I received the following question:

Perhaps you’ve tackled this one and I just haven’t read it yet, if that’s the case could you just point me in the direction of your answer?  It’s the old 7 years or 3 years of famine which David was to choose between as punishment for his sin of taking the Census. 1 Chronicles 21:12 says either three years of famine… while 2 Samuel 24:13 asks “Shall seven years of famine come unto thee and thy land.” Now I’ve read Bullinger’s notes on this and they seem unlikely to be the case knowing that 7 and 3 do not look alike in Hebrew. Only one of the letters are the same. What gives? Any thoughts on this apparent contradiction? I shall patiently wait for a response. Thanks!

The thing here is that the Old Testament, though all written in Hebrew, was not all written in the current Hebrew alphabet. Some people may not realize that, though two languages may be completely different, they may still use the same alphabet. Many languages share the same alphabet, and most languages do not have an alphabet all their own. For example, there is no such thing as an “English alphabet.” The letters (and numbers, for that matter) that we use are actually from the Arabic alphabet. So, if Hebrew in ancient days actually had its own alphabet, it was long since out of use by the time that either Samuel or Chronicles was written.

Now, the older books of the Bible appear to have been written in what we could call the Phoenician alphabet. Phoenicia was the nation to the northwest of the land of Israel, and the Hebrews appear to have adopted their alphabet. It makes sense that this would have been during the time that they were in the land of Israel. Did they use Egyptian hieroglyphs while in Egypt, or did they use some other alphabet? It is hard to say. But at least we know that II Samuel was written in the Phoenician alphabet.

Now, at the time of the Babylonian captivity, the people of Israel started speaking the Aramaic language rather than Hebrew. Aramaic was not written in the Phoenician alphabet, but in what is called the Syrian alphabet. It seems that they applied this to their Hebrew manuscripts. So even though they still wrote the Bible in Hebrew rather than Aramaic, they switched the alphabet they used from the Phoenician to the Syrian. We do not know for sure why they did this. It may be because this was now the alphabet they were familiar with. Some have speculated that it was to distinguish themselves from the Samaritans, who still used the Phoenician alphabet. But whatever the reason, the alphabet Hebrew was written in changed at this time.

Therefore, by the time that I Chronicles was written, it was written in Hebrew, but it was written with the Syrian alphabet, not the Phoenician alphabet, like II Samuel was.

Now it is not in the modern Syrian alphabet that 3 and 7 look alike. In fact, they look very little alike, as you have noticed. It is actually in the ancient Phoenician alphabet that these numbers are quite similar. In fact, many of our numerical mistakes in the older books of the Old Testament are probably due to the use of the Phoenician numerals. Thus, since II Samuel was written in Phoenician letters initially, this is the book that the mistake was probably made in. Some scribe mistook a 3 for a 7, and made the famine to be seven years, instead of 3 years, to correspond with the 3 months or 3 days, as I Chronicles has it. This mistake was then carried over into the Syrian letters when Samuel was transcribed into the new alphabet.

I Chronicles, however, was written in the Syrian alphabet from the start. It, therefore, has the proper number. It would not have been very possible to mistake a 3 for a 7 in the Syrian letters, as you yourself point out.

Therefore I believe our discrepancy in this case was caused by a scribal error. The proper number 3 is retained in the Septuagint.