The Bible is the Word of God. It enjoys unquestionable authority for all Christians and is the main source of Christian teaching. However, being the Word of God, the Bible is also a word of man. As such, it can bear traces of human imperfection and error. It is okay because we do not believe that the books of the Old and New Testaments came down to us from Heaven in a finished form, but that they were written by different people, in different languages, in different countries, and then they were rewritten by scribes more than once. In the process of rewriting the biblical texts, the scribes made a variety of mistakes that sometimes distorted the original meaning of the text. The work of textual experts consists, among other tasks, in finding such possible errors and restoring the original correct meaning. Here is an example of such an accidental mistake of a scribe and how it was corrected.
Сonfusion of similar letters
The letters Dalet (ד) and Resh (ר) are very similar in Hebrew alphabet, so they are easy to confuse and therefore misread and copy to the next manuscript. 2 Kings 16:6 is an excellent example of how misreading a letter can lead to misrepresentation of historical information. The ancient Jewish version of the text says, Then Rezin king of Syria and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to war: and they besieged Ahaz, but could not overcome him. At that time Rezin king of Syria recovered Elath to Syria, and drave the Jews from Elath: and the Syrians came to Elath, and dwelt there unto this day (2 Kings 16:5-6). In ancient times, modern Syria was called the Aram, and the ancestors of the Syrians were called the Arameans.
The First Mistake
Even the ancient rabbis saw that there was something wrong with this passage. Basic knowledge of the geography of the Middle East and its history would suggest that Aram or Syria lies to the north of Israel, while Elath belonged to Idumea, lying southeast of Israel. The ancient scribes figured out that the invaders of Elath could not have been Aramaeans (וארמים), but rather they were Edomites (ואדמים), from whom the Jews had just taken Elath. As we can see, it’s all about one misunderstood letter (ד). The ancient Masoretes fixed this mistake and many translations of the Bible now contain this corrected version. However, even their version raises questions and confusion, which are removed if we suppose that there was not one but three errors in this verse.
The Second Mistake
The KJV text reads as follows: “At that time Rezin king of Syria recovered Elath to Syria, and drave the Jews from Elath: and the Syrians came to Elath, and dwelt there unto this day” (2 Kings 16:6). Again, such wording is bewildering, for the return of Elath to Syria implies that it once belonged to the Syrian King, or at least depended on him, which is very unlikely. However, the meaning gets clearer if one assumes that even here the scribe may have confused ד with ר and read Aram (ארם) instead of Edom (אדם). As you can see, these words differ again in just one letter, and the only other difference is the mater lectionis, which appeared in the text later. Hence, the ancient Edomite city Elath was returned not to Syria, but to the Edomites, who remain there to this day, according to the Bible.
The Third Mistake
But the second mistake wasn’t the last either. Indeed, what could Rezin, king of Syria, do in Elath, the extreme southern point of Judea, if his troops were besieging Jerusalem more than 300 km to the north to no avail? Moreover, assuming that his army somehow ended up there, why was Elath suddenly occupied again by Edomites? Apparently, the scribe, having just mentioned king of Aram, didn’t let him out of his memory and automatically continued talking about him in verse 6, mixing the king of Edom (אדם) with the king of Aram (ארם) Rezin. This assumption is confirmed by a parallel verse from 2 Chronicles, which says, For again the Edomites had come and smitten Judah, and carried away captives (2 Chronicles 28:17).
During the restoration of the original meaning of the text, textual scholars concluded that there was a triple error in this passage and that the Masoretes restored the correct reading in only one place. Thus, the correct reading should be: At that time the king of Edom recovered Elath to Edom, and drave the Jews from Elath: and the Edomites came to Elath, and dwelt there unto this day (2 Kings 16:6). We see how simple inattention or fatigue can entangle the historical narrative. However, by establishing the type of error and explaining how it could have entered the text, the damaged text can be corrected and the truth restored. This is what one of the most difficult biblical disciplines, textology, does. It is a hard and painstaking work that requires great patience, knowledge of ancient languages, history, geography and, undoubtedly, God’s abundant help.