1 Samuel 13:1 and Missing Numbers

Notes © 1996, 2003 by T.L. Hubeart

1 Samuel 13:1 (KJV) Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, . . .

What is the natural explanation of this verse? "This verse is variously interpreted," says the Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge, "but probably it only means, according to the Hebrew idiom, that, during the first year nothing remarkable occurred; but after two years, (or in the second year of his reign,) the subsequent events took place."

Why, then, do we find in the most notable modern versions the following?

1Sam 13:1 (NAS) "Saul was forty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty- two years over Israel."

1Sam 13:1 (NIV) "Saul was [thirty] years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel [forty-]two years."

Notice that the numbers are inserted in italics in the New American Standard and brackets in the NIV. Also notice the following footnotes in the NIV: at "thirty," the note "A few late manuscripts of the Septuagint; Hebrew does not have 'thirty,'" and at "forty" the note "See the round number in Acts 13:21; Hebrew does not have 'forty-'." What is not explicitly stated by either set of translators is spelled out by Ryrie (Ryrie Study Bible, 1 Sam. 13:1): the belief that--

"The original numbers in this verse have apparently been lost in transmission. One way to understand the verse is this: 'Saul was --- --- years old when he began to reign, and he reigned --- --- and two years over Israel.' Another suggestion renders it: 'Saul was --- --- years old when he began to reign, and when he had reigned two years over Israel then Saul chose himself 3,000 men of Israel . . . '"

To back up this view, some point to the evidence of the LXX, which omits the verse altogether, as evidence of its defectiveness. Indeed the ancient versions' testimonies should not be lightly dismissed. However, it is worth noting that the LXX text of 1 Samuel has numerous divergences from the Hebrew, including perhaps the most famous, the expansion of Saul's words in 1 Sam. 14:41 (see NRSV text). This ought to qualify its value as a witness, especially since another valuable witness, St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate (which incidentally admits the LXX reading at 14:41), includes the verse: "Saul was a child of one year when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel" ("1 Kings" [=1 Sam.] 13:1, Douay-Rheims translation). And the Douay's note here (not by Jerome, of course)--"That is, he was good and like an innocent child, and for two years continued in that innocency"--seems to square with Matthew Henry's citation of the Chaldee interpretation (as does, incidentally, the marginal gloss in the Spanish Reina-Valera Bible of 1909).

What do we find when we survey this verse in other translations closer to our own time than the Vulgate?

Tyndale (Matthews' Bible): "Saul was as a child of a year old, when he began to reign. And when he had reigned two years over Israel, . . . "

Luther (German): "Saul war ein Jahr König gewesen; und da er zwei Jahre über Israel regiert hatte, . . . "

Geneva: "Saul now had beene King one yeere, and hee reigned two yeeres over Israel." (Marginal notes: on "one yeere," the note "Whiles these things were done"; on "two yeeres," the note "Before hee took vpon him the state of a King.")

KJV: "Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, . . . " (Original marginal note at "one year": "Heb. the son of one year in his reigning.")

Young's Literal: "A son of a year [is] Saul in his reigning, yea, two years he hath reigned over Israel, . . . "

Reina-Valera 1909 (Spanish): "Había ya Saúl reinado un año; y reinado que hubo dos años sobre Israel, . . . " (This is substantially unchanged in Reina-Valera 1960.)

NKJV: "Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, . . ." (Margin: "Heb. is difficult; cf. 2 Sam. 5:4; 2 Kin. 14:2; see also 2 Sam. 2:10; Acts 13:21.")

Jay Green's Interlinear Bible, 1985 ed., interlinear translation: "A son of a year (was) Saul when he became king, and two years he reigned over Israel."

It is one thing to say that the KJV men by themselves were wrong and misled in their rendering, but the fact that as late as the NKJV (which makes many "corrections" to the KJV's translation choices, and nods to the other possibilities for this verse in its footnote) the verse could be left untouched testifies to its defensibility as a rendering. Is it possible that all of the translators cited above did not know how to read Hebrew well enough to see that two numbers were obviously and inescapably missing from the text? This in itself seems hard to believe.

But there is another strata of evidence that is even more telling. In the later part of the last century and the beginning of this one, the "two numbers" theory regarding 1 Sam. 13:1 was only a "one number" theory. In other words, the theory most popular today, that two numbers dropped out of this verse, is patently an elaboration of a 19th century theory that only the first number did so. This appears clearly from the following four Bible versions from the late 19th-early 20th centuries:

English Revised Version (1885): "Saul was [thirty] years old when he began to reign; and he reigned two years over Israel." (Marginal note at "thirty": "The Hebrew text has, Saul was a year old. The whole verse is omitted in the unrevised Sept[uagint], but in a later recension the number thirty is inserted.")

American Standard Version (1901): "Saul was [forty] years old when he began to reign; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, . . . " (Marginal note at "forty": "This number is lacking in the Heb. text, and is supplied conjecturally.")

Darby: "Saul was...years old when he became king; and he reigned two years over Israel." (Dots are Darby's.)

Segond (French): "Saül était âgé de... ans, lorsqu'il devint roi, et il avait déjà régné deux ans sur Israël." (Dots are Segond's.)

It also seems reflected in:

Jewish Publication Society Tanakh: "Saul was . . . years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel two years." (Footnote: "The number is lacking in the Heb. text; also, the precise context of the 'two years' is uncertain. The verse is lacking in the Septuagint.")

The last citation first appeared in the JPS' The Prophets (Nevi'im) in 1978 (republished in the complete Tanakh in 1985); this is hardly an old translation, but it does seem to straddle the line between the "one number" and "two number" theories by remarking in the footnote that "the precise context of the 'two years' is uncertain." In fact, this remark in JPS is a most welcome bit of information, as it tends to bolster the grammatical plausibility of those translations (Tyndale, Luther, KJV, Reina-Valera 1909 and 1960, NKJV, ASV) who join this with verse 2 in reading "and when he had reigned two years over Israel."

It does seem from the above that there would be an awfully large hurdle of evidence to overleap if one were to insist that there is no alternative to believing that there are numbers missing from the Hebrew that should have been in the text. One would have to explain the fact that generations of scholars did not detect the textual gaps--that they translated satisfactorily as though there were no gaps here. Not only this, but one would also have to explain why later scholars who had no theological reason for denying the possibility of such gaps only saw one of the gaps that scholars of our generation believe to be in the verse.

Even more critically, one might reasonably ask what becomes of the doctrine of providential preservation of the Scriptures, when a number--perhaps even two in the same verse!--can simply drop away in the manner assumed by modern scholars. For my own part, I believe in a Bible without any missing numbers--not in ones with "lost" numbers which are variously supplied (notice discrepancy between NAS and NIV) by different versions!

In view of these two differing and equally legitimate alternatives (textually speaking), is it more God-honoring to assume that the text offers an acceptable meaning as it stands in the Hebrew, or to intervene with notes about what is allegedly missing?

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