A Three- or Seven-year Famine?
Census-taking under the Law of Moses was not inherently evil. In fact, God actually commanded Moses to number the Israelite soldiers on two occasions—once in the second year after deliverance from Egyptian bondage, and again about 40 years later, near the end of Israel’s wanderings in the desert (Numbers 1:1-3,19; 26:2-4). Even though the book of Numbers describes many of their experiences while wandering through a barren land, the book takes its name (first assigned by the translators of the Septuagint) from these two numberings of the Israelites. Indeed, the taking of a census was a legitimate practice under the old law (cf. Exodus 30:11-16). Sometimes, however, motives can turn lawful actions into sinful deeds (cf. Matthew 6:1-18). Such was the case with King David when he decided to number the Israelites in the latter part of his reign. God had not commanded a census be taken, nor did David instigate it for some noble cause. Instead, the Bible implies that David’s intentions (and thus his actions) were dishonorable, foolish, and sinful (cf. 2 Samuel 24:3,10ff.).
Following David’s sin, God instructed the prophet Gad to tell David: “I offer you three things; choose one of them for yourself, that I may do it to you” (2 Samuel 24:12). Gad then came to David and said, “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 Samuel 24:13, emp. added). The chronicler recorded that Gad said to David:
Thus says the Lord: “Choose for yourself, either three years of famine, or three months to be defeated by your foes with the sword of your enemies overtaking you, or else for three days the sword of the Lord—the plague in the land, with the angel of the Lord destroying throughout the territory of Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:11-12, emp. added).
For some Bible readers, 2 Samuel 24:13 and 1 Chronicles 21:12 pose a serious problem. Why does 2 Samuel 24:13 indicate that God gave David the option of a seven-year famine, while 1 Chronicles 21:12 specifies a three-year famine?
At least two feasible explanations exist for the difference in Samuel 24:13 and 1 Chronicles 21:12. First, it is possible that the prophet Gad approached David twice. It may be that Gad gave David the option of a seven-year famine at their first meeting (2 Samuel), then later gave David the three-year option. There is, after all, a difference in the wording of the two passages. Second Samuel 24:13 is a question: “Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land?” First Chronicles 21:12 is a command with alternatives: “Choose for yourself, either three years of famine....” Why would God make such a change in the alternatives He presented David? Perhaps because of David’s confession of sin, contrite heart, and plea for mercy.
A second possibility is that an ancient scribe confused the Hebrew numeral letters. Similar to how printing companies today can make slight errors when printing copies of the Bible, and just as copyists’ errors can be found in various historical works (e.g., Tacitus, Josephus, etc.) without corrupting the overall integrity of the text, occasionally Bible readers come across numbers, names, etc. that are the result of a copyist’s errors—not mistakes by the original inspired writers. A scribe may have glanced down at the manuscript of 1 Chronicles with which he was working and mistakenly seen the “three” from “three months” (later in the verse) and thought it belonged to the “years of famine” figure earlier in the verse.
[NOTE: For more information on copyists’ errors, please see our foundational essay on this subject, “Inspired Writers and Competent Copyists,” Lyons, 2007.]
Lyons, Eric (2007), “Inspired Writers and Competent Copyists,” Reason and Revelation, [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/3268.