Wednesday, August 09, 2006

OT Hebrew Problems

The Hebrew in the OT is not precise. Unlike Greek words, which mean something very specific, Hebrew words are based on concrete imagery that has specific meaning according to context. Sometimes, the context itself is not very specific either. Add to this the fact that the Hebrew OT was originally written without vowels, that different vowels can completely change the meaning of words, and that the texts have undergone revisions, rewritings, harmonization, etc, and suddenly you’ve got yourself quite a mess. A scholar can spend his entire professional career just trying to work out what the Hebrew most likely actually says (for example, see Understanding the Old Testament by Winton Thomas)

Here is one place where problems with the Hebrew have created what is, literally, a contradiction in the Bible. The contradiction is not, most likely, natural to the intended meaning, but does, nevertheless, exist in the words themselves. Thus, for instance, when we ask who killed Goliath, we are given two different answers:
David prevailed over the Philistine [Goliath] with just the sling and the stone. He struck down the Philistine [Goliath] and killed him.
--1 Samuel 17:50

Elhanan son of Jaare-Oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite.
--2 Samuel 21:19
Seeing that 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel are only divisions of the same book, it makes no sense for the text to disagree with itself. This discrepancy clues us in to the fact that more is going on.

Many translations, however, do not actually translate what the biblical text says in 2 Samuel 21:19. They usually harmonize and fix it to say something it doesn’t say. The verse used to change 2 Samuel is the following:
Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath.
--2 Chronicles 20:5
It is well known that Chronicles is something called “rewritten history”—like Jubilees. The Chronicler took from many earlier sources—much of which is actually Kings and Samuel—to write his own version of Israelite history, which is one reason for the many similarities (or differences) between Kings/Samuel and Chronicles.

When the Chronicler came to this contradiction in Samuel, re-wrote it in his own work just as modern-day translators re-write the text to smooth out the contradiction, so that instead of Elhanan killing Goliath, he kills Goliath’s brother. But as the NET Bible’s notes indicate, even the Chronicler’s revision is errant. The NET Bible gives a possible answer to the contradictory and problematic Hebrew in Samuel and Chronicles:

“…in all likelihood the problem is the result of difficulties in the textual transmission of the Samuel passage; in fact, from a text-critical point of view the books of Samuel are the most poorly preserved of all the books of the Hebrew Bible…Both versions are textually corrupt. The Chronicles text has misread “Bethlehemite” (בֵּית הַלַּחְמִי, bet hallakhmi) as the accusative sign followed by a proper name אֶת לַחְמִי (’et lakhmi)…The Samuel text misread the word for “brother” (אַח, ’akh) as the accusative sign (אֵת, ’et), thereby giving the impression that Elhanan, not David, killed Goliath. Thus in all probability the original text read, “Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite killed the brother of Goliath.”

In all probability, the original version of Samuel was coherent. Unfortunately, I have not examined other texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or LXX, which may shed more light on the issue. But it appears at this time that a scribe misread the text and corrupted it. That corruption was passed on and appears in our bibles. This does not, however, explain the Chronicler's error. In this case, the autograph of Chronicles would itself be corrupt in that the author clearly mistranslated Samuel or purposely changed Samuel to fit his own ends. I am not familiar with the particulars behind the inerrancy dogma. But if innerancy does not allow the author of scripture to make an error in the text of his autograph or change what was written at another time in other scripture to say something different, and the evidence supports this conclusion about Chronicles and Samuel, then I would have to deny inerrancy.


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