2 Samuel 12:31 reads:

וְאֶת-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-בָּהּ הוֹצִיא, וַיָּשֶׂם בַּמְּגֵרָה וּבַחֲרִצֵי הַבַּרְזֶל וּבְמַגְזְרֹת הַבַּרְזֶל וְהֶעֱבִיר אוֹתָם במלכן (בַּמַּלְבֵּן), וְכֵן יַעֲשֶׂה, לְכֹל עָרֵי בְנֵי-עַמּוֹן; וַיָּשָׁב דָּוִד וְכָל-הָעָם, יְרוּשָׁלִָם.

The NIV translates thus (the NLT and ESV concur):

and brought out the people who were there, consigning them to labor with saws and with iron picks and axes, and he made them work at brickmaking. David did this to all the Ammonite towns. Then he and his entire army returned to Jerusalem.

However according to the KJV, and the majority of translations concur with this, David didn't consign them to hard labor but dealt with them more harshly hacking them with saws and burning them (alive) in brickkilns:

And he brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brickkiln: and thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon. So David and all the people returned unto Jerusalem.

I can't help but favor the KJV, as the text strongly supports it. The text uses the Hebrew -ב in throughout the verse, this strongly indicates that David put them in the saws and axes, not that he consigned them to them, i.e., to iron labor. The word הוציא also clearly denotes leading one to their death, and העביר is usually translated as passing thorugh like the KJV does. See Leviticus 18:21. There is more evidence as well (See 1 chronicles 20:3. However, the evidence there is not conclusive as the word וישר is of unknown origin and its meaning unknown). My question is, why do the NIV and the ESV feel the need to alter the original meaning of the text? Is it to lessen David's brutality and savagery in the eyes of the masses, or is it something else? How do we justify their translation?

  • I agree. I wonder if the expressions are euphemisms in the Hebrew, not directly stating the judgment being applied, but under-stating it in an ambiguity. – Nigel J Dec 9 '19 at 16:17
  • 2 Sam 10 ammon paid Syria to destroy Israel under David. After David extended an olive branch to the son king after the passing of his father who treated David well though an ammonite. – Nihil Sine Deo Dec 9 '19 at 21:09
  • ““One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD. “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water on the road when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam of Mesopotamia, to curse you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever.” ‭‭Deu‬ ‭23:2-4, 6‬ – Nihil Sine Deo Dec 9 '19 at 21:23
  • ב- is used for "labor with" in Exodus 32:4-5, so I don't see much of a difficulty there, but your other points are strong – b a Dec 9 '19 at 22:48
  • @NihilSineDeo you were using a racist argument to justify David's actions, and I retorted that history has proven such reasoning to be dangerous and destructive. – Bach Dec 10 '19 at 1:47

The KJV for II Samuel 12:31 does not say what you think it does, and there is no support for what you think the KJV is saying in the MT. In particular, the KJV does not say that David hacked anyone with saws, raked them with harrows, burned them alive, or anything like that. This is not John Barleycorn. In fact, the KJV does not differ much from the NIV for this verse after taking into account changes in English usage over the centuries.

When you read the KJV, you need to take into account the way English usage has changed in the intervening centuries. The KJV uses the word "under" to translate the Hebrew word וישם, "he put them", together with the letter bet, ב, the preposition of tool use, used in this verse as a prefix to each tool or trade mentioned. But the KJV is using "under" in a way that was common in the time of King James, to indicate servitude, in the sense of "subject to", not in the sense of "beneath" or "below". Think "One Nation under God", "under oath", etc. Taking this into account, there is no semantic difference between the KJV and the NIV up to this point in the verse. Note that conversely, no Hebrew word for "under" in the sense of "beneath" or "below" exists in the MT of this verse.

The notable difference between the KJV and the NIV for this verse is the way in which they deal with the וְהֶעֱבִיר אוֹתָם במלכן at the end of the clause,

made them pass through the brickkiln (KJV)


made them work at brickmaking (NIV)

The MT for this phrase is unclear. The word במלכן is not a known Hebrew word, and when the text is read, the Masoretic reading is as if it were מלבן to make bricks. Note that no Hebrew word for "kiln" exists in this verse, the KJV interpolates it.

The preceding word הֶעֱבִיר, can be read in three ways, from most likely to least likely;

  1. to pass something through something, to move or to displace or to subjugate
  2. worked them (i.e. made them work at) where the letter ר should actually be a ד, an easy-to-make copyists mistake, see this usage in Ezekiel 29:18 and II Chronicles 2:17
  3. burned them, a less common form of הבעיר where the letters ע and ב are interchanged

The NIV deals with the problem of this phrase by assuming the second possibility and therefore does not need to interpolate the word "kiln" into the translation. This method is consistent with the principle of making the smallest possible change in the text to get a clear reading.

On the other hand, the KJV deals with this phrase in the way the KJV commonly does with problematic MT passages, by adopting the prevailing rabbinic interpretation.

The Aramaic Targum Jonathan translates this phrase as "and dragged them through the marketplace", where מלבן is apparently interpreted as "squares" or "rectangles", the shape of bricks, but also referring to the shape of the stalls set up in the marketplace.

Rashi indicates that the entire verse (according to the Midrash and the Targum Jonathan) is a list of tortures that the Ammonites were made to endure.

Joseph Kara says that this phrase means "burned them by dragging them through lime". He gets to this by interpreting העביר, "displaced" as הבעיר, "burned" and by inferring that מלבן, to make bricks, must refer to the lime used in brickmaking, because there is no word for "kiln" in this verse and lime is the only other thing used in brickmaking that can burn.

RaDak interprets מלכן as a deprecatory euphemism for Molech, the presumed god of the Ammonites, and says that this means that David "passed them through Molech", i.e burned them alive, using their own form of worship against them.

RaLBag confers and justifies all of this torture as a necessary deterrent for other neighboring enemies of Israel.

The reasons for these rabbinic interpretations are historical, not textual. There is considerable rabbinic animus against the Ammonites, and this verse, when interpreted loosely, provides much satisfaction for the purveyors of that animus, however poorly founded this interpretation is in the MT itself.

The KJV for this verse is then a hybrid translation, translating like the NIV until it gets stuck in a problematic phrase at the end, where it turns to the rabbinic interpretation.

A more level-headed understanding of this verse can be gained by looking at the formulation and the vocabulary and cognate verses.

The formulation of this verse is similar to that of Joshua 16:10, 17:13, Judges 1:28, and in particular I Kings 9:21. This is not a formulation of extermination as in Genesis 34:25 and others.

There is no other verse in the MT that indicates that the kings of Israel or Judah practiced systematic torture, only extermination when such was the divine commandment.

There is no indication of extermination since it is not long after this that Ammon reappears in the form of Naama (!), and figures subsequently with frequency in both the OT and post OT Jewish writings.

וישם ב... "put them"
This usage for being put into forced labor is similar to the use of the same verb Songs 1:6 and Exodus 1:11. Compare also with the use in Numbers 24:23 and it's relation to the following verse. As used in Genesis 24:24 indicating subjugation. Compare with the parallel word in the parallel verse I Chronicles 20:3, וישר, as in Judges 9:22 "When Abimelech had reigned three years over Israel" (KJV).

ב "in"
Note that the use of ב four times in this verse is as used in Hebrew with tools or a trade, similar to the English usage "working in a trade", as noted first by Rabbi Joseph Caspi, not in the tool itself. Also used with musical instruments, see the repeated use of this same form of bet in Psalm 150, where it is commonly translated "with".

מגרה "saws"
Translated as "saws", but the meaning is "stone hewing", as the same word is used in I Kings 7:9. That is, consignment to quarry work.

חרצי הברזל "harrows"
Agricultural work using a thresher, as used in Amos 1:3, Isaiah 28:27 and 41:15, where the meaning is agricultural work on the royal estates, as in I Chronicles 27:25-31, and here, I Samuel 8:12. Also, possibly a mis-transcription of חרשי הברזל iron foundry work (I Kings 7:46).

מזרות הברזל "axes"
Felling trees and hewing beams. Not used, but similar to the situation described in I Kings 5:27-28.

העביר "displaced", "moved"
As used in Genesis 27:41 to indicate servitude, possibly from the implication that gangs of forced labor were moved from place to place.

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  • Abu Munir I would gladly upvote your thorough and researched answer, but I can’t find myself agreeing with one thing you have said. Your reinterpretation of the KJV is utterly unconvincing, you have to look no further than the end of the verse, if that is understood by the KJV to mean burning them in a kiln (tortuous killing), it would be inconsistent and absurd to suggest that the beginning of the verse is referring to “humane” subjugation. – Bach Dec 15 '19 at 0:51
  • I further do not agree that the NIV is “assuming the second possibility” as I already noted in my comments to @ba. But what put me off the most was your suggestion that the Jewish interpreters have erred by accepting an ancient silly tradition that “civilized” David had tortured his captives. You portray the NIV as the more level-headed translation. You write carelessly, “There is no other verse in the MT that indicates that the kings of Israel or Judah practiced systematic torture, only extermination when such was the divine commandment.” – Bach Dec 15 '19 at 0:54
  • ou write carelessly, “There is no other verse in the MT that indicates that the kings of Israel or Judah practiced systematic torture, only extermination when such was the divine commandment.” Nothing can be further from the truth. See 2 Chronicles 25:12; 2 Sam. 8:2 and there are many more references in Joshua and throughout the OT. Torturing captives as a form of psychological warfare was the norm in the ANE, and there is no reason to suspect that the Israelites were any more merciful towards their enemies. – Bach Dec 15 '19 at 0:54
  • You write further, “The formulation of this verse is similar to that of Joshua 16:10, 17:13, Judges 1:28, and in particular I Kings 9:21.” I looked up all of those references and not one of them was remotely similar in language (or “cognate verses” as you have it) to this verse. Furthermore, this is all based on your baseless speculations that the text should be amended to העביד (similar to מס עובד) but this can hardly be regarded as evidence. I have many more arguments, but I think this will suffice for now (and as a sidenote you have completely ignored the parallel text in Chronicles!) – Bach Dec 15 '19 at 0:54
  • And contrary to what you think, the text has every bit of sign and indication that David is killing and slaughtering them. In Chapter 8 David kills the Moabites in a similar fashion and employs torture and psychological warfare as a deterrent to others. There is no doubt in my mind that he is dealing with the Ammonites in a similar fashion, hacking them with saws and axes and passing them through brickkilns. – Bach Dec 15 '19 at 0:56

To the fine answer of Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim – which I’m agree with - I wish to add only some enriching (I hope) information I’ve found in some classic commentaries (bold is mine).

Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge:

and put them*: **Rather, as the particle ב frequently signifies, ‘And he put them to saws, and to harrows, and to axes,’ etc., as we say, to put a person to the plough, to the anvil, to the last, etc. 1Ch 20:3, Also, 2Sa 8:2; Psa 21:8-9; Amo 1:3*.”

Joseph Benson’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments:

The Hebrew, וישׂם במגרה, vajasem bammegeerah, &c., may be literally and properly rendered, ‘and he put them to the saw, and to iron harrows, or mines, and to axes of iron, and made them pass by, or to, the brick-kilns’; that is, he made them slaves, and put them to the most servile employments, namely, sawing, harrowing, or making iron harrows, or mining, hewing of wood, and making brick. […] The Syriac and Arabic versions render the passage, ‘He brought them out, and threw them into chains, and iron shackles, and made them pass before him in a proper measure, or by companies at a time’. If the parallel place, 1Ch 20:3, which our version renders, ‘He cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes’, be objected, it must be observed, the Hebrew,וישׂר, vajasser, may be rendered, He separated to the saw, &c.; or, He ruled or governed by the saw, harrows, mines, and axes; made them slaves, and condemned them to these servile employments. Thus the words are rendered by Schmidius. And ‘this interpretation’, says Dr. Dodd, ‘is far from being forced, is agreeable to the proper sense and construction of the words, and will vindicate David from any inhumanity that can be charged upon the man after God’s own heart. The Syriac version is, ‘He bound them with iron chains, &c.’; and thus he bound them all. And the Arabic, ‘He bound them all with chains, killing none of the Ammonites’. This interpretation may be further confirmed by the next clause: ‘Thus did he unto all the children of Ammon’ — For had he destroyed all the inhabitants by these, or any methods of severity, it would have been an almost total extirpation of them; and yet we read of them as united with the Moabites, and the inhabitants of Seir, and forming a very large army to invade the dominions of Jehoshaphat. […].”

E. W. Bullinger, The Companion Bible:

under = with, especially to work with. Hebrew letter (Beth), prefixed as preposition = ‘in’, ‘within’, ‘with’. When the preposition ‘under ‘ = ‘beneath’, then it is either part of a verb or one of four distinct words: ’el (2 Samaritan Pentateuch 2Sa 2:23); mattah (1Ch 27:23); tehoth’ (Jer. 2Sa 10:11. Dan 4:12, Dan 4:21; Dan 7:27, ‘under the heavens’); tahath (Dan 4:14, ‘under a tree’). Beth, when translated ‘under’, is only in the sense of within (as ‘under [or within the shelter of] the wing’, or ‘under [or within] the earth’). Otherwise, used with a tool or weapon or instrument, it always means ‘with’. See ‘with an axe’ (Deu 19:5; Jer 10:3); ‘with axes’ (Jer’46:22; Eze 26:9; Psa 74:6); ‘with nails and with hammers’ (Jer 10:4); ‘with an ox-goad’ (Jdg 3:31); ‘with mattock’ (Isa 7:25; ‘with sword and with bow’ (Gen 48:22; Jos 24:12; 2Ki 6:22); ‘with a graving tool’ (Exo32:4), &c.”

Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible:

“’He brought forth the people - And put them under saws’. From this representation a great cry has been raised against ‘David’s unparalleled, if not diabolic, cruelty’. I believe this interpretation was chiefly taken from the parallel place, 1Ch 20:3, where it is said, he cut them with saws, and with axes, etc. Instead of וישר vaiyasar, he sawed, we have here (in Samuel) וישם vaiyasem, he put them; and these two words differ from each other only in a part of a single letter, ר resh for ם mem. And it is worthy of remark, that instead of וישר vaiyasar, ‘he sawed’, in 1Ch 20:3, six or seven MSS. collated by Dr. Kennicott have וישם vaiyasem, ‘he put them’; nor is there found any various reading in all the MSS yet collated for the text in this chapter, that favors the common reading in Chronicles. The meaning therefore is, ‘He made the people slaves, and employed them in sawing, making iron harrows, or mining, (for the word means both), and in hewing of wood, and making of brick’. Sawing asunder, hacking, chopping, and hewing human beings, have no place in this text, no more than they had in David’s conduct towards the Ammonites.”

Finally, now I mention only some Bible translations that confirm the abovementioned Commentaries’ conclusions:

NET2: “He removed the people who were in it and made them labor with saws, iron picks, and iron axes, putting them to work at the brick kiln. This was his policy with all the Ammonite cities.”

Bible in Basic English (BBE): “And he took the people out of the town and put them to work with wood-cutting instruments, and iron grain-crushers, and iron axes, and at brick-making: this he did to all the towns of the children of Ammon.”

Contemporary English Version (CEV): David made the people of Rabbah tear down the city walls with iron picks and axes, and then he put them to work making bricks. He did the same thing with all the other Ammonite cities.

English Standard Version: “And he brought out the people who were in it and set them to labor with saws and iron picks and iron axes and made them toil at the brick kilns. And thus he did to all the cities of the Ammonites.“

Good News Bible (GNB): “And put its people to work with saws, iron hoes, and iron axes, and forced them to work at making bricks. He did the same to the people of all the other towns of Ammon.”

International Standard Version (ISV): brought back the people who had lived in it, placing them under conscripted labor with saws, iron picks, and axes. He did this to every Ammonite city,

Lexham English Bible: He also brought out the people who were in it and put them to the saws and to the iron picks and to the iron axes, and he sent them to the place of the brickmakers. Thus he used to do to all the cities of the Ammonites,

Tree of Life Version: Then he brought out the people who were there and put them to work under saws, iron threshing boards and iron axes, and assigned them to brick making; and thus he did to all the cities of the children of Ammon.

Robert Alter: “And the people who were in it he brought out and set them to work with saws and iron threshing boards and iron axes and he put them to the brick mold.” Related footnote says: “[…] the most plausible reading is that David impressed the male Ammonites into corvée labor.”

New Jerusalem Bible: “And he expelled its inhabitants, setting them to work with saws, iron picks and iron axes, employing them at brickmaking.”

New American Bible: “and also led away the inhabitants, whom he assigned to work with saws, iron picks, and iron axes, or put to work at the brickmold.”

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