Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Text and Translation of 1 Samuel 13:1

Note:  This post was updated on June 9, 2011 by adding information on the NEB and Jerusalem Bible renderings of 1 Samuel 13:1.

The issue:

The question here concerns the proper translation of the text of 1 Samuel 13:1, which, according to many modern scholars, presents a major challenge. The verse does not appear in the LXX. Dale Ralph Davis observes: “The textual problem of 1 Samuel 13:1 is notorious” (1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart [Christian Focus, 2000]: p. 133, n. 1). Davis asks, “who swiped the numerals from the text”? (p. 133).

The various modern English translations reflect this perceived problem interpreting the text by speculating as to the age of Samuel and the length of his reign and often coming to varying conclusions. Compare the NEB, NIV, and NASB renderings of this verse:

NEB:  1 Samuel 13:1:  Saul was fifty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for twenty-two years.

NIV 1 Samuel 13:1 Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.

NAS 1 Samuel 13:1 Saul was forty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-two years over Israel.

The disparity comes with the specualtive addition of numerals not found in the Hebrew text. The NEB says that Saul was 50 years old and rules 22 years.  The NIV says that Saul was 30 years old and ruled 42 years. The NASB says Saul was 40 years old and ruled for 32 years. All three supply numbers that they assume to be missing in the original text.  The result for a reader consulting these translations would be confusion.

The RSV/NRSV/ESV tradition takes a different approach by providing two ellipses in the text where they assume numerals have dropped out:

"Saul was … years old when he began to reign; and he reigned … and two years over Israel."

The RSV provides a note at the first ellipsis which reads, “The number is lacking in Heb.” At the second ellipsis, a note in the RSV reads, “Two is not the entire number. Something has dropped out.”

The NRSV provides a note at the first ellipsis which reads; “The number is lacking in the Hebrew text (the verse is lacking in the Septuagint).” At the second ellipsis, a note reads, “Two is not the entire number; something has dropped out.”

The ESV provides a note at the first ellipsis which reads, “The number is lacking in Hebrew and Septuagint.” This note is confusing as it might lead a reader to understand that mere numbers are omitted in the LXX, rather than the entire verse! At the second ellipsis the ESV note reads: “Two may not be the entire number; something may have dropped out.” Note how the ESV tones down the certainty of the RSV/NRSV notes by using the tentative word “may.”

Perhaps the most radical translation decision is that reflected in the Jerusalem Bible which completely omits the verse enitrely and substitutes an elipsis. 

The Hebrew Masoretic Text:

From the modern translations, one might assume that there were Hebrew manuscripts of this verse with gaping lacunae where the proper numbers should appear. This, however, is not the case. The traditional MT reads:

`laer'f.yI-l[; %l;m' ~ynIv' yTev.W Akl.m'B. lWav' hn"v'-!B, WTT 1 Samuel 13:1

The old translators had no difficulty in giving this verse a reasonable translation. Compare:
Geneva: “Saul had now been King one year, and he reigned two years over Israel.”

AV: “Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel.”

In his commentary, Matthew Poole explains that the Hebrew beginning of v. 1 literally reads, “the son of one year in his reigning.


Modern translations present the translation of 1 Samuel 13:1 as more confusing than it needs to be. The Hebrew text uses an unusual but not an illogical expression to describe time frame for the setting of the events of 1 Samuel chapters 13-14. The Masoretic scribes did not see the verse as difficult nor did the Reformation era translators.

The Jerusalem Bible and RSV/NRSV/ESV renderings are particularly vexing since their use of ellipses imply that the original text of Scripture has gaping holes and/or missing numerals. What impact might this have on the reader’s sense of the authority and integrity of the text of Scripture?


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