How Many Sons Did Jesse Have? A Study in Missing the Point

The Problem:
I Samuel 16 says that Jesse had 8 sons.

I Chronicles 2 says that Jesse had only 7.

The Skeptics Annotated Bible thinks that this difference is a problem for Biblical authority. And worse, many Christian apologetics sites agree!

Christiananswers.net, ApologeticsPress.org, Contradicting Bible Contradictions, UK ApologeticsLookingUntoJesus, and all the other Christian results on the first page of the google search try to solve this contradiction. Why? Because they share with SAB the belief that if there really is a contradiction, the Bible isn’t authoritative.

The Crazy Solution
All the apologetics sites offer an identical response: obviously one of the sons died, perhaps young, probably without having a son, so both were correct at one time.

This is rubbish. Either Jesse had eight sons, or he had seven. If someone has eight kids and one dies, you don’t say, “Oh, she only had seven kids.” You say, “She had eight, but one of them died.” Besides, if you’re writing 600 years in the future as UK Apologetics suggests, they all died. Whether they had kids is irrelevant.

But this is scary for those of us who were taught that the Bible has to be literally / historically accurate to be authoritative, which is an assumption that many Christians share with atheists.

The More Likely Reality
The teller of each story used numbers to make a point. Whether those numbers are accurate has nothing to do with it. The numbers are creative license taken by each storyteller.

Consider the numbers in ancient Hebrew stories: God created the world in seven days. Seven means it’s finished. When the seven days were completed, it was done. When the seven sons had passed by Samuel, it was done. That David came after the number of sons were complete (seven) demonstrates David’s insignificance. David wasn’t even counted among the seven sons; he was an afterthought. He was an eighth in a world that celebrated sevens.  The author of I Samuel went to great pains, not just in the narrative, but in the numbers of the narrative, to communicate to his audience how insignificant David was before God chose him. Were we telling this story today, we might make David the middle child.

With that in mind, imagine the plight of the Chronicler. David wasn’t just “the youngest,” he was the youngest and greatest. An afterthought? God forbid. No, David was the grand finale of the sons of Jesse – the seventh, and the best and greatest. That’s why the Chronicler made David the great seventh, not the lowly eighth. David was important.

So how many sons did Jesse have? I don’t think it matters. Historically speaking, Jesse might’ve had thirteen sons, or six, or three. I doubt strongly that either author mentioned the number of sons Jesse had as a biographical detail. Their numbers aren’t “wrong,” even if neither number is historically accurate. They weren’t meant to be historically accurate. The detail was meant to tell us something, shaded from their perspective, about David.

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.