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.

  • The Ubiquitous

    This really is a solution, at least theoretically, but it’s half proven. It’s missing a critical part of the argument. It depends, also, on the context. Is there warrant in the type of telling going on to believe that this was the motive of the author? If it is poetry, or if it is clearly a fable (Job, Judith), then this sort of artistic license makes sense. I believe there is a cause to believe this, or at least I’ve heard that argument made.

    All you have to show is that the books of Kings (1, 2 Samuel and 1, 2 Kings) are written for that reason whereas the books Chronicles had a different reason. You could say that the differences are part of the evidence for the license — and that the license in the books of Kings are what make them special enough to include in the Bible — and you can keep your inerrancy while you’re at it.

  • Michael Tilley

    To add to your point, I also think one would still correctly characterize both records at historical. We should not make the mistake of assuming that ancient history was practiced with the same method as contemporary, scholarly history. To do ancient history well, it would be important to consider what the message from I Samuel and Chronicles was (just as it is helpful to consider the purpose of Gen. 1-11 in light of other Ancient Sumerian narratives).

    • That’s an excellent point, and well worth considering. Depending how one understands inerrancy, one could easily make the argument that there is no mistake in either because both intended to write exactly what they wrote, though they do obviously contradict each other, which isn’t really a problem unless the Bible is a history book, as you said, “practiced with the same method as contemporary, scholarly history.”

      • Michael Tilley

        It seems we are in broad agreement. Still, I don’t know that they “obviously contradict each other”. If you assume that they are trying to communicate in the way that a contemporary historian would, then one would think that they contradict. Suppose, for example, one text said Noah was 900 years old and another said he was 10,000 years old. If one has modern history in mind, that appears to be a contradiction. But in an ancient Sumerian context, it was quite common to talk about the length of someone’s life (or reign) in terms of how (relatively) important they were for that society. So, the two texts about Noah, from that tradition, wouldn’t suggest a contradiction. I took your point about the different purposes in different types of text to be making a similar point. In which case, I don’t think they contradict. Thanks for a thought provoking blog post.

  • I agree that all too often discussions around the Bible get stuck on essentially trivial details and miss the bigger picture. This would be a classic example. How many sons did Jesse have? Lots. And David was the youngest, weakest, least significant, at the time he was chosen. Other times the details are important … I am struggling with a few of those right now, because they suggest a conflict between the fundamental reliability of the Bible, and the character of God. I hope to be able to get your thoughts on this when my own thoughts are clearer – and meanwhile am enjoying following your blog…:)

    • dart

      | …because they suggest a conflict between the fundamental
      reliability of the Bible, and the character of God |

      This statement is the heart of the fear held by millions of (and I dare say
      American) Christians. It’s the undercurrent that is driving the politics
      in states dominated by ‘conservative’ values. Here in South Carolina,
      there are still debates in the legislature on how to implement a science
      curriculum that does teach evolution, but also teaches other theories so
      students can choose which one to believe. It’s the engine that drives the
      conversation on Biblical Authority in certain groups (ie. Ken Ham). This
      fear traps the believer into thinking “well if that flood story isn’t true when
      the God’s Word is saying it actually happened, then that means it’s wrong about
      Jesus too. So I have to believe in everything in order for the Gospel to be
      true.”

      This fear transforms itself into wedges that divide the Church of believers and diverts attention from what matters most: being Christ to those who suffer.

  • Timber St. James

    What I love now about the story of Jesse’s sons is that David wasn’t presented as one. Why?

    It’s not because he was busy or Jesse forgot. It’s also not because David was the youngest or most wimpy.

    I get the distinct notion that David was doing servant’s work AND deliberately left out of the family line-up because… yep, you guessed it. David was a bastard.

    Making him king wasn’t crazy-pill talk because of the reasons we heard in Sunday School. It’s because God’s servant Samual was elevating a dirty, sheep-stinky bastard boy above God’s annointed.

    Suddenly the story of Jesse’s sons makes WAY more sense.

    • That’s amazing.

      • Timber St. James

        Also interesting: David is (I think) the ONLY biblical person about whom God (or whoever) comments on his complexion. David is portrayed as “ruddy and handsome.” So I’m guessing he was darker-skinned than his Jewish half-family, and also pretty badass.

        (Which keeps in line with my theory that dark-skinned, light-eyed, mixed people are sexy as hell.)