The Adult Bible Study Guide primarily draws on two stories by the biblical Chronicler. The main point of the lesson appears focused on reminding readers to give their resources to the church. The two royal anecdotes from the reign of David (1 Chronicles 21:1–14) and Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20:1–22) show what happens when one does right or wrong by the Lord. Led astray by an adversary, elderly David makes the mistake of conducting a census, and this causes God to kill 70,000 Israelites as punishment. For the good example of trusting in the Lord, under imminent attack, Jehoshaphat leads his people in preparatory fasting and prayer. On the day of the military attack, Jehoshaphat puts a priestly choir on the frontline. This causes the Edomite confederacy to fight among themselves and give Israel an easy, total victory.
The lesson treats these stories as simple instructional lessons on obeying God for personal betterment. With little regard for historical or textual context, it aims to shoehorn in contemporary life applications regarding financial planning. To its credit, the point of each story is to reinforce the benefits of trusting God during troubling times. With all the recent financial news, Lord knows we can use some reassurance. A reminder that we can’t make it on our own is always needed—whether one turns to trusted friends or divine power. And let’s face it—a singing vanguard that wins a battle bloodlessly is just good storytelling. This Saddleback kids cartoon on Jehoshaphat makes that point just about as well as the lesson.
The textual choices do lend themselves to some interesting questions involving supernatural cause and redaction criticism. Last week’s lesson tied evil to Satan, and this week a tempting adversary shows up again in the David story. Well, actually, in one of the two versions of the Davidic history. The footnote for 1 Chronicles 21:1 in the New American Bible (Revised Edition) succinctly states the following:
A satan: in the parallel passage (2 Sm 24:1) David is led astray because of the Lord’s anger. The Chronicler’s modification reflects the changed theological outlook of postexilic Israel, when evil was no longer attributed directly to God. At an earlier period the Hebrew word satan (“adversary,” or, especially in a court of law, “accuser”) designated both human beings (1 Kgs 11:14) and a “son of God” who accused people before God (Jb 1:6–12; 2:1–7; Zec 3:1–2). In later Judaism (cf. Wis 2:24) and in the New Testament, satan, or the “devil” (from diablos, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word), designates an evil spirit who tempts people to do wrong.
Yes, the NABRE is not a Protestant Bible, and a lot of other translations translate ha-satan as Satan rather than adversary. But the whole footnote does a good job of concisely summarizing some interesting elements of this story. Although the Adult Bible Study Guide does include a brief mention of the 2 Samuel version of the same disobedient David incident, it neglects to deal with the differences. In the 2 Samuel 24 telling of the same narrative, it is God who incites David to count his resources.
Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”
Why is it God acting in one telling and God’s adversary tempting in the other biblical version? The quarterly does not address this or several other contradictions between these two accounts. But the General Conference’s Revival and Reformation website does provide the following explanation.
This chapter is another doublet chapter, meaning that the Holy Spirit felt it wise to include a second account of David’s “Census of Israel and Judah” in 1 Chronicles 21. The Holy Spirit wanted to say something about the role of Satan in this Census. Only the doublet illustrates this clearly. Whereas the scribe in (v. 1) in this chapter said the “anger of the Lord burnt against Israel,” the scribe in 1 Chronicles 21:1 said that “Satan stood up against Israel.” The Lord is not in cooperation with Satan but in conflict with him. Sin is against God and provides a "free zone" for Satan to step in and take action.
There are other differences between 2 Samuel 24 and the doublet in 1 Chronicles 21. But none of these events prevented the Holy Spirit from drawing our attention to the problem of sin that brought suffering on the remnant.
Most commentaries on this story do seek to harmonize the stories. They often explain the apparent difference as God allowing David to be tempted into doing wrong. A clear example, this United Church of Christ commentary provides the following explanation: “No doubt God allowed Satan to act, as He did with Job, for His own purposes.” In both stories, God allows some chaos, his followers show their fidelity, and God alone restores order. This form has echoes of the Chaoskampf (confusion battle) in which divine authority over creatures—from monsters to kings—is recounted.
The Jehoshaphat win clearly shows that kings and armies are less powerful than the people’s collective devotion. The absurdity of the non-violent singing military vanguard and three-day collection of spoils just reinforces the point: salvation lies in cultic practices, not state authority. The goal of the census story seems to be ultimately concerned with reinforcing David’s role in establishing the temple. The UCC explanation ends with a point that echoes the Adult Bible Study Guide’s focus.
David asks to purchase the site to build the altar and offer burnt offerings. Ornan offers to give David the site, and the animals for the offerings, but David states that he would not "offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God with that which costs me nothing." It is a valuable principle for all of us that our offerings to God of service or money require a certain amount of sacrifice from us, or they are not really sacrificial offerings.
The cost of generous discipleship or impactful stewardship is essential. The essence of the spiritually holistic use of one's resources lies in recognizing the role of luck or providential leading. Ultimately, we receive gifts to give. It’s a reality that transcends all religious narratives. In the TEDx talk below, the founder of the Catchafire nonprofit supporting organization, Rachael Chong, explains the role of empathy and resource self-awareness in sparking generosity.
Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.
Title image: "Estatuas de los reyes Josafat y Ezequías. Basílica of El Escorial, en San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Madrid, España)." by Contando Estrelas (CC BY-SA 2.0).
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.