devil, or visa versa.

  2. Jessica Williams says:

    I’m not really sure I understand the question, but I’m guessing that they could both be true at the same time if, like in the Job situation, God gave Satan permission to tell David to start the census, just like God gave Satan permission to punish Job.

    • Jeremy says:

      I definitely think you are on to something in considering that Satan in the Old Testament is not quite yet what he is considered in the New Testament.

  3. Whittney Smith says:

    There is no way that both of those scriptures can be true at the same time. Usually in the OT if Satan does something then God knows about it or gives Satan permission to carry it out. It can only be one or the other. Either God or Satan told David to take the census. Thats my modern opinion. To get into the mindset of the interpreter, the only possible way was if two different people wrote each book (1 Chronicles & 2 Samuel) then the translation could be different. One translation uses God as himself but the other uses God’s extent of anger to change Him into a different character thus God was so angry that He was as Satan. So angry God equals Satan. Thats how both texts could be true at the same time. The same character but called by different names.

  4. Dylan Kremer says:

    It is difficult to discern between if both can be true or not. Maybe God and Satan wanted David to do the census for different reasons, maybe because they were both angry with Isreal. Since God is omniscient and omnipotent, I am sure he knew Satan incitied David to do the census.

  5. Caitlin Ordoyne says:

    The reason why these are two of the most difficult texts for some modern thinkers to reconcile in the entire Old Testament is probably because the only similarity is that David was the one incited to count the people of Israel. Besides this, 2 Samuel 24:1 has the Lord incite David and 1 Chronicles 21:1 has Satan incite David so I don’t really see how these two verses can be similar. The only reason I can offer as to why these texts may both be true is that the Lord and Satan were both upset with Israel. It may be a matter of translation but I overall don’t think both accounts can be true.

  6. Cameron Cates says:

    Certainly in our eyes Satan is seen as the devil and all that is evil, the complete opposite of God. Possibly in the Old Testament Satan is portrayed to have a different image rather than the one today. Possibly the “anger of the Lord” may be referred to as Satan. God is all that is good so once he is angered and punishes others for their wrong doing it may have been portrayed as Satan.

  7. Jade Tang says:

    I don’t think that both of these texts can be true unless Satan is not being thought of as we typically do today. In modern eyes, Satan is all evil, so there is no possible way that both texts could be true. As Jessica stated earlier, in the book of Job, Satan is referenced in a different context, so the same could follow for these two statements. The anger of the Lord could be comparable to Satan because it is that devastating.

  8. Paige Hinrichs says:

    If I am thinking correctly, the Old Testament never gives the commonly associated negative aspect to Satan. This doesn’t happen until the New Testament. However, since modern people assume this negative connotation, the above two quotes seem contradictory. However, I do not think it is the case. The Bible says that God has ultimate/only power. This would mean that anything Satan says would first be controlled by God. Therefore, God is using Satan as a tool to say the exact same message that He said as well. Really, the two verses aren’t contradictory at all. Rather, they are complimentary.

    (In my opinion, at least.)

  9. Jeffrey Ramon says:

    I tend to take things at my first impulse. My first impulse says that the “anger of the Lord” and Satan are the same person. That is a simple explanation, but if this claim is made, it must be asked who this same person is. Is this person primarily Satan who is lessened in evil power to the anger of God in or is this person primarily an angry God who secondarily becomes referred to as Satan? I tend to take the second approach to this because in 2 Samuel, David is told to count Israel and Judah (more of a charismatic approach to a widespread land). In 1 Chronicles, it is more direct and less charismatic towards solely Israel. Thus, Satan is used to really magnify the anger of God.

  10. Alexis English says:

    I do think that both of these passages can be true at the same time considering that in the Old Testament Satan was not seen in the same way he is today. Today we see him as evil, but in the Old Testament Satan was viewed of more as an adversary as he was in Job’s story. In Job’s story he was a divine being who had not yet been cast down and was sent by God to test Job. So in Chronicles when it states that Satan stood against Israel and incited David to count the people, Satan could just be considered somewhat of an opponent and not so much an evil being. This could make the anger of the Lord and Satan comparable which would make the texts more reconcilable.

  11. Chris Bauer says:

    I think that the two mean the same thing but just express it in different ways. If God was angry, it often meant he allowed Satan to do something. Perhaps it was Gods intention to allow Satan to convince David to do a census. It was God that wanted the census done and had it done through Satan.

  12. Ruth Carter says:

    If I am putting myself in the shoes of ancient interpreters I might be a little confused by these two passages also. I think that it is almost impossible to reconcile these two line the same way it is impossible to reconcile others portions of the Bible. Since we do not know what was in the mind of the author at the time we don’t always know what is behind certain writings. Like others have mentioned however, I think that the simplest way to move past the issue is to 1) consider a translation error and 2) consider the fact that they are both correct, maybe the Lord did give the command and Satan did also, on the Lord’s behalf.

  13. Philip Ramirez says:

    I think that the ancient interpreters might have misunderstood one or two words at the time of the translation. For instance, on the excerpt of 2 Samuels 24:1 the Lord was kindle-ignited, aroused, furious- and thus He wanted a count of the people of Judah and Israel. On the second excerpt taken from 1 Chronicles 21:1 the character that wanted a count of the people from Judah and Israel was the devil. It can be very easy to misunderstand a furious person with a record of being nice with a devil, and in this case shape it into a character that through history has been know to be very evil. I think the ancient interpreters misunderstood the adjectives describing God and thus wrote the word Satan instead. Maybe without thinking the consequences that such word was going to have in later readers.

  14. Melissa Raymond says:

    As I remember from class, the “Satan” that we know in modern times was not the same “Satan” as the old testament. Satan now is believed to be a devil/evil type of figure and in the Old Testament I dont believe that the word Satan was even used yet to encompass a certain ‘figure’. In the Old Testament, the hebrew word Satan can be roughly translated to the word adversary or accuser. Knowing that the word Satan in the context of the Old Testament does not so much mean the Devil as we know it today would help scholars understand those two opposing texts.

  15. Alex Hall says:

    I feel like this conflict between these two passages relates back to God’s allowing Satan to test Job. The Old Testament Satan and the New Testament Satan are two different beings. I feel like it is possible that the language (phrasing) or style used to write the passage in Chronicles may have been very similar to that of Job and consequently the translator may have decided to use the word Satan to follow the usage in Job.

  16. Naomi Stewart-Rubik says:

    The anger of God could be equated with Satan. When God got angry in the bible, he often did some pretty awful things, therefore people may view his actions as evil. I think that these are just two different interpretations of who instructed David. The verse from Chronicles could have been written by someone with a more negative view of God, and therefore used a harsher term to describe him.

  17. John Hickey says:

    One way to solve the problem is maybe both god and satan told david to take the census. They both could have wanted him to take the census, but maybe satan wanted the satisfaction of telling david to do something that god as well commanded. Or maybe the author did’nt think that god would command david to take a census and blamed it on satan.

  18. Amber Donewar says:

    I feel that neither of them can be true at the same time. I think that a translation error had to be made in one story or the other. Either God gave the order or Satan did. There is no way that David was given the command by both… That would make no sense.

  19. Marielly says:

    Society today makes Satan to be a ma who was always evil; this just isn’t true. In the old testament, Satan did not have the evil connotations which he later develops in the Old Testament. Satan is referenced in the Old testament in 2 ways: being created on the 6th day– the same day as Eve– which can lead to the tie of Satan having something to do with the fall of man and being one of God’s fallen angels, once he was close to God and letting the evil nature destroy him. So it is possible both these texts are true because it could be prior and after his ‘fall’.

  20. Sean Hart says:

    Either way, I think the same point is made. God was mad so David took a census. Either God’s anger incited him or Satan incited him. I don’t see a problem with Satan inciting him because it could be a reaction to Satan standing up against Israel.

  21. Robin Takami Tanner says:

    Satan in the context of the Old Testament was an adversary for God, which is closer to the definition of the Hebrew word “Satan.” So for people who do not know this and read these two verses out of the context of this understanding of Satan in the OT, one would naturally see a discrepancy between these two verses according to how Satan is understood in the New Testament, since there was an evolution of the concept of Satan in the time between when the Old Testament and New Testament were written.

    So in fact, both of censuses from both verses are being ordered from the Lord, since Satan is one of God’s workers/messengers.

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