The Lord said to Moses, "When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them." (Shemot / Exodus 30:11-12; ESV)
Some people claim that the Bible has no contradictions. That claim seems to be essential for them to have confidence in the Bible's validity. That there are supposed contradictions even these people will accept, but this is usually followed by saying that they are all easily explained. Where I disagree is that I don't think all of them are that easy. Because the Bible isn't a technical manual or textbook, but rather a collection of stories - some true, some fictional, songs, prophecies, sayings, letters, and so on, it expresses itself from various perspectives over long periods of time by a wide range of authors. As a result how the Bible agrees with itself isn't always neat and tidy, but messy. Given the Bible's disparate sources its unity is overwhelmingly profound. But at the same time, the way it expresses itself can be perplexing. I have grown to love the Bible's raw vivid reality, designed by God to powerfully and effectively address every aspect of life in every culture. Truly understanding it can take some work. While there is much in the Bible a child could understand, including all we need to enter into a genuine relationship with the God of the Universe, much of Scripture is intellectually challenging and requires a mature heart and mind to grasp.
This week's Torah portion contains some information that can help to understand an incident near the end of the life of King David that is often used as an example of a biblical contradiction. In the second book of Samuel, we read that God was angry with Israel for some unstated reason and so incited David to take a census (see 2 Samuel 24:1). The book of First Chronicles tells the same story, but differently. There we are told that HaSatan (English: the Accuser) was the one who incited David to do this (see Divrei HaYamim I / 1 Chronicles 21:1).
Before we deal with the supposed contradiction, I want to look at what was so wrong about David's numbering of the people. What seems to be happening here is that this was not a God-directed census, but something that David decided to do on his own (yet, not fully on his own, since he was incited by spiritual forces). The Torah is clear that a special tax was to be levied upon taking a census. Neither accounts in Second Samuel nor First Chronicles contain any reference to the required tax. So what David initiated was outside of God's will and therefore, as God foretold through Moses, a plague was the result.
But what about the supposed contradiction? Who was it that incited David. Was it God or was it HaSatan? We can resolve this by understanding the difference between primary and secondary causes. Second Samuel rightly identifies God as the primary cause behind what motivated David. First Chronicles, on the other hand, rightly identifies HaSatan as the secondary cause. HaSatan is a tool in God's hand. While God is ultimately responsible for David's actions, it was HaSatan who provoked David to do what he did.
I find this greatly comforting. For even the forces of evil that are at work in our lives are under the control of God. This means that we don't have to worry about the tools God uses to accomplish his purposes, we only need to worry about him! I don't really mean "worry", of course. I mean that there is no need to negotiate with layers upon layers of spiritual forces in order to live life the way God wants. Instead we can simply go to God, because not only is he ultimately responsible for all that happens, good and bad, he is more than able - and willing - to deal with all that happens.
This brings us back to the perplexing issues we might find in the Bible. Life, like the Bible, can be very perplexing. But we don't need to complicate life even more than it already is by creating man-made spiritual formulae to resolve our problems. We can just go to God.