Was it God or Satan who incited David to take the census?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Who incited David to take a census? God or Satan? Please review these passages: 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1. I'm am not pleased with the answer that the Got Questions Ministries site gives me. The site's explanation says that it was God that gave permission to Satan to incite David, especially when it clearly says in Samuel that God incited David. God can't incite David if he gives Satan permission because it was God doing it and not Satan, yet the other verse says that Satan was the one who incited David. I honestly think that this conflict is affecting my belief in biblical inerrancy.

“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (2 Samuel 24:1, ESV)

“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” (1 Chronicles 21:1, ESV)

Answer: I see that you are standing on the ledge of biblical inerrancy... but don't jump! These two verses are not in contradiction. But since I feel that the Got Questions Ministries article does indeed answer this question, I'll need to expand upon why these verses cannot be said to be in contradiction according to logic, story and communication.

First of all, God has the right (and routinely exercises that right) to test people through trials both great and small. This is a reasonable expectation for a believer. Most of our trials are relatively small, like tests of obedience. But sometimes they are huge, like the loss of family or fortune. Fortunately, God has given us many biblical examples to help us find our way through troubling times, but none as profound as through the life of Job. I want to use Job to demonstrate how God’s agency works because it is very clear here. Then we can apply these principles to the two passages concerning David.

Job’s story begins in heaven where God and Satan are “debating” about his godly character. God praises Job for being intrinsically upright, but Satan counters that Job only revers God because of his worldly advantages. So, God agrees to test Job through Satan.

“And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.” (Job 1:8–12, ESV, emphasis mine)

Note the hierarchy of agency: God is the primary cause of Job’s testing (see highlighted text) because Satan could not vex Job without God’s permission. This demonstrates that whether or not God is performing the action himself, he is the primary cause of Job’s woes. This is because he is the primary cause of everything — everything that is not sin or illogical, that is. God is called the Prime Mover for this reason. Other agents may also move… but God moves the movers. And although God is the primary cause of all things, he is rarely the direct agent… and agency flows downhill. Job’s case is a prime example.

True, it was Satan’s “hand” that stretched out and touched Job’s belongings, but God was the primary agent via his permission. Your statement “God can't incite David if he gives Satan permission because it was God doing it and not Satan…” shows me that you have the wrong idea about how this works. In fact, you are picking a fight with logic and the language — but where no issue exists.

The following two statements from the story of Job are true: God tested Job. Satan tested Job. Each one highlights a different person in the hierarchy of agency. As such, if these two statements were singly and separately written in two different Bible books that described the same event, they would not be in logical contradiction. They merely show that one author decided to focus on God in the chain of agency while a different author focused on Satan. The story would have been the same in both accounts—and focusing on one object does not make the other objects disappear! Let’s add another actor in the scenario.

“While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
(Job 1:17, ESV)

Although Satan’s “hand” was upon Job, he used other entities as agents of destruction. In the above verse, we see that he sent the Chaldeans to steal the camels and kill the servants. The agency travels from the primary agent (God), through the secondary agent (Satan) and through tertiary agents (the Chaldeans). So now, these three statements are true:  God tested Job; Satan tested Job; the Chaldeans tested Job — and they are true singly, doubly or triply — in any combination and in any number of books.

And although they might be telling the same story with different combinations of agents, they would be telling the same story — perhaps with omissions. But omissions between separate accounts do not count as logical contradictions: where there are three agents, there are always also two agents, and there is always also one agent. Mentioning fewer than the total count is a writer’s prerogative, not an inerrancy crisis.

Job understood how all this worked. He knew that the Chaldeans were the ones who stole his camels and killed his servants. But he had no problem seeing through all that and calling God the agent of his trials.

“As God lives, who has taken away my right, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter,(Job 27:2, ESV, emphasis mine)

Let us grab an example from the New Testament. You might remember the following verse from the Got Questions Ministries website. It shows the same flow of agency that was found in Job.

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9, ESV, emphases mine)

Paul describes a three-level agency: God, Satan and the “thorn” ... whatever that was. Note the hierarchy: the thorn was sent by Satan as a message — but God specifically allowed it. Does allowing equal sending? It does here. God’s permission is the on-off switch in the chain of agency. Therefore, no matter who the immediate agent was, it was God who sent the thorn. So, these three are true: God tested Paul.  Satan tested Paul.  The thorn tested Paul. These three statements would not be in conflict, even when describing the same story using different combinations in different ways and in different places for the same reasons described for Job.

As for 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1, these represent two different writers telling the same story in two different biblical books. Your objection is, in one version it was God who incited David, but in the other, it was Satan who did so… and that this is a slam-dunk contradiction. This is simply not true.

2 Samuel emphasizes the agency of God by not mentioning Satan, and 1 Chronicles emphasizes the agency of Satan by not mentioning God — but neither statement precludes other agents from acting in the story. Therefore, God is (as he always is) the primary agent where he is not mentioned — like in 1 Chronicles. That’s how agency works. It just happens that 2 Samuel gives us that information also… but without mentioning Satan — and who cares! God is always the cause anyway. But still, wouldn’t we be better served if verses like these lined up more exactly? Not really.

I know of no rule of writing (biblical or otherwise) that says when two writers write about the same event that they must do it in the same way or include every detail in the story. In fact, that would be redundant — a communicative waste of time! God allows his authors to use their personal styles, culture, points of view and ranges of expression when writing, and the resultant variations are the natural artifacts of language. This is why a textual variation cannot be considered a contradiction until all possibilities of non-contradiction have been eliminated — and that is the thing that you failed to do. Instead, you sought contradiction, and you found it… but not really.

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