2 Samuel 21-24: Contradictions on David's Final Days?

Original Publication Date
January 14, 2017
Nov 3, 2022 5:03 AM
2 SamuelChapter StudyDavidSaulDoctrinePhilistine
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2 Samuel 21-24

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This page was originally posted on my Blogger version of the blog on January 14, 2017 The content below has a few minor tweaks for clarity, and additional references, and some updated information.


The final chapters of 2 Samuel cover David's final days, but also some information that may be from his very earliest days as king. Many people assert than these final 4 chapters serve as an appendix for the Book of Samuel. The final bit of information concerning a census carried out by David contains 5 points of contention. All 5 supposed “contradictions" are discussed below.

A Famine in the Land

2 Samuel 21 seems to take us back in time to David's earliest days as king. A time-jump is not specified, nor are there explicit events or identifiers given to predict he year. However, when the events of the chapter take place, God says the events are punishment for an act Saul committed. It seems unlikely—though not impossible—that God would have waited so long to act. Chronologically, we have already seen David sin and be punished so it seems logical that the punishment for Saul's act came shortly after Saul's death. Scholars agree that the last few chapters of 2 Samuel (covered in this post) are actually an appendix, highlighting prominent events.[1]

Saul's crime, which invokes God's wrath, is the slaughter of the Gibeonites. God actually blames the crime on Saul's entire family, attributing the breach of contract to the "bloodthirsty house of Saul."[2] It is not specified when Saul launched this attack on Gibeon, but long before Saul's war, in Joshua 9:3-17, the Israelites had sworn an oath of peace with the Gibeonites. God does not take kindly to those who break their oaths. Can you imagine if He suddenly decided Jesus wasn't enough to get into Heaven? A promise is worthless if the promiser doesn't uphold his end of the bargain. Thus, God punishes the people with a 3 year famine, which occurs during David's reign.

Just Following Orders?

At first glance, it may seem rash to punish the whole nation for Saul's crime, but it brings us to the question of where our responsibility to God and our own actions truly lies. Saul did not slaughter the Gibeonites by himself; surely an army carried out the act under his command. Is the army guiltless because they were "just following orders?"

The book of Daniel tells us that after king Nebuchadnezzar issued a decree to bow to a pagan idol, three of God's people refused to bow and God protected those people from the king's wrath. Similarly, the Pharisees and Sadducees and all the elite in Israel wanted Jesus to go somewhere and sit down, but Jesus followed God's command above the government. In the end times, the world government will require the mark of the beast to participate in society, but to take it is to sentence yourself to the real and final second death.

While it is true that Saul may have been angry if a soldier were to speak up, had all the elders and all the soldiers spoke up on the matter, Saul would have been forced to comply or fight the entire army. The fact that the battle played out according to Saul's plan shows that the army carried out the order despite knowing the oath of peace Israel had made. This places at least a portion of the blame on the soldiers.

Today, we face the same types of questions. 2 years ago, the courts attempted to convict Oskar Gröning for his role at a Nazi Death camp.[3] It wasn't Gröning's idea to start a death camp, but he was not only silent about the issue, he aided in the pipeline that ultimately brought people to their death. Similarly, the German people elected Hitler, just as the American people have elected Trump, despite the hate-filled rhetoric that he ignited during his campaign, and just as the Israelites begged for a king. While the citizens may have not borne all the blame, they shared a portion of it.

Trials and Tribulations

Most people think life as one of God's chosen people is akin to life in the garden of Eden. We assume that because we have faith and because God loves us, nothing bad will ever happen, but there are numerous Biblical examples to dispel this myth. The famine inflicted upon the kingdom during David's reign is one of them.

We aren't told if the famine occurred before or after David's incident with Bathsheba, but we are told that it isn't punishment for that act, and aside from that act, David's heart followed God. Although God promises evil will befall David due to the murder and adultery he committed over Bathsheba, these are all fulfilled through Absalom, so the famine occurred for seemingly no reason at all. David repented of his sin with Bathsheba and was anointed (i.e., favored) by God for the entirety of his reign. Unlike Saul, David's role was never revoked by God.

This goes to show that even though David was appointed, favored, and faithful, he still faced adversity. We should expect the same in our lives.

Making it Right

David approaches the Gibeonites to right the wrong Israel committed in breaching the treaty. The Gibeonites inform David that they don't want wealth (i.e., silver or gold) or the death of the Israelites; instead the ask for revenge on Saul's house. Specifically they wanted to exact revenge by killing 7 of Saul's sons. If Saul's sons were leaders in the massacre, as insinuated in 2 Samuel 21:1, it makes sense that the Gibeonites wanted direct revenge on them.

David obliges, but spares Mephibosheth (the son of Jonathan that David has taken in as his own). The 7 sons David sends are from just 2 of Saul's wives. Rizpah, a concubine of Saul's, had 2 sons that were taken. The other 5 were the sons of Adriel and Merab, the grandsons of Saul.

We are also informed that Michal had raised these 5 men for her sister (Merab). Since Michal never had children of her own (2 Samuel 6:23), it must have been hard to have all 5 of her surrogate children ripped from her arms. This is also interesting in the sense that Michal's position as first wife of the king should have placed the these sons in a position of safety. We aren't told how many of Saul's children had sons, nor how many of Saul's sons survived. Thus, it is possible that only these 7 were available (aside from Mephibosheth). It is also possible that these are 7 that participated in the battle.

The Gibeonites waste no time hanging the men. Presumably, since the Gibeonites were not God's people and were in charge of the hanging, God's law to remove the bodies by evening was not obeyed. Of course, as strangers in the land they were supposed to follow the law as well, but we've seen how poorly Israel was at keeping the law; I doubt they were in the position to enforce the law on external nations. Thus, after the hanging, Rizpah stays to protect the bodies of the men from desecration. She goes through great lengths to keep birds and such from lighting on their bodies. When Daivd learns of Rizpah's act, he ensures the sons of Saul are properly buried. David also collects the remnants of Saul and Jonathan, so that the family might be buried together. Once this is complete, God lifts the famine from the land.

The Philistines and Their Giants

The Philistines apparently had an entourage of giant men at their disposal for war. At some point in time, they send a second giant to fight the Israelites. This time it is a man named Ishbibenob. Ishbibenob is killed by Abishai, the brother of Joab and a captain in David's army. Unlike David who volunteers to kill Goliath in a one-on-one battle, Abishai kills Ishbibenob to save David's life, which means it probably wasn't a scheduled one-on-one fight.

Another clue that these events occur early in David's leadership manifests in the reaction of the soldiers. They are adamant that David no longer fight with them. Throughout the other battles in 2 Samuel, we have seen David sitting out of the action. If the battle in question was one of David's earlier battles as king, it would explain why he doesn't fight in most of the battles discussed in the book.

In addition to learning about Abashai's victory, we are given a list of Israelites who slew the giants of the Philistines. The list includes Sibbechai, Elhanan, and Jonathan (David's nephew). This information is probably meant to inform us that there were brave and mighty men in addition to David in the the army. Unfortunately, there is controversy over 2 Samuel 21:19. Most English translates read that Elhanan slew the brother of Goliath, but some believe the original translation reads that Elhanan slew Goliath.

If 2 Samuel 21:19 asserted that Elhanan killed Goliath, it would conflict with 1 Samuel 17 and 1 Chronicles 20:5. Part of the reason for this confusion is the text in 2 Samuel, which is actually broken. However, scholars agree that is remarkably similar to that of 1 Chronicles 20:5. It is easier to commit a scribe error and end up with the text we have today that to end up with the text that says Elhanan killed Goliath.

I think it's important to note that the Book of Samuel is not actually 2 books with separate authors, but one book (see the introduction to the book from further information). If someone was to go back and change the text to make David look good, they would have had access to both parts of the book. If they desired to alter history, it seems unlikely they would miss the text in 2 Samuel 21. It would seem more likely if someone altered Samuel, but the contradiction occurred in Kings or Chronicles, books they may not have had access to. The most sensible conclusion is that Elhanan killed Goliath's brother.

The Psalm

David is the author of many psalms and one is present in 2 Samuel 22. The gist of the psalm is praise to God. David describes God as the rock of salvation. Isaiah 28:16 prophesies Jesus to be our rock and it is confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, and Luke 20:17. David also discusses the righteousness of God's way. He is reiterating the fact that God's law is good and just.

David's Census and Choice

The final narrative of 2 Samuel details a choice God gives David in the punishment of Israel. The punishment is both for Israel's behavior and a census David carries out improperly. It is a difficult passage to cover without studying because the retelling in 1 Chronicles 21 appears to contradict the narrative of 2 Samuel 24.

The First "Contradiction"

2 Samuel 24:1 tells us that God was angry with Israel and moved David to number the armies of Israel and the armies of Judah. 1 Chronicles 21:1 tells us it was actually Satan that told David to carry out this task. Many would consider this a contradiction, but when you stop to think about it both statements could be true.

Satan has limited power; he can only do what God allows. Remember in Job, even though it is Satan causing trouble for Job, God gives Satan permission to do so and sets the boundaries of what Satan can and cannot do. Based on 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1, the way this event played out is that Satan thought to tempt David, and God, who was already angry with Israel, allowed Satan to do so. Thus both had a hand in creating the feeling that David should carry out this task.

Apologetic Christian ministries agree that Satan merely carried out a task God allowed. Why did God allow it? We are told in 2 Samuel 24:1 that God was angry with Israel. Israel has cast aside David easily to follow Absalom, and even after returning him to the throne, they had let a rift come between the northern and southern kingdoms which led to Sheba declaring himself king. In the midst of all this fighting, there was likely some idolatry going on as well. I say this because (i) if everyone had been following God, they should have been on the same page about David being king, and (ii) Israel has a long history of Idolatry. God was probably planning to punish Israel anyway. Since David was being righteous, at the time, God may have been sparing Israel for the sake of David. The devil's temptation plot would bring about God's Will to punish Israel, even though Satan thought it would be a victory for himself. The author of 1 Samuel 24 gives us the narrative from the position that God is control of all things; they want us to remember despite the devil meddling in the plot, God has the ultimate authority and the course of action worked toward God's Will. Alternately, the author of 1 Chronicles 21 gives us the detailed picture; this author reminds us that despite God being in control, the devil can deceive us into thinking we are doing something of God that is actually sinful or taint Godly acts with sin.[5]

The act of carrying out a census isn't actually a sin. God commands Israel to carry out 2 censuses while they are in the wilderness; these are recorded in Numbers. In fact, God instructs the Israelites on how a census should be carried out in Exodus 30. Based on God's law, each man who was counted was to pay a sum to God. David doesn't do this, however. This is where sin enters. God may have put the idea of numbering the Israelites in David's heart, but it was Satan who told David he didn't have to collect the sum and offer it to God.

The Second "Contradiction"

Joab, who is placed in charge of carrying out the task, seems to understand that David's method is wrong. He pushes back on the command, but eventually carries out the order because he is loyal to David. He finds that there are 800,000 men in Israel's army and 500,000 in Judah's. This bring us to another "contradiction."

1 Chronicles 21:5 says that there were 1,100000 men in Israel's army and 470,000 in Judah's. It would appear that only one of these figures could be right, however, we look at how the men were numbered we see that the discrepancies comes from which units were considered part of the army. It is important to note that the number given in 2 Samuel 24:9 is in reference to the valiant men, while the numbers given in 1 Chronicles 21:5 is the total number of swordsmen. Also note that in 2 Samuel 24:9 only the men of Israel are described as swordsmen, leaving the possibility that the men numbered in Judah could be both swordsmen and other army personnel.

Chronicles actually gives us a possible method to determine where these extra men came from. 2 Chronicles 1:14 informs us that there was a 12,000 man army over the chariots in Jerusalem (commanded by Solomon). Perhaps the author of Samuel considered these men to be dedicated to Jerusalem, as opposed to Judah or Israel, and did not include them in the count. In addition, 1 Chronicles 27:1-15 tells us there was an Israelite army, meant to represent the entire nation, which consisted of 24,000 men from each of the 12 tribes. This army included people of Judah, but was considered for Israel. It has been suggested that these men were not included by the author of 2 Samuel (perhaps they were not valiant). 12 units with 24,0000 men give us an army of 288,000 men plus the 12,000 charioteers in Jerusalem is 300,000 men, the exact difference been 1 Chronicles' 1,100,000 men and 2 Samuel's 800,000 men fighting for Israel.[6]

Note that it is only a possibility; these armies may have developed after Joab numbered the armies, and the discrepancy may simply hang on which units were considered valiant.

Of course, there's still the issue of Judah's men. 1 Chronicles says Judah had 30,000 less men than 2 Samuel does. It makes sense that there would be more men in the total army than the number of valiant men counted as was the case of Israel, but how are there more valiant men than the total number of men in the army? 2 Samuel 6:1 may give us that answer. When David moved the ark, he gathered together 30,000 men to take the ark to Jerusalem. These men aren't described as swordsmen (remember I pointed out that 2 Samuel 24:9 doesn't call Judah's 500,000 swordsmen), but they would be considered valiant as they were entrusted with moving the holiest object the Israelites possessed. The author of 2 Samuel likely included these men where the Chronicles author did not.[6]

In a census, people usually keep precise numbers for demographic purposes. Today, census results can be broken down based on race, age, gender, and many more factors. Similarly, Joab probably collected numbers per unit and per tribe to bring back to David. The scribes would have tallied these numbers to present a "total." Each author included the total number for the people they were worried about, in the author of Chronicles' case, swordsmen, and in the author of Samuel's case, valiant men. Thus the totals do not conflict, they are merely totals for different demographics.

The Aftermath

After David hear's Joab's report, his heart turns against him. As a man, David was imperfect and prone to sin, like all of us, but as a righteous man, David was quickly made aware of his own sins. David is quick to repent of his actions, because he is eager to please God.

God sends a message to David through the prophet Gad. In this message, God gives David the option of three different punishments for the kingdom. David could chose from 7 years of famine, 3 months fleeing his enemies, or 3 days of pestilence.

The 7 years of famine seems the worst as it is the longest and Israel had not had time to prepare. They would likely have to borrow food from their neighbors who were also their sworn enemies. 3 months of fleeing, however, provided David with an option that would likely not endanger civilians. Only he and his army would be displaced by the punishment. Of course, that doesn't account for the treatment of the people by the invading force. Pestilence for 3 days would have the shortest impact, but effect the whole nation. Also, 3 days of pestilence might actually kill more than 7 years of famine depending on how God carried out the pestilence. It must have been a hard decision for David to make.

In the end, David chooses pestilence (probably because of it's short-term infliction). 70,000 people die during the 3 days of pestilence. The angel sent to carry out the judgement is stopped by God from destroying Jerusalem (another example highlighting God's supreme authority and power). Meanwhile, David begs for mercy on the people, reminding God that it is he who sinned and the people were but sheep following his command. This is the sin of a true leader, willing to take the blame for his own mistakes. Some leaders will blame their followers for a failure, but a true leader will admit he lead the people in the wrong direction (or didn't lead at all) and take ownership of the failure. David, thinking the punishment is solely for the poorly carried out census, is telling God that it is his fault and his alone that the action occurred. Now that's some brave, honest, and righteous intercession!

God sends the message of how to end the pestilence through Gad. God desires an altar to be built on the threshing-flood of Araunah, a Jebusite. The location of this threshing floor is what we know today as the Temple Mount. This is also the place where Isaac was almost sacrificed.[1]

David was to offer upon the altar once it was finished, as well. Since the pestilence was supposed to end after 3 days, I assume these actions was carried out on the third day. After David offers the sacrifices, God shows mercy on the people.

The Third "Contradiction"

1 Chronicles 21 disagrees with 2 Samuel on the length of the famine. In 2 Samuel Gad offers David a 7 year famine, but in 1 Chronicles 21:11-12, Gad offers Samuel a 3 year famine. Some assert that this a copyist error, but others have harmonized the passages. 2 Samuel 24 follows verses discussing a 3 year famine that occurred for unrelated reasons. The soldiers took a little less than a year to complete the census, which may have occurred just after the initial 3 year famine. Had God exacted another 3 year famine (as suggested in 1 Chronicles 21:12), Israel would have suffered approximately 7 years total in famine (as suggested in 2 Samuel 24). Gad could have offered Samuel 3 additional years of famine or 7 total years of famine, and it would technically be the same thing.[12] The wording difference supports this idea as well. In 2 Samuel, Gad asks if 7 years of famine will come upon the land which can be construed as "will you take on an additional 3 years of famine?" or "will this famine continue another 3 years" if they were in the middle of the famine. This matches the text of 1 Chronicles 21, in which Gad offers 3 years of famine.

The Fourth "Contradiction"

The fourth "contradiction" of this passage is in reference to how much is spent to purchase the threshing floor. Surprisingly, Araunah is willing to give the threshing-floor to David freely, but David insists that it must be paid for. 2 Samuel 24:24 says David bought the threshing floor and the oxen to sacrifice for 50 shekels of silver; this would be roughly $307 today (not accounting for inflation).[7][8] 1 Chronicles 21:25 gives a different price: 600 shekels of gold. On first glance many people see the different numbers and assume this is a contradiction. However, it makes perfect sense. Note that 2 Samuel lists the price for the threshing floor and the oxen while 1 Chronicles lists the price for the place. David bought the threshing floor and oxen separate from the whole property. Realizing God had plans for the space, David went ahead and bought the whole property. He only spent the 50 shekels to buy the threshing floor and oxen, which would have been worth less than the whole property. However, after he purchased the whole property, he had spent 600 shekels (which probably includes the 50 shekels paid for the piece of the property known as the threshing floor).[1][10]

The Fifth "Contradiction"

2 Samuel lists the man whom David purchases from as Araunah, but 1 Chronicles identifies him as Ornan. People may quibble over these name changes, but we have to remember that name variations are quite frequent. In the Bible we have actual name changes such as Abram/Abraham, Jacob/Israel, Saul/Paul, etc., but in life we see variant spellings of names as well. Take for instance the name common name John. John and Shawn are actually rooted in the same name, with variants such as Jean and Sean (French), Ivan, Juan, Yannick, Johannes, Han, Jonas, Evan, and Shane (just to name a few) appearing in other languages.[9] Similarly, Ornan may be a variant of Araunah. Possibly pronounced the same way, the authors simply spelled the name differently (i.e., Geoffery vs. Jeffery).[10] Strong's Lexicon identifies Ornan as an orthographical variation of the name Araunah.[11]

David's Final Words

2 Samuel 23 recounts David's final words and includes a list of the great men that served under David.

Interestingly Joab is not listed. This proves that God and the scribe who penned Samuel probably felt Joab's act of murdering Amasa was wrong and lowered his importance. Since Joab is not the focal point of the story, we aren't given much information on his reaction to his own actions. Thus, we cannot say for certain if he repented of his crimes later in life or if he continued unrepentant.

One of the great men listed is Ittai, however this Ittai is not the same Ittai mentioned earlier in 2 Samuel. The Ittai mention in this chapter is an Israelite, specifically from the Tribe of Benjamin.[4]

Nonetheless, the men listed as great in this passage are being praised for their victories in war, including the act of killing men from the enemy's army. Yet, in each of their cases, they were fighting to protect their land and for God. Of course, the opposing army would have claimed they were fighting for god, or the gods, as well, but the Lord is the only God there is and He was on Israel's side. We see the same issue today; many people take up cause to fight for "god" but how do we know they are fighting for the Lord? I believe motive for the war is a major indicator of who the army is serving, but the only sure-fire method of differentiating, is prayer.

The great men of David's army answered the call of God into war—on faith. All of the people of God said to be great took a leap of faith to get where they are. This is something to remember!

Another thing to remember, is that while these men were praised for their victories, I can't help but think they were remorseful when they returned. Having spoken to veterans, I know that the toll of battle is hard. God did not create us with the intent of us killing each other, let alone in mass numbers; our brains and hearts are not meant to handle such sights. I imagine these men were quite humbled by their experience.

References and Footnotes

  1. William MacDonald. Believer's Bible Commentary, pg. 345-349. 1995
  2. 2 Samuel 21:1
  3. Associated Press. "Oskar Gröning: German court backs Auschwitz guard's conviction". The Guardian. November 28 2016
  4. "Ittai". BibleStudyTools.com. 2017
  5. Troy Lacey. "Contradiction: Who Incited David to Count the Fighting Men of Israel—God or Satan?". Answers in Genesis. March 31, 2015
  6. "Is there a contradiction between 2 Samuel 24:9 and 1 Chronicles 21:5, when the number of soldiers Joab counts comes up different?". Bible.org. January 1, 2001
  7. "Convert Shekel (Biblical Hebrew) to Gram". UnitCoverters.net; visited January 2017
  8. "Price of Silver". APMEX.com; visited January 12, 2017
  9. Mike Campbell. "John". Behind the Name; visited January 14, 2017
  10. Kyle Runge. "Balancing the Budget". Answers in Genesis. August 23, 2011
  11. James Strong. "H728. Aruanah". Strong's Concordance, via BlueLetterBible.org; visited January 2017
  12. Michael Belknap. "A Famine of Three or Seven Years?". Answers in Genesis. August 14, 2012

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