A few months ago I had a conversation with a friend about harmonizing Ahab’s death in 1 Kings 22:37-38 with the prophecy of his death in 21:19. The prophecy says that dogs will lick up Ahab’s blood in the same place where they licked up Naboth’s blood, which is in Jezreel. 1 Kings 22:37-38, however, indicates that the dogs licked up Ahab’s blood in Samaria. The typical harmonization proposes that Elijah’s prophecy of 21:19 was fulfilled in Ahab’s son (whose body indeed was cast into Naboth’s vineyard). The change is claimed to be due to a mitigation of the punishment brought about by Ahab’s repentance.But 22:37-38 indicates that Ahab’s death was in fulfillment of this prophecy, and 21:29 specifies that it is the ending of Ahab’s dynasty (not how his body is treated after death) that is delayed until Ahab’s son.
My friend proposed that Samaria in 1 Kings 22:37-38 refers to the region rather than to the city. I was skeptical at first. But today I was re-reading these passages and noticed 1 Kings 21:18, in which the Lord says to Elijah:
Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria; behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession.
We know from 21:1 that Naboth’s vineyard is in Jezreel. So verse 18 is saying that Ahab is both in Samaria and in Jezreel (being in the vineyard of Naboth). For this to be true, Samaria would have to refer to the region, not the city. Since Samaria in giving of the prophecy refers to the region, we would expect that Samaria in the recounting of the prophecy’s fulfillment would also refer to the region (22:37-38). I think that this verse provides support for my friend’s thesis.
Here’s where translation comes into play: the NRSV and NIV provide an interpretive rendering in 21:18, translating “who rules in Samaria” for “who is in Samaria.” They do this, surely, because v. 1 has indicated that Naboth’s vineyard is in Jezreel. They may be seeking to smooth out a potential contradiction between 21:1 and 21:18. But by limiting the interpretive options, the translators foreclose the harmonization of 21:18 and 22:37-38 on the grounds that Samaria in these passages refers to the region rather than the city.
I don’t think, in this case, that the interpretive translation is any easier for the casual reader. He’s going to read over the verse without even thinking that Naboth’s vineyard is in Jezreel rather than Samaria. But for the reader who is attuned to these details, by providing a resolution to one perceived problem (harmonizing 21:1, 18), the translator foreclosed a possible resolution to the harmonization of 22:37-38—and they probably didn’t even realize that they were doing so. I regularly find this with interpretive translations. I often understand why they chose the interpretation they did, but I also often see something of exegetical significance that is lost in moving away from the formal translation. And often these are details that may not have occurred to them in the course of translating. The benefit of a formal translation at these points is that meaning that the translator has not fully grasped can still come through for readers.