Dr. Gleason Archer Lectures on Answers to Assumed Errors in the Old Testament

By: Dr. Gleason Archer; ©1991
When it comes to alleged errors in the Old Testament, Dr. Archer claims that many are based on ignorance of the biblical languages, failing to take into account the context, or faulty interpretation.

Answers to Assumed Errors in the Old Testament
Error or Ignorance?

Dr. John Ankerberg: The information in this program was taped live at the Ankerberg Theological Research Institute’s Apologetics Conference in Orlando, FL.

Our instructor for this session is Dr. Gleason Archer. Dr. Archer is professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. He holds degrees from Harvard College, Princeton Theological Seminary, Suffolk University Law School, and received his Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School.

Dr. Archer has authored many books including the two commentaries The Epistle to the Hebrews, and The Epistle to the Romans, as well as written his Survey of Old Testament Introduction and The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties.

Dr. Archer is fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic and German, and has a working knowledge of well over a dozen more ancient and modern languages. He’s also a tender-hearted pastor and an inspiring and seasoned teacher. [Ed note: Biographical information valid as of 1991.]

Dr. Archer’s topic for this session is: Answers to Assumed Errors in the Old Testament.

As you listen to this information it will be my prayer that God will increase your faith and draw you closer to our Lord.

Dr. Gleason Archer: One of the earliest professions that I trained for was the law. And I came to appreciate the standards that are, theoretically at least, maintained in law courts when it comes to the handling of evidence. And this is going to be the kind of exercise of logical criteria for determining error and truth, which is very pertinent to the kind of confusion or even readiness to misinterpret on the part of the scholarly fraternity that has endeavored to discredit the Scripture from the standpoint of accuracy, inerrancy, authority.

And what we need to understand is that the great majority of the alleged errors rest upon a background of ignorance concerning the languages in which the Bible was composed. Well over 50%, I find, of the questions that were raised during the years when I was writing along this line for Decision magazine had to do with an ignorance of either Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic. And so I want to preface my remarks that the only way you can deal with these matters adequately is to master those languages.

Now, there are certain recommended procedures that I would like to suggest at the very beginning when you come up against what looks like a discrepancy in the Scripture.

First of all, you need to be fully persuaded in your mind that there is an adequate explanation, even though you don’t know yet what it is. The aerodynamic engineer may not understand how it is that a bumblebee could fly, because it’s wings seem to be too small to carry all of that weight. Yet he sees him fly, and so he has to trust that there must be an explanation for his flying performance.

Even so, we may have complete confidence that the Divine Author of Scripture preserved the human author of each book from error or mistake as he wrote down the original manuscript of the sacred text, what is technically known as the “autograph,” which is a little different from signing your name on somebody’s Bible flyleaf.

Secondly, avoid the fallacy of shifting from one a priori to another—to it’s opposite—every time a problem arises. For the Bible either is the inerrant word of God, or it is the imperfect record of fallible men. And once we have come to the insight and agree with Jesus that the Scripture is completely trustworthy and authoritative, then it’s hardly pertinent for us to shift over to the other assumption: that the Bible does contain errors and therefore must be subjected to intelligent human judgment to weed out the mistakes from the truths.

You see, unlike all other books known to man, the Scriptures come to us from God, and in them we confront the ever-living, ever-present God. When we are unable to understand God’s ways or comprehend His words, we must simply bow before Him in humility and wait for Him to clear up the difficulty or to deliver us from our trial if we are in a situation that is critical.

Thirdly, carefully study the context and framework of the verse in which the problem arises until you get some clear idea of what the passage is intended to mean within it’s own setting. It may be necessary to study the entire book in which the passage occurs, carefully noting how the key term is used in other passages. Compare scripture with scripture, especially all those passages in other parts of the Bible that deal with the same subject or doctrine.

Fourthly, remember that no interpretation of scripture is valid that is not based on careful exegesis. Now exegesis is the science of eliciting the full meaning of the author from the words that he used, within an understanding of the grammar and the lexicography that is involved. Now you have to use and be able to employ good dictionaries in Hebrew and Greek, and you have to study parallel passages.

Now, to give you a familiar type of example, suppose you are a foreigner and you have come to America, and you’re trying to learn the English language. You look up in the dictionary and you find the word “strike” has a variety of meanings, but perhaps it would still be confusing to you if were to read in the newspaper, “The prospectors make a strike yesterday up in the mountains.” And then in another column you read, “The union went on strike this morning.” And then perhaps in another page, “The batter made his third strike and was called out by the umpire.” And then when it comes to the performance of a band, it says “Strike up with the Star Spangled Banner,” or “The fisherman got a good strike in the middle of the lake.” Now, presumably each of these completely different uses of the same word go back to some apparent meaning and would have a definite etymology. But a complete confusion may result from misunderstanding how the speaker meant the word to be used.

I remember there was a dear lady from Hong Kong who said, “I thought I knew something about the English language when I came to this country, and I saw a dog. Yes, a dog: that’s a little animal that has four legs and a waggly tail. But then I heard that some people were saying that “their dogs were tired,” and they didn’t even have a dog with them. And then there was quite a bit of bad weather that came along and I was told that it was “raining cats and dogs,” but I didn’t see any. And then there was this lady that went around with very fancy clothing and I was told that she was “putting on the dog,” but I didn’t see any dog.”

Well, you see, what you have to do is learn to understand what people mean by the language which they use, rather than what you would infer from your knowledge of the terminology.

Then in the case of parallel passages—and you know, we do have parallel passages, for example, between the books of Samuel and Kings and Chronicles—the only method that can be justified is harmonization. That is to say, all the testimonies of the various witnesses are to be taken as trustworthy reports of what was said and done in their presence, even though they may have viewed the transaction from a slightly different perspective. When we sort them out, line them up, put them together, we can gain a fuller understanding of what really happened then we would have from the testimony of a single witness. But as with any properly conducted inquiry in a court of law, the judge and the jury are expected to receive each witnesses testimony as true when viewed from his own perspective; unless, of course, he is exposed as a liar. And his testimony should be corroborated from outside sources.

Now the sixth caution is to consult the best commentaries available, especially those written by evangelical scholars who understand the Bible to be the Word of God rather than the fallible word of man. And a good 90% of problems will be dealt with in good commentaries, good Bible dictionaries. And good Bible encyclopedias serve to clear up many perplexities. And an analytical concordance will help establish word usage, such as Strong’s and Young’s Concordances.

In the seventh place, many Bible difficulties result from a minor error on the part of a copyist in the transmission of the text. In the Old Testament such transmissional errors may have resulted from an incorrect reading of similar appearing consonants. Hebrew was originally written in consonants only, and the vowel signs were not added until 1,000 years later after the completion of the Old Testament canon. But there are also some consonants that are easily confused because they look so much alike. For example, the letter for “D” is like this, you have a horizontal stroke, then a vertical stroke, then a little hangover at the upper right corner. The letter for “R” looks rather similar, but you have actually a rounded corner. Even to this day when you read Israeli newspapers you get this same problem. They generally tend to use this and they leave it to your intelligence to tell whether it’s a “D” or an “R.” Of course, they do think up ways to make life hard in Israel, and this is one of them.

Another problem has to do with the similarity between a “Y” and a “W.” The “Y” is written like this: it’s a vertical with a little curve thing at the top. No, this is the one that has a short tail—I’m trying to get this shortened up here—and the “W” has a longer tail. Now, the problem is that, particularly during the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, say in the second century BC, the similarity was so great, this then would be the typical Dead Sea Scroll “Y” and this would be the typical Dead Sea Scroll “W.” Well, you see, if the scribe was writing a little bit hastily, he might not have calculated to the correct millimeter the distinction between those two letters. And so we have to be alert to these factors in textual criticism.

Then in the eighth place, where historical accounts of the Bible are called into question on the basis of alleged disagreement with the findings of archaeology or the testimony of ancient non-Hebrew documents, we need to remember that the Bible itself is an archaeological document. The typical liberal seems to feel that if a thing is in the Bible it is automatically suspect; it is probably wrong unless it can be proven right from outside sources. And we need to observe, as most informed archaeologists must admit, that pagan kings of Babylon or Moab, or Phoenicia or any of the Mesopotamian countries, were in the habit of putting up self-laudatory propaganda, just as their modern counterparts do. And it’s incredibly naïve to suppose that, simply because a statement was written in a Syrian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics, it was more trustworthy and factual than the record in the Hebrew Scripture. No other ancient document in the BC period affords so many clear proofs of accuracy and integrity as the Old Testament does. So it is a violation of the rules of evidence to assume that the Bible statement is wrong every time it disagrees with an inference from a pagan document.

Now, let me point out one or two areas where you can expect there to be problems in transmission. First of all, bear in mind that before the invention of the printing press, it was rather normal for people to let the old copy that they wanted to reproduce get rather smudged and beaten up before they’d get around to making a new copy. And this means that where you’re dealing with a kind of item that is basically arbitrary—now I’m talking about the spelling of non-Hebrew names, for example, pagan names, or sometimes even Semitic names that are not so confusing to a Hebrew scribe—you will have variations in spelling.

One of the examples that has to do with our first pair of easily confused letters has to do with one of the descendants of Japheth, the Dodanim, alright. Now that would be written like this: You’d have a “D” then a “W” to help you know that that was a long “O” and then you’d have another “D” and then and “I” and then a “Y” which would help you spot this as an “E” sound, and you’ve got Dodanim. Well, when you come to the parallel passage in the book of 1 Chronicles, it is written like this: Alright, now, that shows you that the first letter is not a “D” but an “R.” You see how similar the daleth and the rech is. And we come to the conclusion that, in all probability, they’re talking about the Rhodians, the people who lived in the island of Rhodes, which was a very important commercial center in the southern part of the Asia Minor Coast. And so we, probably, on the basis of that kind of data, come to the conclusion, well, we probably should read Rodanim even in the Genesis passage.

Another type of arbitrary item that would be copied out would have to do with the number system. You know, if you have a way of indicating numerals which seems to have been followed pretty largely by the Hebrews in the older period, then they followed the Egyptian system whereby they would have a horizontal stroke like this with a little curl around at the end. Originally in hieroglyphic it was a vertical thing and it would look like a crochet wicket, but then they turned it over on the side, and so that would be a numeral 10. And then if you wanted to have, say 14, then you would put four little vertical strokes under it, and that would come out then to the numeral 14. But suppose you wanted to have 24. Well, then you’d put another symbol for 10 right over it, so it would look like that. Alright, now suppose that by the time you come around to copying there is a smudge along the top there, and all you can see is these four. Well, the copyist is going to conclude that that was a 14.

The example that comes to my mind in this connection has to do with an apparent discrepancy in regard to the date of the invasion of Judah by King Sennacharib which took place in 701. Now the statement is made in 2 Kings 18:13. Let’s read and we will see what is involved here, because there seems to have been a confusion in the copying out of a numeral at this point, and this has had some very interesting consequences for people who have wrestled with the apparent problem. And now, before we get to verse 13, observe that in chapter 18 of 2 Kings it states that: “It came about in the third year of Hoshea the son of Elah, king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah became king. He was 25 years old when he became king and he reigned 29 years in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Abi, the daughter of Zachariah.”

Alright, now here you have a synchronism with one of the last kings, or I guess you would have to say that it was the last king of the Northern Kingdom, Hoshea. And Hoshea came to the throne of the Northern Kingdom of Israel at about 729. And so it says, “In the third year of Hoshea.” Well, then that would mean, if you’re counting at both ends, Hezekiah would come on the scene as king in 727 or 726.

Alright, now you go on to the record of Hezekiah’s integrity as king, and then you come to verse 9 and it says that “It came about in the fourth year of King Hezekiah, which was the seventh year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Shalmaneser [that would be Shalmaneser V] of Assyria came up against Samaria and besieged it. And at the end of three years they captured it in the sixth year of Hezekiah which was the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel.”

Alright, so first of all we have the fourth year of Hezekiah, that would mean, if you subtract the four from 727 it would be 723, and then it states that in the third year of the siege, which the Assyrians had to conduct before they could capture Samaria, that would take you back to either 721 or 722. It depends upon how the calendar came out as to how you number the years.

Alright, and this is stated to be the fourth year of Hezekiah, so that would take us back to 723 so far as the beginning of the siege is concerned. Now, this is important, because when you get to the 13th verse, you have the statement made that, 2 Kings 18:13: “Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and seized them.” Well, now here we have a problem because, Sennacherib was the son of Sargon II who died in 705. So the fourth year would mean that in 701 this invasion took place.

Alright, now that is stated to be the fourteenth year of Hezekiah. Well, if that was the case, the fourteenth year would have to be about 712 or 711, and that is simply wrong for the invasion; it’s ten years off. Now, how do we cope with this?

Well, okay, it is very clear from the earlier part of the same chapter in two passages that Hezekiah actually came to the throne in 727 or 726, and from other evidence we get the impression that he came to the throne as vice-regent. In other words, his father Ahaz was still the number one king at the time his son Hezekiah was inducted into office. This was a measure that was wisely pursued by the royalty of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, because, if the crown prince was already installed as number two king, there would be no opportunity for a coup d’état or revolution to take place when the old king died. And of course this could easily happen if the number one king had to go off and lead a military expedition, because he very easily could be killed in the battlefield.

And so you have varying statements that occur in these records in 1 and 2 Kings depending upon whether you’re dating from the time the king became number one king, or from the time he became simply the vice-regent or the crown prince enthroned.

Alright, now with that in mind, here you have a statement that the invasion came in the 14th year of Hezekiah. Now, suppose that the copy or the vorlage, to use the technical term, that’s the copy that you’re copying from—and this is the German term: the one that comes before—suppose your vorlage has become a little bit scuffed and scruffy at that point. I mean, you might see only one horizontal stroke. Now, so far as we can unravel the mystery, the original mistake was made in the corresponding passage in the 36th chapter of Isaiah that tells about this invasion. And there in the earlier part of that chapter there is no helpful corrective information such as you get in 2 Kings 18. And so there the error probably began.

Now, there’s another thing that you have to take into consideration. Suppose they did not use this cipher system, that is, with the horizontal stroke indicating the teen, and then the vertical stroke the digits? Well, then, you see, it would be written as follows: You would have for the four arba, and then you would have esrim or esre. Now it so happens that if you want to say fourteen, you just write these letters: aleph, resh, beth, ayin. And then you have ayin, shin, resh. But if you want to have 24, 24 is written like this: simply the addition of one more letter: a mem, which makes the word for 10 into a plural which makes it 20. I don’t know why they used that, but esre is ten and esrim is twenty.

Now, if the vorlage that was being copied out in the Isaiah passage was obscure or was somehow confused with the following letter in the text, then all they would see would be esre. And it seem as if the copyist in 2 Kings 18:13, remembering how it was written in Isaiah, which was probably the earlier document, at the time he wrote down this record, thought, “Well, gee, that must be a mistake.” So instead of following what he should have, esrim, the word for 20, he wrote in esre in obedience to the Isaiah mistake.

So this solves the problem; because, if Hezekiah came into power at 725, and then you subtract 24 years from that, you come out with 701, and that solves the problem.

This is the kind of exercise of lower criticism, or textual criticism, which you have to engage in if you’re going to handle this type of a problem. Similarly, you have, in the case of the reign of young Ahaziah, who was the successor of Josiah after his death, you have the statement that he was 18 years of age. So that would be the statement in 2 Kings. He was 18. But when you come to the corresponding statement in 2 Chronicles, it states that he was 8, which is very young for a kid to come to the throne. And so you get the impression that the same kind of error took place. It has to do with the 10’s column, and fortunately we have enough data so that we can handle this type of thing.

This is not always true, however. There’s a real problem when you come to 1 Samuel 13:1, because there it states that Saul was “year old” and that he did such and such in his reign. Well, obviously he wasn’t just a one-year-old baby. But after the term sanah, or before the term, when you ought to have had the number that would indicate the year of his reign, and I guess the King James and some other versions put in a “thirty” in italics, all you can be sure of is that it was a number higher than say, 12, because, according to Hebrew grammar you would use the singular of the noun once you come beyond that point; that is, numbers from two to ten you’d have the plural, then 11 and 12 has their own track. But when you get to 13 and thereafter, instead of using the noun in the plural, as we would expect, they use it in the singular in what we call the adverbial case. So if you wanted to say 24, for example, you would say 24 sanah, that is, 24 in respect to year.

So we can infer from that that in the case of 1 Samuel 13:1 there was a number that went with sanah, and it must have been higher than 12. And it could very well have been 30, who knows? But the problem is that that error occurred so early that even the Greek Septuagint, which probably was translated—the Bible was translated into the Greek by the seventy scholars, according to their legend, and so it gets the term for seventy which is septuaginta in Latin—they didn’t have a clue as to how old Saul was when the thing happened. So there are some cases where we simply have to say, “A word has fallen out. That’s too bad. But that doesn’t really amount to an error. It amounts to an omission.”

Alright, now, let’s see. Let me give you one or two rather interesting examples that have to do, again, with the matter of numbers. You know, in the account of David’s acquisition of Mount Moriah, or the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, as it had come to be known by that time, it is stated in 2 Samuel 24:24 that after the angel of the Lord stopped the plague that was taking the lives of so many of the people of Israel at that time, David was moved and instructed, really, to buy the spot where the destroying angel stopped, and that happened to be over the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, which was then outside of the city of Jerusalem.

Alright, then it states that David bought from Araunah the threshing floor and the oxen that were doing the threshing for the price of 50 shekels of silver. Well, I recall that when the executive secretary of the New International Version, Dr. Edwin Palmer, came across the passage in 1 Chronicles 21:25, which also tells about this episode, and states that David gave to Ornan for the place 600 shekels of gold, the red flag went up. “Wait a minute! Fifty shekels silver, 600 shekels of gold. What’s going on here?” And he said, “Gleason, I don’t know how to solve this. What’s the answer?”

Well, all I had to do was to study the context. And I noticed that in the 1 Chronicles 21:25 passage, it came in a context which indicated that David bought the entire acreage of the Temple Mountain. Any of you who have been to the Holy Land and have visited the Shrine of the Rock, Qabbat al-Sakhra, and the great mosque that’s associated with it to the south, the Al Aqsa Mosque, are aware that this is a very extensive plateau. And probably the sequence was this: that first of all David bought the threshing floor, alright? Now the threshing floor might have been no bigger than the distance between this podium and that camera, or maybe a little bit larger. So for this, and for the price of the oxen, which of course, would have fetched a pretty good price on the market, he paid [50] shekels. But then, it occurred to him that if this was a place to erect an altar to the Lord in gratitude for His having stayed the plague that had overcome the kingdom, then it would be a good idea to have a temple built there, then also, if the temple was built there, it would be very appropriate to have government buildings and palaces and living quarters for the royal family, and audience halls to receive officials on government business in the adjacent acreage of that temple mount.

Well, if he was going to buy that at any kind of a fair price, it would very easily have cost him 600 shekels of gold. So what you have here is, in 1 Kings, the initial price that was bought for the first parcel, and what you have in 1 Chronicles is the final price that he paid for the whole thing. So there’s really no discrepancy if you study it in its context.

Then we have certain other types of difficulty that don’t have to do with numbers so much, but has to do with what was going on when there seems to be a contrary motivation. And I’m talking now about the earlier episode that gave rise to this whole thing, of buying the threshing floor of Araunel. And that is, David had decided to do a census, a national census of all the citizens in his Hebrew kingdom. And in 2 Samuel 24:1 we read, “And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.” Now, it doesn’t say exactly why, but I think probably it is evident that when Israel came into a position of real prominence and domination in the whole Near East, which is what happened when David won every campaign that he ever fought, and he had vassals going up all the way to the kingdom of Hamath, and even the kingdom of Syria was subject to him, and all of the cities of Phoenicia were, in a sense, either vassals or tributaries. And he had Edom under control, and the Ammonite territory. and Moab. They were all subject to David.

The very great likelihood was that the people under David’s rule began to become materialistic in their outlook. This is always what happens when you have too much money and too much power and everything is coming easy.

So we read that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go and number Israel and Judah.” In the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 21:1-2 it is stated that: “Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.” Now, who did it? Who was the motivator? Was is Yahweh or was it Satan?

Well, “David said to Joab and to the rulers of the people, Go and number Israel from Beer-sheba [which was the extreme southern town] even to Dan [which was the northernmost town], and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it.” The wording of 1 Chronicles 21:2 is very similar to that of 2 Samuel 24:2, and so that there is no real difference. But so far as the first verse of each chapter is concerned, it appears that in 2 Samuel 24, God Himself incited David to conduct the census, whereas in Chronicles it was Satan, the adversary of God. Well, this would seem to be a pretty serious discrepancy, unless both statements are true.

In neither book are we given a definite context for this census taking. But then, while we are not fully aware of what was going on in David’s heart, David had apparently been building up an attitude of pride and self-admiration and complacency for what he had accomplished in the way of military success and economic expansion. And he began to think more in terms of armaments and troops and resources than in terms of the faithful mercies of God. In his youth, he had put his entire trust in God alone, whether he was facing Goliath with a slingshot or an army of Amalekites with a band of 400 men. But in later years he had come to rely more and more on material resources, like any hard-headed realist, and he had learned to measure his strength by the yardstick of numbers and wealth.

And therefore, the Lord decided that it was time for David to be brought to his knees once more, and to be cast on the grace of God through a time of soul-searching trial. So He encouraged David to carry out his plan that he had long cherished, and plan his future military strategy with a view to the most effective deployment of his armed forces. And maybe this would have afforded him a better base for assessing taxes. So God, in effect, said to him, “Alright, go ahead and do it. Then you’ll find out how much good it’ll do you.”

Well, interesting enough, General Joab, who was commander of the Armed Forces under David, although he was a pretty hard-bitten and, shall we say ambitious, commander, felt very uneasy about the whole thing. And he sensed that David and his advisors were becoming inflated over their brilliant conquests and he was afraid that the Lord was displeased with this new attitude. And so he did his best to persuade David not to carry through. And so we read in 1 Chronicles 21:3, Joab says, “The Lord make His people a hundred times so many more as they be: but, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? Why then doth my lord require this thing? Why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel?”

So there is a definite sense in which Yahweh gave David a final warning though the lips of Joab before he finally committed himself to the census.

Alright then, the obvious conclusion to draw is that Satan, observing what was going on, was rubbing his hands with glee. He said, “Ah, he’s going to get into trouble. Hurrah!” And so, you have Satan employing the temptation to try this champion of God, and to give him the worst that possibly could happen. So Satan got involved in this affair to encourage David to commit folly and it was in his interest, of course, to do so.

And you get a similar thing, do you not, in the first chapter of Job where Satan says, “Well, okay, you can point out Job as a model to me of a man of integrity and true faith, but I’m here to tell you that he’s only doing it in his self-interest, and the reason he has been serving you is to continue your defense and favor of him.” So Satan was allowed to put Job to the test. So here again, you see, you have God permitting, and Satan seizing upon the opportunity.

And so I don’t think that you have any impossible conflict here. In the aftermath of the plague that cost the lives of 70,000 Israelites, according to 2 Samuel 24:15, the angel of the Lord designated the exact spot on Mount Moriah where the plague had stopped to be the location of the future temple.

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