From *The Skeptical Review*, 1999 July/August. This article is absolutely devastating to the biblical inerrancy doctrine:
by Farrell Till
One of the most puzzling tales of the Bible is told in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. Yahweh or Satan (depending on which account you want to believe) "moved David to number Israel" (v:1). Since biblical inerrantists argue that the Bible is completely free of errors, we will assume that in some sense Yahweh moved David to number Israel. One would think that if Yahweh moved David to number Israel, Yahweh would have been pleased if David did as he had been "moved" and took the census, but if you think this way, you are reasoning like a rational person, and Bible stories aren't necessarily rational. In fact, they many times tax the imagination of those who try to find rationality in them.
That's the case with this story about David. He conducted the census just as Yahweh had "moved" him to do, but for some reason known only to Yahweh and the Gleason Archer type of "apologists" who entertain us with verbal gymnastics that supposedly explain biblical discrepancies, Yahweh was ticked off after David had done exactly what he had been "moved" to do, and so he sent Nathan the prophet to call David on the carpet for taking the census (2 Sam. 24:12). That wasn't really necessary, because David had already realized that in doing what Yahweh had "moved"him to do, he had somehow sinned. That's what the inspired word of God says: "But afterward, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people" (v:10). Why taking a census would be a sin, especially after God had moved David to do it, is anyone's guess. Well, not anyone's guess, of course, because the professional "apologists" like Gleason Archer, Norman Geisler, John Haley, etc. were apparently blessed with special insights that enabled them to know that the Bible didn't really mean what it plainly said. Just read their books, and you'll find all of the answers if you can stop laughing long enough to read them all the way through.
At any rate, David realized he had sinned by taking the census that Yahweh had "moved" him to take, and so he said, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done" (v:10). It's odd that David would have thought that he had sinned and that even Yahweh's prophet Nathan would have thought the same thing, because the inspired word of God claimed in 1 Kings 15:5, long after he was dead, that "David did that which was right in the sight of Yahweh and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of this life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite," but this story about David in 2 Samuel 24 claims that David sinned in conducting the census that Yahweh had "moved" him to take. But the census that David took had nothing at all to do with the matter of Uriah the Hittite, whom David had murdered 12 chapters earlier, so if David never did anything wrong except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite, how could his act of numbering Israel have been a sin?Oh, the confusion that comes with trying to make sense out of the inspired, inerrant word of God!
But not to worry. The professional apologists have the problems all figured out. Just read their books. If you do, you may encounter further confusion, because the "solutions" of the experts don't always agree. John Haley, for example, talked about David's repentance and grief over his sins (Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, Baker House, pp. 222-223), but he never got around to explaining how that if David had never done anything wrong except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite, the census he took could have been a sin. Gleason Archer used an entirely different approach, but he, like Haley, never did explain how that David always did what was right in the sight of Yahweh, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite, yet had somehow sinned in taking the census. Archer even listed other sins that David had committed but excused them by saying that "David's heart was all there for God [whatever this means], and God was his very reason for living" and that "David could never remain out of fellowship with God for very long" (*Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties,* Zondervan, p. 200). But just how does any of this explain why the census could have been a sin if David had always done what was right except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite? Maybe Roger Hutchinson, who is presently on a crusade to enlighten us on the virtues of the Bible (see pp. 6-10, this issue), can tell us what the real solution to this problem is.
The further one goes into this story of David's census, the more the confusion multiplies. We learn not only that David sinned in doing exactly what Yahweh had moved him to do, although he really did nothing wrong all of his days except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite, but also that even the divinely inspired writers couldn't agree on the outcome of the census.One inspired writer said that the number of valiant men was 800 thousand in Israel and 500 thousand in Judah (2 Sam. 24:9), but the other inspired writer said that the numbers were 1.1 million and 470 thousand (2 Chron. 21:5).But again we don't have to worry. The professional "apologists" have this problem worked out, with different solutions, of course, but "solutions" nevertheless. Haley thought that "oral tradition" or "copyist errors" may have accounted for the differences, but Archer thought that the 800,000 Israelites in the one account were only "battle-seasoned veterans," but the 1.1 million in the other account included 300,000 men of military age who had had no battle experience. Yeah, right, the biblical text gives plenty of reason to conclude that, doesn't it?Maybe Hutchinson can let us know what the "real" solution is.
One would think that a fairly simple story could have no more inconsistencies than these, but they continued right up to the end. The first account said that Yahweh sent Nathan the prophet to offer David his choice of three punishments for his sin: "Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land, or shall you flee three months before your enemies while they pursue you, or shall there be three days' plague in your land" (2 Sam. 24:13)? On the other hand, the second account says that Yahweh offered David just three years of famine rather than seven (1 Chron. 21:12). If Nathan said three years, then he couldn't have said seven years, and if he said seven years he couldn't have said three years, so what did he say, three or seven? This time the professional "apologists" are getting help from modern versions of the Bible, which solved the problem by just translating it away. The RSV, NRSV, NIV, GNB, and other recent translations have put "three years" in the 2 Samuel account with footnotes to explain that the Hebrew text actually says "seven years." How many people, who don't bother to read footnotes, will pass over this white wash without even noticing it?
Translators have been a bit more honest with another glaring inconsistency in this story. The first account of this affair in David's life ends with his buying a piece of ground that was later used as the site of the temple. Here he paid 50 shekels of silver for property identified as a team of oxen and a "threshing floor" (24:24), but the account in 1 Chronicles claims that he paid 600 shekels of gold for "the place" (21:26). Once again the professionals have ridden to the rescue. Haley speculated that the discrepancy could be just a copyist error (as if a scribe could look at 50 shekels of silver and mistake it for 600 shekels of gold) or that David first bought the oxen and only the top of the hill but then later decided to buy the whole hill of Moriah on which the threshing floor was located (p. 390). Archer gives a slightly different twist to his "solution." The first account mentioned only the amount that David paid for two oxen and the wooden cart that was used in threshing, but the second account included not just the price paid for the oxen and the cart but also the land too. In other words, David laid out 50 shekels of silver for the oxen and cart and then gave Ornan 600 shekels of gold for the threshing floor. Readers will have to examine both accounts to see that either "solution" is pure speculation. To show how unlikely these solutions are, let's imagine that both accounts had given the same amount (either 50 shekels of silver or 600 shekels of gold) as the sum that David paid the property owner. In that event, how would biblicists react if skeptics should try to claim that the two accounts are discrepant because one said that David paid this amount for the oxen and the threshing floor, but the other said that David paid the amount for "the place"? We would be accused of all kinds of dishonesty, yet biblicists think they are entitled to use the same kind of reasoning to prove that discrepancies are not in the Bible. Go figure.
Some biblicists have even argued that silver was more valuable than gold at that time, and so 50 shekels of silver was equivalent to 600 shekels of gold, but as unlikely as this is, it wouldn't chance the fact that one inspired writer said that David gave the owner 50 shekels of silver, and the other writer said that he gave the owner 600 shekels of gold. Both statements can't be right. Maybe Hutchinson will come to the rescue and tell us what is the "right" solution to this problem.
These inconsistencies in the two accounts are rather minor compared to the appalling depiction of Yahweh's morality in this matter. As already noted, through the prophet sent to rebuke David, Yahweh offered him his choice of three punishments. David's decision was to leave the matter in Yahweh's hands: "I am in great distress. Please let us fall into the hand of Yahweh, for his mercies are great" (1 Sam. 24:14). Well, if David thought that the mercies of Yahweh were great, he was in for a big surprise. Yahweh, who was always a big one for sending plagues (as we see in reading the wilderness wandering stories), chose the last punishment he had offered David and "sent a plague upon Israel from the morning till the appointed time" (v:15). Now keep in mind that whatever the "sin" was in taking the census, David was the one who had done it, but Yahweh sent the plague upon the whole nation of Israel "from Dan [in the north] to Beersheba [in the south]" (v:15). The result was that 70,000 [that's a seven followed by four zeroes] men of Israel died (v:15). So David committed the sin, but Yahweh killed 70,000 other people because of the sin. Whatever happened to Yahweh's law that said others should not be punished for the sins of others but that "a person shall be put to death for his own sin" (Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18:20). Well, apparently when Yahweh saw a chance to send a plague, he never let it go by.
This David had to be the luckiest scoundrel who ever lived.He committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then conspired to have her husband Uriah murdered (2 Samuel 11). The law of Moses, under which David lived, commanded the death penalty for both offenses: "If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die" (Dt. 22:22), and, "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death" (Ex. 21:12).David himself didn't actually strike Uriah dead, but he had conspired to have someone kill him, and the prophet Nathan said to David, "You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword" (2 Sam. 12:10). So David committed two offenses that called for the death penalty under the law of Moses, but he escaped the penalty by saying just five words, "I have sinned against Yahweh" (v:13), upon which Nathan said, "Yahweh has also put away your sin; you shall not die." Sins had nevertheless been committed, and so Yahweh had to have some satisfaction. He obtained that satisfaction by killing the baby that was born to Bathsheba as a result of her relationship with David (vs:14-18). Yes, that's right. David committed sins that called for the death penalty, but Yahweh let him off and killed his child.
In the matter of the census, David's luck held out. He took the census (as Yahweh had moved him to do) and was living in a society presumably governed by the principle that each person should die for his own sins, but instead of punishing David, Yahweh sent a plague that killed 70,000 other people. Even David was able to see the appalling injustice of it. When he saw the angel, who was striking the people,standing with his hand stretched out toward Jerusalem, David said to Yahweh [in whatever way people talked to Yahweh in those days], "Surely I have sinned, and I have done wickedly, but these sheep, what have they done?" So maybe David was a man after Yahweh's own heart after all (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22), or at least he was a man after what Yahweh's heart should have been.David could see the injustice of what was happening. He had committed the offense, but Yahweh was killing thousands of others for something that another person had done. David was outraged enough to ask, "What have these sheep done?"
A principle is involved here that biblical inerrantists just can't see or at least refuse to admit that they see. The Bible is filled with tales of people whom Yahweh killed or ordered killed for the "sins" of others. If the Genesis flood actually happened as recorded, then there would have been hundreds of children and babies drowned who were too young to be responsible for whatever "wickedness" their parents may have been guilty of. In their march through Canaan, the Israelites were presumably acting under orders to leave nothing alive to breathe (Dt. 20:16), and the book of Joshua claims that this command was carried out (10:10; 11:11-15). If these stories are true, then the Israelites, under direct orders from Yahweh, massacred thousands of children, who were too young to be morally guilty of anything.Whatever "wickedness" their parents may have been guilty of could not be blamed on the children.
One of the most reprehensible tales like this in all of the Bible is found in 1 Samuel 15, where Samuel the prophet said to King Saul, "Now therefore heed the voice of the words of Yahweh. Thus says Yahweh of hosts, `I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them.But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey" (vs:1-3).
The incident that Yahweh used as an excuse here to order Saul to massacre the Amalekites recorded in Exodus 17:8-16), but if this was an actual historical event, it happened during the Israelite journey through the Sinai wilderness, which would have been over 400 years before the time of king Saul! Deuteronomy 25:17-19 made reference to this event and ordered the Israelites to remember it and, after they were settled into the land that Yahweh was giving them, to "blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven." The tale in 1 Samuel 15 was just the pay off for this grudge that Yahweh had carried for four centuries.
What we are really dealing with here, of course, is the ancient superstitions of barbarous times. If any of this happened, it wasn't done by any directions from God. It was action being taken by barbarous people who wanted to believe that their god, whom they had created in their own image, was directing them to kill their enemies, including even children and babies. Biblical inerrantists, of course, will never admit this. They cling to the myth that their precious Bible is the inerrant word of God, and so they lean over backwards to try to justify such barbaric stories as these. However, they will never justify them in the minds of rational people until they come up with something better than their claims that if God gave life, he had the right to take life or that God did those children and babies a favor by killing them at an age when they would go to heaven rather than grow up to become wicked like their parents. They're going to have to explain rationally why it was morally right to kill people for what others had done. They're going to have to give a rational answer to David's question: "What have these sheep done?"