Saturday, October 20, 2012

According to 2 Samuel 12:31, How Did David Treat the Ammonites after his Victory at Rabbah?

We addressed 2 Samuel 12 at our Friday morning Bible Study yesterday. At verse 31, a translation question emerged.

Verse 31 comes at the end of chapter where Nathan rebukes David for his sin with Bathsheba; Nathan describes what the calamitous consequences of that sin will be; David repents; the child of David and Bathsheba sickens and David pleads with God for him; the child dies, however, and David arises from his bed of fasting and intercession, returns to his home and comforts his wife Bathsheba; whereupon she bears their son Solomon, whom David holds to be loved by God, implicitly a sign of forgiveness. At the end of the chapter, in verses 26-31, God’s grace has national implications, when David finally joins his army, defeats the Ammonites, and they return in victory to Jerusalem.

Verse 31 describes what David did to the people of the Ammonite city of Rabbah, whom David and his army finally defeat. Rabbah is the city that the army of Israel had been besieging without success commencing at the point where David remains in Jerusalem during the spring “when kings go off to war.” It is during David’s truancy in Jerusalem that his affair with Bathsheba commences. It is at the walls of Rabbah where her husband Uriah the Hittite loses his life when he and his men attack those walls as part of the plot to kill him, a plot that David initiates and that involves David’s general Joab, a plot to cover up David’s adultery.

Most of us at the breakfast use the NIV version. Verse 31 of the version describes what happens to the people of Rabbah as follows:

[David] brought out the people who were there, consigning them to labor with saws and with iron picks and axes, and he made them work at brickmaking. He did this to all the Ammonite towns. Then David and his entire army returned to Jerusalem.

Juan, however, uses the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition version. It gives the following for verse 31:

[B]ringing forth the people thereof he [David] sawed them, and drove over them chariots armed with iron: and divided them with knives, and made them pass through brickkilns: so did he to all the cities of the children of Ammon: and David returned, with all the army to Jerusalem.

The nouns of these two translations seem to agree, but the verbs put an entirely different meaning on what David did. In the NIV, David treats the inhabitants of Rabbah with a sort of grace, perhaps pointing back to the grace with which God treats David. In the Douay-Rheims version, David treats the people as brutally as any other king would the inhabitants of a city that refused to surrender and is taken only after a costly seige.

The NIV has a footnote to verse 31: “The meaning of the Hebrew for this clause is uncertain.”

None of us uses the King James Version. It is arguably less certain, one way or the other, and translates verse 31 as follows:

[David] brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brick-kiln: and thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon. So David and all the people returned unto Jerusalem.
The question seems to be what being “put under” saws, iron harrows and iron axes means.

Austin uses the New King James Version. It clearly chooses the NIV approach:

[David] brought out the people who were in it, and put them to work with saws and iron picks and iron axes, and made them cross over to the brick works. So he did to all the cities of the people of Ammon. Then David and all the people returned to Jerusalem.

(Note that in the NKJV, when the translators add a word to makes sense of a passage, they use a convention under which the added word is shown in italics.)

The Hebrew Scriptures as published by The Jewish Publication Society as Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, translates verse 31 this way:

[David] led out the people who lived there and set them to work with saws, iron threshing boards, and iron axes, or assigned them to brickmaking; David did this to all the towns of Ammon. Then David and all the troops returned to Jerusalem.

A collection of passages on this verse from various dated, Christian commentaries is here.

I thought that perhaps the source of the difficulty is the use of the Masoretic Text as the basis for the English translations in the later publications versus an English translation of the Septuagint, upon which I understand Douay-Rheims is largely based. I am not at all sure about that, however, and it may simply be a matter of how one chooses to interpret a difficult passage.

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