Re: [asa] philological notes on randomness

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sun Nov 15 2009 - 01:44:53 EST


Thanks for these thoughts on the Chronicles passage.

I forgot about the disguise when I wrote my post, so one sentence in my
argument would have to be removed or re-cast. You're right that the archer
couldn't have been intending to aim at Ahab if he didn't recognize him.

I agree with you that the hitting of Ahab was accidental. However, I don't
think that in itself can rescue the translation "at random". "At random",
in the context that we are discussing (e.g., cosmic rays which strike a
genome "randomly" with respect to the mutation they are going to cause, or
its potential survival benefit) would suggest "without any thought of
hitting a target", and clearly, as you admit, even if the archers where
wheeling around and just sending off a parting shot, they would have aimed
in the general direction of the enemy soldiers, hoping that their arrows
would find their way into the main mass of Israelite warriors. So they may
not have been aiming at Ahab or any individual, but they were aiming at a
group of foes. There was intent or design.

But the bigger problem is the Hebrew expression itself. The root suggests
wholeness, integrity, purity, etc. It would be very odd for a root with
such a meaning to be turned into a meaning like "random". The usual way of
getting to this result, as found in commentaries and translations, is
through the idea of "innocence". We think of a man of purity and integrity
as being "innocent", in the literal sense of "non-harmful" to others. But
we also use the phrase "innocent of" something, innocent of the intention to
do this or that. So the archer was "innocent of" firing upon Ahab, since he
didn't know where Ahab was, and couldn't have intended his arrow for Ahab in
particular. But this is a great stretch, first of all because it presumes
that the same transitions of thought apply to the Hebrew root *tom*/*tam* as
are found in the English transition
whole-integral-pure-innocent-unintending, and second of all because it
doesn't make sense in the story. The archer wasn't "innocent" in the sense
of not wishing to do harm to someone. He wished his arrow to hit *some*
Israelite warrior. The root *tom* isn't appropriate for a warrior in this

That's why I have suggested a different transition, which works in English
as well as in Hebrew. The root *tom*/*tam* is often translated as "whole",
with the notion being one of "completeness" or "perfection" in the moral
sense. There is an imaginable transition from moral "perfection" to
"perfection" in one's military actions. Thus, "in his perfection", i.e.,
"in the perfection of his shot" would make sense of both the plot at that
point, and the Hebrew root. And true, it is not easy to achieve perfect aim
while riding away on a chariot, but stories of war are filled with great
deeds of skill, so that's not a serious difficulty. In any case, the
perfection of his shot would not be that it struck Ahab, since the archer
was not aiming at Ahab in particular; the perfection would consist in the
fact that it struck one of the enemy at all; it did not miss. (As you have
pointed out, it would have been more likely to miss than to hit.)

Now I'm not sticking to this explanation at all costs; there are other
explanations possible. (For example, our Hebrew text may be corrupt, and
the original words may have been different.) But the gist of my explanation
has the double advantage of fitting roughly in with the idea of "perfection"
in the root *tom* and also of harmonizing roughly with the Septuagint
translation, which speaks of firing "with good aim" (eustochos). A
"perfect" shot and a "well-aimed" shot fit together.

Of course, I am not arguing against your point that the hitting of Ahab was
accidental from the archer's point of view, and I see the overall point that
this accidental shot succeeded in bringing about God's will. So I get the
point about the relationship between "accident" or "chance" and God's will.
But I would argue that the Bible intends this to say that God uses
*apparent* accidents for his ends, i.e., that ultimately there are no
accidents, at least, not where God's plans are concerned. The analogy to
evolution would be that mutations, at least those which turn out to be of
evolutionary significance, are no accidents. They are manipulated by God
just as that archer was manipulated by God. And this is not what Darwin or
people like Mayr or Gaylord Simpson thought was going on in evolution. They
did not think that it was all being controlled by a plan.

True, Darwin would from time to time say things like "God could have
employed natural causes just as well as miracles". But then, the overall
thrust of his discussion is unmistakeably that there is no plan to
evolution, so it is hard to see how this would work out. Either he is being
insincere with the God business, or he has only some fuzzy, vague idea that
God might somehow be involved even though the whole process is structured to
work without guidance or planning of any kind. If he was really concerned
to make the radical contingency of variation and natural selection
compatible with a God who providentially guides evolution, he would have
spent much more time thinking about and writing about that. But basically
he sets God off to one side with pious platitudes so that he doesn't really
have to think it out. I don't see anything in Darwin that's at all
reminiscent of the constant tying of events to God that permeates the
narratives in the Hebrew Bible.

So yes, there's a sense in which the Hebrew Bible brings "accidental" or
"chance" events under the sway of God. But that's not the notion of "truly
random" events that Logan Gage and other ID people are criticizing as
inadequate to have generated macroevolutionary change. So the example given
by Richard and/or Randy misfires, not only because of the dubious or bad
translation in this one case, but because the type of event it refers to in
the Bible is not "truly random", but random only to the human observer. But
people like Bertrand Russell and Gaylord Simpson and Isaac Asimov and Carl
Sagan and Richard Dawkins believe that truly random changes could have done
the trick, and in fact did do the trick, in the case of macroevolution.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Murray Hogg" <>
To: "ASA" <>
Sent: Saturday, November 14, 2009 3:43 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] philological notes on randomness

> 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 01:46:19 2009

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