Someone recently forwarded me a list of 21 alleged contradictions in the Old Testament, that were apparently assembled by a Muslim, and asked me how I would respond to them. I rarely take interest in apparent numerical discrepancies in the Old Testament, as they are of little consequence to the central truth claims of the Biblical worldview. Even if all of the apparent discrepancies turn out to be real, at best all they compel is a revision to one’s view of the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy (which we are not given much information on in Scripture anyway). But one need not be an inerrantist in the strictest sense in order to have rational confidence that the message of the gospel is true. Muslims often forget that we do not share their view of inspiration. Unlike our Muslim friends, we are not dictation theorists. For the most part, we do not believe the Bible was dictated or inscribed by God Himself (as Muslims do for the Qur’an, which is alleged to be inscribed in tablets in paradise and dictated by Gabriel to Muhammad). Whereas as far as the Bible is concerned, inerrancy could turn out to be false and the central claims of Christianity still be true, the truth of the central claims of Islam hinges on the inerrancy of the Qur’an.
That being said, the position I would advocate for is what I call methodological inerrancy. That is to say, when apparent discrepancies in the Scriptures are identified, one ought to assume that the texts do harmonize, and should seek to find plausible harmonizations. This safeguards one against giving up too early on finding plausible harmonizations where in fact they exist, and also ensures that one maintains a high view of and regard for Scripture.
Another point that is worth noting is that it is not necessary for the Christian to have an answer to every conceivable question or objection that might be raised against the Scriptures, in order for him or her to have a rational confidence that Christianity is true. Indeed, every worldview and system of thought has its share of unanswered questions. The real question is whether there are more numerous and more substantive objections to belief or to non-belief. I would argue that there are more numerous and far stronger objections to non-belief than to belief. Thus, on balance, even without answers to every objection that might be leveled against the Biblical text, we are rationally warranted in affirming Christianity to be true.
With all that said, I want to now move to investigate each of the objections one by one, to see how much merit they carry as claims of contradiction in the Hebrew Bible.
Objection #1: Who made David number Israel’s warriors? God (2 Samuel 24:1) or Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1)?
Here are the texts:
- 2 Samuel 24:1: Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”
- 1 Chronicles 21:1: Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.
The latter text is simply using the language of agency, since God apparently used Satan to incite David to number Israel and Judah, thereby exposing what was in David’s heart.
There are other occasions where we see the same thing. For example, read Exodus 4:22-23:
22 Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’”
Now flip over to Exodus 12:23:
23 When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.
So who was it who killed the first born sons? God or the destroyer? The answer is both – God used the destroyer to accomplish his purpose, namely, the striking down of the first born sons.
Another example can be found in Job 2:7:
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.
And yet in verse 10, we read,
He [Job] replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
So, who was it that afflicted Job? God or Satan? The answer is both. God afflicted Job through Satan.
When a Muslim makes this point, you can point out that there is a similar concept in Islam of God using devils to expose what is in people’s hearts. Here is Surah 6:112:
And thus We have made for every prophet an enemy – devils from mankind and jinn, inspiring to one another decorative speech in delusion. But if your Lord had willed, they would not have done it, so leave them and that which they invent.
And here is Surah 19:33:
Do you not see that We have sent the devils upon the disbelievers, inciting them to [evil] with [constant] incitement?
So, who was it that incited disbelievers to evil? Was it Allah or the devils? The answer, again, is both.
Here is a similar example in the New Testament. Consider Matthew 8:5-9:
5 When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Compare this to the parallel account in Luke 7:2-8:
2 Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” 6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Which is it, then? Did the centurion come to Jesus himself or did he send representatives? This is simply a literary device which is common in ancient literature. To do something via a representative or intermediary may be spoken of as one having done the task himself. Consider, for example, John 19:1, in which we read that “Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him.” It was not literally Pilate who did the scourging, but rather the Roman soldiers carried it out at the instruction of Pilate.
We find another example of this device when we read in John 4:1:
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John.
It wasn’t Jesus who was doing the baptizing, but rather his disciples, which is clarified in verse 2:
…(although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples).
Returning, then, to our texts in 2 Samuel 24:1 / 1 Chronicles 21:1, God used Satan to incite David to number his warriors, in order to expose what was already in David’s heart. Thus, this example does not represent a real contradiction at all.
Objection #2: God gives David the choice between three forms of punishment. One of them is a famine to cover over the country. But for how long? Seven years (2 Samuel 24:13) or three years (1 Chronicles 21:12)?
Here are the texts:
- 2 Samuel 24:13: 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 decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.”
- 1 Chronicles 21:11-12: 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.”
This refers to God’s judgment on David for having numbered his warriors.
The Greek Septuagint (LXX) renders 2 Samuel 24:13 as “three years” rather than “seven years”, and the LXX reading here is followed by some modern Bible translations. But the Hebrew text of 2 Samuel 24:13 does say “seven years”. Leaving the textual variants to one side and assuming the Hebrew text’s reading to be original, let’s see if these texts can be harmonized.
How long did the census actually take? To find out, we can look back at verse 8 of 2 Samuel 24:
So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days.
The census itself, then, appears to have taken close to a year. And we also read in 2 Samuel 21:1 that there had already been a three year famine in the land. Thus, if we assume that God combined the initial three years of famine with another three years of famine, plus the intervening year that the census was conducted, we end up with a famine totaling about seven years. This seems to me to be one very plausible solution here.
Objection #3: How many warriors were found in Israel? 800,000 (2 Samuel 24:9) or 1,100,000 (1 Chronicles 21:5)?
Here are the texts:
- 2 Samuel 24:9: And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000.
- 1 Chronicles 21:5: And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to David. In all Israel there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword, and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword.
This is one of the trickier ones to harmonize. 2 Samuel 24:9 specifies that the 800,000 figure refers to “valiant men”, whereas 1 Chronicles 21:5 does not include this qualification. Thus, one possible solution here is that the 800,000 figure in 2 Samuel refers to the soldiers experienced in battle, whereas the additional 300,000 were those who were in reserve.
This is the explanation given by Gleason Archer in An Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (1982, pp. 188-189):
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.
We are not, however, given any information on how exactly these respective figures were obtained, and thus it is difficult to say much with certainty.
Objection #4: How many warriors were found in Judah? 500,000 (2 Samuel 24:9) or 470,000 (1 Chronicles 21:5)?
One possibility here is that 1 Chronicles simply rounds to the nearest hundred thousand, thus giving an approximation of the number of warriors in Judah.
Another possible explanation is revealed by reading 1 Chronicles 21:6, in which we learn that the figure given does not include those of the tribe of Benjamin, since Joab had not yet completed the census before David came under conviction. We read in 1 Chronicles 7:6-11 that the tribe of Benjamin had already been numbered, and one possible solution therefore is that the author of 2 Samuel also includes the number for Benjamin in the counting.
Gleason Archer again in An Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (1982, p. 189) comments:
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.
Again, the lack of information on how exactly the respective figures were obtained makes it hard to say very much with certainty.
Objection #5: How old was Ahasja when he became king of Jerusalem? 22 (2 Kings 8:26) or 42 (2 Chronicles 22:2)?
Here are the texts:
- 2 Kings 8:26: Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned one year in Jerusalem.
- 2 Chronicles 22:2: Ahaziah was forty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned one year in Jerusalem.
This one is probably the result of a copyist error. In the Masoretic text, the numbers are spelled out (e.g. ‘two and forty’ or ‘two and twenty’). But if they were originally written in number form, this discrepancy could be easily explained since מ (mem, forty) and כ (caph, twenty) are very similar. Indeed, several ancient texts have 22 (or 20) instead of 42 as given in the Masoretic Text in 2 Chronicles 22:2. The Syriac and Arabic versions have 22. The Septuagint has 20. These early translations were clearly drawing from an earlier Hebrew text.
As it turns out, however, we have enough information to infer the age of Ahaziah when he became king. In 2 Kings 8:16-18, we read that Ahaziah’s father Jehoram was 32 when he began to reign:
16 In the fifth year of Joram the son of Ahab, king of Israel, when Jehoshaphat was king of Judah, Jehoram the son of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, began to reign. 17 He was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. 18 And he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab was his wife. And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.
We also learn in 2 Chronicles 21:5,20 that he died eight years later at 40 years of age:
5 Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned eight years in Jerusalem…20 He was thirty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. And he departed with no one’s regret. They buried him in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.
Clearly, then, Ahaziah could not have been 42 at the time of his father’s death at age 40.
Objection #6 How old was Jehoiachin when he became king of Jerusalem? 18 (2 Kings 24:8) or 8 (2 Chronicles 36:9)?
Here are the texts:
- 2 Kings 24:8: Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned three months in Jerusalem.
- 2 Chronicles 36:9: Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem.
Jehoiachin was in fact 18 when he began his reign. This can be seen by 2 Kings 24:9, where we read that,
And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father had done.
This makes more sense if applied to someone who is 18 rather than 8.
Moreover, in Ezekiel 19:5-9, Jehoiachin is portrayed as going up and down among the lions, catching prey, devouring men and knowing the widows of the men he devoured and the cities he wasted. This again makes it more likely if he is 18 than if he is 8. (Jehoiachin in 597 B.C. was carried to Babylon in a cage as in verse 9 – see 2 Kings 24:6-15). Although he reigned only three months, he was oppressive and unjust.
The discrepancy in this case is almost certainly due to a copyist error. The Hebrew system of numbering consisted of horizontal hooks representing values of 10. If one of the hooks were smudged then the dates would be off by values of 10 years. The numbers 8 and 18 would have been distinguished by a very small mark. It is thus understandable that a scribe could miscopy the number.
Objection #7: For how long reigned Jehoiachin? 3 months (2 Kings 24:8) or 3 months and 10 days (2 Chronicles 36:9)?
This is probably the silliest of the objections. 2 Kings 24:8 apparently rounded to three months, whereas 2 Chronicles 36:9 is more specific and says he reigned for three months and ten days. We speak in this manner all the time.
Objection #8: Jashobeam, David’s mightiest warrior, killed 800 men at once (2 Samuel 23:8) – or was it 300 men (1 Chronicles 11:11)?
Here are the texts:
- 2 Samuel 23:8: These are the names of the mighty men whom David had: Josheb-basshebeth a Tahchemonite; he was chief of the three. He wielded his spear against eight hundred whom he killed at one time.
- 1 Chronicles 11:11: This is an account of David’s mighty men: Jashobeam, a Hachmonite, was chief of the three. He wielded his spear against 300 whom he killed at one time.
The Hebrew numerical symbols for 300 and 800 look very similar, and so this may well be down to a scribal error again.
Another possible solution is that these two texts are referring to different occasions.
Objection #9: When did David bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem – before the victory over the Philistines (1 Chronicles 3 and 14) or after that (2 Samuel 5 and 6)?
The answer here is, quite simply, that the events are recorded chronologically by 1 Chronicles but are arranged by topic in 2 Samuel. So, in 1 Chronicles the narrative of the Ark’s return to Jerusalem is chopped in half because the conflict with the Philistines takes place mid-way through the story while the Ark is at the house of Obed-Edom. 2 Samuel, on the other hand, first tells the story of the battle with the Philistines and gets that out of the way in a single chapter, and then he narrates the story, without interruption, of the return of the Ark to Jerusalem.
Objection #10: How many pairs of pure animals did God command Noah to take with him into the ark? One (Gen 6:19, 20) or seven (Gen 7:2)? And in spite of these commands it was just one pair that finally went into the ark (Gen 7:8,9)
Here are the texts:
- Genesis 6:19-20: 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive.
- Genesis 7:2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate.
This one misread the text. It is only the latter reference (Genesis 7:2) that specifies that it refers to clean animals. There was an extra 6 pairs of clean animals and birds to be used for sacrifice (8:20) and food (9:3).
Objection #11: How many chavaliers did David capture when he fought against the king of Zoba in Hamath? 1700 (2 Sam 8:4) or 7,000 (1 Chron 18:4)?
Here are the texts:
- 2 Samuel 8:4: 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.
- 1 Chronicles 18:4: 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.
This one probably results from a copyist error. Indeed, the LXX for 2 Samuel 8:4 reads “one thousand chariots and seven thousand charioteers.”
Objection #12: How many horses did Solomon have? 40,000 (1 Kings 4:26) or 4,000 (2 Chron 9:25)?
Here are the texts:
- 1 Kings 4:26: Solomon also had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots, and 12,000 horsemen.
- 2 Chronicles 9:25: And Solomon had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots, and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem.
Again, this is probably a copyist error. Whereas the Hebrew text for 1 Kings 4:26 has “40,000” (one Hebrew manuscript says 4000), some Greek manuscripts say 4000, as in 2 Chronicles 9:25.
Objection # 13: Which year of king Asa’s reign did Baesa, king of Israel, die? In the 26th (1 Kings 15:33-16:8)? But he’s still alive in the 36th (2 Chron 16:1)
Here are the texts:
- 1 Kings 15:33-16:8: 33 In the third year of Asa king of Judah, Baasha the son of Ahijah began to reign over all Israel at Tirzah, and he reigned twenty-four years. 34 He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel to sin. And the word of the Lord came to Jehu the son of Hanani against Baasha, saying, 2 “Since I exalted you out of the dust and made you leader over my people Israel, and you have walked in the way of Jeroboam and have made my people Israel to sin, provoking me to anger with their sins, 3 behold, I will utterly sweep away Baasha and his house, and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat. 4 Anyone belonging to Baasha who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone of his who dies in the field the birds of the heavens shall eat.” 5 Now the rest of the acts of Baasha and what he did, and his might, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? 6 And Baasha slept with his fathers and was buried at Tirzah, and Elah his son reigned in his place. 7 Moreover, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Jehu the son of Hanani against Baasha and his house, both because of all the evil that he did in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger with the work of his hands, in being like the house of Jeroboam, and also because he destroyed it. Elah Reigns in Israel 8 In the twenty-sixth year of Asa king of Judah, Elah the son of Baasha began to reign over Israel in Tirzah, and he reigned two years.
- 2 Chronicles 16:1: In the thirty-sixth year of the reign of Asa, Baasha king of Israel went up against Judah and built Ramah, that he might permit no one to go out or come in to Asa king of Judah.
The number “thirty-six” in 2 Chronicles 16:1 is probably a copyist error. The actual number was likely “sixteen”. The difference between the character representing the number 10 and that representing 30 was only two small strokes at the top of the character.
Objection #14: How many supervisors did Solomon get for the building of the temple? 3,600 (2 Chron 2:2) or 3,300 (1 Kings 5:16)
Here are the texts:
- 2 Chronicles 2:2: And Solomon assigned 70,000 men to bear burdens and 80,000 to quarry in the hill country, and 3,600 to oversee them.
- 1 Kings 5:16: besides Solomon’s 3,300 chief officers who were over the work, who had charge of the people who carried on the work.
Turn over to 2 Chronicles 8:10:
And these were the chief officers of King Solomon, 250, who exercised authority over the people.
And 1 Kings 5:16:
These were the chief officers who were over Solomon’s work: 550 who had charge of the people who carried on the work.
Thus, if we add the additional supervisors (250 in 2 Chronicles 8:10 but 550 in 1 Kings 9:23), then 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles both concur that a total of 3850 men worked. The apparent discrepancy in the number of supervisors, therefore, appears to result from a difference in the way in which they were counted.
Objection #15: Solomon’s Building: Did it encompass 2,000 bath (72,880 litres) (1 Kings 7:26) or more than 3,000 (109,320 litres) (2 Chron 4:5)?
Here are the texts:
- 1 Kings 7:26: Its thickness was a handbreadth, and its brim was made like the brim of a cup, like the flower of a lily. It held two thousand baths.
- 2 Chronicles 4:5: Its thickness was a handbreadth. And its brim was made like the brim of a cup, like the flower of a lily. It held 3,000 baths.
A bath equalled almost 6 gallons. These texts can be harmonized if we suppose that in 2 Chronicles 4:5 included are not only the water the basin held but also the water source essential for keeping it flowing as a fountain. This explanation is only possible, but lacks direct support. We are not given information on how these values were obtained, and so there may be a way in which these values go together. Another possibility again is that this apparent discrepancy resulted from a copyist error.
16: How many Israeli children were saved from the Babylonian capture? 2,812 (Ezra 2:6) or 2,818 (Neh 7:11)?
17: How many children were from Zattu? 945 (Ezra 2:8) or 845 (Neh 7:13)?
18: How many children were from Azgad? 1,222 (Ezra 2:12) or 2,322 (Neh 7:17)?
19: How many children were from Adin? 454 (Ezra 2:15) or 655 (Neh 7:20)?
20: How many children were from Hashun? 223 (Ezra 2:19) or 328 (Neh 7:22)?
21: How many children were from Bethel an Ai? 223 (Ezra 2:28) or 123 (Neh 7:32)?
Since objections 16-21 pertain to the same texts, I have grouped them together. The text concerns the list of returned exiles. There are 39 entries in total, 22 of which are identical and 17 of which do not match. Again, the lack of information on how exactly these figures were obtained makes it difficult to determine the most fitting explanation of the apparent discrepancies.
One possible explanation is that Ezra listed those who intended to depart, whereas Nehemiah listed those who actually arrived (or some other unknown reason). These differences could also be accounted for by the fact that whereas Ezra was written approximately 538-516 B.C., Nehemiah is written during the reign of Artaxerxes I (464-423 B.C.). The numbers may therefore be explained if during the intervening period families had grown, people had died etc, and Nehemiah records the later figures.
Thus, in conclusion, we can see that the vast majority of these apparent discrepancies fall apart upon further inspection. There are a couple of more tricky ones. But, as I said previously, it is not necessary for the Christian to have an answer to every Bible difficulty in order to have rationally warranted confidence in the truth of the gospel. Even if these contradictions turned out to lack possible harmonization, at best the only outcome would be that we might be compelled to revise our understanding of inspiration or inerrancy. It would in no wise detract from the central truth claims of the Christian faith. Are we really to suppose that if either 2 Samuel or 1 Chronicles was wrong about the number of warriors that were numbered in Israel (800,000 vs. 1.1 million) that it then follows that the message of the gospel is false? Certainly not. For sure, I think it is important that the Scriptures be shown to be substantially reliable. An error in a few trivial matters of detail is not such a big deal. The truth of the gospel rests on the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus, and also the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures to His identity and mission.