1 Chronicles 21 (revising 2 Samuel 24)
2 Samuel 24
Yahweh arranges another census to be taken by David, but He holds him blameworthy for it. First we read, “Again, the Anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and He incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah” (2 Sam. 24.1). After he does so, David says to Yahweh, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Yahweh, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly” (2 Sam 24.10).
Yahweh, through the mediation of the prophet Gad, offers David three choices of punishment: three years of famine; three months of defeat by his enemies; or three days of pestilence. David chooses the last option, and Yahweh sends plague on Israel, killing 70,000 people by the hand of an Angel. But when the Angel is about to attack Jerusalem, Yahweh relents and says to him: “It is enough; now stay your hand” (2 Sam. 24.16). The Destroying Angel is now identified as the Angel of Yahweh. David sees him near the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite, and he begs Yahweh to spare his sheep, since he alone has sinned, and to let His hand be against him alone. Thereupon, following instructions from Gad, David buys the threshing-floor and offers holocausts and sacrifices of well-being. Yahweh accepts his supplication and the plague is averted (2 Sam. 24.25).
This is a very odd story, and it was found so by the author of Chronicles, who, as we will see, relieves Yahweh of the charge of “entrapment” by supplying a satan—or Satan—to instigate the census (1 Chron. 21.1). But he keeps the sword-bearing Destroying Angel, who could just as easily be called a satan as the Angel of Yahweh described above, who comes with a sword as a satan against Balaam.
1 Chronicles 21
“satan stood up against Israel and incited David to count the people” (1 Chron. 21.2).
This is how the author of the Book of Chronicles renders the passage in 2 Samuel about “the Anger of Yahweh” making David take a census.
What does he mean?
To back up a bit, let me explain that the Book of Chronicles (later divided into two books) originally formed the conclusion to the Hebrew Scriptures, but in the Greek Septuagint it is placed much earlier, after the Books of Samuel and Kings, and given the title of Paralipomena, that is, “Left-overs [Concerning the Kings of Judah].” The work is actually in large part an abridgment of Samuel and Kings, and it may have been written not long after those books were first compiled, still in the sixth century, or, alternatively, as much as 300 or 350 years later, in the second century BC.
The Chronicler omits the two episodes in the Books of Samuel in which the word satan is associated with David, and he also eliminates the three uses of the term in connections with Solomon in the First Book of Kings (he presents Solomon as completely
sinless, thereby eliminating the need for God to raises satans against him). But now, in the story of David and the census, when 2 Samuel only speaks of Yahweh’s Anger, the Chronicler uses the word satan instead.
Is the Chronicler thinking of a human satan, like the satans of 1-2 Samuel and 1 Kings? There are also human satans in Psalm 109: this Psalm is a typical complaint of a man against his enemies; he says that they have conspired to appoint a wicked man as a satan against him (v. 6). May these and other satans be punished by Yahweh (v. 20), he says, and likewise all who “satanize” against him (v. 29).
Or does the Chronicler refer to a supernatural satan, like the “Son of God” who put pressure upon Job to test his fidelity to Yahweh under adverse conditions?
Or is it Satan? That is, is this adversary not only “a” satan like the one who persecuted Job, but one who has now taken the office of adversary to himself, or been appointed to this office, and goes by the proper name of Satan? Almost all modern translators and interpreters of this passage say “yes” to this interpretation.
But let’s not be hasty and affirm any of the possible answers to our question before consulting one source of great authority. Let us ask the legendary seventy ancient Jews of Alexandria what their opinion is. I refer to the Septuaginta translatores, the legendary translators of the Septuagint, who rendered Chronicles into Greek, perhaps 300 years after it was written, or perhaps only a few years after it was written—depending on when it was written, and when this part of the Septuagint was translated (which could be as late as the first century B.C.).
It turns out that they translated satan here simply as diabolos. That means that they take it not as a proper name, but as a common word, meaning, “a devil,” “an adversary.” (Recall what I said in the Preface:, where I gave this example: the definite article in Greek indicates a proper name; no article indicates a common noun—usually!)