Understanding the Adversary

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

Why does 2 Samuel 2:1 say that God incited David to take a military census, while 1 Chronicles 21:1 says Satan did it?

Second Samuel 24:1 says, “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited [sut] David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’” According to 1 Chronicles 21:1, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited [sut] David to take a census of Israel.” I will examine the use of the term satan in the Old Testament, some terminological connections with other passages, and finally suggest a possible way to harmonize these passages.

1. Use of the Term Satan: The Hebrew word satan means “adversary, opponent” and is used to designate human beings who act as adversaries or opponents of others (e.g., 1 Kings 11:14, 23). It also designates the angel of the Lord, who functioned as an adversary to Balaam (Num. 22:22). Obviously, this is not a demonic figure. The noun is also found in Job 1:6 and 2:1 and in Zechariah 3:1 for the adversary of God’s people. Scholars usually argue that when the noun satan is accompanied by a definite article (“the satan”) it refers to a function (“an adversary/opponent”) and is not a proper noun (“Satan”). Since the term without the article appears only in 1 Chronicles 21:1, it is considered a proper noun (“Satan”). But other scholars have argued that it is precisely when the noun is accompanied by the article that it functions as a proper name. One could wonder whether this debate is that important.

2. Linguistic Connections: There are clear linguistic connections between Job 2:1, Zechariah 3:1, and 1 Chronicles 21:1. In Chronicles Satan “stands” (‘amad) against Israel and incites (sut) David to sin. The use of the verb “to stand” (‘amad), together with the noun satan, is found in Zechariah 3:1, establishing a connection between the two passages. In both cases satan opposes the servant of God. The verb “to incite” (sut) appears in conjunction with the noun satan in Job 2:3, also establishing a connection between these two passages. In Job he incites God against Job, and in Chronicles he incites David against God. The author is aware of the usage of the term satan in the other passages, and his use of the term satan (“Satan”) most probably reflects the meaning of the term in the other two books. In other words, he is not contrasting his use with that of the other passages; the presence or absence of the article is irrelevant. The Old Testament describes a being who opposes God and His plans for His people (e.g., Gen. 3:1-5; Lev. 16:8-10, 20-22; Isa. 14:12-14; cf. Rev. 12:9).

3. The Narratives in Chronicles and Samuel: The role of satan is quite clear in the three passages we have discussed. First, he is the adversary of God’s people, opposing the divine disposition to forgive them (Zech. 3:1). He even opposes the way God rules His kingdom (Job 1:6; 2:1). Second, he incites people to disobey God. Third, he wants evil things for God’s people. He is unquestionably a divine archenemy. According to Chronicles, Satan stood against Israel as the enemy and incited David to take a census, knowing that as a result people would suffer.

Why is taking a census a national sin? Different types of censuses were taken in Israel without any penalty (e.g., Ex. 30:11-16). Perhaps, as many have suggested, the difference here is that this is a military census taken without divine approval that expressed reliance on human military power. It was a breach of Israel’s covenant with the Lord.

If this is the case, the differences between 1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel are insignificant. The wrath of the Lord, mentioned as the cause for the census, is clarified as God allowing Satan to incite David to take the census. In His anger God does not intervene to protect David. Nevertheless, God is still the sovereign Lord who authorizes the action of Satan and brings the plague to an end. He uses this experience to lead David to find a place for the building of the Temple. He does not give Satan complete control over His people (see Job 1:12; 2:6).