I ran across this text and translation issue when preparing to preach last Sunday morning’s sermon on 2 Samuel 24.
The issue here relates to the prophet Gad’s communication to David of the three possibly punishments he might choose in response to his unauthorized census of the fighting men of Judah and Israel.
The traditional Hebrew Masoretic text lists the options as seven years of famine, three months of flight, or three days of pestilence.
This presents a harmonization dilemma, however, with the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21:12 which lists the options as three years of famine, three months of flight, and three days of pestilence.
Translations which follow the Hebrew Masoretic text follow it in maintaining seven years of famine. In addition to the Geneva Bible, the King James Version, and the New King James Version, this is also the reading followed by the NASB.
A number of modern translations, however, change the “seven” to “three,” thus bringing 2 Samuel 24:13 into harmony with 1 Chronicles 21:12. This is true of the NIV and of the translations which follow the English Revised Version tradition, such as the RSV, the NRSV, and the ESV.
The Hebrew Masoretic text of 2 Samuel 24:3 reads sheba shanim ra-ab (“seven years of famine”). There are no Hebrew manuscripts that support the reading of “three years of famine.” The LXX, however, does read tria ete limos (“three years of famine”).
The modern translations which depart from the Hebrew Masoretic text do so on the basis of the conjecture that the LXX represents the original and best reading, even though there are no extant Hebrew manuscripts which support this reading.
The ESV explains its use of “three” at 2 Samuel 24:13 with this footnote: “Compare 1 Chronicles 21:12, Septuagint; Hebrew seven.”
Again, the traditional reading presents a significant challenge for harmonization with 1 Chronicles 21:12. Is this an example of an outright and irrefutable contradiction or error? Here are some notes from my sermon on Sunday in which I address this challenge:
How do we reconcile 2 Samuel 24:13 with its parallel in 1 Chronicles 21:12, which says three years of famine, paralleled with three months of falling to the foes, and three days of pestilence? Compare:
1 Chronicles 21:12 Either three years' famine; or three months to be destroyed before thy foes, while that the sword of thine enemies overtaketh thee; or else three days the sword of the LORD, even the pestilence, in the land, and the angel of the LORD destroying throughout all the coasts of Israel. Now therefore advise thyself what word I shall bring again to him that sent me.
Is this an irreconcilable contraction with 2 Samuel 24 or an inexplicable error? We need to consider three things:
First, we need to remember that the ancient Hebrews upheld the total infallibility of Scripture and yet saw no contradiction in having the two accounts in the Bible.
Second, we might ponder whether the problem might be in us (in our dullness) rather than in the text.
Finally, we need to consider reasonable explanations that might be given. The Puritan expositor Matthew Poole is typically helpful. In his commentary on this passage, he suggests the possibility that Chronicles “speaks exactly of those years of famine only which came for David’s sin” while 2 Samuel “speaks more confusedly and comprehensively” of seven years which might have included the three previous years of famine which came as the result of the sin of Saul (see 2 Samuel 21:1: “Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year…..”) as well as the present year in which David’s census was taken. Thus, the seven years of 2 Samuel and the three years of Chronicles might be satisfactorily harmonized. This is also the interpretation offered in the notes to the Geneva Bible: "For three years of famine were past for the Gibeonites' matter; this was the fourth year to the which should have been added other three years more, 1 Chron. 21:12."
The Hebrew Masoretic text of 2 Samuel 24:13 is to be affirmed. It is clearly the more difficult textual reading due to the apparent difficulties with its parallel in 1 Chronicles 21:12. If it was not the original reading, then it is hard to understand why it would have been created.
Advocates of the modern critical Hebrew text would suggest that the LXX preserves the proper, original reading, although no extant Hebrew manuscript supports this reading. They apparently overlook what appears to be the more likely possibility that the LXX translator was attempting to harmonize 2 Samuel with 1 Chronicles, reflecting the same discomfort expressed by contemporary interpreters. This decision also represents a glaring inconsistency in the approach of proponents of the modern critical text in that they typically criticize the traditional text for readings based on slight textual support. Here, however, they adopt a conjectural reading which is only supported by a single versional witness.
It's very interesting to note that the Old testament textual criticism, in its application, very different from the New. Why questioning 1 John 5.7 as (in their opinion) a "vulgate reading" , that lacks strong greek manuscript support, but follow a septuagint reading that lacks any hebrew support?
I really enjoy your articles on textual criticism, Jeff.
God Bless and keep on keeping on!
Thanks for your comment. Yes, there does seem to be an inconsistency here when modern critical text supporters take the traditional text to task for readings that do not have strong external attestation in the original language manuscripts but allow readings like this in the modern critical reconstruction which have no support. Glad you enjoy these kinds of posts and appreciate your feedback.
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