How many soldiers did David’s census of the tribes of Israel find?

Posted on Oct.23, 2008. Filed in 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles. Average rating: 4.3 / 10 (Rate It).

In both 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, David takes a census of the soldiers in Israel. The two accounts, however, disagree as to how many soldiers he found.

According to 2 Samuel, David found that there were 800,000 soldiers in Israel:

Joab reported to the king the number of those who had been recorded: in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword… [2 Samuel 24:9a (NRSV)]

According to 1 Chronicles, he found that there were 1,100,000 soldiers in Israel:

Joab gave the total count of the people to David. In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword… [1 Chronicles 21:5a (NRSV)]

So many soldiers were there in Israel?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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Inerrantist Responses

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  1. 1

    From 2 Samuel 24:2, it’s pretty clear the command is to count the “fighting men”, or in Hebrew, the “men who drew the sword”.

    The only difference in the Hebrew text is that the word “valiant” appears before “men who drew the sword” in 2 Samuel but not 1 Chronicles, but I don’t think that holds much weight – it would be weird if Joab came back and said “David, you’ve got 1.1 million soldiers, but 300,000 of them are sissies ;)”

    The inerrantists response cuts both ways – the number of fighting men in Israel is less in Samuel, but the fighting men in Judah is less in Chronicles.

    I can already see the response though – “In Samuel, they only counted the MEN in Judah, in Chronicles they counted the FIGHTING men in Judah”. I think that’s clearly against the natural reading in 2 Samuel 24:9.

  2. 2

    When 1 Chronicles talks about Israel, it adds the important qualifier all. 2 Samuel does not include this. The number in 2 Samuel may have been referring to Northern Israel only.

    If so:

    In 2 Samuel, Joab reports 1,300,000 men in all Israel (inferred), 800,000 in Northern Israel (directly reported) and 500,000 in Judah (directly reported).

    In 1 Chronicles, Joab reports 1,100,000 men in all Israel (directly reported), 630,000 in Northern Israel (inferred) and 470,000 in Judah (directly reported).

    Read in this way, the 1 Chronicles account uniformly lists fewer men in all geographic categories than the 2 Samuel account.

    Now, 1 Chronicles is speaking about men who drew the sword and 2 Samuel is speaking about men able to draw the sword (the word translated in some instances as “valiant” can also mean “able”…as the NRSV renders it). We should expect those who are able to do a thing to outnumber those who actually do that thing. So it only makes sense that the 2 Samuel accounting should have larger numbers that the 1 Chronicles accounting.

    The basic idea of the inerrantist response above is correct, but it gets backward which group is the readier set of soldiers, and it gets backward which account describes the larger group. 1 Chronicles describes the smaller group of readier soldiers.

  3. 3

    perhaps the solution lies in verse 6 of the 1Chronicles 21 passage:

    6 But Joab did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, because the king’s command was repulsive to him.

    In other words, my theory is that the 1,100,000 is the full number, while the 800,000 [actually reported to the king] lacks these two tribes.

  4. 4

    1Ch. 27:4 may also offer a hint

    24 Joab son of Zeruiah began to count the men but did not finish. Wrath came on Israel on account of this numbering, and the number was not entered in the book of the annals of King David.

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