The Census of David
Many alleged discrepancies in the Bible deal with numerical values being different from one book to the next. Several plausible ways exist to show that these differing numbers are not really discrepancies at all. It could be the case that the different authors were counting different groups of people or rounding off their numbers to different places.
One such alleged discrepancy that involves differing numerical values is found between 1 Chronicles 21:5 and 2 Samuel 24:9.
1 Chronicles 21:5 (ASV): “Then Joab gave the sum of the number of the people to David. All Israel had one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and Judah had four hundred and seventy thousand men who drew the sword.”
2 Samuel 24:9 (ASV): “Then Joab gave the sum of the number of the people to the king. And there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men.”
Obviously, the numbers given for the men of Israel differ by 300,000, while the numbers for the men of Judah differ by 30,000. Are there any possible solutions to this alleged discrepancy? The truth of the matter is that there are several possible solutions. Let us deal first with the differing number of the men of Israel.
The first possible solution is based upon a closer reading of the text. When the two verses are compared, 1 Chronicles 21:5 says that “All Israel had one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword” (emp. added). But 2 Samuel says, “And there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men who drew the sword” (emp. added). It could be that the author of 2 Samuel was indicating the number of “seasoned veterans” or “valiant” men, while the author of 1 Chronicles was numbering any man who drew the sword, not just the valiant ones. Gleason Archer concluded:
A possible solution may be found along these lines. So far as Israel (i.e., the tribes north of Judah) is concerned, the 1 Chronicles figure includes all the available men of fighting age, whether battle seasoned or not. But from 2 Samuel 24 we learn that Joab’s report gave a subtotal of “mighty men” (‘ish hayil), i.e., battle-seasoned troops, consisting of 800,000 veterans. But in addition there may have been 300,000 more men of military age who served in the reserves but had not yet been involved in field combat. These two contingents would make up a total of 1,100,000 men—as 1 Chronicles reports them, with employing the term ‘ish hayil (1982, pp. 188-189).
Remember that the only thing required to prove that a discrepancy does not exist is to provide a single possible solution (see Lyons, 2004). Archer’s explanation reveals quite clearly one possible solution. However, it is by no means the only one. Eric Vestrum lists another quite reasonable solution to the problem.
There is another possibility that will be reasonable after examination. The reader should re-read 1 Chr 27. Notice here that there are 12 divisions of 24,000 men each, giving a total of 288,000 men. It is possible that the Chronicler counts these men whereas the author of 2 Sam does not. Notice that the 800,000 men in 2 Sam were included in a census, as David wanted to know how many men there were for fighting. Yet, as the numbers of divisions were apparently fixed at 24,000 per division, one would presumably not need to take a census of groups whose sizes are intrinsically defined by a priori fixed numbers. It is not requiring too much to state that it is reasonably possible that the author of 2 Sam did not include these 288,000 while the (different) author of 1 Chr did. With two different authors writing apart from each other at non-identical times, it is not at all specious to assert a reasonable plausibility to a different mode of reckoning in reporting the census (Vestrum).
These two explanations suffice to prove that the numbers of men in Israel are not irreconcilable.
Moving further into the explanation of these two verses, we must look at the alleged discrepancy between the number of men who drew the sword in Judah. The author of 2 Samuel gives 470,000, while the author of 1 Chronicles gives 500,000—a difference of 30,000 men. (Please note that this is a difference of only 6%.)
A simple, prima facie explanation would be that the authors were rounding to a different place—the chronicler rounding to the nearest hundred thousand, and the author of 2 Samuel rounding to the nearest ten thousand. Some have objected, however, and claimed that a “ rounding error” of 30,000 men is just not reasonable. This objection, which is based on a western reading of the text that demands stiff, mathematically accurate numbers, does not allow for the more flexible use of numbers that often is exhibited in ancient eastern texts.
However, the “rounding” solution is not the only one available, as Archer pointed out.
So far as Judah was concerned, 2 Samuel 24 gives the round figure of 500,000, which was 30,000 more than the corresponding item in 1 Chronicles 21. Now it should be observed that 1 Chronicles 21:6 makes it clear that Joab did not complete the numbering, for he did not get around to a census of the tribe of Benjamin (nor that of Levi, either) before David came under conviction about completing the census at all. Joab was glad to desist when he saw the king’s change of heart. The procedure for conducting the census had been to start with the Transjordanian tribes (2 Samuel 24:5) and then shift to the northernmost tribe of Dan and work southward back toward Jerusalem (v. 7). This meant that the numbering of Benjamin would have come last. Hence Benjamin was not included with the total for Israel or that for Judah, either. But in the case of 2 Samuel 24, the figure for Judah included the already known figure of 30,000 troops mustered by Benjamin (which lay immediately adjacent to Jerusalem itself). Hence the total of 500,000 included the Benjamite contingent.
Observe that after the division of the united kingdom into North and South following the death of Solomon in 930 B.C., most of the Benjamites remained loyal to the dynasty of David and constituted (along with Simeon to the south) the kingdom of Judah. Hence it was reasonable to include Benjamin with Judah and Simeon in the subtotal figure of 500,000—even though Joab may not have itemized it in the first report he gave to David (1982, p. 189, parenthetical items in orig.).
We can see, after looking closely at the two passages alleged to contain numeric contradictions, that several possible solutions exist for the reconciling of the verses. Once again, God’s inspired Word shines forth as the beacon of truth, resisting every accusation of contradiction or discrepancy.
Archer, Gleason L. (1982), An Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
Lyons, Eric (2004), “Answering the Allegations,” [On-Line], URL: www.apologeticspress.org/articles/506.
Vestrum, Eric, Contradictions: Numerous, Theological, Chronological, Factual, Philosophical, Ethical, [On-line], URL: http://www.tektonics.org/EV_MCK04.html.