Textual Criticism of 1 Samuel 6:19–When Translators Scratch Their Heads

There are times when translators are befuddled.

1 Samuel 6:19 is one of those times. Here is the verse in several translations:

NASB–“He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the Lord. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men”

ESV–And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them(a)”
(a): Most Hebrew manuscripts struck of the people seventy men, fifty thousand men

CSB–“God struck down the people of Beth-shemesh because they looked inside the ark of the Lord.(a) He struck down seventy persons.(b)”
(a): LXX reads But the sons of Jeconiah did not rejoice with the men of Beth-shemesh when they saw the ark of the Lord.
(b): Some Hb mss, Josephus; other Hb mss read 70 men, 50,000 men

KJV–“And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men”

Wycliffe–“Forsooth the Lord smote of the men of Bethshemesh, for they had seen the ark of the Lord, and he smote of the people seventy men, and fifty thousand of the poor-all (a)” 
(a): Hebrews understand thus the number of men slain here; they say that only seventy men were smitten, which were of so great (a) reputation, that they were (each) comparisoned to (almost) one thousand of the common people.

Geneva–“And he smote of the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked in the Ark of the Lord: he slew even among the people fifty thousand men and threescore and ten men”

A fresh look.

The issue at hand is how many men were actually struck in this event. Some translations say 70 men, some say 50,070 men, some say 70 men who were worth 50,000 men. That’s a big difference. I believe all of these translations are trying to be faithful to the original Hebrew text.

Let’s look at it for a moment.

וַיַּ֞ךְ בְּאַנְשֵׁ֣י בֵֽית־שֶׁ֗מֶשׁ כִּ֤י רָאוּ֙ בַּאֲרֹ֣ון יְהוָ֔ה

וַיַּ֤ךְ בָּעָם֙

שִׁבְעִ֣ים אִ֔ישׁ

חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף אִ֑ישׁ

וַיִּֽתְאַבְּל֣וּ הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־הִכָּ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה בָּעָ֖ם מַכָּ֥ה גְדֹולָֽה׃

Here is my rough translation: “And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, for they had looked into the ark of YHWH, and he struck some of the people, seventy men, fifty thousand men; and the people wept for YHWH had struck against the people a great blow.”

Counting.

Translators are juggling a few issues in this verse. First, the Hebrew is awkward. Hebrew numbers are often written the way we do in our modern positional notation, starting with the largest ten’s place and moving to the smallest.

For instance, we would write the number 5,280 as “five thousand two hundred and eighty.” Biblical Hebrew often writes its numbers the same way. This is the first peculiarity in 1 Samuel 6:19, because the number is written backwards from how Hebrew often counts: Instead of “fifty thousand seventy men,” we find  “seventy men, fifty thousand men.”

I say often, because sometimes it doesn’t. Keep reading.

Which brings up the second peculiarity, the repetition of the word “men”. When counting the number of feet in a mile, we say, “Five thousand two hundred and eighty feet”. We don’t say, “Five thousand feet, two hundred feet, and eighty feet.” However, in the instances when Hebrew writes numbers backwards from us, from smallest units to largest, this is exactly how it’s written. For instance, Genesis 5:31 and Exodus 12:41–

וַֽיְהִי֙ כָּל־יְמֵי־לֶ֔מֶךְ שֶׁ֤בַע וְשִׁבְעִים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּשְׁבַ֥ע מֵאֹ֖ות שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃

“And all the days of Lamech were seven and seventy years, and seven hundred years, and he died.” (Genesis 5:31)

וַיְהִ֗י מִקֵּץ֙ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵאֹ֖ות שָׁנָ֑ה

“And it happened at the end of thirty years, and four hundred years…” (Exodus 12:41).

Now, a close eye will notice the vav conjunctions that join the total into a sum: seven AND (vav) seventy years, AND (vav) seven hundred years. However, in 1 Samuel 6:19 that crucial vav conjunction is conspicuously missing:

שִׁבְעִ֣ים אִ֔ישׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥יםאֶ֖לֶף אִ֑ישׁ

“seventy men, fifty thousand men…”

To sum it up, although Hebrew typically counts from largest ten’s place to smallest, there are plenty of instances where it does the opposite. In those instances, usually the item being counted is repeated with vav conjunctions between the ones, tens, thousands, etc. places to show they are all a part of the same sum.

Variants.

To further complicate things, various ancient translators and copyists have wrestled with the awkwardness of this verse. The Greek Septuagint renders 1 Samuel 6:19–

Καὶ οὐκ ἠσμένισαν οἱ υἱοὶ Ιεχονιου ἐν τοῖς ἀνδράσιν Βαιθσαμυς, ὅτι εἶδαν κιβωτὸν κυρίου· καὶ ἐπάταξεν ἐν αὐτοῖς ἑβδομήκοντα ἄνδρας καὶ πεντήκοντα χιλιάδας ἀνδρῶν.

“And the sons of Jechoniah were not pleased with the men of Beth-Shemesh, because they looked on the ark of the Lord, and he struck among them 70 men and 50,000 men.”

The Targum of Jonathan provides a thought-provoking Aramaic translation:

וּקְטַל בְּסָבֵי עַמָא שַׁבְעִין גַבְרָא וּבִקְהָלָא חַמְשִׁין אַלְפֵי גַבְרָא

“and he smote of the leaders of the people seventy men and of the congregation fifty thousand men”

Both the ancient Syriac and Arabic translations somehow have “seventy men, and five thousand men.”

1st century Jewish historian Josephus translate the passage as though his manuscript lacked “50,000 men”:

Θργη δε και χολος του Θεου μετεισιν, ὡστε ἑβδομηκοντα των εκ της Βηθσαμης κωμησ-βαλων απεκτεινεν

“But the wrath and displeasure of God went forth, such that seventy of those from Beth-Shemesh village, being struck down were put to death”

There are three Hebrew manuscripts (no. 84, 210, and 418) from the 12th century AD that lack the words “fifty thousand men”. These are the manuscripts that the ESV and CSB translations have chosen to follow.

Interpretation.

One reason for noggin-scratching is that it’s hard to conceive of an outlying farming village in the territory of Judah even having 50,070 inhabitants. While I sympathize with this difficulty, it’s hardly reason on its own to alter the text. Stranger things have happened in the Bible–e.g., Jonah swallowed and spit out by a whale, parting of the Red Sea, the resurrection, etc.

If we look back at the beginning of the narrative arc in 1 Samuel 4, we find that the narrator calls the death of 30,000 Israelite foot-soldiers “an exceedingly great blow”. I find it hard to believe that the narrator would use the same exact Hebrew phrase (המכה גדולה) only two chapters later to describe the death of only 70 men in our verse: “..and the people wept for YHWH had struck against the people a great blow.”

Here are my two suggestions. First, I think we have to interpret “seventy men, fifty thousand men” as the death of a literal 50,070 men, particularly because of the phrase “great blow”.

Second, I propose that 70 men from Beth-shemesh died, and 50,000 men died among the rest of the people (similar to the interpretation of the Targum). This would account for the probable small size of this village, and it also takes into consideration the grammatical structure of the verse.

If you look at my translation again, it shows a grammatical correspondence that doesn’t come across in many of the translations but is there in the Hebrew:

A–And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, for they had looked into the ark of YHWH,

B–and he struck some of the people,

A’–seventy men,

B’–fifty thousand men;

C–and the people wept for YHWH had struck against the people a great blow.”

So, the idea would be that the men of Beth-Shemesh unleashed a plague on the land that first killed seventy of their own men but then spread to the rest of the people killing 50,000 more men.

Interestingly, this would also fit with the grand narrative arc of 1 & 2 Samuel. If you know the two books, this great blow at the beginning of 1 Samuel is mirrored at the end of 2 Samuel by the great blow that followed David’s census. There, David’s sin has drastic consequences for the whole people, as 70,000 die from pestilence (2 Samuel 24:15). I see this as further reason to believe the strike began in the small farm village of Beth-Shemesh and then spread to all the people, killing 50,070 in total.

It’s important to realize that whether 70 or 50,070 died, the point of the story is the holiness of the Lord. If you’d like to hear my sermon on this passage, here it is!