The Census “Contradiction” image

The Census “Contradiction”

One of the most oft-cited examples of a biblical "contradiction" is the issue of who was responsible for prompting David to take a census of Israel. 2 Samuel 24:1 says that "the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, 'Go, number Israel and Judah.'" 1 Chronicles 21:1, on the other hand, says that "Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel." This, surely, is as stark a contradiction as it is possible to have?

Not really. A contradiction is when X is affirmed, and at the same time not-X is affirmed (for example, “God incited David” followed by “God did not incite David”). This is clearly not what we have here. So, to see these two texts as contradicting each other, we would need an extra step in our logic:

1. God incited David.
2. Satan incited David.
3. If Satan incited David, then God did not incite David.

If #3 is true, then we obviously have a contradiction.

But is it? Take the following example (ignoring, for the moment, the unfortunate parallel in Tony Blair’s case):

1. George Bush incited the UK parliament to sanction the invasion of Iraq.
2. Tony Blair incited the UK parliament to sanction the invasion of Iraq.

In this rather facile case, we clearly do not have a contradiction (and a good many historians regard both statements as more or less true). The only way this would constitute a contradiction is if the equivalent of #3 could be demonstrated: “If Tony Blair incited the UK parliament to sanction the invasion of Iraq, then George Bush did not.” And the reason this cannot be demonstrated is that, as we all know, multiple agents may be at work in a process, each with their own agenda.

Take another example, this time with three agents (spoiler alert):

1. Dumbledore incited Harry to fight Voldemort and die.
2. Voldemort incited Harry to fight Voldemort and die.
3. J. K. Rowling incited Harry to fight Voldemort and die.

Now, to a careful reader who has picked up on all of Dumbledore’s clues and mysterious gifts, there is a sense in which all three statements are true, but with different agendas and levels of agency involved. Dumbledore’s aim is to destroy the final horcrux in the only way possible; Voldemort’s aim is to destroy the only wizard who can destroy him; J. K. Rowling’s aim is to finish her series with a surprising and compelling twist. But it is in no way incoherent to speak of all three agents as working in the process, and in fact, we would fail to give an accurate picture of events if we did not.

The question, then, is whether it is at all conceivable that God and Satan might both be at work in the same process, like Bush/Blair and Dumbledore/Voldemort, but with different agendas. (I’ll leave aside the Rowling analogy for now, because it prompts so many other questions, and isn’t immediately relevant to the point I’m making.) And the answer, given by several biblical writers, is quite clearly yes. For example:

1. God brought about Job’s suffering (Job 1:12, 21-22; 2:6, 10; 42:11).
2. Satan brought about Job’s suffering (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7).


1. God orchestrated the betrayal of Christ (Acts 4:24-28).
2. Satan orchestrated the betrayal of Christ (Luke 22:3-6).

In both of these cases, and there are arguably others, the crucial premise #3 - on which the claim that 1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel contradict each other rests - is demonstrably untrue. As such, though these two texts clearly present very different pictures of what happened, driven by very different narrative and theological concerns, they do not represent a contradiction. Ha.

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