1 Chronicles 21: The Plague That Founded A Temple

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1 Chronicles 21 closely parallels the story of David’s ill-fated census in 2 Samuel 24. It’s worth taking a moment to wonder why this story was included at all, given that the Chronicler has tended to omit the other stories of David’s sins.

The most obvious answer is given to us at the end of the story (which, thanks to some sloppy chapter breaks, appears in 1 Chron. 22:1): It tells us how the threshing floor of Ornan/Araunah the Jebusite, on which the Temple would one day be built, was acquired. Given the premium that the Chronicler puts on the building of the Temple, this story may have just been too big a deal to leave out.

There might also have been a mitigating factor that made the story less unpalatable to the Chronicler. Unlike the other tales of David’s sins, David is not his own master here. Rather, 2 Sam. 24 has God inciting him. So while it is acknowledged – by David himself in 2 Sam. 24:17 – as David’s error, it’s possible that the Chronicler may have been able to fudge over his misgivings for this story in a way that he wasn’t for, say, the rape of Bathsheba or the taking of Abigail (or the deaths of their husbands).

Enter Satan

In 2 Sam. 24, the story begins with God characteristically angry at Israel. No particular reason is given for this anger. Maybe it was just a day ending in “Y”. This goes a bit beyond the overreactions we’ve seen so far, though, because God seems to understand that he doesn’t have a good reason to be mad at Israel here. He’s itching to punish them, but they’ve disappointed by failing to provide him with an excuse.

So he’s got to make them give him an excuse.

The text tells us that he incites David, causing David to sin by taking a census. This then provides God with the excuse he’s been longing for.

Here, right from our very first verse, we see a change. Rather than God inciting David because he’s having a bad eon and needs a puppy to kick around, we have Satan rising up against Israel and nudging David.

This is our first glimpse of Satan. We’ve seen the word before, though. In Numbers 22, the angel who stands in Balaam’s way is described as his adversary, his satan. But this is the first time we see capital-s Satan, a discrete individual rather than adjective.

The easiest explanation for the change is that the Chronicler was (rightfully) uncomfortable with what 2 Sam. 24 implies about God’s character. This would reflect, as J.R. Porter puts it in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, “the view of postexilic Judaism that God is the only source of goodness, and that the source of evil must therefore be sought elsewhere” (p.122). This would be in contrast with the Deuteronomic view that God is the ultimate source and controller of all things, good and evil. (For more on this, Paul Davidson has a great post up about the evolution of Satan (and God) on his blog.)

But this feels like a very modern view of Satan to me, and I’m not sure that the thinking around the figure had solidified to quite that extent by the Chronicler’s time. Mike Heiser, of Naked Bible, points to the possibility that there may not actually be that much of a contradiction between our two accounts. Rather than seeing this as our first instance of Satan(noun), we could just see the same God of 2 Sam. 24 referred to as satan(adjective). That would make this passage a stepping stone in the development of Satan as an independent character, one in which God’s aspects have begun to take on different designations (one of which will, eventually, be turned from title into proper noun).

As a bit of an aside, I’m finding “satan” translated both as “adversary” and as “accuser.” This has struck me because the two words have very different implications. An adversary works against our interests, and so the Adversary who incites David seems to be orchestrating his fall. By contrast, an accuser may simply be holding us accountable, so the Accuser who incites David may be attempting something more like a cleansing through fire, with the end goal of purifying and bettering David and his kingdom (we’re talking theology here, so we can bypass the ethical questions this would raise).

Why a census?

But whomever incites David, the story has the feel of a post hoc rationalization. This may be assuming too much historicity, but it feels as though a plague happened to come some amount of time after David conducted a census, and the two events were then connected causally in people’s minds.

So if we assume that there was a David and that he conducted a census, we might wonder why?

The most obvious answer is, of course, money. David may have just been working on next year’s budget and wanted to know how much tax revenue he could expect (or realistically demand). The second most obvious answer, supported by explicit connection between the men counted and their ability to wield swords (not to mention the fact that the taking of the census is given over to the military leadership), is that it had to do with knowing how large a military David might be able to muster.

James Bradford Pate points to the Jewish commentator, Malbim, for some possible specifics: “because many Israelites had followed David’s son Absalom rather than David when Absalom was revolting, David was doubtful that he could rely on getting volunteers for his military, and thus he resorted to the draft.”

Collecting the Numbers

David puts Joab in charge of conducting the census. In both versions of the story, Joab protests, asking David why he should want to do such a thing? In 1 Chron. 21, Joab correctly argues that conducting a census would bring guilt down on Israel.

This is a pretty big departure from the Joab we know and rather strongly dislike. The Joab we saw in 1-2 Samuel was, if not a baddie, at least a sycophantic, amoral murderer. To have him be the mouthpiece of warning against the census is completely out of character.

It’s like that Joab’s protests against the census in 2 Sam. 24:3 simply made him an easy character – already involved in the story, already voicing discontent – for the Chronicler to use. It would certainly have meant less revision than, for example, bringing Gad the seer in early.

But the Chronicler goes beyond simply tacking an extra phrase to Joab’s dialogue. In this version, when Joab returns with the census numbers, he omits Levi and Benjamin from the count so that David never has accurate numbers to begin with. He does this because David’s “command was abhorrent to Joab” (1 Chron. 21:6).

So why make Joab the voice of God here? Why make him the goodie of the story?

The possibility remains that Joab was merely convenient, and perhaps the Chronicler sought to lessen David’s sin by never giving him the information he had sought in the first place (or, perhaps, spare the reader from the sin of knowing it by indicating that the number is incorrect).

Or perhaps the Chronicler is picking up more on the sycophantic rather than the amoral aspect of Joab’s personality. If David is an archetypal king, than Joab’s steadfast loyalty (steadfast to the point of murder) might be seen as a good thing. And if the census is sinful and will backfire on David, then it makes sense for his loyal servant to warn him against it. So perhaps we shouldn’t see Joab as taking God’s side in this chapter, but rather taking the side of David’s best interests.

In 2 Sam. 24:5-8, we get a description of the commanders’ journey through the nation as they count the people. The Chronicler, however, cuts all of that out.

The numbers are quite different as well. In 1 Chron. 21, Joab reports that there are 1,100,000 men who draw swords in Israel, and 470,000 in Judah. Compared to 800,000 men in Israel and 500,000 men in Judah listed in 2 Sam. 24:9.


The punishment portion of the story begins with an introduction: “God was displeased with this thing, and he smote Israel” (1 Chron. 21:7). This is followed by David repenting. Depending on our reading, this could be implying that that David repents because of God’s smiting. It seems fairly obvious, however, that the verse about God smiting Israel is an introduction to the story that is to come, and is not meant to have occurred prior to David’s repentance. (The issue is new to Chronicles, since verse 1 Chron. 21:7 does not appear in the 2 Sam. account.)

In any case, David does repent, and God (via Gad, David’s seer), gives David a choice of punishments:

  1. Three years of famine (the Hebrew version of 2 Sam. 24:13 says seven years, but three clearly has better flow);
  2. Three months of devastation from David’s enemies;
  3. Three days of plague.

David declares that he chooses to put himself in the hands of God rather than the hands of men, and everyone claps themselves on the back as though that were a clear answer. Except, of course, that David’s response only excludes the second choice, not the famine or the plague. Yet it is assumed that he meant to choose the plague, and we carry on.

The pestilence comes, and 70,000 men die.

David praying, by Maître François, c.1475-80

David praying, by Maître François, c.1475-80

Next, we have a slightly more troubling chronological blip. First, the text implies that God stops his angel of pestilence at Ornan’s threshing floor, and David builds an altar there as a commemoration (and, I would assume, a thanksgiving for the ending of the plague). However, the text then implies that David builds the altar for the purpose of stopping the plague. Unlike our first blip, this one occurs in 2 Samuel as well (2 Sam. 24:21). As we look at this section, I will assume the latter reading, that the building of the altar occurred first, and that it is this that caused God to repent and stop his angel.

This means that we skip over 1 Chron. 21:15, where God stops the angel just in time. Instead, we find David looking up to find the angel standing “between earth and heaven” (1 Chron. 21:16), his drawn sword stretching out over Jerusalem. This imagery is new. The version in 2 Sam. 24:16 is more concise, having only the angel (unseen by David) stretching his hand over Jerusalem.

Seeing the angel ready to destroy Jerusalem, David and the elders cloth themselves in sackcloth and fall on their faces. Then David cries out to God, asking why he should kill so many innocent people when it was he, David, who had sinned? This is, of course, an excellent question, and one that never receives an answer. Unless the answer is God’s decision to end the plague, except that he’d already said he would end it after three days, and now I think I’ve just paradoxed myself.

One must wonder if this David – who sees the blatant immorality of slaughtering citizens for the sins of their king (though not, as it happens, of slaughtering that king’s family) – regrets his earlier trust in God’s mercy (1 Chron. 21:13).

Via a game of telephone involving an angel and Gad (David’s seer), God tells David to put up an altar on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (called Araunah in 2 Sam. 24:16).

Settling Matters

The narrative then goes to the threshing floor, where Ornan is at work. He looks up from his threshing and sees the angel – presumably with its sword still pointed toward Jerusalem. At the sight, his four sons (who are absent from 2 Sam. 24) hide themselves.

David arrives, and Ornan does his obeisances. What follows reads like a taarof farce: David offers to pay full price for the threshing floor so that the plague can be averted, Ornan insists that he give the field (along with the oxen, wood, and wheat for offerings) as a donation, but David counter-refuses and insists on paying for the full price.

David will not, he says, take “for the Lord” (1 Chron. 21:24) what belongs to someone else. This statement is far more ironic when it appears in 2 Sam. 24:24, where it is surrounded by stories in which David seems to have no problem at all taking things that belong to other people for himself (and even killing them to do so).

In the end, the two agree that David will pay 600 shekels of gold – quite an inflation of the 40 shekels of silver he paid in 2 Sam. 24:24. In 2 Samuel, the implication seems to be that the amount is a compromise between Araunah’s desire to give the land (and oxen) for free, and David’s desire to pay for it. Here, on the other hand, the Chronicler seems to be uncomfortable with David cheaping out on the site where the Temple will one day be built.

As an alternative explanation, my New Bible Commentary proposes that the figure in 2 Samuel was the price for the threshing floor alone, whereas the number here is for the whole site (p.380).

Which is all well and good, but what I’m wondering is if this sale is exempt from the Jubilee (Lev. 25:8-13)?

When David builds and consecrates the new altar with a sacrifice, God “answered him with fire from heaven upon the alter of burnt offering” (1 Chron. 21:26). As with many of the fancy poetic imagery in this chapter, the miracle portion of the sacrifice does not appear in 2 Sam. 24:25.

And while 2 Sam. 24:25 merely tells us that, after the altar is built, the plague was averted, the Chronicler describes the angel re-sheathing its sword.

And while the 2 Samuel version ends there, the Chronicler fills in some more detail. It seems that David started doing his sacrificing at this site because Moses’s tabernacle (and its altar) were still at Gibeon. This made it unreachable for David because “he was afraid of the sword of the angel of the Lord” (1 Chron. 21:30). This raises more questions than it answers, but the intention seems to be that there is now a single place where sacrifices may happen. That place, as we will learn in 1 Chron. 22:1 (really part of this story, but cut off by a sloppy numberer), is the site where the Temple will later be built.

The connection between Araunah’s threshing floor and the Temple is never mentioned in 2 Samuel. This could be because it was information that wasn’t available to the original author of this story (if, for example, the first version was written prior to the Temple’s construction). It could also be that the author of 2 Samuel assumed that this would be common knowledge among his readers, and thus didn’t require repeating. For the Chronicler, the building of the Temple is a pretty major event, and this story is presented because of its connection. As an added incentive, the connection adds a nice conclusion to the story. David asked for his sin to be expiated, cleansed through punishment. So after his kingdom suffered the plague, they receive the (promise of a) gift – a central Temple. It’s like an image of a flower blossoming in a landscape that has recently been ravaged by fire. It has a resonance to it.

What’s wrong with a census, anyway?

One of the big questions raised by this chapter is, what can possibly be so terrible about counting a few people?

James Bradford Pate quotes an author who looks to Exodus 30:12-13, where those who are counted in a census must pay a tribute in order to avoid a retributive plague. Clearly, the connection was established in the superstitions of Israel.

In the same post, he mentions that it could have to do with superstitions surround people’s names, and/or with the jeopardy inherent in a census taken for draft purposes (since an individual recorded may become an individual called, and perhaps then an individual killed on the battlefield).

I considered it more from the leadership’s perspective, where a census may be considered a form of “jinxing.” To count the people just seems to tempt fate to send a plague and lower the number.

Another possibility is that the sin is one of pride. The 2 Chron. account makes it seem like David wants to count his people in the same way that Scrooge McDuck likes to count his coins. Or perhaps it’s an issue of trust. Turning back to Pate, he offers the possibility that a census shows a lack of faith in God as the provider of victories, regardless of the numbers involved.

Lost in translation #2: Cultural memory and the Fallen Angel

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I’ve mentioned before how my perceptions of some of the Bible’s stories are much longer, and more detailed, than the stories themselves. This is because the Bible’s stories are – despite the sola scriptura posturing of many protestant denominations – largely transmitted culturally rather than textually, and that means that details, associations, and references all get added and mixed in with the pure text versions (though, even here, the textual variations between manuscripts and, especially, between translations make things even more complicated).

The example of what I mean that most people would be familiar with is the harmonization of the New Testament gospel stories. When we build a nativity scene, we have a little crèche, three wise men, the shepherds, and a star overhead – but how many people know that the shepherds are only found in Luke and that the star and wise men are only found in Matthew? The fact that these are details of two separate stories has been entirely lost in the cultural tradition.

But what I wanted to talk about today specifically is a text called Genesis B or “The Later Genesis.” This text is found in the “Codex Junius 11,” spliced into an entirely different version of Genesis known as Genesis A, despite being very different in style and repeating some of the same story-lines. We don’t know why someone thought it would be a good idea to just stick the one into the middle of the other, but it makes for an interesting reflection of what happened with the Bible’s own two creation stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

The version of the story that I will be quoting from is Charles W. Kennedy’s translation, found in Early English Christian Poetry Translated into Alliterative Verse (Hollis & Carter: London, 1952), but I found another translation online if you would like to read the whole thing for yourself.

In the Bible

From 'The Garden of Eden' by Jacob de Backer, 16th cent

From ‘The Garden of Eden’ by Jacob de Backer, 16th cent

To recap the Bible’s version of this story, Genesis 1 has God creating the heavens and the earth, including a blow-by-blow account of his daily To Do list, culminating in his handing over of the earth to Adam for “dominion.” Genesis 2 repeats the same portion of the story.

In Genesis 3, a serpent (not identified as Satan, Lucifer, or anything other than simply a snake) chats with Eve with convinces her to eat a piece of fruit from a special tree, and Eve then convinces Adam to do the same. The two humans suddenly realize that they are naked, are caught by God, punishments are dolled out, and the couple is expelled from Eden.

It’s a pretty bare bones version of the story that most people are familiar with. But, as you will see, much of what many who haven’t directly read the Genesis account (and even some who have!) think is part of the Biblical story is actually missing, but can be found in Genesis B.

In Genesis B

Genesis B picks up with a description of God’s favourite angel, whom he has made especially strong and “mighty of mind,” making him his right-hand and “next unto God.” But this angel was “ungrateful and bold”:

By his own strength only     he thought to construct
A mightier throne     and a higher heaven.

(Curious about the odd spacing? It’s called a Caesura.)

So the angel convinces a group of his fellow angels to join him and they rebel against God. Understandably, God is not pleased, and he banishes the rebel angels to Hell, changing them into “fiends” and giving the lead angel the name Satan.

Satan is upset and feels like he and his companions have been treated unfairly:

He has wrought us wrong,
In hurling us down     to the fiery depths of hell,
Deprived of heaven.     He has marked those heights
For man to settle.     ‘Tis my greatest sorrow
That Adam, fashioned     and formed of earth,
Should hold my high seat     and abide in bliss
While we suffer this torture,     this torment in hell.

So Satan concocts a plan to get revenge. He isn’t powerful enough to attack God directly, as his earlier rebellion showed, but he can attack God’s “thralls” – Adam and Eve:

Let us wrest heaven’s realm     from the sons of men,
Make them forfeit His favour,     break His command.
Then His rage will be kindled.     He will cast them from grace;
They shall be banished     to hell’s grim abyss.
We shall have them to serve us,     the sons of men,
As slaves fast-bound     in these fettering bonds.

As in the pagan Germanic war stories that Genesis B copies, Satan asks for volunteers from among his thanes to conduct an attack against God’s thanes.

When the two trees of the garden are introduced, Genesis B tells us that God had put them there so that the sons of men “might choose of good or evil,     weal or woe.”

So Satan “put[s] on     the form of the serpent” and approaches Adam. He tells Adam that he is a messenger, sent by God to tell Adam to eat the fruit. This, he claims, would increase Adam’s strength, attractiveness, and mental might as a reward for having obeyed God so well.

But Adam isn’t fooled. God had warned him not to be “beguiled / Or ever tempted” into eating from the “tree of death,” and Satan hasn’t brought a token of faith to prove that he was sent by God.

Satan then appeals to Eve and tells her that God will be so mad that they aren’t listening to His messenger. Not only can she spare her future children God’s wrath if she obeys, she’ll also get a few perks: “Over Adam thereafter     you shall have sway.”

Eve, convinced, bites the fruit.

You’ll note that this account makes Eve’s culpability far more clear than the Biblical account (in which Eve may have been the one to succumb simply because she was the first to be approached). The added detail of a failed temptation involving Adam reflects the evolution of thought about Eve, and the desire to make her special guilt in the story absolutely clear.

To get her to agree to convince Adam to eat the apples as well, Satan changes Eve’s vision so that everything seems even more beautiful. Thinking the change comes from eating the fruit, Eve goes to Adam and tells him about her wonderful new powers of vision, arguing that such a cool power could only have come from God.

Eve is successful in seducing Adam on Satan’s behalf, and Adam eats the apple. Satan gloats, Adam and Eve are ashamed. Adam gets the last speech and uses it to yell at Eve.

The Fallen Angel

So where does all that stuff about Satan being a “Fallen Angel” come from? It certainly doesn’t come from Genesis 1-3, despite what our cultural instruction might tell us. In the canonical Bible, we have the following references:

Genesis 6:1-4 – In this passage, we’re told that the “sons of God” (assumed to refer to members of God’s heavenly court, i.e.: angels) descended to earth of their own accord in order to mate with human women.

Isaiah 14:1-17 – This is where we get a reference to someone nicknamed “the morning star” who has “fallen from heaven” (Isaiah 14:12). But within the context of the text, this refers to the king of Babylon, not to an angel and certainly not to Satan.

Revelation 12:3-14 – This is our closest match, in which a dragon with angels on his side fights against Michael and his angels. The dragon loses the fight and, therefore, his “place in heaven.” The dragon is called “ancient serpent,” “devil,” and “Satan.” The whole story of the battle is given in a single paragraph and lacks all detail as to the possible motives for the battle.

(There’s a bit more extra-canonical stuff, particularly Enoch 7-8, which expands on Genesis 6:1-4 story. Though in this case, the beings of God’s court are called “the Watchers.”)

And that’s it – such a well-known part of the Genesis story is not part of the biblical Genesis story at all. The fact that the Bible is a written text gives it the aura of unchangeability, but the stories of the Bible are still part of a living tradition. The stories that children are taught in Sunday School, or that we use to construct our holiday decorations, or that we imagine when given prompts from the text are imbued with details and associations that are extra-biblical.

So when we talk about the immutability of the Words of God as set forth in the Scriptures (capitalisation conveys authority, didntcha know!), we’d do well to remember that they aren’t quite so immutable as we may think.


NOTE: The story of Genesis B may sound a little familiar to anyone who has read, heard of, or studied Milton’s Paradise Lost. Certainly, the general details of the story are eerily similar.

Franciscus Junius, who published the first edition of the manuscript containing Genesis B in 1655, was a contemporary of Milton’s and, apparently, the two seem to have been acquainted. This has led some to speculate that Milton drew at least some of his inspiration from the Genesis B text.