I’ve spent my life hating coffee because I thought it tasted like dirty water. Don’t get me wrong, most people who drink coffee are probably good people. They are doctors, teachers, and firemen. My wife loves coffee, and I think she’s pretty okay too. But I couldn’t get past this idea that these people were drinking steaming bean water. Let’s be honest, nobody who tries coffee for the first time goes “mmm, now that’s good coffee.” No, they make that face like someone in the room just farted. Then they learn how to put in cream and sugar to cover up the taste of the laundry water so they can actually handle drinking it. Or they brag about drinking it black like it’s a badge of honor to be able to handle it in its purest form. But no matter how you drink your coffee, I know this to be true. You can’t function in the morning until you have your first cup. Most people brag about this too. We even have memes we share on Facebook in the early morning about how you can’t survive without coffee. Or you just show up late to something because “you had to get your coffee.” Caffeine is a drug, and the addicted bury their vice in the acceptable form of coffee. It’s just despicable. I’ll stick to my shot glass sized non-refillable $2.50 orange juice, thank you very much.
But here is the problem. I’ve spent my life hating coffee, but I don’t hate it anymore. A few months ago I started meeting a friend early in the morning, and I realized I had no other choice but to grin and bear it. Over the next few months, I experimented with my coffee, and everything began to change. Some will call it a mid-life crisis, but at 39 years old, I’ve become a coffee drinker.
Now I love to go to Starbucks. I even have the app, so I can open it up and order my favorite drink on the menu without having to think about. In case you’re wondering, my favorite drink is a Grande Cinnamon Dolce Latte. It’s one of those frou-frou drinks that has all sorts of flavors, toppings, and adds in. It’s perfect on a cold morning. The cold whip cream topped with cinnamon hits you first right before the hot espresso and milk. In all honesty, I’m just happy with any coffee. Our Keurig and our small 10 cup coffee maker are almost always being used (sometimes at the same time). I will just say it out loud. I love coffee. Yes, I’m a hypocrite. I used to judge people who couldn’t live without their Starbucks, and now I can’t live without mine. I’m a walking contradiction.
Now, most reasonable people wouldn’t say that’s a contradiction. It’s not like I’m still sitting at Starbucks scoffing at the people in line right before turning around and gushing over my cinnamon dolce latte. I don’t roll my eyes at my wife for drinking coffee immediately before placing a K-cup in the machine. Saying I hate coffee and then turning around and saying I love coffee would be a contradiction. What I experienced was something different. My view of coffee changed over time.
Now, what I just described seems totally reasonable when talking about coffee. We accept that people have different views about coffee: whether to like it, whether to drink it. But these same ideas, contradictions, make some people very uncomfortable when we are talking about the Bible.
So you may be asking – Ryan, how could something often called the “word of God” have contradictions? Doesn’t that mean its wrong? But it does have contradictions: no way around that. So, the question we should be asking isn’t a how but a why. So, with all that said, let’s start out with some glaring contradictions that are found in what are called the historical books of the Bible, the ones where contradictions seem truly out of place.
2 Kings 8:26
Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he began to reign; he reigned one year in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Athaliah, a granddaughter of King Omri of Israel.
2 Chronicles 22:2
Ahaziah was forty-two years old when he began to reign; he reigned one year in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Athaliah, a granddaughter of Omri.
Now, if you are reading this in the NIV translation of the Bible, you will see something very interesting. There will be a note at the bottom of the page that looks like this [manuscript note]. This note is telling us that the translators had different copies to use while translating and these copies were not all the same. Errors can be made when you copy by hand as the ancient people did. This copying by hand and the possible mistakes can explain our next set of contradictions.
2 Samuel 24:9
9 Joab reported the number of the fighting men to the king: In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand.
1 Chronicles 21:5
5 Joab reported the number of the fighting men to David: In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who could handle a sword, including four hundred and seventy thousand in Judah.
Now, these are just numbers. Maybe they just copied them wrong. Big deal. What’s the point? Well, the numbers might not seem to matter but how they got those numbers is where things get interesting. So let’s go back a couple verses in each of these last two chapters to see what they have to say because what’s here can’t really be attributed to copying errors. It’s a pretty clear contradiction, but on closer inspection, something else seems to be going on. And that something changes everything.
2 Samuel 24:1-2
Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” 2 So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.”
1 Chronicles 21:1-2
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel. 2 So David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, “Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan. Then report back to me so that I may know how many there are.”
We aren’t talking about numbers anymore, are we?
These verses are what are called parallel passages. They are telling the same story in two different books. Now, this isn’t too crazy. If you read the gospels, the books in the New Testament about Jesus, they are filled with parallel passages. This isn’t out of the ordinary, but the content is.
In one verse it tells us that God commanded the people to take the census. In the other, David has the excuse that Satan made him do it: two totally different things that show two totally different ideas. I mean if it was God or Satan encouraging someone to do something that is a big deal. So, what do we do with this? How do we deal with the clear differences in these parallel passages?
First of all, a little bit about timing: 2 Samuel was written around 600 BC. 1 Chronicles was written around 300 BC. Hundreds of years took place between the two accounts as people wrestled with these questions of faith about who is God and who are they in relation to God. And if we look at the timeline, these questions didn’t happen in a vacuum. They occur over time as these people built their kingdom, watched their kingdom crumble, and were carried off into exile. But what does this have to do with a census?
Just like it is today, census taking was a massive deal in the ancient world. Census taking allowed you to know how many people were in your kingdom. Census taking determined, like today, how you spent your resources. For the ancient world, more people meant more taxes, which meant more money, and a bigger army. Census taking determined how big you could build your kingdom.
Now, if you’ve been around this place very long, you know that the Bible is all about kingdoms. The question seems to be over and over again: will people will choose God’s rule and reign or their own? We face the same question in our own lives. This census thing isn’t simply a practical issue, it’s a spiritual one. Do they build their kingdom on their own or trust in God?
That question resonated, and over time people began to understand the spiritual implications of taking a census as their understanding of God grew. As a result, as generations passed, these God followers began to reinterpret the story through this new theological lens.
Another way to say this is that God allowed them to tell their own story, of their own experience. We see this in a very practical way with this census. They weren’t just recording history, they were telling us about their experience with God. This isn’t really about how as much as about why.
Now, the fact that this apparent contradiction is in the Bible is actually really great news. This isn’t an opportunity to throw the Bible out the window, it’s an opportunity to embrace an incredible truth. God gave these people the chance to tell their own story and share their faith.
We see this invitation in the words of Jesus. The book of Luke in the New Testament in our Bibles tells the story of the life of Jesus. It is written by the same person who wrote the book of Acts which tells the story of the early church. Listen to how the book of Luke concludes.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah[a] is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses[b] of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
That’s it, and the book ends, Jesus is gone, and the story of the early church begins. Jesus leaves the earth having written no books. There’s no written guide for these followers. He simply tells them to go and share the story of repentance and forgiveness with the world. The story is now theirs to tell with no set rules on what that should look like.
So, what do you think they did? They went and told their story. They wrestled, together, with what it means to have a relationship with God in light of their relationship with Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. And the Bible doesn’t hide how messy this was.
Throughout the pages of the New Testament, we find people arguing, debating, and constructing what it means to have faith in light of their experience with Jesus. Many of these people came from a Jewish background. They had to struggle with what to do with their ancient faith. And for some of them, they had a radical departure from what they previously had believed. Others debated the implications of following rules, like the 10 Commandments, versus simply having faith and that being enough. These were significant issues but God let them tell their story and the debates, arguments, and differences are spilled all over the pages of this book we call the Bible.
And here’s the thing, this conversation didn’t end with the Bible. Every generation is wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus. One of those early followers of Jesus, a fisherman named Peter, gave some advice on how to share this story and what it means for us.
1 Peter 3:15
15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…
Your story is not my story. My story is not your story. Your experience with God makes you uniquely qualified to share what God has done in your life as you’ve given your life over to Him. Our stories are going to look very different as we grow and develop in our faith. And someday you may look back and see how you’ve changed and how God has invited you into a faith you never expected. That’s not a contradiction, it’s growth in your relationship with God. It’s transformation on a personal level. And your story is a story worth sharing.