The MT 1 Samuel 2:31 reads:

הִנֵּה, יָמִים בָּאִים, וְגָדַעְתִּי אֶת-זְרֹעֲךָ, וְאֶת-זְרֹעַ בֵּית אָבִיךָ--מִהְיוֹת זָקֵן, בְּבֵיתֶךָ.

Behold, the days come, that I will cut off thine arm, and the arm of thy father's house, that there shall not be an old man in thy house.

Or as the NIV (who actually follows the MT reading in this case) has it:

The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age,

The way the MT chooses to interpret the verse struck me as really odd, as the context suggests that the word זרע here should be taken as זֶרַע = seed/children rather than זְרֹע = hand/strength. This is actually clearly spelled out in the following verse that none will reach old age and they will all die before reaching maturity thereby cutting short the line of Eli.

Indeed some translations ignore the MT and interpret the verse in the simpler way. The ISV for example renders the verse as follows:

The time is coming when I'll cut away at your family and your ancestor's family until there are no old men left in your family.

So why choose to deviate from the straightforward and simple interpretation?

Furthermore, I think it is most unnatural to translate the Hebrew term into hand or strength, as it is entirely unclear what cutting off the strength of the house of Eli would mean in this context anyway!

Can anyone explain why the MT chooses to translate this verse in the most unnatural way instead of interpreting it the way it should (children)? What evidence is there in favor of the MT, and how can it be justified?

  • 2
    @Autodidact the question is why the Masorites chose to interpret it the way they did. What were they trying to rectify and why weren't they happy with sticking to the simple meaning of the verse. – Bach Jun 18 '19 at 0:39
  • I guess I’m now just as curious as you are. I do find Luke 1:51 interesting. It uses both arm and strength in conjunction with firstborn son being born when Mary was speaking prophetically which I equate to the Holy Spirit speaking through her. And Isaiah 51:9 arm and strength in speaking of cutting up the Egyptians/Rahab (firstborn sons). Firstborn being the heir with the double portion and the privileges of leadership such as standing at the gate of the city and enacting justice. Maybe they were moving away from and masking the loss of their spiritual authority as descendants of Levites. – Nihil Sine Deo Jun 18 '19 at 15:54
  • I think this is relevant because Samuel’s ministry starts about this time and it marks a change. After all 1 Sam 1:1 days Samuel was an Ephraimite and not of the lineage of Levi. All of a sudden a non Levite is in the temple and filling the role of priest and prophet. – Nihil Sine Deo Jun 18 '19 at 17:01

Great question, as usual!

Some possibilities/considerations:

  1. Earlier spellings of the word may have made it clear that this was the correct reading. For example, in this case, the full spelling of zera (seed) would be spelled זרע, while the full spelling of zero'a (strength) would be spelled זרוע. If there were earlier books that spelled the word this way, there would be no question as to the vowelization. (see here)

  2. It is possible that they chose this vowelization since the verb גדע does not pair well with zera (seed). When Tanach refers to "cutting off seed" it uses the verb כרת. On the other hand, גדע seems to relate to a physical cutting, as would make sense with the word zero'a, which is literally an arm. See as well Job 22:9 and Psalms 37:17, noted in Ellicott's commentary.

  3. It is possible that due to other connections where another word relating to strength is used, it chose to use a word of strength here. For example:

    • Rashi cites Samuel I 2:16, in which Chofni and Pinchas tell those bringing sacrifices that they will take from them "by force".
    • The Benson Commentary notes Psalms 78:61, which refers to the Ark as "God's strength", which refers to the episode in which this prophecy was fulfilled.
  • Great answer as usual! :) – Bach Jun 23 '19 at 12:46
  • Rashi's parallelism is not particularly convincing since the term used in 2:16 is בחזקה not בזרוע, if that would have been the case the parallelism would have been more evident! – Bach Jun 23 '19 at 14:17
  • Also are you saying that "cutting off thy strength" is referring to the Ark of the covenant? Such an interpretation I think is quite provocative. – Bach Jun 23 '19 at 14:20
  • As an addition, in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 14a), the sages interpret the word "זָקֵן" (elder) to not mean literally that there would be no old men but that there would no "Elder" (i.e. Sage with formal ordination) in Israel from the house of Eli. As such the word strength fits better than the word seed because the curse (in this verse, the next verse is interpreted as a separate curse) is a limiting of the power and prestige of Eli's family. – conceptualinertia Oct 2 '19 at 16:12
  • @conceptualinertia excellent point, although that interpretation likely reflects an understanding based on the reading of "zeroa", as opposed to the interpretation influencing the Masoretic vowelization of the word. – user22655 Oct 2 '19 at 17:02

If God cut off the seed there would be no one in the house at all, but if he cut off the strength then they would all be weak and would not live to old age, so the second part of the verse supports the MT. Eli's house was deposed from the priesthood, rather than destroyed altogether.

  • I disagree with your answer. I didn't suggest "cut off thy seed". period. What I said was "cut off they seed from reaching old age". This totally fits the second part of the verse and in no way contradicts it. In fact I believe it reads better that way, dying young is a form of being cut off. compare this to the OT's term ונכרתה, which has the same meaning. However it sounds ridiculous when you say, I will cut off thy strength. Strength is not something that can be cut off. And if you read it literally "hand", then the text only becomes more convoluted. – Bach Mar 12 at 15:18
  • But if you cut off someone's arm you do reduce their strength. – user558840 Mar 12 at 17:15

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