Jesse's Missing Son
Some time ago, I received a letter from a woman who was seeking an answer to a question that an unbeliever had presented to her. The question that gave her so much trouble, and that seemed to plant a seed of doubt in her mind about the inerrancy of Scripture, was this: “Did Jesse (the father of David) have seven sons or eight?” This question arises from a comparison of the information about Jesse’s family in 1 Samuel 16-17 with the genealogy given in 1 Chronicles chapter two.
First Samuel 16 states that Jesse made seven sons pass before the prophet Samuel, in hopes that God would anoint one of them as the next king of Israel (16:10). Samuel then informed Jesse that God had not chosen any of these seven sons that passed before him, but was looking for another. Of course, that other son was David, “the youngest” (16:11) of Jesse’s “eight sons” (17:12). The “problem” with this information is that the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 2:13-15 specifically states that David was “the seventh” son of Jesse. How is it that David could be both the seventh son and eighth son of Jesse? Some are eager to call this a legitimate Bible contradiction. Even many Bible students (like the one who wrote me about this question) read these statements for the first time and wonder if this is an “inconsistency in the Word.” What is the answer? How many sons did Jesse have? And was David Jesse’s eighth son or seventh?
The answer is really quite simple. It seems that one of Jesse’s sons shown to Samuel at Bethlehem must have died while young and without posterity. Thus, at one time David was the youngest of eight sons, and at another time he was the youngest of seven sons. We must keep in mind that Hebrew genealogies often included only the names of those who have some significance for future generations (Richards, 1993, p. 106; Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1986). It makes sense that if one of David’s brothers died before marrying and begetting children (or before doing something extraordinary), he would not have been mentioned.
Lest you think this situation sounds too bizarre, consider the following. Fifty years ago, whenever my father engaged in a discussion about his family, he would tell people that he had five brothers and two sisters. Today, when he converses with others about his family he often speaks of his four brothers and two sisters. Is he being dishonest when he does so? No. Sadly, when my dad was 19 years old, one of his younger brothers died in a tragic accident. Although this brother was loved deeply and is missed greatly, usually when my father is asked about his siblings he simply says: “I have four brothers and two sisters.” If he has time or feels there is a need, he then will mention his other brother who died at a very young age. The point is, whether my dad tells someone that he is the oldest of eight children or the oldest of seven children, he is telling the truth.
Admittedly, the Bible does not say specifically that one of David’s brothers died at a young age. But, it most likely is implying such a thing when one less son is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 2:13-15. [And considering David’s three oldest brothers were warriors in Saul’s army (1 Samuel 17:13ff), one certainly would not be surprised if one of David’s other brothers also became a soldier and died in battle.]
To say that one of David’s brothers dying at a relatively young age is not an option is to assert that the Bible does not teach by implication. [Yet, as anyone who has studied the Bible knows, it most certainly does teach by implication (cf. Acts 8:35-36).] Furthermore, if people today who have lost children or siblings can speak legitimately about their family number in two different ways, should we not also give Bible writers the same freedom in their recording of historical families?
“Genealogy,” (1986), Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Thomas Nelson Publishers).
Richards, Larry (1993), 735 Baffling Bible Questions Answered (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell).