The Tragedy at Beth-Shemesh
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This comparative study shows the results of changes, possibly made innocently, when Scriptural texts have been incorrectly copied many centuries ago. In this case, no one knows who made the change or how it came about to be. Some translators and scholars have recognized that there is a corruption of text in this verse, 1 Samuel 6: 19. As you read these renditions of the verse in twenty versions and from two historians, note the following, in particular:

  1. Why were the people killed?
  2. Who were killed?
  3. How many were killed?
  4. What happened with the number 50?

Numerous other versions of the Bible which I checked showed the same variations as these twenty do. After presenting the various renditions, I present a short commentary on the passage.


Versions Compared

 

AAT An American Translation (Beck) MNT Moffatt New Translation
DHB Darby Holy Bible NBV New Berkeley Version
EVD English Version for the Deaf NJPS New JPS Version
GW God's Word NKJ New King James Version
HBME The Holy Bible in Modern English NLT New Living Translation
JBK Jerusalem Bible (Koren) NRS New Revised Standard Version
KJV King James Version NWT New World Translation
KTC Knox Translation SGAT An American Translation (Smith-Goodspeed)
LBP Lamsa Bible TJB The Jerusalem Bible (Catholic)
LXX The Septuagint YLR Young's Literal Translation, Revised Edition


1 Samuel 6: 19
AAT But because the men of Beth-shemesh looked at the ark, the LORD struck down 70 men of the people of Beth-shemesh [there were 50,000 men]. The people mourned because the LORD struck down so many of them.
DHB And he smote among the men of Beth-shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of Jehovah, and smote of the people seventy men: and the people lamented, because Jehovah had smitten the people with a great slaughter.
EVD But there were no priests there when the men of Beth Shemesh saw the Holy Box of the Lord. So God killed 70 men from Beth Shemesh. The people of Beth Shemesh cried because the Lord punished them so severely.
GW God struck down some of the people from Beth Shemesh because they looked inside the ark of the LORD. He struck down 70 people. The people mourned because the LORD struck them with such a great blow.
Footnote: "70 people" is found in a few Hebrew manuscripts and the writings of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. Masoretic text and Greek read "50,070 people."
HBME But the EVER-LIVING punished some of the inhabitants of Beth-shemsh, because they had looked into the Ark; He punished seventy persons, and fifty bullocks. So the men murmured among the people, for the EVER-LIVING struck the people with a great stroke.
Footnote: This difficult passage has puzzled translators for over 2,000 years. But if we take ALEF to mean "bullocks," as it does amongst its other significations, and as I do, the whole difficulty vanishes, for it arose from the love of the marvellous in commentators, or the Greek translators, who fancied that to insert impossible statements in the text added to its grandeur -- a plan of amending the Scriptures not extinct yet. (Note: See Strong's #441 in the Hebrew section.)
JBK And he smote the men of Bet-shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, smiting fifty thousand and seventy men of the people; and the people lamented, because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.
KJV And he smote the men of Beth-she-mesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and three score and ten men; and the people lamented, because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.
KTC And the Lord smote some of the Bethsamites themselves, for prying into the ark of the Lord. (And he smote seventy men out of the people, and fifty thousand of the common folk.) Over this visitation the Lord had brought on them there was great grief among the people; ... .
Footnote: Once more the words in brackets probably represent a corrupt text, which we have no means of restoring. According to the Septuagint Greek it was a single household, that of a certain Jechonias, that was punished, and punished for not sharing in the rejoicings of the other Bethsamites on this occasion.
LBP And the LORD smote the men of Beth-shemesh because they worshipped the ark of the LORD, and the LORD smote five thousand and seventy men of the people; and the people mourned because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.
LXX And the sons of Jechonias were not pleased with the men of Bęthsamys, because they saw the ark of the Lord, and the Lord smote among them seventy men, and fifty thousand men: and the people mourned, because the Lord had inflicted on the people a very great plague.
(NOTE: 1 Kings in LXX is 1 Samuel in other versions.)
MNT The sons of Jeconiah, however, did not rejoice along with the men of Beth-shemesh when they saw the ark of the Eternal; so he struck [[fifty thousand and]] seventy of them. And the folk mourned because the Eternal had smitten the folk with a heavy slaughter.
NBV But of the Bethshemite men He slew some because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He slew seventy of the people, fifty to the thousand, and the people mourned because the LORD had slain so many of them.
NJPS And He smote of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they had gazed upon the ark of the LORD, even He smote of the people seventy men, and fifty thousand men; and the people mourned, because the LORD had smitten the people with a great slaughter.
NKJ Then He struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people, and the people lamented because the LORD struck the people with a great slaughter.
Footnote: Or He struck seventy men of the people and fifty oxen of a man.
NLT But the LORD killed seventy men from Beth-shemesh because they looked into the Ark of the LORD. And the people mourned greatly because of what the LORD had done.
Footnote: As in a few Hebrew manuscripts, most Hebrew and Greek version read 50,700 men. Perhaps the text should be understood to read the LORD killed 70 men and 50 oxen.
NRS The descendants of Jeconiah did not rejoice with the people of Beth-shemesh when they greeted the ark of the LORD, and he killed seventy men of them. The people mourned because the Lord had made a great slaughter among the people.
NWT And he went striking down the men of Beth-shemesh, because they had looked upon the ark of Jehovah. So he struck down among the people seventy men -- fifty thousand men -- and the people began mourning because Jehovah had struck down the people with a great slaughter.
SGAT The sons of Jechoniah, however, did not rejoice with the men of Bethshemesh, when they looked upon the ark of the LORD. Therefore he smote among them seventy men (fifty thousand men) and the people mourned because the LORD had made a great slaughter among the people.
TJB Of the people of Beth-shemesh the sons of Jeconiah had not rejoiced when they saw the ark of Yahweh, and he struck down seventy of them. The people mourned because Yahweh had struck them so fiercely.
YLR And He smiteth among the men of Beth-Shemesh, for they looked into the ark of Jehovah, yea, He smiteth among the people seventy men -- fifty chief men; and the people mourn, because Jehovah smote among the people -- a great smiting.


 

Other Writers

 

Josephus1

But now it was that the wrath of God overtook them, and struck seventy persons of the village of Bethshemesh dead, who, not being priests, and not so worthy to touch the ark, had approached to it. Those of that village wept for these that had thus suffered, and made such a lamentation as was naturally to be expected on so great a misfortune that was sent from God; and every one mourned for his own relations.
Footnote: These seventy men, being not so much as Levites, touched the ark in a rash or profane manner, and were slain by the hand of God for their rashness and profaneness.

Alfred Edersheim2

What the peculiar desecration or sin of the Beth-shemites may have been, either on that day of almost unbounded excitement, or afterwards, we cannot tell. Suffice it that it was something which the people themselves felt to be incompatible with the "holiness" of Jehovah God (verse 20), and that it was punished by the death of not less than seventy persons.
Footnote: The Authorised Version translates in verse 19, "they looked in the ark," following in this the Rabbis. But this view is scarcely tenable. Nor is the rendering of other interpreters satisfactory: "They looked (in the sense of curious gazing) at the ark," although this assuredly comes with the range of warning, Numbers 4: 20. But the whole text here seems corrupted. Thus in the statement that "He smote three score and ten men," the addition "of the people, 50,000," has -- judging it both on linguistic and rational grounds -- unquestionably crept into the text by the mistake of a copyist. But Thenius points out other linguistic anomalies, which lead to the inference that there may be here some farther corruption of the text.


Commentary

 

There are eight reasons given for the killing, as follows:

  1. One family was displeased because other local residents saw the ark.
  2. The sons of Jechoniah did not rejoice with the other residents when they saw the ark.
  3. Some men looked at the ark.
  4. Some had gazed upon the ark.
  5. Some men looked into the ark.
  6. Some men worshipped the ark.
  7. Some men who were not priests, thus not worthy to touch the ark, had approached it.
  8. Some men touched the ark in a rash or profane manner.

 

There are four accounts of who were killed, as follows:

  1. They were men of the village, who were not of the family of Jechonias.
  2. They were of the family of Jechonias.
  3. They were men of the village, but whether or not they were of the family of Jechonias it is not stated.
  4. They were men of the village, as well as oxen or bullocks owned by the villagers.

 

There is a variation for the number killed, as follows:

  1. There were seventy men.
  2. There were seventy people.
  3. There were five thousand and seventy men of the people.
  4. There were [fifty thousand men] seventy men.
  5. There were fifty thousand and three score and ten men of the people.
  6. There were seventy men of fifty thousand men.
  7. There were seventy men of the people and fifty thousand of the common folk.
  8. There were seventy men -- fifty chief men.
  9. There were seventy of the people, fifty to the thousand.
  10. There were seventy men -- fifty thousand men.
  11. There were seventy persons and fifty bullocks.

 

The number fifty appears as follows:

  1. fifty;
  2. five thousand;
  3. fifty thousand;
  4. fifty to the thousand.

 

Two comments appear to be valid. Edersheim says: "What the peculiar desecration or sin of the Beth-shemites may have been, either on that day of almost unbounded excitement, or afterwards, we cannot tell." Fenton says: "This difficult passage has puzzled translators for over 2,000 years." These two statements were made late in the nineteenth century. Even the latest translations, in which the best tools for the work have been available, the mystery of this verse has not been cleared. Each of us can come up with what we think may be right, but are we?

The range of reasons for the killing is wide. Any one can be right, or all can be wrong. Even the experts in Bible scholarship do not agree. The number fifty creates a problem. Were there fifty thousand seventy people killed? Can you image the logistics of a sold-out Toronto Skydome crowd (about the same number) approaching a cart outside the stadium? Also, can you imagine a village (not well-known) and environs in Israel having that large a population in that day? Seventy does appear to be a more reasonable number.

Which version is right? Although the writer may have been inspired to write, something drastic has happened to his words over time. A person who relies on one version only will consider that version to be right, even though there may be errors of translation, and also be unaware that there are other possibilities. A person who uses several versions will be aware of the inconsistencies. The latter person can weigh the possibilities and seek divine guidance if he is searching the truth. If such confusion can occur in one place in the Bible, is it possible to occur elsewhere? The same procedure is necessary throughout the Bible in order to glean the truth which it contains and eliminate the errors of copyists and translators.