Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 15: Variant Traditions"


Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

How did David come to meet King Saul? There is a fascinating problem inthe First Book of Samuel, in chapters 16 and 17.

In 16:14 and following, we find Saul tormented by an evil spirit. Much distressed, Saul asks his servants to find a man skilled at playing the harp to soothe him. They find David (16:18), "a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech...." So David enters his service. "And Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. And Saul sent to Jesse saying, 'Let David remain in my service."'

But in chapter 17 of First Samuel, David seems not to be in the service of Saul; he is feeding his father's sheep. One day when his father sends him to bring food to his brothers who are in the army, David hears of Goliath the giant and of the great reward the king offers to the one who will conquer Goliath. So David goes to Saul and, boasting of having killed lions and bears, offers to fight Goliath. Saul gives David armor, but David is not used to wearing it and discards it. He goes instead against Goliath with a sling and some stones from the brook. Yet in 16:18, quoted above, David was a mighty fighter, a gibbor. Also in 17:55, one may read: "When Saul saw David go forth against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, 'Abner, whose son is this youth?' And Abner said, 'As your soul lives, O king, I cannot tell."' But chapter 16 has just said that David had been in Saul's service as his armor-bearer. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to reconcile the two accounts. The oldest Greek translation of the Book of Samuel simply omitted the second account.

How can we defend the correctness of Scripture at a point like this? We already know the answer. The key to the problem is to ask, What did the inspired writer mean to assert? Yes, the Books of Samuel are basically in the genre of history, it seems. Yet let us try to visualize the situation. The inspired writer is sitting down at his desk and working on the First Book of Samuel. He has before him several sources. We saw already, in chapter 3, that there are likely to be such sources in the Pentateuch.

But the inspired writer runs into a problem. He has two sources on hand for this incident that do not fit together. He undoubtedly tries to find out which is correct, but he can't. What would he be likely to do in this situation? He might well decide to give us both versions. This solution fits with his purpose of showing how God favors the Israelites when they are faithful, punishes them when they are unfaithful.

If the inspired writer does give us both versions—as he has— what does he assert? Clearly both versions cannot be correct. In giving the two versions, the inspired writer is, in effect, telling us: "I found these two versions. I do not know which is correct. But here they are." So there is no error at all.

Another example of the same sort of thing is found in the accounts of the crossing of the Red Sea in the Book of Exodus. Most of us have seen the dramatic movie The Ten Commandments in which can be seen a high wall of water on both sides of the Israelites as they cross on the dry sea bottom. At the appropriate moment, the waters return to drown the Egyptian army.

Chapter 14 of Exodus seems to be a weaving together of two different versions. Exodus 14:21-25 says: "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right and on their left." A wind drying up the sea at night would not yield a wall of water on both right and left, the scene in the well-known movie.

The passage continues: "The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea.... And in the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down upon the host of the Egyptians, and discomfited the host of the Egyptians, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily; and the Egyptians said 'Let us flee from before Israel; for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians."'

Here the description seems to hark back to the idea of a dried up sea bottom that could clog the chariot wheels. But, then, Exodus 14:26-29 says: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians'.... The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not so much as one of them remained."

The answer, of course, is the same as in the case of David's meeting Saul. The inspired writer had on hand two versions, did not know which was the correct one, and gave us both.

This time the inspired writer not only gave both but intertwined them closely together. One reason he may have decided to do this was the genre of the Book of Exodus. It is quite probable that the genre was intended to be at least something like epic.

Epic genre was well known in the ancient Near East and among many other peoples too. In it there is an account in which the historically accurate core is embellished with poetic exaggerations. Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), spoke of this fact: "No one who has the right idea of biblical inspiration will be surprised that in Sacred Scripture, just as in other ancient works, there are found certain ways of expression and narration, certain definite idiomatic things, proper especially to the Semitic languages: so-called approximations, and certain hyperbolic ways of speaking, at times even paradoxes, by which the matter is more firmly imprinted in the mind."

The Pope adds a further explanation: "For just as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things 'without sin' [Hebrews 4:15], so also the words of God expressed in human tongues, are made like human speech in all things except error. St. John Chrysostom highly praised this synkatabasis, that is, condescension [adaptation to human ways] and over and over again said it was found in Sacred Books."

It is quite probable that the Book of Joshua is also in something like epic genre. We can see this particularly when we compare the general picture of Joshua with that given in Judges.

In the Book of Joshua we have a brilliant picture: all of Israel is united under one leader, Joshua. There are many miracles. Their armies go from one victory to another, until practically all of the land has been subdued: the people of Canaan have been virtually eliminated, their cities burned. And the land has been divided among the tribes and the covenant renewed. After all of this Joshua dies at a ripe old age.

Incidentally, God willed the wipe-out of the Canaanites for two reasons: (1) to guard against the danger that the Israelites might fall into idolatry under their influence—a thing that really happened, for the victory was not nearly so complete; (2) to punish the Canaanites for their sins. Recall to mind Genesis 15:16, in which God promised to give the whole land to Abraham and his descendants but said that it would not happen at once: "And they shall come back here in the fourth generations; for the inquity of the Amorites [west Semites] is not yet complete."

God of course is the master of all land and of all lives. He did not need to wait for their sins to reach the maximum before taking away their land. Yet His Holiness willed to do it that way, so that they might most fully deserve their fate. Some today are shocked at God's reported orders of extermination. They forget that He is the giver of life and has no obligation to continue to give it beyond any point He fixes. And when immense sins intervene, He has an added reason for terminating lives.

But to return to the Book of Joshua, the picture is epic idealization. Contrast this with the picture in the Book of Judges, which is not idealized. We soon see in it that the conquest had been far from complete. Yet there is no error. Again our study of the differences in genres makes clear what the inspired writers meant to assert.

There are other examples of variant traditions in the Old Testament that can be explained in the same way. A probable example is the narrative of Saul's rejection by God as king of the Hebrews so that his dynasty would go no further. One of these examples, in I Samuel 13: 1-14, tells how Saul did not wait for Samuel but offered sacrifice himself before battle. The other, in 15:1-31, tells how Saul in fighting against Agag, king of Amalek, doomed only the worthless. Samuel told him, "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (15:22). It is just possible that the events in these two passages could both have happened.

Incidentally, someone may wonder why God refused to forgive Saul when, in 15:24, he begged for forgiveness, whereas God did forgive King David later when he asked forgiveness for murder and adultery (2 Samuel 11: 1-12: 15). The answer is found in a distinction between two orders, the internal order of eternal salvation and the external order, which deals with the position a man may have. God always forgives the repentant sinner in order to grant salvation, but He may or may not remit a penalty in the external order.

We have now seen, in several chapters, many applications of the approach through literary genres. We have seen that it enables us to reject claims of error or contradiction in Scripture, many of which problems would otherwise be unsolvable.

The fact raises an interesting problem: it is only in our century that this approach in terms of literary genres became known. It was only in 1943 that Pope Pius XII, in Divino Afflante Spiritu, positively encouraged the Church to use it. We saw, in chapter 9, there was a very qualified acceptance of the genre approach by the Biblical Commission in 1905. But the Church had been interpreting Scripture for many centuries without knowing about literary genres the way we do. So we must ask: Did not the Church make many mistakes in her teaching through lack of this knowledge of genres?

No, the Church made no mistake in her teaching for lack of this knowledge; but yes, this approach has given us further light, especially since it enables us to answer many objections against Scripture, charges of error or contradiction, which could not be answered before. But there has been no mistake in teaching.

How can this inerrancy be explained? There are two answers. First, the Church enjoys the promised protection of the Holy Spirit. Even if the Church did not know many things, the Spirit always does, and He guides the Church.

The second answer is that the Church has something even more basic than Scripture. What that is and how it works, we will begin to explore in chapter 20.

To Most Collection home page