King David’s Famine: A Bible Contradiction?

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 138 2

Bible critics like to teach that Scripture is filled with contradictions. It is thought that if the Bible contradicts itself then it is not trustworthy. One alleged contradiction occurs in the account of King David. 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 tell us that God was displeased when David took a census of all men of military age throughout Israel. (Some people wonder why God was so angry with David for only taking a census. More than likely God wanted David to trust him for protection rather than the number of fighting men.)

Our “contradiction” takes place when the prophet Gad shows up to rebuke David. God would give David three options for punishment. 2 Samuel 24:13 tells us, “So Gad went to David and said to him, ‘Shall there come upon you seven years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land? Now then, think it over and decide how I should answer the one who sent me.’”

1 Chronicles 21:11-12 records the same thing except that it says three years of famine and not seven. Christians have come up with a few different solutions for this discrepancy. The first proposed, and most common, solution is that there is a copyist error.[1] It is likely that since the number three appears for the other punishments it is likely that someone who was copying the text of 2 Samuel made an error and accidentally replaced the three with a seven.

This is not as bad as most people realize. Before the inventing of the printing press all books had to be hand copied. This was a long and tedious task. Sometimes a copyist would make a mistake. Scholars have noticed that the most common mistakes were things such as misspelling (interestingly no major doctrines have been threatened by copyist errors – see here, here, and here for a good overview of what scholars call textual criticism). It is then understandable that a possible mistake was made with the numbers three and seven in 2 Samuel.

A second solution lies in the context of the passage. 2 Samuel 21:1 tells us that there was a famine in the land of Israel for three years. These three years occurred before David ordered the census in chapter 24. 24:8 says that the census took nine months and twenty days to complete. This was almost a year. Take these four years and add the three years of famine that God gave as an option and we have seven years. Thus, this solution says there was no copyist mistake. Both three and seven are correct. 2 Samuel is simply giving us the total number of years of famine that Israel would have endured if David would have chosen famine as the punishment.[2]

A third option is that Gad approached David twice. The seven years option was given four years before the three year option was given. This would have given David four years to think about his decision. Personally I find this to be the least likely of the solutions. If David was given this amount of time why did God not reduce the length of the other options as well?[3]

I believe that the first or second options are the most likely. Either way there is no reason to think that these verses destroy the Bible’s trustworthiness. What do you think?

[1] See for example, John MacArthur. The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005). 487.

[2] Michael Belknap. “A Famine of Three or Seven Years?” In Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions Volume 2. Ed. Ken Ham, Bodies Hodge, and Tim Chaffee (Green Forest: Master Books, 2011). 70.

[3] Ibid. 70-71.

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