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Allow me to explain (13 and 14 of 439)

March 21, 2011

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13. How many of Adin’s offspring returned from Babylon? Ezra 2:15 vs. Nehemiah 7:20

Yawn-fest. (“Contradiction” #14 is basically the same, so I’m lumping it. If you want to look at those numbers, check out the poster.)

Ezra 2:15
the people of Adin, four hundred and fifty-four;

Nehemiah 7:20
The children of Adin, six hundred fifty and five.

Ezra’s story begins with King Nebuchadnezzar dead, and King Cyrus sympathetic. A remnant of the Jews return to Jerusalem to rebuild. Ezra takes attendance. Decades later, Nehemiah is among those who survived captivity under Nebuchadnezzar, and has the same idea. The numbers for many of the families listed are the same, some differ.

There are probably a dozen possible explanations for why some of the numbers differ, and no way of knowing which is the right one.

Many commentators simply acknowledge that it’s probably the result of a copy error. Matthew Henry, for example:

“… therefore what differences there are we may suppose to arise either from the mistakes of transcribers, which easily happen in numbers, or from the diversity of the copies from which they were taken.”

The Bible, after all, was not originally written in English. When believers assert that scripture is inspired of God and, thus, infallible, we do not – when it comes down to it – mean that any translation undertaken by anyone is infallible. Where such a copy error may have crept in is difficult to know, and not really that interesting … to me, at least.

Other solutions have been suggested, of course. Matthew Henry’s commentary on the passage from Nehemiah continues:

“Or perhaps one was the account of them when they set out from Babylon with Zerubbabel, the other when they came to Jerusalem.”

Clark’s commentary on the Ezra passage recommends a third source:

“There are many difficulties in this table of names; but as we have no less than three copies of it, that contained here from Ezra 2:1-67, a second in Nehemiah 7:6-69, and a third in 1 Esdras 5:7-43, on a careful examination they will be found to correct each other.”

Esdras is an ancient Greek translation of Ezra that differs in small part from the book of Ezra. It is not considered scripture by most of the Church, but is considered historically useful. Clark suggests that where Ezra and Nehemiah disagree (presumably due to copy error), Esdras be consulted as the tie-breaker.

Poole’s commentary suggests that some gave their names that they would return to Jerusalem but changed their minds, fell ill, died, etc. and did not go, or did not make it all the way through. Others may have taken wives or had children between registering for the trip and arriving. Life happens.

We know very little about the records – how many were taken, when they were taken, if copies were made, etc. How we read them thousands of years and dozens of lingual translations later depends largely on what we want to see. We can read for wisdom and instruction, and any number of explanations become plausible, or we can interpret “vague” as “damning,” and refuse to see the forest for the trees.

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