Harmonizing Apparent Contradictions in the OT Historical Books, Part 1—Samuel & 1 Chronicles

Most readers of the Old Testament are puzzled by the historical books, with all its intricate details, numbers and genealogies. Especially puzzling is the question of why there appear to be two apparently divergent histories in the Old Testament. First, there is the history contained in Samuel and Kings, and then there is the history contained in Chronicles, which covers many of the same stories as the preceding books, but often presents different details and may at times appear to be contradictory. Indeed, skeptics of the Bible often use the discrepant details in the historical books to allege error and contradiction in the Bible, to show that it cannot be divinely inspired.

In reality, with some careful study and exegesis, these apparent discrepancies can be resolved. Most of these apparent contradictions fall into one of two categories. First, there are those discrepancies that arise from scribal errors in the transmission of the texts in question. Samuel is especially notorious for this, as the text contains many scribal errors resulting from omissions or miscopied letters. In some places, only the Masoretic Text (MT) contains the errors while the Septuagint (LXX) preserves the original reading. In other places, neither text preserves the original reading, which must be determined through close comparison with parallel passages in other texts, especially 1-2 Chronicles, which is often using material from an earlier version of Samuel that lacked the scribal errors.[1]

Second, there are those apparent contradictions that result from the differing perspectives and foci of the two sets of histories. Samuel and Kings are written during the time of the exile, which is evidenced by the fact that the story ends abruptly during with the release of King Jehoachin during the time of Evil-Merodach (2 Kings 25:27-30).[2] By contrast, Chronicles goes all the way up to the time of King Cyrus of Persia (2 Chronicles 36:22-23), indicating a later date of composition. Its focus is to show the continuity of the Davidic Line even after the exile, which is why the narrative focuses more on the Davidic monarchy.[3] This also explains why different details are mentioned or focused on, which will be seen below.

This two-part article series will examine some of the apparent contradictions between Samuel/Kings and Chronicles and show how they may be resolved. These lists are not meant to be exhaustive, but will show the general categories of such apparent. This first part focuses on 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, and will show how all of the items fall into one of two categories mentioned above. The second part will focus on 1-2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, and will build upon the principles that will be established in this first part.

2 Samuel 8:4 & 1 Chronicles 18:4[4]

And David took from him 1,700 horsemen, and 20,000 foot soldiers. And David hamstrung all the chariot horses but left enough for 100 chariots. (2 Samuel 8:4) And David took from him 1,000 chariots, 7,000 horsemen, and 20,000 foot soldiers. And David hamstrung all the chariot horses, but left enough for 100 chariots. (1 Chronicles 18:4)

As originally suggested by Keil and Delitzsch This apparent contradiction appears to be the result of the accidental omission of certain words from the text of 2 Sam., with 1 Chr. representing the original text. In the original Hebrew, the latter text reads as אֶ֣לֶף רֶ֗כֶב וְשִׁבְעַ֤ת אֲלָפִים֙ פָּֽרָשִׁ֔ים. However, the word רֶ֗כֶב (chariots) was left out by copyists of 2 Sam. The resulting text would then read אֶ֣לֶף וְשִׁבְעַ֤ת אֲלָפִים֙ פָּֽרָשִׁ֔ים (1,000 and 7,000 horsemen). However, since this reading made no sense, the number 7,000 was further miscopied as 700 (וּשְׁבַע־מֵאֹות֙), yielding the number 1,700, which is what we have in 2 Sam. 8:4 today.[5]

Of note, the LXX preserves the original reading of 2 Sam. 8:4 which agrees with 1 Chr. 18:4 (χίλια ἅρματα καὶ ἑπτὰ χιλιάδας ἱππέων). Some scholars also suggest that original full text of 4QSamA from the DSS (which unfortunately only survives in fragments) contains the original reading, because the missing word רכב is contained in the extant fragment.[6] These two witnesses furnish evidence that the original text agreed with 1 Chr. 18:4, and that the current MT reading is corrupt due to scribal errors.

2 Samuel 21:19 & 1 Chronicles 20:5

And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob, and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. (2 Samuel 21:19) And there was again war with the Philistines, and Elhanan the son of Jair struck down Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. (1 Chronicles 20:5)

The text of 2 Sam. here is particularly interesting, since the text as it stands creates a contradiction not only with 1 Chr., but with 1 Sam. 17, which narrates that David killed Goliath. This is once again the result of a scribal error in the copying of 2 Samuel, this time resulting from a series of graphic interchanges (i.e. the mistaking of a letter for another letter similar to it). In order to explain the issue, it is necessary to place the Hebrew text of both passages side by side:

2 Sam. 21:19: וַתְּהִי־עֹ֧וד הַמִּלְחָמָ֛ה בְּגֹ֖וב עִם־פְּלִשְׁתִּ֑ים וַיַּ֡ךְ אֶלְחָנָן֩ בֶּן־יַעְרֵי֙ אֹרְגִ֜ים בֵּ֣ית הַלַּחְמִ֗י אֵ֚ת גָּלְיָ֣ת הַגִּתִּ֔י וְעֵ֣ץ חֲנִיתֹ֔ו כִּמְנֹ֖ור אֹרְגִֽים׃ 1
Chr. 20:5: וַתְּהִי־עֹ֥וד מִלְחָמָ֖ה אֶת־פְּלִשְׁתִּ֑ים וַיַּ֞ךְ אֶלְחָנָ֣ן בֶּן־יָעִ֗ור אֶת־לַחְמִי֙ אֲחִי֙ גָּלְיָ֣ת הַגִּתִּ֔י וְעֵ֣ץ חֲנִיתֹ֔ו כִּמְנֹ֖ור אֹרְגִֽים׃

The text diverges after “Elhanan, son of Jair” in that the word for “Lahmi” (אֶת־לַחְמִי֙) is miscopied in 2 Sam. as “the Bethlehemite.” The definite direct object marker (אֶת) is misconstrued as the word “bayt” (בֵּ֣ית), which is then attached to the name “Lahmi” to yield “Bethlehemite.” To compound the issue, the word “brother of” (אֲחִי֙), which no longer fits into the new context created by the scribal error, is misconstrued as the definite direct object marker (אֵ֚ת), thus making Goliath the object of the verb “struck down.”

The scribal error in question must have occurred early on in the text’s history, since the LXX repeats the MT’s scribal error (καὶ ἐπάταξεν Ελεαναν υἱὸς Αριωργιμ ὁ Βαιθλεεμίτης τὸν Γολιαθ τὸν Γεθθαῖον). 4QSamA is of no help here, since the relevant verse is not preserved in the extant fragments. Our only evidence for how 2 Sam. 21:19 must originally have read comes from the close similarity in wording between it and 1 Chr. 20:5, which allows us to reconstruct the original reading via conjectural emendation.

2 Samuel 23:27, & 1 Chronicles 11:29

Abiezer of Anathoth, Mebunnai the Hushathite . . . (2 Samuel 23:27) Sibbecai the Hushathite, Ilai the Ahohite (1 Chronicles 11:29)

Here we have an interesting case of graphic interchange resulting in two variant versions of the same name. The original name Sibbecai, written in Hebrew as סִבְּכַי֙, could easily be miscopied by a scribe as Mebunnai מְבֻנַּ֖י, as a poorly written samekh (ס) could easily appear as a mem (מ) in the eyes of another scribe. The same thing can happen to the letter bet (ב), which if not written wide enough can be mistaken for a nun (נ).[7]

Just like with 2 Sam. 21:19, the mistake must have occurred early on, since the LXX reflects the same text as the MT. However, the word מבני appears to have been construed as meaning “of the sons of,” since the LXX reads “Abiezer the Anathothite, of the sons of the Asothite” (Αβιεζερ ὁ Αναθωθίτης ἐκ τῶν υἱῶν τοῦ Ασωθίτου).[8] However, this reading doesn’t make a lot of sense in context. And just like with 2 Sam. 21:19, the DSS unfortunately does not preserve the fragment containing this verse, so we cannot determine what it must have originally read.

That 2 Sam. 23:27 must originally have also read “Sibbecai” is evidenced by the fact that 2 Sam. 21:18 contains the original uncorrupted name “Sibbecai the Hushathite” (סִבְּכַי֙ הַחֻ֣שָׁתִ֔י). Thus, we not only have evidence from 1 Chr. 11:29, but also from elsewhere in 2 Sam. Attesting to the original reading.

2 Samuel 23:36 & 1 Chronicles 11:38

Igal, the son of Nathan . . . (2 Samuel 23:34) Joel the brother of Nathan . . . (1 Chronicles 11:38)

Sibbecai is not the only one of David’s mighty men whose name has been garbled in transmission. In this case, the names Igal (יִגְאָ֤ל) and Joel (יֹואֵל֙) can easily be mistaken for one another, since a vav (ו) can sometimes be interchanged with gimel (ג)—the difference being one little tittle at the bottom. Less obvious is how the words son (בֶּן) and brother (אֲחִ֣י) could be interchanged, since they do not appear graphically similar.

Unlike the previous three textual variants, McCarter argues that in this case, 2 Sam. Preserves the original reading, and 1 Chr. contains the scribal error, since it is more likely for an uncommon name such as Igal to be miscopied as the more common name Joel, than vice versa.[9] As evidence, he points out that the LXX text of 1 Chr. 3:22 also contains the name Joel, whereas in the MT it preserves the name Igal.[10]

The problem with this argument is that the Igal in 1 Chr. 3:22 is quite evidently not the same Igal, since he has neither a father nor a brother named Nathan. Thus, 1 Chr. 3:22 cannot be used to settle the matter. As for the argument that it is more likely for an uncommon name to be replaced with a common one, this cannot be taken as an absolute rule in all cases, so while it is a plausible argument, it doesn’t establish McCarter’s view beyond reasonable doubt.

While we cannot know with certainty whether Igal or Joel was the original name, or whether he was the son or brother of Nathan, we can at least know that the original reading is one of two possibilities, and the choice of one over the other has no overall impact on the meaning of the text.

2 Samuel 24:1 & 1 Chronicles 21:1

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

Unlike the first four alleged contradictions, which concern textual variants, the this item is the result of the same event being seen from two different angles, or of two different points in the event being emphasized. In this case, we have the same action being attributed to God in one passage, and Satan in the other.

In order to make sense of these two texts, one must remember that God often works through intermediaries to accomplish His goals. Hence, angels, prophets, and other beings are often sent by God to do His will. When these intermediaries act, it is as though God Himself is acting. In this case, an  adversary (שָׂטָ֖ן)[11] is said to incite Israel, but does so as part of God’s plan. This teaches us that even when malevolent persons or entities act, they do so by God’s permission, and are unable to act unless He allows them to.

But why would God do this? Gleason Archer his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties furnishes a probable answer: To humble David and remind him that his successes were only made possible by God’s help, not his own leadership skills or the strength and number of his men:

Without being fully aware of what was going on in his heart, David has apparently been building up an attitude of pride and self-admiration for what he had achieved in the way of military success and economic expansion of his people. He began to think more in terms of armaments and troops than in terms of the faithful mercies of God. In his youth he had put his entire trust in God alone, whether he was facing Goliath with a slingshot or an army of Amalekites with a band of four hundred men. But in later years he had come to rely more and more on material resources, like any hardheaded realist, and he learned to measure his strength by the yardstick of numbers and wealth.
The Lord therefore decided that it was time for David to be brought to his knees once more and to be cast on the grace of God through a time of soul-searching trial. He therefore encouraged David to carry out the plan he had long cherished, that of counting up his manpower resources in order to plan his future military strategy with a view to the most effective deployment of his armies. Quite possibly this would also afford him a better base for assessment of taxes. And so God in effect said to him: “All right, go ahead and do it. Then you will find out how much good it will do you.”[12]

2 Samuel 24:13 & 1 Chronicles 21:11-12

So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider and see what answer I shall return to Him who sent me.” (2 Samuel 24:13, NASB) So Gad came to David and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Choose what you will: either three years of famine, or three months of devastation by your foes while the sword of your enemies overtakes you, or else three days of the sword of the LORD, pestilence on the land, with the angel of the LORD destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’ Now decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” (1 Chr. 21:11-12)

Here, we have another discrepancy between the MT and LXX in its reading of 2 Sam. 24:13. While the LXX reading agrees with 1 Chr. and gives the number as “three years” (τρία ἔτη), the MT diverges from this number and gives the number as “seven years” (שֶֽׁבַע־שָׁנִ֣ים). Thus, as with the first four items on this list, this could be a simple matter of a scribal error in the copying of the MT. Most English translations opt to give the LXX reading (ESV, NIV, NRSV, RSV, etc.), while a few give the MT reading (KJV, NASB, NKJV, etc.).

While accepting the LXX is the easiest solution to this problem, Archer provides an alternate solution. He accepts the MT reading of 2 Sam. 24:13, and suggests that Gad came to David twice. The first time, he presented David with seven years of famine. However, after David entreated before the Lord, Gad came to David a second time and gave him a reduced number of three years.[13] The problem with this explanation is that there is no evidence that Gad came to David twice. Thus, the first solution, that of accepting the LXX reading, is the preferable option.[14]

2 Samuel 24:24 & 1 Chronicles 21:24-25

But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. (2 Samuel 24:24) No, but I will buy them for the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” So David paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold by weight for the site. (1 Chronicles 21:24–25.)

Here, the apparent contradiction can easily be settled if one notes the choice of wordings in both texts and notices that while they are referring to the same event, they are focusing on two different items.

According to Archer, the reason why the two texts give different amounts for what King David paid Araunah (or Ornan; the names are spelt very similarly in Hebrew) is that 2 Sam. only concerns the price of the threshing floor and oxen, whereas the 1 Chr. provides the price for the entire site, including the surrounding environs that would later be used to build the Temple. He notes that 50 shekels of silver is the appropriate market price for that time period for a threshing floor, a pair of oxen and a cart. By contrast, the word for “site” (מָּקֹ֑ום) is a more inclusive term than just the threshing place. Thus, which Archer concludes that Ornan possessed not only the threshing floor, but the entire site of Mt. Moriah, which could easily be worth the full price of 600 shekels of gold.[15]

From these seven examples, we see how these problem passages can be harmonized if one takes the time to study them carefully. Some of the solutions may require specialized knowledge such as textual criticism, but they are readily available if one is willing to do the deep digging necessary to find the information.


Endnotes

[1] P. Kyle McCarter Jr., Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986), 89, 94.

[2] Jewish tradition holds that the author of these books is the prophet Jeremiah, who lived right around the time the narrative ends. See Hermann Spieckerman, “The Deuteronomistic History,” 336, in Leo G. Perdue, (ed.). The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).

[3] John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2018), 431-432, 438-439.

[4] Unless otherwise stated, all scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version Catholic Edition (ESVCE)

[5] Karl Fredreich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, “Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary,” StudyLight.org, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kdo/2-samuel-8.html

[6] Ronald F. Youngblood, “1, 2 Samuel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 Samuel–2 Kings (Revised Edition), ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 408. The extant text of 4QSamuelA only contains the words דויד אלף רכב. The words ושבעת אלפים are inferred to be contained in the missing portion which comes after.

[7] For an explanation of how graphic interchange could happen in this text, see McCarter, Textual Criticism, 48.

[8] For those who are wondering how Hushathite became Asothite, Greek has no letter “h,” which is why the initial heh (ה) drops out in transliteration. Further, Greek also doesn’t have a letter corresponding to shin (שׁ), so the letter shin has to be transliterated with a sigma (σ). Finally, the interchange of the vowels “a” and “u” could be a simple case of metathesis.

[9] The name Joel appears 21x in the Hebrew Bible. By contrast, the name Igal only appears 3x.

[10] Kyle McCarter Jr., Textual Criticism, 43.

[11] Curiously, there is no definite article on the word “accuser.” When the word “satan” is used without the article, it is usually used in the sense of an adversary (e.g. 1 Kings 5:18, 11:14, 23, 25). In Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3:1-2, Satan (“the Accuser”) is always mentioned with the definite article, to highlight the fact that a specific being is in view. The lack of the article in 1 Chr. 21:1 creates an ambiguity as to whether the Satan is in view (here being treated as a personal name), or just a general adversary of Israel. Hence, the NET translates the verse as: “An adversary opposed Israel, inciting David to count how many warriors Israel had.”

[12] Gleason L. Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 186-187.

[13] Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 189-190.

[14] Most commentaries also accept this solution. See, for e.g., Youngblood, “1, 2 Samuel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 3, 614.

[15] Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 190.

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