Re: [asa] philological notes on randomness

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Sun Nov 15 2009 - 00:36:19 EST

Hi Merv,

Not much to say on the particular word in question (????, mik-reh' from ???, kaw-rah) - means exactly what it appears to mean - "chance"

But there's an adage which runs "the meaning of a word is its usage in its context" - so it's good to look at what work the word is actually doing in the passage.

Here it's pretty clear that the speakers have some sort of notion that a thing is according to God's will OR it's a matter of dumb (bad) luck.

But, a couple of points in addition...

First, it should be clear that the speakers don't actually believe such a thing for the simple reason that they would have thought there are OTHER gods other than the God of Israel. They are Philistines, after all, and brief reference to the previous passage will show that their own deity is Dagon. Of course, they're thinking that the God of Israel is responsible in this instance because the artefact in question is the Ark of the Covenant. But we can imagine them, in another context, thinking: "Let's see if this thing was from Dagon, or just a matter of chance."

So we're not talking exhaustive options even in the context of the speakers' world-view.

Second, don't miss the point that the passage tells us nothing about whether chance exists: after all, the the cart goes toward the border - affirming Yahweh's involvement. And that's ALL we learn.

To try to make that point a little clearer: Imagine they had said "If the cart goes to the border then it was God of Israel, but if not then it was Dagon." It should be easy to see that, with respect to Dagon, we'll just have to die wondering about his existence!

Third, there's a problem in that the passage is actually reporting direct speech. And we know full well that the Bible can often put all sorts of weird and wonderful proclamations in the mouths of its characters. So, unfortunately, the passage doesn't really bear too much exegetical weight.

Now, there is, let me say, a good probability in my view that the author of the passage does have a world-view which allows for two kinds of events - divine activity and "chance." But I wouldn't want to argue that with somebody who was resolutely against the idea. And strictly speaking they would be right.

Again, by way of thought experiment: just imagine that the speakers had said "If the cart goes to the border then Dagon was behind this thing, otherwise it was chance". We wouldn't then take the subsequent events as proof of anything at all.

So, it's probably not the best passage to appeal to unless one is already predisposed to a "divine act"/"chance event" dichotomy.

I'll only add that Proverbs 16:33 has always intrigued me in this context: "The lot is cast into the lap, but it's every decision is from the Lord" - which suggests that there is, in the biblical mindset, an idea that everything is in the hand of divine providence.

In any case, that cart was ALWAYS going to the border regardless of what ANYBODY said.


Merv Bitikofer wrote:
> Of course, even if we do take this as a good example of God using
> "random" events (and I am inclined to see it that way too, Murray), one
> can always come up with a contrary passage in which "chance" seems to be
> distinguished as apart from God's works. See I Samuel 6:9 "Behold; if
> it goes up by the way of its own border to Beth-shemesh, then he has
> done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not
> his hand that struck us; it was a chance that happened to us."
> It would be interesting to hear some exegesis on the Hebrew word
> translated as "chance" here. (& I think it was rehashed on this list
> years ago --which is probably where I first had this passage pointed out
> in this context.)
> --Merv
> Murray Hogg wrote:
>> Hi Cameron,
>> Nice catch on the philological issue.
>> Re-reading the passage this morning, let me give you my sense of it;
>> First, we can set the context by noting that;
>> 1) The Syrian attackers were chariot mounted (30,31) therefore our
>> "certain man" of v.33 is a chariot archer
>> 2) "The King of Israel" (Ahab is, curiously, not called by name) is
>> fighting in disguise (29)
>> 3) The attackers were focused on Jehoshaphat thinking him to be Ahab (31)
>> 4) They had just broken off pursuit (32) because a) they had orders to
>> attack only the King of Israel (30) and b) had realized their quarry
>> was not he (32)
>> I think that taken together these negate the idea that the man fired
>> with any intent to hit Ahab.
>> Rather, I imagine that, with the termination of the pursuit, the
>> chariot archers let loose with a volley of arrows fired in the hope of
>> just hitting *something* and it's in that parting effort that Ahab
>> gets hit.
>> To my mind, this allows us to make some sense of why the Hebrew speaks
>> of the archer drawing "in his fullness." Surely the imagery is of an
>> archer faced with a rapidly departing enemy who will soon be out of
>> bow range - so he takes up his bow, draws to maximum pull, and lets
>> fly a shot.
>> So why "in his fullness"? I can think of a few possibilities:
>> First, "at random" (although ONLY if one takes appropriate heed of the
>> context i.e. the guy clearly was NOT firing "at random" in a strong
>> sense of the term). Two other renderings in related vein are "at a
>> venture" - which I think is better - and "without thought of its
>> direction" (Bible in Basic English) - which I think is just terrible -
>> what soldier in what army ever discharged a weapon "without thought of
>> its direction"? If "at random" is too strong a translation, then this
>> falls to the same critique.
>> Interesting is the fact that the lexicon entry for the cognate noun
>> gives "completeness, integrity" which can be taken as "innocence,
>> simplicity" and thence "without definite aim" (we might say "without
>> malice aforethought") and as the idea of "dealing with integrity" is
>> not entirely absent from the Hebrew 'tom' so perhaps this might colour
>> the usage here? It is, however, drawing a long bow (pun!).
>> Second, is your idea of "perfect aim." Which I wouldn't fully discount
>> but for two critical observations; First, I don't know that it makes
>> much sense to speak of an archer in a moving chariot taking careful
>> aim and hitting an individual in a rapidly departing enemy chariot?
>> The idea would make sense if 2 Chron. were a kind of mythic saga after
>> the manner of the Iliad. But, more significantly, given Ahab's
>> disguise it is certain that even if the archer's aim were incredibly
>> good, the fact that he targeted, hit, and killed Ahab was still a
>> matter of dumb luck. And I think the text intends us to read it that way.
>> Third, is the idea of fullness or completeness which can go two ways;
>> A. The idea that the guy drew his bow "in his fullness" is taken as
>> something like "to the completeness/fullness of its capacity" (i.e.
>> "with all his strength") - in which case we have an archer taking one
>> last shot at a rapidly distancing enemy at or near maximum range with
>> the resulting shot being, in effect, a "Hail Mary".
>> or
>> B. The idea that the guy drew his bow "for the last time" - which
>> really amounts to the same as A. above.
>> Personally, I prefer something like the third - and I think that if
>> one then takes the context into account then a translation of "at
>> random" or "at a venture" makes some sense.
>> We then arrive at one of those "random within constraints" situations
>> - it doesn't seem to me that the text intends to suggest that the
>> archer identified Ahab and took careful aim with a fair degree of
>> confidence in a hit - but neither was he just blasting away in any old
>> direction. And even if he DID take careful aim, it was at an anonymous
>> individual who the archer could not possibly have known to be Ahab.
>> So no matter how I slice it, I think the text is very clear in stating
>> that Ahab's death was an essentially 'random' event - albeit one where
>> 'random' needs to be nuanced somewhat. Just what it implies for a
>> discussion of origins is unclear to me - it's easy for me to conceive
>> of why one would refer to this as a "random" shot - the idea really
>> does work for me. But, at the same time, I note that the shot involved
>> the intelligent agency of a skilled soldier (Syrian chariot archers
>> were no amateurs). I leave it to others to decide what implications
>> THAT has for the broader discussion.
>> Blessings,
>> Murray
>> Cameron Wybrow wrote:
>>> Fifth, the Biblical passage quoted is given in English translation,
>>> and it does not appear that those who are employing it below (Randy
>>> or Richard or both; I'm not sure from all the layers of quotation and
>>> commentary) have taken the time to ascertain the original expression
>>> used which is here translated "at random". In the original Hebrew,
>>> it is said that the man strikes "in his wholeness". The word
>>> "wholeness" ("tom", long o) can also be translated as righteousness,
>>> purity, moral perfection, integrity, etc. It has nothing
>>> intrinsically to do with chance, randomness, etc. It is unclear why
>>> the Hebrew writer uses this phrase. It is possible that it means
>>> "innocently", i.e., not intending to hit the king specifically, and
>>> therefore that he hit the king by accident. But even if so, "by
>>> accident" does not mean exactly the same as "at random"; presumably
>>> the archer was aiming at *some* target, not just firing his arrow
>>> anywhere, hoping to hit something. "By accident", would suggest that
>>> maybe he was aiming at the guy next to the king, and hit the king
>>> instead. Thus, "at random" is an over-translation. The King James
>>> and Revised Standard have "at a venture", which would be better. But
>>> even this translation is questionable. Why would the archer's
>>> "innocence" be stressed here? Wouldn't an enemy archer *want* to hit
>>> the king, and knock out the motor of the opposing army? And this
>>> leads us to consider the Septuagint translation. The Greek Jews who
>>> translated this expression used the adverb *eustochos*, related to
>>> the verb *eustocheo*, which means "aim well (and therefore hit)".
>>> That is, the archer intended to hit the king, and, with a
>>> "well-aimed" shot, did so. So, if the Septuagint translators had our
>>> current Hebrew text, they must have interpreted it the noun *tom* as
>>> meaning something like "perfection" in a non-moral sense: "in his
>>> perfection", i.e., "in the perfection of his aim", he hit the king.
>>> I suspect that the Greek translators have hit upon the intended
>>> meaning of the original. But in any case, the translation "at
>>> random" is highly questionable, and should not be used as a "killer
>>> argument" in the way that it is used below. More generally, it is
>>> not safe to rely upon English translations of the Bible when a
>>> "loaded" word is involved.
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Received on Sun Nov 15 00:36:48 2009

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