For how much did David buy the land for the altar?

Posted on Aug.21, 2009. Filed in 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles. Average rating: 3.0 / 10 (Rate It).

When David had angered God by taking a census of the people of Israel, God sent a plague as a punishment. Seventy thousand died, but God paused before sending the plague against Jerusalem, and instructed David to build an altar on the threshing floor of a Jebusite. David did so, and Jerusalem was spared the plague.

The Jebusite is called Araunah in 2 Samuel, and Ornan in 1 Chronicles, but these are sufficiently similar to be accepted as two different versions of the same name rather than two different names. However, the accounts do give two different prices that David paid.

In 2 Samuel, David buys the land from Araunah for 50 shekels of silver:

That day Gad came to David and said to him, “Go up and erect an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” Following Gad’s instructions, David went up, as the Lord had commanded. When Araunah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming toward him; and Araunah went out and prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground. Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David said, “To buy the threshing floor from you in order to build an altar to the Lord, so that the plague may be averted from the people.” Then Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him; here are the oxen for the burnt offering, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king.” And Araunah said to the king, “May the Lord your God respond favorably to you.” But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. David built there an altar to the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being. So the Lord answered his supplication for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel. [2 Samuel 24:18-25, NRSV]

In 1 Chronicles, however, David buys the land from Ornan for 600 shekels of gold:

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. So David went up following Gad’s instructions, which he had spoken in the name of the Lord. Ornan turned and saw the angel; and while his four sons who were with him hid themselves, Ornan continued to thresh wheat. As 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. David said to Ornan, “Give me the site of the threshing floor that I may build on it an altar to the Lord–give it to me at its full price–so that the plague may be averted from the people.” Then 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.” But 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.” So David paid Ornan six hundred shekels of gold by weight for the site. David 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. Then the Lord commanded the angel, and he put his sword back into its sheath. [1 Chronicles 21:18-27, NRSV]

So how much did David pay the Jebusite for the land for the altar, 50 shekels of silver or 600 shekels of gold?

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  1. 1

    Hmm. In the first case he pays 50 for the “threshing floor and the oxen”, in the second case he pays 600 for “the site”.

    The ESV Study Bible suggests the site is a much larger area, and both are thus true.

    I find it odd, though, that it would be reported as if there were two separate transactions.

  2. 2

    It worth noting that this isn’t just a numerical discrepancy: it’s not just “50 shekels” vs “600 shekels”, it’s “50 shekels of silver” vs “600 shekels of gold”.

    Absent an explanation of why these would look similar in Hebrew, this makes me think that there’s probably more going on here than just a smudged number being misread and miscopied.

  3. 3

    Silver vs gold.


  4. 4

    Says the Oxford Bible Commentary:

    “Certain passages [in 1 Chr 21] resemble the Qumran [Dead Sea Scrolls] version of 2 Sam 24 … more closely than the canonized Hebrew text. Thus the Chronicler must have had a different source from the version of 2 Sam 24 printed in Hebrew Bibles today; one which would explain the numerous discrepancies between ch. 21 and 2 Sam 24.”

  5. 5

    Also, apparently the Chronicles version is partly modelled on Genesis 23 – both contain the expression “full price”, which Samuel does not.

    In Genesis 23 Abraham pays 400 silver for a place to bury his dead. The Chronicler may have wanted David’s act to be more impressive.

  6. 6

    Depending on how you attribute authorship to these books, 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles are separated by as much as 600 years (with 2 Samuel being the older work). During that time, it is entirely possible that the value of money changed considerably. 2 Chronicles 9:20 and 27 record that silver, in particular, was greatly diminished in its value during the time of Solomon (The text contains the hyperbole that silver was of no value and as common as stones).

    In any case, a piece of property purchased for 50 silver-shekels at the time of the writing of 2 Samuel might well cost 600 gold-shekels at the time of the writing of 1 Chronicles.

  7. 7

    Chronicles is giving an inflation-adjusted figure? I think that’s too advanced thinking for the time…

  8. 8

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Chronicler is adjusting for inflation. He is simply providing a comparable value for the property. The Chronicler was aware that precious metals were worth different amounts at different times as 2 Chronicles 9 demonstrates.

  9. 9

    One other possibility occurs to me on this one. If you look at the Hebrew in an Interlinear, you’ll see that Samuel says that David bought the field for 50 silver shekels. Chronicles says that he gave Ornan 600 gold shekels for the field.

    It could bee that David and Ornan engaged in a bit of reverse haggling (recall that Ornan originally wanted to simply give the property to David). David initially gave Ornan 600 gold, but the price they finally settled on was 50 silver.

    It could also be that David paid 50 silver, but then gave Ornan 600 gold because of Ornan’s generosity in initially offering to simply give the field to David.

  10. 10

    David had sinned greatly. Tens of thousands had died because of his sin. Further, this event occurs under supernatural circumstances in which angels, the Lord, and Satan are participants, and sets the stage for the building of the Temple. In short, this was a HUGE event. He paid 50 shekels of silver, and the idea of offerings of grain and bulls are mentioned by Ornan/Arauhah; I believe the gold was also paid by David as another type(s) of freewill or love offering or as a sin offering; as such, it cannot be part of the price, or it would not be a “freewill” offering. His extravagance was in proportion to his repentence, which was great, being a man after His own heart.

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