Gateway: Living

God or Satan? Preconceived views get in way of reading the text

Brent Emery can be reached at torah4today@comcast.net.
Brent Emery can be reached at torah4today@comcast.net.

Reading the Bible can be a dangerous thing if you look too closely. There are parallel passages on both sides of the Bible but those parallels often have contradictions or discrepancies. Critics of the Bible accuse it of being contradictory, while others use the kinder "discrepancy”. These contradictions are then used to claim that the Bible can’t be trusted. I believe that when we encounter what looks on the surface to be a contradiction we should give the Bible the benefit of the doubt and look for ways to reconcile the differences. I am convinced that what seems like a contradiction to the modern mind would not have been for the original readers of the text. Let’s take a look at a parallel passage in the Hebrew Scripture, note the discrepancy, and see if we can come away with a better understanding of how the Hebrew mind worked. Often our preconceived views of a word's meaning can get in the way of reading the text. We all have baggage and blinders that prevent us from reading the text like the original readers.

In II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21 we have a parallel text. A parallel text is where the same narrative is retold with some minor additions or subtractions in the second text. Additions or subtractions don’t constitute a contradiction but they are interesting to note. If I were to ask a husband to tell me about his wedding day and then ask his wife I would probably get a different version of the same event. The differences in their narrative do not mean that one or the other can’t be trusted to give me the truth. Sometimes, however, we do see something in the second narrative that arrests our attention due to the seeming difference from the initial narrative. Take a look at II Samuel 24. Then read I Chronicles 21 and see if you can find the glaring difference.

In II Samuel 24 David takes a census of the people probably to find out the available men who could fight. In I Chronicles 21 we have the parallel passage but in this text we have a different motivator for David’s actions. In II Samuel 24 YHVH incites David to take the census, while in I Chronicles, Satan in named as the one who causes David’s sin. So which one is it? Is it YHVH (God) or is it Satan? At first glance this looks like a contradiction and not a discrepancy. Let’s investigate further to see if we can unravel this knot.

Let’s take a moment to recall that the majority of the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) was written in Hebrew language. For many the word Satan is the devil of the New Testament but is this an accurate view? In Hebrew Scripture, the word Satan can have the definite article attached to the front of the word so the word Satan can not be a proper name. Just like English, Hebrew language does not put the definite article, the, in front of proper names. Names of people and places are automatically definite in the normal rules of grammar. In Biblical Hebrew, Satan is a title and means adversary or opposer so anyone who opposes another person could be called a Satan. Think of Satan as a title and not a proper name.

Now go back and read II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21 again. Notice in both texts the “angel of the Lord” exacts judgment. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the “angel of the Lord” and YHVH are used in interchangeable ways as to often be indistinguishable. For instance YHVH speaks in Exodus 23 of the “angel” in highly exalted language saying that “my name” is in the “angel”. The “name” is another way of speaking of YHVH’s very presence so that this angel has the presence of YHVH in him. An important question to ask is, “Do we have a place where the angel of the Lord is called a Satan prior to II Samuel?" The answer is yes!

In Numbers 22, the angel of the Lord acts as Satan/adversary against Balaam to keep him from helping the Moabites. Let me suggest that the YHVH of II Samuel 24 and the Satan of I Chronicles 21 are two ways of referring to the same angel of the Lord that appears in both texts. Since YHVH and the angel of the Lord are essentially the same and often appear together, it was not a stretch to refer to YHVH and Satan in parallel texts. If we remember that Satan is not a proper name but rather a title, then we have no contradiction much less a discrepancy. It’s only in later Christian thinking that the title Satan became in popular thinking a proper name. Once this confusion gained traction, it’s easy to see how reading II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21 would seem like a contradiction. If we look at the grammar of Satan, ascertain its meaning, and use it as a title instead of a name, we see no contradiction.

When the initial readers of the Hebrew Scripture read II Samuel 24 - and then I Chronicles 21 - they experienced no contradiction or cognitive dissonance because they knew Hebrew grammar and Biblical history. In modern times we are hostages to English translations and have little connectivity to the broad scope of Biblical texts, so we draw conclusions based on faulty and incomplete information. Unless we learn to apply the rules of Hebrew language and acquire a deeper approach to reading, we will continue to arrive at errant views. Once these views have taken seed, it’s hard to have them removed.

Brent Emery can be reached at torah4today@comcast.net.
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