Translation Issues from the Life of David

On Wednesday nights for the past several months, I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on the life of David. As part of my studying to prepare those sermons, I’ve had to deal with a couple of textual difficulties. One is found in 2 Samuel 15:7 and the other one is found in 2 Samuel 21:8. Because the translation I preach from at church is the King James Version, both difficulties involve the K.J.V.

I’ll start with 2 Samuel 15:7, a verse found in the context of the story of how David’s son Absalom temporarily stole the kingship from him. 2 Samuel 15:4-7 says in the K.J.V.:

Absalom said moreover, “Oh that I were made judge in the land, that every man which hath any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would do him justice! And it was so, that when any man came nigh to him to do him obeisance, he put forth his hand, and took him, and kissed him. And on this manner did Absalom to all Israel that came to the king for judgment: so Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel. And it came to pass after forty years, that Absalom said unto the king, I pray thee, let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed unto the Lord, in Hebron.

The problem here is not that the K.J.V. translation team wrongly translated the original Hebrew of 2 Samuel 15:7. No, the Hebrew text really does say “forty.” The problem is that “forty” seems to imply that Absalom spent forty years buttering up the people in Jerusalem before he began his coup attempt against his father. Why is that a problem? It’s because David reigned for only 40 years in total (2 Samuel 5:3-5; 1 Kings 2:11), and for the first seven-and-a-half years of that reign he wasn’t even king over the entire nation. Instead, he reigned exclusively over Judah, the territory of Israel’s two southernmost tribes.

Furthermore, during David’s seven years in Judah, his royal residence was in Hebron rather than in Jerusalem, the city in which 2 Samuel 15:7 takes place. Also, even though Absalom was born during David’s years in Hebron, he certainly hadn’t been born yet when David first came to the throne there (2 Samuel 3:2-3). What all this means, of course, is that Absalom couldn’t possibly have spent forty years in Jerusalem winning over the people of Israel before he stole the kingship from David.

So, how do we explain the K.J.V.’s “forty years” of 2 Samuel 15:7? Well, two explanations have been offered. One is held by those who think the K.J.V. is a perfect translation (“God’s preserved word for the English language” to use their definition). The other one is held by those who think the K.J.V. is a reliable translation but not a perfect one.

The first explanation, the one the “K.J.V. only” advocates present, is that the forty years in question have to do with David rather than Absalom. As the explanation goes, the words “And it came to pass after forty years” mean that forty years had passed since the prophet Samuel had anointed David as king over all Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-13). As you might know, Samuel anointed David approximately fifteen years before David literally sat upon any throne as a king. Those fifteen or so years were marked by King Saul, who refused to abdicate the throne, constantly seeking to kill David.

The second explanation, the one favored by those who don’t hold to the “K.J.V. only” viewpoint, is that “forty” is simply a Hebrew scribe’s copying error that should read “four.” This would mean that Absalom swayed the hearts of the people for four years before attempting to overthrow his father. In support of this explanation is the fact that “four” is used in the Syriac translation of the Bible. That translation is called the Peshitta and it is one of the oldest translations we have, dating all the way back to the 5th century, Additionally, some versions of the Greek Septuagint translation read “four” instead of “forty,” and even the Jewish historian Josephus favored “four” over “forty” in regards to the text.

I myself have no trouble believing the text should read “four.” It just fits the story so much better than trying to bring David’s anointing from decades earlier into the plot at that point. For that matter, why should we single out David’s anointing as the event that marked the beginning of the purported forty years? There’s certainly nothing in the story to suggest that we should do that. Really, though, it’s pretty much just the “K.J.V. only” people who cling to the idea of “forty” years in the verse. Virtually all of the modern translations — the English Standard Version, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, the New Living Translation, the New Revised Standard Version, etc. — render the time period as “four” instead of “forty.”

Now let’s move on to the problem found in 2 Samuel 21:8. The K.J.V. of that verse reads:

But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite.

In this instance, the problem is that the name “Michal” seems to be wrongly used in place of “Merab,” the name of Michal’s sister. Merab, not Michal, was the wife of Adriel the Meholathite (1 Samuel 18:19), and Merab was the one who bore him five sons. Michal was childless (2 Samuel 6:23).

Those who take the position that the King James Version is flawless are quick to point out that the verse doesn’t say that Michal actually gave birth to the five sons. To the contrary, it calls the sons those “whom she brought up for Adriel…” This implies that Michal, having no children of her own, more or less adopted the boys and raised them. There is no reason given for why Merab, their biological mother, would have stepped aside and let her sister raise all of her boys, but nevertheless that’s the way the story reads in the K.J.V. It is also worth noting that here again the problem isn’t in the translation. The original Hebrew text from which the K.J.V. translators worked does use the name “Michal” instead of “Merab.”

But hold on a minute. There are two other Hebrew manuscripts of this text, ones not used by the K.J.V. translators, and those two texts do use “Merab” instead of “Michal.” Along the same lines, the second-century version of the Greek Septuagint translation uses “Merab” instead of “Michal.”

And then there is the strongest piece of evidence that the name should be “Merab” instead of “Michal.” That is the fact that the original Hebrew word the K.J.V. translators rendered as “brought up for” in the verse is yalad, That’s the classic Hebrew word for “bare” and it’s translated as such in the K.J.V. dozens and dozens of times in the Old Testament. Obviously, when the K.J.V. translators came to yalad in the original Hebrew of 2 Samuel 21:8, they were faced with a serious dilemma. The same text that read “bare” (yelad) also read “Michal” even though 2 Samuel 6:23 flatly states that Michael had no child unto the day of her death. How could the K.J.V. translators soothe over this glaring contradiction? They did it by forcing the translation phrase “brought up for” onto yalad for this one instance. Needless to say, this is a big reason why virtually all the modern translations break rank with the K.J.V. (as they do with “forty” and “four” in 2 Samuel 15:7) and go with “Merab” instead of “Michal” in 2 Samuel 21:8.

Obviously, you can consider this post an advocacy for the need to consult multiple translations to get at the truth of any piece of scripture. Not only am I not “K.J.V. only,” I’m also not “N.K.J.V. only,” “N.I.V. only, “N.A.S.B. only,” E.S.V. only,” “N.R.S.V. only,” N.L.T. only,” or “H.C.S.B. only.” I do believe the original manuscripts of the Bible’s books were all perfect and completely without error, each one being divinely inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), but I don’t believe any one translation is perfect. A perfect translation would require a perfect team of translators, and no translation team, even the K.J.V. translators, have ever claimed to be perfect.

Even if we could find a perfect team of translators, we couldn’t possibly know for sure which Old Testament Hebrew texts and New Testament Greek texts are perfect. Since the original manuscripts of each of the Bible’s books has been lost to history, what we have now are merely scribal copies of copies of copies of copies of each book. Many of these copies are not even fully intact but are instead only portions or mere fragments. Regarding any type of copy, we’re not talking about a copying machine copy, either. We’re talking about a handwritten copy painstakingly done by some scribe through untold hours of tedious work.

The good news is that we have literally thousands of these copies to consult. The bad news is that even though all the copies stand in perfect agreement 99% of the time, there are slight differences in them. These differences are all exceedingly minor — a punctuation here, a word or phrase there, a difference in name on occasion — but they are real.

Some people say, “Just go with the oldest copies (i.e., the ones produced in the years closest to the original source manuscripts) because they have to be the most accurate ones.” Actually, however, the oldest copies don’t necessarily have to be the best. If a certain scribe made a certain error early in the historical streamline of a certain copy, that error would be perpetuated in all the copies that were made from that copy. That’s how an older copy from a error-marred chain of copies could actually be less accurate than a newer copy from a more accurate chain of copies.

Are you beginning to see now why it’s good that translation teams have a plethora of copies from which to produce their translations and why it’s good that we have a plethora of translations to study? In this day and age, we don’t even have to go out and spend a ton of money buying all these translations. All we have to do is visit websites such as BibleGateway.com. There we can find dozens of translations for free.

I consult that particular site frequently in my studies, and I encourage you to do the same. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much new light can be shed on familiar passages that you have only read from one translation, and you’ll also be able to get a ton more insight into problematic passages such as 2 Samuel 15:7 and 2 Samuel 21:8. Hopefully, through it all, the word of God will become more vibrant and relevant to you that it has ever been, and that in turn will translate (do you see what I did there?) to you serving the Lord better than you ever have. That, after all, is the goal, right? I mean, all the copies of Hebrew and Greek texts ever found and all the translations ever produced from them won’t do us any good if we don’t put their plain-as-day teachings into practice. That’s how we turn the written word of God into the living word of God, and it’s how we elevate the Bible to its proper place in our lives.

This entry was posted in Bible Study, Discernment, Discipleship, God's Word, King James Only, Preaching, Scripture, The Bible and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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