Of the several questions that arise in this unusual episode, we will look at two:
1. Who is "Satan" and why does he incite David (v. 1)? The Hebrew word satan usually means a human enemy or adversary in the Old Testament (Numbers 22:22, 32; 1 Samuel 29:4; 2 Samuel 19:23; 1 Kings 5:18; 11:14, 23, 25; Psalm 109:6b). Two other passages (Job 1-2; Zechariah 3:1-2) do speak of "the satan" in contexts where one would expect a (semi)divine being, though not the "devil" of later Judaism and then the New Testament, a dualistic concept foreign to the Hebrew Bible. It seems best to interpret David's nemesis in 1 Chronicles 21:1 as "a (human) adversary," perhaps a military threat, but not the personification of Evil or the Satan of the New Testament, despite the NRSV and other major translations.
Of greater interest is the alteration of 2 Samuel 24:1, "Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, 'Go, count the people of Israel and Judah,'" where "the anger of the LORD" incites David rather than an adversary. The Chronicler is usually thought to have altered his source to avoid attributing evil to God. Since the Chronicler modified his source to attribute Saul's death to God in no uncertain terms (1 Chronicles 10:14b), this seems somewhat forced. A better explanation might take seriously the "Again" in the Samuel text that links this story of divine wrath back to a similar episode in 2 Samuel 21. Since the Chronicler has omitted that earlier episode, both occurrences of the divine wrath lose their significance and a general adversary serves his purpose.
2. Why does the Chronicler, who has taken great pains to present an ideal David devoid of the flaws familiar from 2 Samuel, include this story of David's sin and even increase his guilt? Or, what's so wrong with counting the people, anyway? Two answers usually appear in the literature:
Interesting possibilities, but the Chronicler simply does not tell us what was wrong, only that it was. In fact he modifies his text in ways that increase David's guilt over Samuel's account:
Obviously, the text functions very differently for the Chronicler. The presence of David's payment of 600 gold shekels for "the site" (1 Chronicles 21:25) instead of 50 silver shekels (2 Samuel 24:24) and God's confirming sign of "fire from heaven" (1 Chronicles 21:26; see also 2 Chronicles 7:1; Judges 6:21; 1 Kings 18:38) suggest an emphasis on David's repentance and God's forgiveness, the theme of 1 Chronicles 21:15-27, rather than David's sin and God's punishment, the theme of 21:1-14. Then, the Chronicler's new ending to the story (21:26b-22:1) that claims this place of repentance and forgiveness as the site of the future temple, reveals that this designation of the temple site is what the Chronicler has had in mind all along.
21Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. 2So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, Go, number Israel, from Beer-sheba to Dan, and bring me a report, so that I may know their number. 3But Joab said, May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundredfold! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lords servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel? 4But the kings word prevailed against Joab. So Joab departed and went throughout all Israel, and came back to Jerusalem. 5Joab gave the total count of the people to David. In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and in Judah four hundred and seventy thousand who drew the sword. 6But he did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the kings command was abhorrent to Joab.
7 But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel. 8David said to God, I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly. 9The Lord spoke to Gad, Davids seer, saying, 10Go and say to David, Thus says the Lord: Three things I offer you; choose one of them, so that I may do it to you. 11So Gad came to David and said to him, Thus says the Lord, Take your choice: 12either three years of famine; or three months of devastation by your foes, while the sword of your enemies overtakes you; or three days of the sword of the Lord, pestilence on the land, and the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel. Now decide what answer I shall return to the one who sent me. 13Then David said to Gad, I am in great distress; let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but let me not fall into human hands.
14 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel; and seventy thousand persons fell in Israel. 15And God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it; but when he was about to destroy it, the Lord took note and relented concerning the calamity; he said to the destroying angel, Enough! Stay your hand. The angel of the Lord was then standing by the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite. 16David looked up and saw the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell on their faces. 17And David said to God, Was it not I who gave the command to count the people? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, O Lord my God, be against me and against my fathers house; but do not let your people be plagued!
18 Then the angel of the Lord commanded Gad to tell David that he should go up and erect an altar to the Lord on the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite. 19So David went up following Gads instructions, which he had spoken in the name of the Lord. 20Ornan turned and saw the angel; and while his four sons who were with him hid themselves, Ornan continued to thresh wheat. 21As David came to Ornan, Ornan looked and saw David; he went out from the threshing-floor, and did obeisance to David with his face to the ground. 22David said to Ornan, Give me the site of the threshing-floor that I may build on it an altar to the Lordgive it to me at its full priceso that the plague may be averted from the people. 23Then Ornan said to David, Take it; and let my lord the king do what seems good to him; see, I present the oxen for burnt-offerings, and the threshing-sledges for the wood, and the wheat for a grain-offering. I give it all. 24But King David said to Ornan, No; I will buy them for the full price. I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt-offerings that cost me nothing. 25So David paid Ornan six hundred shekels of gold by weight for the site. 26David built there an altar to the Lord and presented burnt-offerings and offerings of well-being. He called upon the Lord, and he answered him with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt-offering. 27Then the Lord commanded the angel, and he put his sword back into its sheath.
28 At that time, when David saw that the Lord had answered him at the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite, he made his sacrifices there. 29For the tabernacle of the Lord, which Moses had made in the wilderness, and the altar of burnt-offering were at that time in the high place at Gibeon; 30but David could not go before it to inquire of God, for he was afraid of the sword of the angel of the Lord. 221Then David said, Here shall be the house of the Lord God and here the altar of burnt-offering for Israel.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org