Generations of scribes, working for the most part in anonymity, have faithfully rendered the Bible as the best preserved work of the ancient world. Although each pen stroke was the result of a scribe’s action, there are in fact very few places where a scribe appears to have intentionally altered the “received” text. Such changes in the Hebrew Bible are identified by the scribal tradition as tiqqune sopherim (“emendations of the scribes”). Various rabbinic lists enumerate specific emendations, ranging in total from seven to eighteen.
Most of these early scribal emendations were introduced based on religious motives in an effort to preserve the sanctity and dignity of the Biblical text. For example, Genesis 18:22 reports that “the men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.” According to some lists, this verse reflects a deliberate scribal change at the end of a verse that originally read “while the LORD was still standing before Abraham.” This change sought to avoid depicting God as a servant awaiting Abraham’s instruction. Another example occurs in Zechariah 2:8, which warns that whoever struck Israel touched “the apple of [God’s] eye.” Scribal lists inform the reader that the original text has a first person suffix, providing the reading “the apple of my eye.” This change sought to avoid the impression that God himself was speaking anthropomorphically, as though he had a physical eye.
Some changes in the Biblical text, including euphemistic expressions (intended, e.g., to express something less starkly), are not explicitly marked. One such example occurs with respect to the proper names that contain the element “Baal.” The noun Baal, which originally meant simply “Lord,” came later to signify almost exclusively the proper name of the Canaanite god. Later readers were apt to be offended by the appearance of this name in the Scripture, especially when associated with an Israelite. Thus, names that included “Baal” were sometimes changed in order to refrain from speaking even indirectly of false gods. For example, in 1 Chronicles 8:34 9:40 the son of Jonathan is identified as Merib-Baal, whereas in 2 Samuel 4:4 he is called Mephibosheth. Similarly, a son of Saul is called Esh-Baal in 1 Chronicles 8:33 9:39 but Ish-Bosheth in 2 Samuel 2:8. In both cases the name Baal has been substituted with bosheth, the Hebrew noun for “shame.” The change does not appear to reflect a negative judgment on the individual in question, but rather was a way of condemning the name of Baal.
The cumulative evidence of the Hebrew Bible shows that such emendations were not carried out systematically. It is also important to emphasize that most early scribal emendations are explicitly identified as such by marginal notations that preserve the text of the original reading. Viewed in this light, such changes provide insight into the religious sensibilities of various readers of the Bible rather than reflecting an attempt to alter the actual wording of the sacred text.
Adapted from the Archaeological Study Bible