Thursday, June 09, 2011

Text and Translation Note: 1 Samuel 13:5

The Issue:

The issue here relates to the number of chariots among the Philistines who opposed Saul and the Israelites. The traditional text says that there were 30,000 chariots. The question is whether or not this large number represents a “scribal error.” Should the reading be 3,000?

External Evidence:

The traditional reading of 30,000 is supported by the Hebrew MT, the LXX, the Targum, and the Vulgate. There is apparently a variation, however, in the Syriac version and in a few LXX manuscripts where the reading is 3,000. The external evidence is thus overwhelmingly for the reading of 30,000.

Internal Evidence:

A minority of text critics would suggest that the true text has been preserved by the Syriac and that the reading here should be 3,000. Such a reading is guided by a rationalistic effort to make the number more reasonable. How could a mere 600 men (1 Sam 13:15; 14:2) defeat 30,000 chariots, not to mention 6,000 horsemen and a host of others? Of course, it is also completely reasonable to assume that the Syriac and the isolated LXX manuscripts were guided by this same rationalizing impulse to alter the text.

Translations and Study Bible Notes:

I located only locate two translations that abandon the traditional reading of 30,000 here.

One is the Jerusalem Bible which reads “three thousand chariots.”

The other is the NIV which also reads “three thousand chariots” and includes the note: “A few late manuscripts of the Septuagint; Hebrew does not have thirty.”

In addition, we can detect a trend as evidenced even in modern evangelical Study Bible notes to challenge the traditional reading. Examples:

In the MacArthur Study Bible the note for this verse reads: “This is probably a scribal error, since the number is too large for the corresponding horsemen. Three thousand is a more reasonable and is found in some OT manuscripts” (p. 394). I find this note confusing since the reader might believe that “OT manuscripts” refers to Hebrew manuscripts (of which there are none that read 3,000) rather than to the Syriac version and an isolated LXX tradition.

Likewise, the ESV Study Bible the note for this verse reads, “Thirty thousand chariots seems very high, and perhaps the Syriac translation (and one tradition of the Septuagint) preserves the true reading, ‘three thousand’” (p. 511).

Contrast this prevailing skepticism with the comments of the Puritan Matthew Poole who begin his comments on this passage: “this number seems incredible to infidels….” He acknowledges that even if scribal error were admitted it would not compromise the doctrinal fidelity of the text, but then proceeds to defend the rationality of the traditional reading of 30,000. He argues that the word “chariots” can mean both the chariots and the men who rode on them, challenging: “And let any caviling infidel produce a wise reason why it may not, and ought not, to be understood here.” He concludes:

And if it be further inquired, Why the Philistines should raise so great an army at this time? the answer is obvious, That not only their old and formidable enemy Saul was yet alive, but a new enemy was risen, even king Saul, who was lately confirmed in his kingdom, and had been flushed with his good success against the Ammonites, and was likely to grow more and more potent, if not timely prevented; and they thought that now the Israelitish affairs were come to some consistency, being put into the hands of a king; and therefore they thought fit, once for all, to put forth all their strength to suppress the Israelites, and to prevent that ruin which otherwise threatened them.


The external and internal evidence is overwhelming in support of the traditional reading of 30,000 in 1 Samuel 13:5. This reading should not be abandoned as it has been by the JB and the NIV under the pressure of rationalism. There is a continuing subtle effort to undermine the traditional reading, even in evangelical circles, that should be rejected.


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