Textual Criticism of a Coup
Discussions and debates over textual criticism often center on the wording of NT passages. The OT situation is lesser known. Given the vastly greater age of the Hebrew Bible—its earliest writings going back nearly 1500 years before the NT period—OT textual criticism is also more complex than its NT counterpart. That alone cautions us against dogmatism about disputed finer points.
Looking at specific examples should also moderate the tone of our discussions. Here I’ll discuss one such example: 2 Samuel 15:7. This verse provides a chronological marker for the eruption of Absalom’s revolt against his father, King David.
The KJV of 2 Samuel 15:7 reads as follows:
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.
“Forty years”—found also in the NKJV and the NASB—translates the Hebrew ’arbā‘îm shānâ in the Masoretic Text (MT). This text was standardized beginning around AD 500, but we have access to it mostly through manuscripts from around AD 1000 and later.
It’s difficult to determine what would be the referent of the forty years mentioned in the MT. The wording here is an awkward way to speak of Absalom’s own age. More importantly, it seems impossible that he would be forty years old at this point. Absalom was born sometime after David began reigning at Hebron (2 Sam 3:3), and David’s entire reign lasted forty years (2 Sam 5:4).
Thus, some have suggested that the forty years delineate a period that started before David began his kingship. In particular, it could refer to the time since his anointing as a young man (1 Sam 16:13), an event relevant to Absalom’s usurpation of the throne of Yahweh’s anointed. This idea goes back at least as far as Martin Luther, and today it is naturally attractive to Majority Text and KJV Only proponents.
Others respond that such a reading is abrupt and unnatural. Yet this could actually make an argument for textual critics following an eclectic approach: it involves adopting the more difficult reading. Perhaps this explains why the NASB chose “forty years,” though elsewhere it does not hesitate to depart from the KJV’s choices. And if, as some KJV Only advocates claim, the NASB translators had an agenda to corrupt God’s Word, they missed a good opportunity at 2 Samuel 15:7.
In the ESV our text says this:
And at the end of four years Absalom said to the king, “Please let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed to the LORD, in Hebron.
“Four years” reflects the readings in Lucian’s recension of the Septuagint (fourth century AD) as well as the Syriac Peshitta (second or third century AD) and the Vulgate (late fourth to early fifth centuries AD). This approach is followed by Josephus (Antiquities 7.196), most modern commentators, and most modern English versions (e.g., CSB, NET, NIV). The United Bible Societies’ Hebrew OT Text Project gives “four years” a “C” rating but finds it the most likely reading.
One must still go on to identify the referent of the four years. Presumably this time frame relates to the topic of the immediate context: Absalom’s recent rocky relationship with his father. Four years could have passed since Absalom had returned to Jerusalem from exile (14:23) or since he he had seen David’s face two years later (vv. 28–33). These explanations fit the passage well. Their weakness is that they depend on secondary witnesses instead of Hebrew manuscripts. One also wonders how Absalom could have been plotting a conspiracy for a period of years without David hearing about it (15:1–6).
One Masoretic manuscript from the thirteenth century and another from the fourteenth century have “forty days” (’arbā‘îm yôm) instead of “forty years.” A few scholars argue for this reading, but its lateness has prevented it from becoming widely accepted. There is also the question of whether forty days would have provided enough time for Absalom to mount a successful coup against David.
So which reading is the best? I have a hard time answering, and that’s the point. One could stick with the MT based on the presumption that it is error free. I generally default to the MT and marvel at how the Lord used the carefulness of the Masoretes to preserve his Word. I also strongly resist the tendency of modern scholars to emend the MT with or without textual evidence. The perfection of the MT cannot, however, be proven—neither biblically nor historically. In fact, as seen in the last option, slight variation exists even in the Masoretic tradition of 2 Samuel 15:7.
So ultimately I find myself wrestling with probabilities. This involves assessing the relative weight of the wider context, the immediate context, and the quality and date of textual witnesses. I should also try to explain how variant readings arose from my preferred reading. I want to do the best I can with these tasks. Yet whatever I conclude, I have to admit that I won’t end with absolute certainty. So I will choose more significant hills to die on than whether a verse says “four” or “forty.” And I won’t lambaste brethren who come to a conclusion different from mine.
Does this shake my faith? I can’t think of any doctrine of my faith that is changed by the difference between four and forty—or other variants that textual critics evaluate. I believe that God originally had one number written in 2 Samuel 15:7. Whether I know which number that was doesn’t change the inspiration of the text or my faith in it. I can think of many more important things about God’s Word and God’s ways that I don’t understand but that don’t keep me from trusting him. I won’t understand Scripture exhaustively, but I can understand it sufficiently. And what I do understand is enough to keep me busy for a while.
Primary sources for textual information: Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, NAC; Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the OT; kjvtoday.com; Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures; NET Bible; Omanson & Ellington, Handbook on the Second Book of Samuel.
Photo credit: Mick Haupt on unsplash.com.