Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Michal, motherhood, and the text of 2 Samuel 6:23 and 21:8


I just finished philosopher Gordon H. Clark’s insightful discussion of rational problems with modern text criticism in his booklet Logical Criticisms of Textual Criticism (Trinity Foundation, 1986). Though Clark notes that his study “aims generally to support the King James version as being better or at least as good as the new versions” (p. 4), he makes clear his preference for the “Majority Text” over the Textus Receptus in the NT. I was intrigued, however, by some side comments Clark makes on some OT texts (1 Same 6:23; 21:8) while discussing the pericope adulterae in order to illustrate supposed problems with the KJV, which would really be a problem with the traditional Hebrew text of the OT. Clark comments:

“First, no one should hold that the King James Version is the infallible autograph. For example (even if it is in the Old Testament), II Samuel 6:23 says, ‘Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death.’ But II Samuel 21:8 refers to ‘the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul.’ For once the Revised Standard Version can be complimented for removing the contradiction….” (p. 37).

Clark errs here in assuming that the issue is one of translation. In fact, the real issue is the underlying text. The King James Version, like the Geneva Bible, follows the Masoretic text. The RSV follows a modern critical Hebrew textual reconstruction in its translation of 2 Samuel 21:8 by replacing “Michal,” the reading of the majority traditional text, with “Merab,” a reading supported by only two Hebrew manuscripts and some LXX manuscripts. The “Merab” reading in 2 Samuel 21:8 removes an apparent logical contradiction with 2 Samuel 6:23 which says that Michal had no children.

Which reading is correct? Does the traditional text leave us with an insurmountable blunder in the traditional text? Or is there a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why the traditional reading persisted?

Questions raised and the solution of modern translations:

Let us first sketch in greater detail out some of the dilemmas. The traditional text of 2 Samuel 6:23 states that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death.” Then, however, the traditional text of 2 Samuel 21:8 mentions “the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the son of Meholathite” (so the KJV). This raises the following questions:

1. Did Michal have no children (6:23) or five sons (21:8)? How could both possibly be true?

2. Should the Hebrew verb yalad be translated as “to bring up” (so KJV) or as “to give birth”?

3. Should the traditional text “Michal” actually be “Merab” in 2 Sam 21:8? Michal had a sister named Merab (cf. 1 Sam 18:17). After her marriage to David ended, Michal was married to Phaltiel, the son of Laish (1 Sam 25:44), while Merab, her sister, had been married to Adriel the Mehatholite who is mentioned in 2 Sam 21:8 (cf. 1 Sam 18:19). Did a scribe merely confuse “Michal” for “Merab”? The Geneva Bible reads “Michal” at 2 Sam 21:8 but adds a note which reads: “Here Michal is named for Merab, Adriel’s wife, as appeareth, 1 Sam 18:19, for Michal was the wife of Paltiel, 1 Sam 25:44, and never had a child, 2 Sam 6:23.”

The modern translations figure that there is an error in the traditional text, and they correct it to avoid conflict with 2 Sam 6:23, which Clark praises. In addition to the RSV/ESV cited by Clark, compare (emphasis added):

NIV 2 Samuel 21:8 But the king took Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Aiah's daughter Rizpah, whom she had borne to Saul, together with the five sons of Saul's daughter Merab, whom she had borne to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite.

NASB 2 Samuel 21:8 So the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, Armoni and Mephibosheth whom she had born to Saul, and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she had born to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite.

Though the Hebrew support for “Merab” in place of “Micah” is slim, only two Hebrew manuscripts, this modern reconstructed reading does have the support of some LXX manuscripts.

A defense of the traditional text:

Given these circumstances, how then could one possibly defend the traditional text rendering? The nagging problem with the modern solution, in my mind, is the fact that the Masoretic scribes were neither stupid nor foolish, and yet they kept the traditional reading. They would surely have known that these two verses might possibly have been interpreted as being in contradiction, but they did not alter the traditional reading. To them it made sense.

How could it possibly make sense? The answer to this question is not likely to be found in modern commentaries. When we go back to the old men of the Reformation and post-Reformation, however, we find a pre-critical logic that unlocks perceived closed doors and looses what seem to be hopelessly tied up knots. One master of this is Matthew Poole.

For this passage Poole is not unaware of the interpretive difficulty. He makes the following points:

The passage might need some supplied words to complete the meaning according to Hebrew convention.  Poole notes that “the Hebrew language is very short, and full of ellipses or defects of words, which may yet be easily understood from the sense. Particularly relative words are often lacking, and to be supplied.” Thus, he postulates that the sons of Merab were called here “the sons of Michal,” meaning they were adopted by her.

Poole poses the following anticipated objection: “But why then are they not called the sons of Merab?” And he answers, “Because they were better known by their relation to Michal, who was David’s wife, and it may be, alive at this time, and having no children of her own, took these, and bred them up as her own; when Merab was now a more obscure person, and possibly dead many years before this.”

He notes that the Hebrew verb can mean to bring up as well as to bear (cf. Gen 1:23; Ruth 4:17) “because the education of children is a kind of bearing of them, as requiring frequently no less care and pains than the bearing doth.”


If Michal adopted or took under her care the sons of her sister Merab, this would mean that 2 Samuel 6:23 and 21:8 are not in contradiction.  With all due respect to Clark, the explanation of the traditional text and of Reformation translations based upon it and its interpreters (like Poole) seems more reasonable than the modern efforts speculatively to reconstruct the text. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Very good!!