What about ‘Discrepancies’ in Scripture?


Question: I have been reading in a chronological Bible that contrasts the accounts of 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. How do you explain the differences of the amount of money given by David to cover the cost of the offering. In a previous account during the census, there was a similar discrepancy in the census account. Are such apparent discrepancies any threat to the inerrancy of the Scriptures? 

Good questions. Old Testament numerical differences, along with apparent ethical and theological challenges, were the focus of one of my PhD classes. If the inspiration of the Old Testament and its consequent inerrancy rested on empirical grounds, it would be threatened by such discrepancies. That is, if we had to prove there were no errors in the Old Testament before we could affirm its inerrancy, we wouldn’t be able to affirm inerrancy.

However, our confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture is a function of our confidence in Jesus, who, as God’s Son, affirmed the complete unbreakableness of the Old Testament (John 10:35), and pronounced foolish those who were slow to believe all that is written in the prophets (which would include Joshua to 2 Samuel as “writing” prophets; Luke 24:25).

Given Jesus’ affirmation of Scripture’s trustworthiness, there are a number of possible explanations for numerical discrepancies:

  1. Scribal errors in copying the text of Scripture (e.g., 1 Sam. 13:1—“Saul was a son of one year when he began to reign”).
  2. Different objects are measured (e.g., the bronze laver’s inner circumference versus its outer circumference).
  3. Different methods of reporting are used (e.g., round up, round down, don’t round).
  4. Different methods of measurement (e.g., cubit or span).
  5. Factors assumed by the author and known to his audience but unknown to us—i.e., we can’t explain it.

our confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture is a function of our confidence in Jesus, who, as God’s Son, affirmed the complete unbreakableness of the Old Testament.

In the case of David buying Ornan/Araunah’s threshing floor with 50 shekels of silver (2 Sam. 24:22) and 600 shekels of gold (1 Chron. 21:25), most scholars understand that we have two different things being purchased. The 50 shekels of silver purchased Ornan’s team of oxen and the threshing floor itself. The 600 shekels of gold purchased the entire property upon which the threshing floor was situated. This conclusion is supported by two things:

  • the huge disparity in the amounts, and
  • the fact that Solomon builds the temple complex on this site later, which requires a much larger lot than a threshing floor would have covered (cf. 2 Chron. 3:1).

Regarding Joab’s census, Samuel reports Judah having 500,000 men, and Chronicles reports 470,000 men. This appears to be a case of different reporting methods. The author of Samuel seems to have rounded up the 470,000 to 500,000; whereas the author of Chronicles did not.

The difference between the 800,000 reported in Samuel and the 1.1 million in Chronicles doesn’t suggest a difference due to rounding. Rather, there are two key differences in the wording of 2 Samuel 24:9 and 1 Chronicles 21:5:

  1. Israel versus all Israel, and
  2. valiant men who drew the sword versus men who drew the sword.

It appears from these differences that the Samuel account referenced only the experienced or “valiant” men in Israel (800,000); whereas the Chronicles account referenced all military-age Israelites, whether experienced and valiant or not (1.1 million).

Alternative explanations exist. However, the point is not that we must be sure of our explanation. Rather, we should be sure that if we had all the facts, we would find that one of the five options listed above is true. For further reading, I recommend Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, and Walt Kaiser’s Hard Sayings of the Bible as go-to sources for these sorts of challenges.

Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Philip Brown
Philip Brownhttp://apbrown2.net
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).